Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Map Moment & a New Friend

Belgravia - my Spanish 'hood

Today, making my way back through the streets of Belgravia from the Italiano coffee shop to lessons en español at the Instituto Cervantes (feeling very European), I was stopped by a Londoner, a lady who asked me for directions. Not so unusual in itself, but the really exciting thing was that I was able to help her. Nearest station? Victoria! Which direction? Straight ahead then turn left! Where’s Hyde Park? Ten minutes that way! I was so impressed with myself. “I thought I knew my way around”, said this Britisher. Hey, no problem. Just ask the expat.

Actually, I’m a bit of a fraud here, because in the last two weeks all I have done is walk back and forth from the station, and up to and back from said coffee shop. If my interlocutor had required any more complex information, I’d have been stuck. But hey – let’s take the wins where we find them. After four-and-a-half months in London, I thought it was pretty cool to be able to give directions to a local.

My little desk corner and its maps.

Speaking of finding my way around London, I am improving. On the walls near my desk in St Pancras I have two large maps - one of England and one of London. On the map of England (which sadly chops off Scotland) I have yellow sticker spots for the places I have visited outside of London. The map of London is much larger scale, of course, with every street in Central London marked and most named – although in print so small that I need to peer closely. But the big map is great for getting a feel for two things: firstly a bird’s eye view of the winding River Thames that wends its way through the heart of the place, dividing North from South; and secondly for defining the ‘inner city’ area formed by the circlet of major train stations: St Pancras, King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Waterloo, Charing Cross, Victoria, Paddington, Euston. In the great heyday of the railway boom, the overland trains were not permitted to penetrate completely into central London, so the effect was a circle of termini (the plural of terminus? Correct me if I’m wrong) ringing the heart of the city. Some of these stations are so close together that it is silly (such as St Pancras and King’s Cross) but that’s history for you...stupid planning decisions of the past can leave a city with some strange idiosyncrasies.

England, acquiring sticky yellow dots.

Look up Wikipedia on the subject. It will tell you:
The railway system of Great Britain is the oldest in the world. The system was originally built as a patchwork of local rail links operated by small private railway companies. These isolated links developed during the railway boom of the 1840s into a national network, although still run by dozens of competing companies. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained. The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War...In 1923, almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the "big four", the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. The "Big Four" were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947. From the start of 1948, the "big four" were nationalised to form British Railways.

London: defined by The Thames and the train stations

Not Veronique, but reminds me of her.
In other news, today a new important person entered my London life: meet Veronique, a lady from Belgium who has become the Cleaning Angel for my apartment. Yes, after four-and-a-half months the place is finally clean! Well, except for the weeks when Evan was here, and he went out and stocked us up with cleaning stuff and cleaned it. I have tried to do my best, folks, and the results have not been too bad. But Veronique is much better at it. She is the lady who vacuums the carpeted corridors of St Pancras on Monday mornings (and, perhaps not entirely co-incidentally, the wife of Philip, one of the concierge staff) and last Monday she stopped me as I was leaving my front door and talked herself into a job. Which, considering the state of her English, is pretty amazing. Here’s the SMS she left me today:

‘Hello dear. Annette. I werking g 3h30 i do no extra today. I usé de mop van st pancras. Nex week. For 3 hour is possible. Or you will. Extra today??? Good. Evening.’

I think this means that I need to buy a mop and bucket.

It is people like Veronique who are the reason I am spending three hours a day at the Instituto Cervantes trying my darnedest to learn Spanish. It is so uneducated to speak only one language. When you think how people like Veronique live and work in a country where the language is not their own, and yet not only make a go of it, but talk themselves into jobs in corridors on Monday mornings – well, it is humbling. London is full of them, as indeed is Sydney. I better get back to conjugating those verbs.

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