Iím back from my sojourn across the pond. As I settle back into life here in the Bay Area I find myself reflecting on all I experienced during my time overseas. There were many lessons of life and love, business and entrepreneurship, and that fantastically useful British accent that somehow eludes my vocal cavity except when speaking isolated words such as "mate," "dodgy," "bloody," and "brilliant." But rather than bore you with all of those lessons or the dramatic tales of software sales to the European general insurance market, I thought that the best way to capture the essence of my time would be to articulate a few of the more memorable places and experiences.
The London Underground
No discussion of London would be complete without mention of the London Underground. First, let me say that not ever having to drive a car is a beautiful thing. I thought that San Francisco mass transit was laughable before I left. Now it is downright sad, though Iím still rooting for the 3rd street light rail program! In London, the underground takes you within a few walking minutes of just about anywhere that youíd like to go. Better yet, once you understand the topology of the city well enough, it is a relatively simple affair to figure out how to optimize routes by walking between tube stations. Fantastic.
Regrettably, the tube isn't the well-oiled machine that I hear other subway systems are. Instead, it is a bit more like driving up to San Francisco on 280 on a Monday night. Four times out of five it will get you exactly where you want to go in about the time you want to get there. But every once in a while, the system inexplicably stops working. Whether it is the ubiquitous "signal failure" or the occasional and unfortunate "man under the tracks" the system just doesnít quite operate with the predictability one would like. So, lesson for all of you world travelers: the tube is great, but if you absolutely, positively have to be there on time, walk or take a cab. Or FedEx yourself.
Oh, and donít take the Central line in the summer, especially if youíre wearing a suit.
Despite all of the media coverage, Londoners were remarkably unfazed by the terrorist attacks last July. I was lucky enough to be out of the country for the July 7 bombings, but was on the Central line during the second attempt on July 21. Londoners would nonchalantly stroll by storefronts where BBC 1 was broadcasting the latest news (or lack thereof). Meanwhile, clusters of Americans would huddle around the same screens, fixated on the next morsel of data. As it was explained to me by some natives, Londoners just got used to this sort of thing during the IRA bombings in the Ď80s, so theyíre pretty used to tuning out the noise. Besides, what are they going to do, not take the tube? Turns out that isn't really an option.
In the aftermath of the bombings squads of police, few of whose members were actually used to carrying and firing weapons, were deployed in tube stations across London. In one such station, Tim and I casually stepped off the train and walked over to a map to figure out the best route to next meeting. (The tube map, by the way, is a work of art.) Two seconds later I heard those dreaded words "excuse me, sir." Twenty minutes, one thorough rucksack search, and one grilling later I was exonerated but forever tracked in the Scotland Yard database.
It was one of the few times that I was glad of my American accent. And my American passport. I later learned that, according to some of my London friends, I actually closely resembled one of the people that the police were looking for. Apparently, my ambiguous ethnicity came up Pakistani this time around.
My running tree
Every city should have its own version of the Royal parks. San Francisco may have Golden Gate Park, but to those of us in Potrero Hill it is really far away and McLaren park could use a cleanup crew every once in a while. Hyde Park, on the other hand, was practically next door to where I lived. Several times a week Iíd run over to the park and stretch at my special running tree before circling the rest of the park. At least, I thought that it was my special running tree. Then I discovered that a dog thought it was his special tree too. Iíll have to live with the disappointment.
In any event, when you make your way to London be sure to visit the parks. They are a wonderful oasis in the middle of what is otherwise a vital and hectic city.
Haight Street, on steroids, with (pinky turned out on lips now) one meeelion people. Just as the Royal parks are a semi-natural haven from bustling city life, so Camden Town is a break from the upscale life that dominates the rest of the city. Though it's incredible how much they'll make you pay for a t-shirt.
I had the very good fortune to spend about 10 days on a whirlwind Australian tour for work. What a gorgeous country. While I didnít have a lot of time for sightseeing, I did have the opportunity to spend a weekend wandering around Sydney. Itís a beautiful city with rolling hills (London is basically like a sheet of plywood), friendly people, and lovely ocean side views. Itís the only other city Iíve visited that Iíd consider living in for an extended period of time.
The downside? I flew back on Halloween. Now, the rest of the world doesnít seem to share the same fervor for Halloween that San Franciscans revel in every year. In the 24 hours that it took me to fly back to London, the only concession to Halloween was a single lonely merchant in the Bangkok international terminal. He wore a golden halo made of elementary school pipe cleaners.
January 20, 2006. BBC News reports 4 hours of sunlight in London year to date. Michelle, I still think that we could make money off of those vitamin D light pants.
The Speen Olympics
Tim Crossley, my friend and colleague at Guidewire, lives in the village of Speen with his family. Now, Speen is but a wee community of 700 folk, situated in the rolling hills and hedgerows of the Chilterns. It feels a world away from the big city life to be found only 40 minutes away in London.
Every year, the village council and enterprising individuals augment the social calendar with an assortment of community events. Among them are the yearly play (last yearís performance: The Wind in the Willows), various and sundry outings (to "the dogs"), and, most memorably, The Speen Olympics.
At this annual event, families make the pilgrimage to the community field (sorry Johnny, the sign says "no dogs" and beware the tennis courts lest you become the subject of local rumour) and participate in a series of sporting events. My two favorites? Welly tossing and kiddie curling. The first isn't so bad. Just take a boot and throw it as far as you can. Sort of a cross between the discus and javelin throwing. Kiddie curling, on the other hand, is quite the spectacle.
Imagine a long strip of yellow, Slip-Ďní-slide like plastic continuously sprayed with water and occasionally lathered up with some sort of soapy concoction. Lines are painted (or was it taped?) on the far end of the sheet and are labeled with numbers, low to high. Except that beyond the highest mark is a zone worth negative points. Parents and children line up on either side of the sheet, eagerly awaiting the action. Some brave, young child then strips off his (or her) shirt, lets two adults swing him through the air to the count of three, and is then hurled down the sheet at great speed, hopefully landing (well, stopping, but landing sounds much more dramatic) on -- but not beyond -- the last target line and garnering critical ego inflation points. Hilarity ensues. Problem is that sometimes that ground is a bit rocky and occasionally the soap doesnít quite cover everywhere. Ouch. Yet, by some miracle, all the children survived unscathed.
As all of you know, Iím not a big fan of beer. But, I conceded that in order to adopt any sort of social life in London that would have to change. So, pubs and beer it was. Guinness is food.
Living in London is a bit like bumping into someone who holds you up by your ankles and shakes you until all of your change falls out onto the ground. In America, that might not be such a big deal. People have piggy banks to save them from the distraction of having to carry all that change around. Not true in the UK. If someone hands you something small, round(-ish), and shiny you pocket it and give it to someone else as soon as possible in exchange for something else (in my case, usually a Snickers bar). If you donít, you end up like me with a pile of change on your desk that quickly adds up to several hundred pounds. There is no one or two pound note, so those two pound coins (read: $3.50) add up in a hurry.
It seems that everyone who moves to London goes through a few short stages of monetary shock. First comes the realization that all of the prices are the same. This is very comforting for the first two seconds. Then one realizes that the numbers are the same but the currency isn't. This is bad. Then comes the shock of the exchange rate. Bloody hell. Combine that with a multiplier for food quality (the food doesnít suck in England, you just have to pay more for it) and youíre in a world of pain. I used to think that San Francisco was expensive. Actually, it is expensive. But at the moment London is 1.6 times more expensive. Yikes.
At least the money is pretty, though it has nothing on Australian dollars.
Beautiful place. Cool topology. Fantastically nice people. Definitely visit.
I only saw one movie, Crash, while I was in London. Not sure why it won best picture. I thought that the message was clear after the first 10 minutes or so. For the rest of the film, I just felt like I was being beat over the head with a hammer.
While I only saw one movie in London, I saw perhaps twenty in the air between SFO and LHR. I love Virgin Atlanticís video on demand service. Fifty relatively recent movies that I can watch any time I like. It makes me just a docile as they want me to be.
I am very glad to have spent the time overseas, but among my lessons learned is that after 14 years Iím finally content to call the Bay Area home. That said, I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to continue to hop across the oceans with some frequency.
I have to give special thanks to my colleague Tim Crossley and his family for helping me to feel welcome in a galaxy far, far away. Thanks Tim and Caroline!
You can find some pictures of my time abroad by clicking here.
Iíd love to see you all, so please drop me a line! My number is the same - 650.996.1553 - though my old phone died while I was gone, so I probably won't know who you are when you call. :)
Talk with you soon!