A Travellerspoint blog

Standing at the Edge


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Last week I purchased a gold-ish second-hand road bike so I could explore the Brighton area with more freedom. This is both exhilarating and a bit precarious as I am learning to negotiate the intolerant traffic and the unforgiving hills of the South Downs. On Sunday I set off along the coast, it was overcast and windy but I was determined to bike for as long and as far as I could. Past the pier and the Brighton marina I found myself on the ‘Undercliff Walk.' On one side there was the towering chalk cliffs, mostly white with sparsely populated scrub brush and flowers; On the other side the moody ocean smacking the barrier and sending up a salty spray. At a tiny village called Saltdean I came across beach huts. Worn practicality against a monumental backdrop, these little huts a far cry from the chi-chi Victorian structures sitting smugly in Hove:

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When the Undercliff Walk ended I returned to the winding cycle path that followed the cliff top road. Unlike the relatively flat Walk, this mimicked the rolling character of the South Downs. I rode until I was sore and tired. Dismounting, I walked my bike along the edge until the guard rails gave way and it was just me gazing over the edge. I ate lunch looking out towards France:

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Beyond my bike it dropped off hundreds of feet into a frothy ocean:

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It was so empty and windy up there:

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Note the sailboat in the distance. I walked to Newhaven (pop: 12,000) which sits at the mouth of the River Ouse, cutting through the Downs before feeding back into the sea. After walking around the old fort I biked back with the help of A.'s compass gift. On my way home I stopped at Rottingdean (pop: 2,500) whose major claim to fame is that it was the home of Rudyard Kipling for much of his life. That and smuggling. Once they cleaned up, "it attracted leisured visitors wanting a genteel alternative to raffish Brighton" (or so says Wikipedia). Now it is pretty much just a suburb of Brighton but it is pretty in the quaint preserved way. The nineteenth century windmill stands at the top of hill, a nice silhouette:

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Roundtrip 34 kms. Not bad for the second time on a bike in two years.

Posted by broden 13:22 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Getting Caught in the City

sunny
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May is an exciting time in Brighton as the city shimmers with activity, doing its best to shake of the dreariness of the British winter. The last time I was by the sea it was largely deserted outside of dog walkers, cyclists and the dedicated strollers. These transient visitors didn’t stop for long, the cool wind and threatening clouds kept them moving. But this weekend marked a change, while still at the cooler end of May there was bright, glorious sunshine and the hint of the warmth to come. People emerged to just hang around:

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You’ll notice they are fully clothed. Barring one (crazy) soul who was actually swimming in the water most people seemed content to just enjoy the lapping waves, fish & chips and buzz of spring:

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It’s easy to get caught up in the vibrancy of this town. In particular May is chock full of events and activities for the Brighton festival, Fringe, etc. On Saturday as I was wandering I stumbled upon this:

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Bodies in Urban Spaces which was marketed as, “a trail of human geometry across Brighton's streetscape.” I joined the large crowd and was led across Brighton's hidden spaces by 20 'movement artists.' In nooks and crannies, doorways and alcoves bodies formed and re-formed into fleeting architectural interventions:

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Pretty impressive. And while performances abound what I like most about the weekends here is the stalled city. Many downtown roads are closed for people to descend upon, looking for delicious treats, fresh market food, second hand clothing, old records and tattered books. Everyone is peddling their own hip junk and organic food and you simply can't help but get caught up in the lazy ebb and flow as you meander up and down the tiny streets. In some ways it reminds me of my favourite parts of Montreal summers.

Posted by broden 05:16 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Flemish Gem


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After my fast-paced week I went to visit my friend A. in Ghent (Gent in Dutch; Gand in French). This Flemish gem is just thirty-five minutes outside of Brussels and staggeringly different from the aggressive cosmopolitanism and obsessive bilingualism of Brussels. In the twelfth century Ghent was a thriving medieval town trading cloth and corn and one of the most important cities north of the Alps. According to the locals, at that time Ghent was a bigger deal than London and rivalling Paris in significance. But where London and Paris thrived, Ghent stumbled. Now there are less than 250, 000 people that call this place home. That being said, Ghent is more than just a pretty face; it is a living and breathing (mostly student) town with kamikaze cyclists and an obsession with lasagna (according to A.). Given that I was only there for two days it was the more obvious and aesthetic elements I enjoyed: winding canals, cobblestone and a castle.

Gravensteen Castle:
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One of the many towers/cathedrals:
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Along the Canal:
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Along the canal x 2:
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The Graslei:
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Down an alleyway:
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Shoes!:
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Only in Belgium:
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Outside the botanical gardens (For Azad):
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Posted by broden 15:44 Archived in Belgium Tagged living_abroad

Bruxelles (Take Two)


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My arrival in Brussels was not a smooth one. I took the bus Monday morning from London which generally takes about 6 hours. However, I encountered this just before the Chunnel:

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I arrived in Brussels 3.5 hours later than expected. I spent the next four days trotting from one big European Union (E.U.) building to the next with fourteen Germans, two Hungarians and one Swiss guy for, “The European Dimensions of Health Promotion Policy”. The course was meant to give us a sense of how public health policy is made at the E.U. level. In reality, it was more like how public health policy is influenced by Germany, in particular this one region (Saxony-Anhalt) where the professor organizing the trip is located and where most of the students were from. Perhaps even more disappointingly, it’s not. The discussions on public health generally were limited to organ donation, which isn’t really public health at all, while discussions on health promotion were non-existent. Like their governmental and bureaucratic colleagues in Canada, they don’t have a clue. This is both interesting and salient as the European demographic change marches on and healthcare budgets balloon globally. It seems obvious that issues like chronic disease prevention and more accessible medical services are not simply the “right” thing to do but also the most practical. Start now. But prevention and accessibility don’t necessarily show results in policy cycles so politicians tend to say, “Why bother?”

The truth is I have a strong (negative) visceral reaction to those glass monsters that house the obfuscated processes of the E.U. In each new building we crossed security checks just to wait for the Very Important People who are gracing us with their time but say so little of substance and nothing about public health even if it’s in their file. For this reason the highlights of the excursion for me was the trip to Amnesty International and the European Public Health Association. At the end of the day I always ask the same question, “How do you change policy?” Even with limited power and influence I find the strategies and campaigns by lobby/advocacy groups the most interesting.

Outside of the policy course I had some time to explore the heart of Brussels, beyond the European quarter. Central Brussels is enclosed within a pentagon of boulevards – the petit ring – which approximates the winding course of the medieval city walls. Historically, the centre is further divided into the Ville Haute and the Ville Basse. The Ville Haute was the traditional home of the city’s upper classes who lived more luxurious existences while also being conveniently situated to peer down at the workers below. And this is what they saw:

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The Grande-Place. It really is kind of breathtaking to be walking down a tiny winding street just to find yourself spat out into this enormous square, flanked by huge ornate guildhouses and throngs of people:

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This square was the commercial hub of the city since the Middle Ages and it is the spired tower of Hotel de Ville that is the most imposing and picturesque.

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Apparently Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto gazing onto this square while I enjoyed over-the-top Belgian waffles, including a heap of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, just beside it.

My friend from school, S., also thought we should visit Manneken Pis. This is a diminutive statue of a little boy pissing that attracts an absurd amount of tourists (ourselves included). Apparently it is supposed to embody the city’s irreverent spirit or as the guide book says, “the ideal national symbol for a country that is also small and absurd”:

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We had to elbow our way through the crowds to the front to take this picture which is pretty insane if you think about how it was a rainy day in the middle of the week in May. I don’t get it but Brussels has really cashed in. Everywhere you turn there are postcards, posters, key chains, etc. of this little man. I even saw a chocolate version of Manneken Pis, over twice the size of the original one. Can you imagine an equivalent in Toronto? North American (re: prudish) sensibilities would be so offended!

On my last full day in Brussels I trekked out north with my classmates to see the Atomium or "Brussel's Eiffel Tower" (That's what they say, I swear). Built for the World Exhibition of 1958 the nine balls represent an iron crystal that has been magnified 165 billion times. Apparently this was a time when people still believed the future was bright and atomic energy would save the world.

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Luckily S. also enjoyed walking so we criss-crossed the city several times, trying to capture more of the true Brussels than illustrated by this tourist triad I've provided you. We walked through the art nouveau section, cinquantenaire park, the west end, etc. What can I say? Brussels was okay. Basically it is decent sized European city that hosts a hodge-podge of languages and people. There is an abundance of large urban parks, interesting architecture, and diverse neighbourhoods. But all that time in her streets, I still just couldn’t connect.

I left for Ghent on Friday to visit my good friend A. and explore the Flemish side of Belgium.

Posted by broden 14:26 Archived in Belgium Tagged living_abroad

Bruxelles (Take One)

In the Meantime...


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This is me enjoying, "the best french fries in the whole world" in Place Jourdan Plein. I didn't want to tell the Germans (the ones who assured me of this fact) that I'd had better:

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They were still pretty good. How can you go wrong with big potato wedges fried and doused in salt?

My favourite thing about Brussels is the beige food: french fries, waffles and beer.

Posted by broden 15:21 Archived in Belgium Tagged living_abroad

The ice age is coming...

rain
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The last time I was in London I was 18 and fresh faced, off 6 months of boarding school and excited to be free. We got there late so my friend J. and I slept in Hyde Park under a sprawling tree. We spent two days stomping around the city, drinking cans of beer at night and stealing bread from the stoops of people’s homes in the early morning hours. I loved just walking past all the buildings and people, it felt so huge and consuming. I remember thinking that this was a place I wanted to live.

This time I decided to go to London for the weekend because my school friend S. was there for work and offered me a free hotel room. How could I say no? I hopped on the high speed train in Brighton and was in downtown London in an hour. Her hotel was in the heart of Islington, just 10 minutes from Kings Cross station. In Victorian times, Islington was an industrial slum but has since been largely gentrified and is now a trendy area. This might be best illustrated by the local Banksy, just a block from the hotel, like a stamp of approval:

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For those interested in street art it appears that there is a street art war unfolding in London, a combination of spray paint and pride. It was sparked this year by Banksy painting over a twenty-four year old piece by long time street artist King Robbo. In retaliation, King Robbo attacked Banksy’s work throughout London. You can see his name ("Team Robbo") in the flag the rat is holding, though I think he’s done some more intricate defacing. This is what is unfolding while you sleep.

The night I arrived S. took me to an event called Breakin Convention, a festival of hip hop dance theatre. The space was “animated” so that every floor you could participate in something: dancing, workshops, graffiti, etc. We got there right before the show started but in time for chips and beer while lying on a beanbag. Our seats were front row centre and the (most of) the dancing was absolutely phenomenal. On this particular night they interspersed UK youth breaking crews with International b-boys. Most of the performances were a hybrid of breaking and other dance styles and types of performance, for instance this one German group did this elaborate BMX component.

Shortly after I arrived it started raining hard and didn’t stop for 24 hours. After the (mostly) sunshine in Brighton this cast a drab dreariness over the adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I like a cliché as much as the next guy but the streaming water on tiny cobblestone streets did not make up for that soggy bordering on chilled feeling. Look at these puddles (fun time for the merry-go-round!):

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On my one day in London I did the tourist circle: Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, London Tower, London Bridge, etc. It felt more like compulsion than true desire. It is undeniable that they hold an important place in the psyche of the Western world. Furthermore, I always appreciate buildings that have stood for centuries or even millennia and watched society shift and change beneath them and generations come and go. But as a tourist you are herded along finely groomed streets, jostling your way to take the exact same picture as the person in front of you did and the guy behind you will. You blink up at a building, click, and check it off your list. Exhibit A:

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Certainly, all the structures and facades I saw were majestic in some way. Yet I just kept thinking of the current manifestations of imperialism, for instance Britain’s war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Looking at these buildings I was struck by how the west is clutching onto that lion imagery to the detriment of the rest of the world.

What I truly enjoyed in London was walking for hours in directions but not with them. I liked finding my way through different boroughs, down side streets and alleyways, into parks that are in bloom. Sundays are weird as the city of 7.5 million people felt like it was shut down by 5pm. A bit off the beaten path, all the grocery stores, pharmacies, and even cafes were boarded up. Perhaps this was because it was a Bank holiday weekend? It just seemed so odd that an International city with a truly cosmopolitan reputation would be done before dark. All in all I am glad that I decided to go last minute as S. was extremely hospitable and took me in for two nights.

I'm in Brussels now and it has been pretty crazy. More to come.

Posted by broden 15:17 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Castles in the Sand


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I’ve started my job at Falmer campus, day two was smoother than day one. I’m getting used to the double-decker buses that careen down the narrow streets. I’m learning when to strategically dart for the door so as not to get tossed as the bus whips around a corner. This strategy has also served me well on the streets as I look both ways (inevitably the wrong way first) twice before scurrying across the road. Interestingly, many of the locals appear to behave similarly which leads me to believe the Brighton drivers are a bit, uh, over-zealous.

Falmer campus is a pain in the ass to get to from my home but is quite pretty:

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The campus looks over the South Downs, which, according to Wikipedia, are made of a, "thick band of chalk which was deposited during the Cretaceous Period around sixty million years ago within a shallow sea which extended across much of northwest Europe. The rock is composed of the microscopic skeletons of plankton which lived in the sea." This seems to give the area that rolling hill effect.

The work I am doing at the moment is focused on the service needs of LGBTU (the ‘U’ stands for ‘unsure’) youth in the Sussex areas. For those who are unfamiliar with the area here is a map (note Brighton is in the middle, officially in East Sussex but straddling the border):

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I’m working on writing an article for the project. In many ways, the scope is the same as the TRUTH (teens resisting urban transphobia and homophobia) project I worked on over the last eight months in Toronto. Reading the reports today I was struck with how similar the experiences of homophobia and transphobia are across oceans, geographic locations (rural/urban), and economic brackets. It doesn’t matter if you grow up in West Sussex or Scarborough, you are still going to get beat up for being gay or trans and your teachers or the police aren’t going to help you if you are. I’m overstating it a bit, certainly, since both the degree, frequency and magnitude shifts across groups and locations but it was still so shocking to read such similar experiences of violence, harassment, isolation, rejection, etc.

After work I continued my tourism and returned to the seafront. On this particular day as I walked past the West Pier there was a bit of a Hitchcock moment. I’m not sure that you can really see it in the photograph but those are no starlings, just your run of the mill swarm of seagulls.

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Escaping with my eyes and face intact I kept walking until I found what I was looking for: beach huts:

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In one article I read, the reporter wrote, “We [the British] have created an almost unique industry in beach huts – those Victorian creations which have become middle-class must-haves.” Or as another (eccentric) British lady said, “It’s my little bijou by the sea.” However, it is not a uniquely British thing as the Australians also seem to be into it (e.g. Brighton Beach, Australia where they also date back to Victorian times). I guess the Canadian Great Lakes didn’t cut it? In Brighton/Hove there are over 450 such huts:

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This is their view:

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Not bad if you want to sit in 6ft square wooden box. In Hove the asking price is up to £12,000 (almost $19,000 CAD) but in Suffolk one of these sold for £80, 000 (Approx $122, 000 CAD). I’m betting this one wouldn’t fetch that price:

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Or this one:

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Actually, if you look closely you can see that this one bears the threatening notice from the elders of the Brighton/Hove council requesting that the owner contact them immediately. Perhaps this one is bringing down the neighbourhood property values?

Posted by broden 00:29 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

First Days in Brighton

Exploration Station

14 °C
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On my first full day in Brighton I woke up early with my head thick from 9 hours of sleep and a trip across the ocean. But I was also excited about the possibilities of the city, my first new “home” since moving to Montreal in 2001 (I’m not counting the return to Toronto). While three months won’t qualify me as a true Brightonian, it does give me a chance to actually live the city. However, before settling in I’m playing dedicated tourist. Last night I walked down to the Brighton piers. When I got there the West Pier’s skeletal remains were silhouetted in the sunset:

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Operational for 109 years it fell into disarray in 1975 and never recovered. In 2003 it was set on fire, twice. My land lady told me there is some speculation that the Noble brothers, the owners of the Palace pier, were behind the arson though it’s been seven years and nobody knows for sure. Now the starlings use it as their roost over the winter months. Not only beautiful in a derelict way but it also stands in stark contrast to this:

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This is what the abovementioned Palace Pier looks like on an early Wednesday morning in April. I’m pretty sure it won’t look this deserted for long. It’s like Coney Island meets Atlantic City strung out on some planks of wood. Called a ‘pleasure pier’ it is essentially just arcades, rides and beige food (e.g. doughnuts, fish and chips, etc.). Though there is some claim to epic romance in the form of first dates (spawning fifty years of marriage according to a plaque) and you can even get married on the pier if you so desire. Undeniably, they cater to their clientele as the change machines in the arcades bestow 2 pence coins (or $0.0307246 CAD). I played and lost (exactly one pound). There is something vaguely depressing about being in a place like this in the off season (April) at an off time (Wednesday, 10 am):

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My friend r. told me her dad grew up selling rock on the Palace Pier. While certainly glitzy and kitschy, the Palace Pier has been wholeheartedly embraced by Brighton and just looks like good clean fun. I’ll return on a weekend night at 2 am and report back.

After the pier I wandered along the rock beach and watched the sea. Coming from Toronto and desperately land locked I was happy to just walk and stare. Parallel to the beach on the west side of Palace Pier is a 850 meter cast iron mezzanine floor (The Madeira Terrace) that runs along the side of a cliff and about half way up its height. The ornate and rusted detail has this charming effect but sadly the photograph did not really capture it:

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I walked back through centre city. No Brighton blog would be complete without at least a reference to George IV’s Royal Pavilion:

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According to the website, “[The Royal Pavilion] was conceived as a monument to style, finesse, technological excellence and above all pleasure. It remains unequaled in its colossal ambition and glorious sense of joie de vivre.” A tad bombastic and I can’t guarantee those claims as I did not go in. Not yet. But walking through the grounds it really is a bizarre and fascinating complex.

In the afternoon I returned to my neighbourhood, which is located in the North end of the city. According to Google maps it is a 3.3 km walk to the piers from where I am staying. I like it here; my room faces onto a small and quiet residential street with Victorian style architecture:

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I am also a block away from the biggest park in Brighton: Preston Park. This park is 63 acres with rose (and rock) gardens and other green space amenities (e.g. tennis courts, playgrounds, etc.). At around 5pm it is flooded with people and dogs, a cacophony of sounds and endless movement. I also walked up a large hill behind my home, apparently it is not only the steepest hill in Brighton but farmers also used to torture cows by driving them up it. From the top you can see an okay Brighton vista (including part of Preston Park):

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What else? Brighton is packed with coffee shops but I’ve yet to have a good coffee (though to be fair I’ve only had two) and they have both tasted more like coffee flavoured milk (Why do they even put so much milk in an “Americano”?). But the challenge is on. The house and the family I’m staying with are really nice and we’ve managed a seemingly comfortable co-existence.

I'm really glad I'm here.

Posted by broden 14:02 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Inventory

What I will miss about Toronto...

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And other things too.

Posted by broden 23:19 Archived in Canada

The first

Test. Test.

One week until my departure to Brighton. That is, if Eyjafjallajokull will allow it. I am preparing myself for the four month sojourn which includes two stuffed suitcases and a lot of goodbyes.

Posted by broden 22:21 Archived in Canada Tagged living_abroad

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