That’s Who I Met in Baltimore

Dear readers,
I am currently in Richmond, Virginia but am working on stories from previous destinations while here. Thanks for reading! Cheers!

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A view of the redeveloped harbour front in Baltimore.

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That’s Who I Met in Baltimore

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Baltimore

City of John Waters, Divine, and the films/musical “Hairspray”, Billie Holiday, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe(b.Boston).

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The day started with a very friendly barista at Caribou Coffee on Charles offering her suggestions as to how I should spend my day. A fun, cheerful young lady probably in her early twenties she reminded me of someone I thought I knew but had been very wrong about.

“Take the Circulator,” she had cheered, “it goes all over where you want to go and it’s free!” I hadn’t found a jump-on-off tour bus, having a free system would explain that. “You can look at the routes online using our wifi, there’s a purple stop right there,” she says, pointing. Charm City Circulator.

Well caffeinated with an espresso-strengthened weak drip coffee, I board a busy bus heading north. Not only is this free, I also get to mingle with locals on this not-specifically-for-tourists service. Because it is mostly just a people-mover, only a few seats are facing forward and I find myself facing inward and my view mostly obscured by other passengers and the large semi-transparent decals that adorn the windows from the outside.

“Take this bus often?” I ask an elderly black woman laden with reused plastic shopping bags. “Mmmm hmmm,” she says dismissively, as if thwarting an unwanted pick-up line. I laugh to myself, or probably out loud, by my interpretation. She’s probably one of those old woman who worries about possibly getting raped, as if some young man would look at her eighty-year-old figure, her underbite, her oversized-glasses trying to cover the drooping bags under her eyes and with her tits dangling to her waist and not be able to control himself. Perhaps living in the past. Just a tad. I would gage her safety in that regard to be quite high myself. And if she is a potential mugging-target for being rich, in that she is very well disguised.

I see an interesting obelisk through the front window so I jump off at what turns out to be a Washington Monument. I learn that George Washington spent the end of his life here, in this neighbourhood known as Mount Vernon. So did Edgar Allan Poe. Coincidence? I think, not a doubt, that was a complete coincidence. Poe died in another part of town and in a very sad state. I take some photos before boarding the next circulator going North.

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At the next stop a middle-aged woman boards with a suitcase and very full open purse and asks the driver if this bus will take her to the Sheraton. “Where’s it at?” he asks. She starts digging into her purse but I answer before she pulls anything out, “It does,” I call over, “I can show you on my map where it is.” I pull out my map and show it to her, it is nearest the stop where I originally boarded. “No, it’s not there,” she asserts impatiently, “it’s up here,” pointing at the Northern end of the map. “But that’s where we are now.” “I would know,” she declares with some attitude, “I used to live in this city.” “I’m at the Radisson which is next door to the Sheraton, so I guess there must be two Sheratons here. I’m sure you’ll find it.” I look away wanting to disengage with someone who is clearly argumentative.

She pulls out her phone gps to see that she was looking at Lafayette, which is a block from the stop where she boarded, and not Fayette, where the hotels actually are. “Oh. It’s on Fayette,” she declares, unapologetically. “Yes, that’s where I showed you.” Now she sits down beside me in a nearly empty bus. I pretend to be friendly but I’m not pleased to be crowded-in by this woman who knows better; I don’t want to continue our conversation. “How long have you been here?” she asks. “I arrived yesterday.” “Oh, you should see blah, blah, blah, blah . . . ” As she is overwhelming me with must-sees I will never remember anyway, she dumps her handbag, which is really just an unclosable tote, onto the floor. A random mess of personal effects sprawls out onto the winter-dirty bus floor. All those within reach help with retrieving her things, depositing them back into her bag. I take the opportunity of helping to get out of my seat which frees me to jump out at the next random stop. “This area looks interesting (no it doesn’t), enjoy your visit (no, don’t),” I chirp as I disembark happy to be free of this overbearing person who knows too much (she doesn’t).

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I find myself wandering in the direction of downtown again in historic Mount Vernon; I am now on St.Paul street which runs parallel to Charles. A young man approaches me from behind and walks alongside. He’s wearing a winter coat with it’s fur-lined hood blocking most of his face. Tall and lanky, I can’t tell if he’s around fourteen or around twenty-four years old. He starts in with a story.

“I came here with my Mom and Step Dad from San Diego,” he begins, “because my Mom has cancer and she had treatments before we came. We used all our money to stay at that hotel last night,” he points behind us to a bare-bones nearby hotel, “because it’s so cold here, we needed to get off the street. Now we don’t have any money for food, could you buy me lunch?”

“Why did you come to Baltimore from San Diego? At least it’s warmer in San Diego.”

“Because my Mom, she wanted to die here.”

I’m trying to make an instant judgement of what I should do and the novelty of his story has effect. Although I have to say, it’s very strange to drag your partner and kid across the country to a cold city when you have no money because you want to die somewhere in particular.

I pull out my wallet and hand him twenty dollars. “Good luck,” I offer as I hand it to him. “Thanks a lot!” he exclaims and turns back, running. That could be four large 7-eleven pizzas. Yes, they have five dollar large pizzas, I never saw them before here. No, I didn’t try one.

Did I just buy his next fix? Very possibly. What do most people do? I tell myself I won’t give to people on the street, only through charities, but then I still find myself considering every time I am approached what the morally-ethical thing is to do.

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I walk in the direction of Little Italy passing the very handsome city hall. Baltimore has a plethora of handsome architecture from it’s heyday as a thriving hub and manufacturing city. Raw materials arrived to Baltimore’s ports, where they were redistributed or manufactured into finished goods and then sent out again. In 1789, George Washington called Baltimore the “risingist” town in America. (fastest growing) There was also a considerable trade in African slaves. The redeveloped harbour front is no longer a centre of trade but it does draw large crowds of tourists, although not in January. Within the city, however, exist a lot of boarded-up relics, impressive historic industrial buildings no longer needed. I noticed these on my first evening when I walked along Howard Street to attend an event at Baltimore’s Ethical Society. At night, the area was like a ghost town. I felt safe, but the lack of people about had me wonder if perhaps my feeling of security was false.

Little Italy was recommended to me as a neighbourhood to visit, and like much of Baltimore it is charming. It’s an artsy, run-down, quietish area just off the city centre mostly consisting of two and three storey row homes many with ground-floor businesses.

I continue on to Historic Fell’s Point, which was founded by William Fell from England and made famous from it’s Clipper Shipbuilding yards. I take some photos of the weathered buildings and colourful graffiti art. It feels edgy and bohemian although I read that it is, “an upscale business and residential neighbourhood”. I guess I couldn’t find that section. Next time.

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Circling back to Harbor Point I am considering my food options when a large black woman near to sixty exits the Cheesecake Factory and approaches me as I consider a menue of one of the other tourist restaurants. She is dressed well but has only a handful of teeth. She pulls up her sleeve. “Excuse me. I went to my doctor today for injections,” she shows me the injection sight, with one of those taped-on vein connectors in place. “I have diabetes. I just want a burger and fries and coke.” She tells me this as if asking for a cure. I look at her for a moment. This woman who probably has advanced diabetes, is asking me to buy her a meal, no – she’s telling me that all she wants is a meal, in an overpriced tourist zone no less, that would possibly contain more calories and definitely more sugar than someone should probably consume in a day. The amount of sugar in the oversized or bottomless cokes one gets here, if a regular part of your diet would nearly guarantee the outcome of having diabetes. “You shouldn’t drink coke,” I suggest.

“I can drink coke,” she replies, her head heightened at the back, “doctor gave me ice cream this morning.” Your doctor doesn’t care if you die, I think. The entitled way she has approached this stranger in an area of expensive tourist restaurants, I tell her no. Why should I feel obligated to buy this stranger a meal that will probably do her worse than if she had nothing. It’s sad, because she probably thinks a burger, fries, and coke is a balanced meal, why else would she ask so specifically after declaring that she has diabetes?

I start walking away and she follows along causing me not to pause at the next restaurants because now I feel awkward considering my dining options with her at my heels. I leave the district having not eaten.

At what looks to be a bus stop for the Charm City Circulator Orange line I pause. I can see the next bus coming along, I had wanted to do this circuit too. “Don’t take the green line, ” a local tells me, “of if you do, don’t stray off the main roads. Not safe for you to be up there.” The orange bus pulls up and the driver opens his door. “This isn’t a stop,” he tells me. “I can’t get on then?” His bus is empty, but the electronic display doesn’t say he’s not in service. “Where you trying to go?” “Nowhere, I’m sight seeing.” “I can’t help you if you don’t know where you want to go,” he says, closing his door. “I just wanted to take your route!” I yell through the closed door as he pulls away. I wasn’t expecting the driver to ask me where I was going, on the purple line I just got on and off. He might have let me get on if I’d given him the right answer. Maybe he doesn’t like to have one passenger aboard. I hardly look dangerous though.

I had been told there was some interesting architecture around the Johns Hopkins Campus that I could see on the Green Line. Now I don’t really want to see it anymore. I continue my wander back to my downtown hotel. I still need to find some food anyway.

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A nice blend of the old and the new in downtown Baltimore.

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Washington Monument in the central Mount Vernon neighbourhood of Baltimore.

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This view looking South near to the Washington Monument.

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Some random views around the area.

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Lots of handsome architecture in downtown Baltimore.

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Baltimore City Hall.

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Wandering around Baltimore’s Little Italy.

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I have to admit, I didn’t exactly feel like I was in Italy or anything. But it’s a cute area.

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Okay, so now I’m in the “upscale” business and residential neighbourhood of Fells Point. There really must be an entire section that I entirely could not find to warrant that description. I like the vibe here, it’s just that “upscale” is not a description that would have ever come to mind.

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Yes, I am still wandering around Fells Point.

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And back to the harbour, now a tourist area.

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With a number of bars in the area, I wonder if anyone ever falls over the railings into the water. Or rather, since there are no railings, if anyone ever just walks right over the edge? Do not text and walk here! (Not that one should anyway, but I think we all have on occasion.)

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One more step and down we go! There are no barriers all around the water’s edge.

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The last ship still afloat that experienced the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

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Unique lighthouse!

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And we’re back downtown.
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I should mention I did meet a few other friendly locals at a little event held at Baltimore’s Ethical society. That is not specifically a story, but was the kind of experience that will find it’s way into other stories. Thanks for visiting http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com!

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A Brummie from Blackpool

Trevor

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you live in Birmingham?”

“Yes, I live 30 minutes outside though.”

“Do you come into the centre quite often?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was it a good decision?”

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

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

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

“Do you come to the market area often?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I text the flat owner to ask for clarification.

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

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

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

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

“No it’s 3” (11:47)

The two of us continue to look about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes it could.

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

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

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

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

“Is theft very likely here?”

“Not really, Sir.”

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

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

“Does that insurance also cover the theft?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, this is going to be fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Manhattanites – Story – The People make the City

Manhattanites from November, 2012 – Jane, Nick, Marta, Chris, Laurie, Qi

Jane

“SHE SAID – HER BAG – IS UP – SIDE DOWN, ” a large, 6’4″ rough-looking black man with an afro shouted to the workers of the Port Authority Deli as I was wondering out. Apparently a tiny old woman had been trying to communicate this several times without success. They understood him though.

“You should be an English – English translator” I joked with him as we were both walking out. “Happen’s to me a lot!” he claimed enthusiastically. “Could be a career in it,” we chuckle as he continues away. I light a cigarette.

(Cigarettes are highly addictive and they are terrible for your health. I have since successfully quit but it was really hard so just never start.)

“Do you need some help love?” I ask after the elderly woman has emerged onto the sidewalk under a construction girdle seemingly ever-present on 9th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets. (“Love?”, I think to myself, “when have I ever called anyone Love?”)

Jane, who stands all of about 4’10” replies, “Could you help me across the street? I’m fine if I can cross the street.” “Sure!” I take her shopping cart, the kind with two wheels I know so well from Japan, it must have weighed 50 lbs or more. “Can I take your arm?” I ask as we start-off, tiny slow step by tiny slow step in the direction of 41st.

“What happened to your leg?” I ask, clearly she has a disability but is trying to get around. “I’m waiting for my second hip replacement,” she responds, “it was replaced 5 years ago but it doesn’t work anymore. I have 3 more months before I can get my new one, but I think if I checked into the hospital maybe they’d give it to me earlier.”

“Do you have family here?” “Oh yes, but my sister and her husband, they’re busy this weekend. But I just couldn’t wait, my leg is infected and my pants had to be washed. I couldn’t wait to do my laundry.” “Can your insurance send someone to you, to do your laundry and stuff?” “Oh, I’ve never heard of that,” she says.

“Does your HMO cover your hip replacement?” I ask. “Whats an HMO?” “Oh, I thought that’s what health insurance was called in the US, I’m from Canada.” “No, I just have Medicare.” She pauses, “My parents came from Canada, from Nouvelle Ecosse.” (Nova Scotia) “Really? I’m from New Brunswick.” (Which neighbours Nova Scotia on Canada’s East coast. Both Maritime provinces, they share similar qualities.) “Are you on holidays for the weekend?” she asks.

“No, I’ve been really lucky. I’m here for a whole month, I’ve decided to start my writing career here in New York City.” “Oh my, that’s wonderful! What kind of writing, a novel?” “No, non-fiction.” She stops and looks up face-to-face for the first time. “That is the best kind of writing,” she suggests, speaking slowly for emphasis, “what’s your name?” “Darren” “I’m Jane. I’ll look for your book, Darren.” she informs me as I help her into the station never to see her again.

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Nick

“How much for a cut?” “$14” “Alright”
“Same as you have but shorter?” “Sure”

Those long negotiations over with I settle-in to a chair at the barbershop below my flat. (I consider everything on the short block between 41st and 42nd to be below my flat.)

From Russia, nick came to NYC at the age of 21 and has been a barber ever since. Now 39, he seems somewhat older than me, even if I did still keep my white hair, he is far more weathered. I turned 39 last month.

“Where are you from?” he asks in his harsh, macho way he has of speaking. “Toronto. How’d you know I’m not from here?” (I took his question as where I came here from rather than where I grew-up.) “From your accent”, he answers, in his very strong Russian brogue. “People here, they come from all over.” Most likely his question is a conversation starter with most of his walk-ins, perhaps a lucky guess. Everywhere else I’ve been assumed to be a Manhattanite.

“Toronto is good. Colder than here now.” Yes, his no-nonsense observations are both true.

My hair soon chopped somewhat shorter than I had hoped for, I pay with tip and hit the streets again, fresher than a few minutes earlier.

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Marta

“In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God made a good strong pot of coffee and got to work.” I like this sign, just in the entrance of Empire Coffee and Tea Emporium.

Located directly below my flat (2 floors down and facing the street, whereas I’m facing the courtyard) this coffee shop boasts no interior fashion whatsoever. Horrible, uncomfortable seating (2 flat wood benches, 4 folding chairs, and 2 low stools) below a basement drop-ceiling and on a generic tile floor all lit with painful fluorescent tubes. Clearly, this was some other business for which ambiance was no concern (perhaps an exterminator?) and they did not change a thing when they opened it as a coffee emporium.

The coffee is fantastic. There is a steady stream of customers, from the disenfranchised to policemen to retired couples to young and trendy locals. Throughout my month, I will only need to visit the Starbucks around the corner on 9th Ave, twice. (When Empire is not open.)

I sit on the bench facing the window and write with my notebook balanced on the arm. Across from me a bag lady has an animated conversation with herself. She seems to be sorting through 5 bags of rubbish. Dirty papers and plastics, nothing nasty. “How are you, Marta?” someone calls in passing. She doesn’t notice. I take a discrete photo and short video.

I don’t purchase my coffee beans at the moment only because I want to come back sooner than later. (If I buy beans, I have less reason to come for a cup of coffee.) I sip my coffee, write, and wander back upstairs when my bottom hurts too much from sitting on a solid, flat piece of wood for too long.

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Chris

“Sorry Sir, this is my first day”, a young, plump, early-20’s kid with huge lips informs me every step of the way as I try to buy a bicycle on 34th street. “That’s okay,” I let him know, ” as long as you make customers feel like you care, they won’t mind that you don’t know anything.” And I do mean, nothing. “So how do I buy this bicycle – I guess we have to get it down.” “I don’t think so,” he replies as I am already pulling the cruiser bicycle out from the display rack.

“The tires are flat. Can I pump them up?” “I don’t know,” he indicates while I am already filling the rear tires with a pump I pulled from the shelf. “This tire needs a new inner tube,” I inform, the air is coming out faster than I can pump it in. “Can it be fixed before I buy it?” Chris has no idea. What’s an inner tube?

Chris calls a fellow staff member. They ascertain that these are the only assembled, ready-to-sell bikes, there are none in the back. We find another men’s bicycle, quite different, but it’s the only other man’s cycle that they have, somehow the assembler has not noticed that mens cycles have sold more than woman’s cycles and just keeps the display area full. Now competent in removal, this time he helps me lift the cycle down to the floor and I again start pumping-up the tires.

“It’s more expensive, but it seems fine. I guess I’ll take this one.” I collect all the necessary accessories and the two of us head to the cash, he with the cycle, me with an arm load of lights, mirror, helmet, bell, basket, and locks.

“That’ll be $297,” the cashier indicates as I swipe my card and happily so. I called all the bicycle rental shops, the best I could find was a rental bicycle for $200 per week or $40 per day. It can be cheaper to rent a car. Crazy. I tell this to the cashier and she shares this astonishment yelling to another nearby cashier as I excitedly walk my bicycle out to the street. “Did you hear that? That white guy said that . . . .”

Feeling liberated from my feet which tie me to the ground, I mount the bicycle and start down the cycle lane, which have become plentiful in Manhattan. At the first light I think, “there are no breaks!” as I try to squeeze the handlebars. I realise quickly that a reverse pedal brings me to a tentative halt.

Excited, I turn on to 8th Avenue, another cycle lane. CLIKKKATTY – SSLLLIIIPP – KKKKHHHKKK – my legs are pedalling but I am not moving. The chain has not slipped. The gear on the rear tire has come apart. There is no forward motion.

“It’s not my fault, ” Chris says as I push the cycle back through the front doors looking as dramatically deflated as possible. The assembly guy is here in morning, I know this already from my hour of trying to ascertain whether it was possible to purchase a bicycle here. “Will you be here tomorrow when I come back for another one?” I ask. “No, it’s my day off.” “You’re a pooh-head,” I tease as he walks with me towards the returns desk.

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Laurie

“It’s so nice to meet you! Our waitress won’t let us add any more people to our table.” It is my first time meeting Laurie, 10 days after I started staying in her Midtown Manhattan apartment. She and her partner have come away from their group to visit with me at the bar.

A film producer, Laurie is meeting with the cast and crew of their film, “Girls Who Smoke” which is later this evening to be part of the opening night program of the Big Apple Film Festival being hosted at Tribeca Cinemas.

Outside for a smoke myself, I meet a straight guy lamenting his girl troubles with a girl co-worker. They include me in the conversation as if we’ve known each other.

Two blocks from where we met for drinks we enter the crazy, crowded, chaotic, tiny cinema entrance. I claim my entrance ticket and he, “takes my word for it,” since for some reason he has no list of the pre-purchased. I buy a coke that’s “mostly ice”, my request, and somehow this provides me entrance to behind the bar. (I had stepped out of the crowd to order my drink and now it seems okay that I linger.) I find myself safe from the pressing crowds, leaning against the back counter inside the service area with a gorgeous blue-eyed dancer. (Not a student, this is a 2nd job along with dancing.)

Time to go in, I join my invitees again to slowly join the cattle shuffling into the little auditorium for our programme. “Girls Who Smoke” is the 4th short on the programme.

A slice-of-life film, two woman making a brief deep connection before going back to their separate lives. I love it. It’s my favourite kind of story telling.

The film ended, I sneak out, running off to my next adventure starting in 20 minutes at 11PM. I love this city.

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Qi

“For you, $20,” I am enthusiastically told by a good-looking Chinese man while he Vanna Whites his menu which indicates $80. “I feel SOOO special, why for me do you drop your price so very low? Sure.” I take my seat on a small folding stool on the sidewalk in front of Madame Tussaud’s. They charge about $1 a minute, the basic portrait will take 20 minutes at most, but most of them have these inflated price signs to be able to entice tourists by the bargain. I have also seen the advertised bargain approach, for a cartoonish scribble, only $5.

His name is Qi, from Shanghai. I spent some time there years ago when presenting recruitment seminars along the Eastern coast of China for an ESL college in Toronto. Shanghai is a gorgeous city, very impressive. Many of the unique, highly-designed sky scrapers were designed by New York City architects. It is China’s flagship city.

Qi’s son studies at a University in North Carolina. I could not catch what program he is in nor the name of the school, English was very limited. At home, Qi says that he owns a design business, for T-shirts. He visits his son in the US every year. The total yearly cost of having him study here is $80 thousand.

All this seems very, very odd. We are sitting on the street and he is drawing my picture. Why is he here? To earn extra money. He did drawing as a student, it was his hobby.

Finished my portrait, I give him $40 and he seems pleased. Such an odd story, but why would it not be true.

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Visiting the Welcoming Locals in Mysore, India

I experienced a very friendly, local Mysore. The people here were warm and inviting, into their homes, into their community, into their workplaces. I highly recommend a visit to Mysore. Feel free to contact me for my homestay recommendation, I stayed with a great family and I enjoyed the neighborhood.

Local Mysore – Thursday, February 21, 2013.

Having accepted that I may have just met an honest driver in India, I set out to see Mysore like a local, with a local.

We start our day with a wander through a produce market. It is relaxed and quiet here in the afternoon. The vendors comprehend that a foreigner is not here with hopes of buying kilograms of produce and happy to pay many times the going rates. They don’t try to sell me anything. Samir chats with a few of them as we look around. I ask what a pile of tall-sided terra cotta bowls with circular holes in their sides could be for. They’re bird houses. Can I take a picture? Sure.

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We cross a threshold into a meat market. This is a completely separate market because many Hindus are vegetarian. I could not describe this as a clean place where one might be tempted to purchase food. Really, this is like a very dirty barn. Sheep hang on hooks, skinned. One in particular reminds me of the “bodies” exhibit. Live sheep wander about, a mother has just given birth to two babies. This morning. A little boy proudly lifts-up one of the new babies to show me; the mother bleats in protest.

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It seems strange to see animals living in a slaughter house who are not immediately destined for slaughter. Lamb is not eaten here, the young ones have many months of growth ahead of them. An older woman with over-sized glasses stands over a table of sheep hooves. Some are hairy, others have been roasted over fire. On the ground a man is removing the footpads from charred hooves then throwing the hooves into a bucket of murky water.

Charred sheep heads look a bit shocking to me. Apparently delicious, I am not tempted to sink my teeth into one of these ready-to-eat faces. I do, however, put my own face close enough to two heads to join for a photo.

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Samir tries to hand me a leg. I would handle a leg of lamb as presented in a Western market, but to hold a hairy leg from a sheep carkus seems so very different. I do not put out my hands to accept holding this, it makes me step back. We remove ourselves from the realness of eating animals in the West, to most of us meat is just meat.

Before we head-out onto the street, Samir shows me a little alter to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim Gods. “Everyone welcome,” he tells me proudly. This uneducated, illiterate Muslim rickshaw driver is more broad-minded than many highly-educated, middle-class Westerners.

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Our next stop is to visit a labour-intensive wood-carving workshop. There is nothing for sale here, these are long-term furniture building projects. When finished they will go to showrooms. Various types of woods including mango, sandalwood, and others are intricately carved into very delicate floral and pictorial cut-outs. These are then laid onto the larger wood surfaces of tables, chairs, dressers, etc. and traced. Now the larger pieces are painstakingly carved out so that the various coloured woods can be inlaid.

This kind of laborious work, a skillful art form that takes artists many years to be able to achieve this degree of intricacy, is not really appreciated as art in India. Well, the work itself may be, but the artists creating it definitely are not. The craftsmen (they were all men, many occupations seem to still be tied to specific genders) are classed as labourers rather than artists. They definitely make a low salary.

The kind of communal type of living that the labour class affords causes the craftsmen to barely notice strangers wandering through the workshops and watching over their shoulders. They are very used to having people all around and in near proximity, so much so that to be alone is probably a rare condition.

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We continue to wander through the colourful side streets. I capture the attention of a small group of kids around six years old. They are happy to practice their greetings and after chatting a bit they ask me to take their photo. They want me to remember them, which is sweet. I often stop myself from taking intrusive photos of people so I am more than pleased to take this picture of three nestled in a bicycle and two standing behind. Four boys and a girl.

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Up the road we encounter a cow house. It looks like a regular little house, except inside there are five cows. They are tied side-by-side and are as long as the home is deep. It is not crowded, they could probably fit seven cows, but then they couldn’t turn around. Taking them through a normal door must be awkward.

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Next on our little tour of interiors we visit a bidi workshop. Bidis are a cheap Idian version of cigarettes. They are hand-rolled tobacco inside leaves. Ten or so men sit on the floor in a small open space organizing today’s work. All morning they rolled them and now they are binding them into little bundles. These bundles will be wrapped in paper with some labeling and then ready for sale. “These are all-natural, healthy smoking, not like cigarette. No chemicals.” The fact that tobacco, when burned, forms countless noxious and poisonous chemicals is lost on my rickshaw wallah. “No, no, chemicals are something people add. These ones, no chemicals adding.”

“Only men make bidis?” I ask as we sample one of the healthy delights. “Yes, women make incense. I show you later.”

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Around the corner a man and his young helper (perhaps about twelve years old) paint signs onto styrofoam sheets. The styrofoam is primed bright red, orange, and yellow before writing and designs are painted on it. I am told this is also the base-work over-which flowers and yarns will be glued, to make wedding arches. According to the posted price-list, a basic arch is 300Rs ($6).

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This story is to be continued. . . . I will update it when next I have time.

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