What, no clever title relating to some interesting fact about Croydon, a working-class suburb south of London, or my experiences there?  No. Croydon really isn’t that interesting.  It’s just there, a quality that I had in common with it, briefly.

As usual, I’m sure that there were some moderately interesting bits that I never got to.  Wikipedia has rather a lot of information about the town and its history — although it is telling that much of the article’s modern information is devoted to the building of shopping centers and apartment complexes and the like.  (My friend Roger said that it was once billed as *the* place for middle class families to move to, away from central London — but that was more than a generation ago.)  The Wikitravel article, which would be intended more for tourists, is just a stub redirecting you to an overall South London page, wherein Croydon is described as the “Dallas of the South” — which is both hilarious to this native Texan and also kind of confusing when you think about it. I mean, come on: Dallas is already pretty much the Dallas of the South, and it’s indisputably much further south than Croydon. (Croydon is, in fact, higher latitude than Winnipeg, Canada, known to some as the Miami of the North.)  Calling it the “Dallas of the South” really kind of implies that the UK has another Dallas somewhere further up the country.  (There is village in Scotland called Dallas, but I can’t see anyone referring to a commercial metropolis by that village’s name.)

But I don’t mean to sound too harsh; not every town can be Edinburgh.

Looking up at Edinburgh Castle, from New Town. Sigh.


Monday, July 17th –Leaving

Leaving Edinburgh on July 17th was, as it turns out, was not entirely necessary.  I mean, yeah, I had to leave eventually, but my flight to Finland wasn’t until August 8th.  Unfortunately, it was from Gatwick Airport, a little south of London, and departed at close to 10am, so I knew I’d have to head down that way at some point and stay somewhere overnight.  And, when I’d worked out with Murphy to expand my Edinburgh stay from 2 to 4 months, I’d told him I’d be out on July 17th.  I knew that he’d be starting to book other guests again, and I knew that he’d want to raise his rates for the August season.  (Edinburgh has a world famous arts festival going on for most of August, called the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the tourists pack in and anyone with a room to rent bumps their rates way up.)  So, I thought I should clear out, and not (a) take advantage of Murphy by weaseling my way into extending my lower, off-season rate or (b) have to pay a *lot* more on my limited budget.

As it turns out, it became clear that Murphy would have been perfectly happy to have me stay longer, as (a) we got along well, and (b) he was *not* looking forward to dealing with the turnover for that room.  But by the time I learned that, my Croydon place was long since booked, so there we are.

In truth, I was kind of itching to get on the road again.  But 3 more weeks at Murphy’s would have been preferable; he sent me a message recently saying that he and Ealga missed my presence in the house, and the feeling is quite mutual.  Of course, people rarely miss me, per se, but apparently I generate nice vibes and the absence of those vibes is keenly felt. I should definitely looking into Haunting as my post-life occupation, if my presence is perceived so favorably. Maybe in concert with a real estate agency: I could haunt a place on the market, and potential buyers would come in, feel my agreeable presence, and snap the place right up.  Or maybe some clever buyer would leave his XBox out, and induce me to stay. “Yeah, the place is haunted. But if we leave out video games, the ghost keeps the energy balanced in a really nice way, and the kitchen has never been cleaner!”

Then, in the dark hours of the morning, guests would sometimes hear a haunting melody echoing through the hallways….

And they would know that, when they finally rose from bed, the coffee would already be made.

But, as it’s likely several years at least before I can take up that profession, more immediate concerns present themselves.  In particular, my obligations for continued travel.  So, early on Monday, July 17th, I rose before my alarm clock (as I often do on travel days), finished tidying and packing, and headed up to Waverley Station to catch the 9:30 train to Kings Crossing in London.

This was entirely uneventful. It was a slightly over 4 hour train ride, and I had snacks, and I don’t recall having a seat companion.  The scenery was generic green countryside, and I mostly watched Marvel’s Agents of Shield on my iPad, and all was right with the world.  The train arrived at Kings Crossing, and I navigated my way through the London Underground to Victoria Station, and caught a train 1/2-hour south to the Selhurst Station, about 4 blocks from my new place.

Which was here. This was one of those curious cases, that I run across about 1/3 of the time, where the listing description leads me to think of something quite different from the actuality.  A youngish guy named “Benedek” posted the Airbnb listing, who is originally from Budapest, and it’s mentioned that “Kati” is the co-host.  The phrasing of the listing suggested to me that there was a private bathroom, which was very appealing to me after 5 months of sharing, and it seemed like a multifloor place with my room and bathroom at the top, mostly out of the way of the young couple. Who, I assumed, would be working during the days. It also says that the Crystal Palace Park is nearby, the Crystal Palace being a famous glass-walled building built for an exhibition in the 1800s, and Google confirmed that its park was in walking distance.

In fact, “Benedek” was Tom Benedek, a young artist currently in Italy, and the place was his mother Kati’s, a very nice Hungarian woman maybe slightly older than I am, who worked (rather intermittently, it seemed to me) as a caregiver.  The place was a modest 2-story flat in a row of similar smallish townhomes, with one shared bathroom in the flat, and the other bedroom was *right* next to mine, and Kati was a late sleeper — so I was a bit self-conscious about any noises in the morning hours.  Kati, while entirely pleasant, was around a lot more than I was expecting, given that I was expecting a young, urban, professional couple.  She was also a smoker; which she did in the *very* green garden in the back, but it blew in through the upstairs windows and across the house to my room rather more than I would have preferred. (Which, in fairness, would have been zero, but, still….)  So I arrived and found that very little was really what I expected, but I’ve developed a trick for dealing with that, over the course of my travels.

It looks something like this.

My train from Victoria Station to Selhurst Station in Croydon was packed with roughly-5th-grade students, and their minders, a wonderfully ethnically mixed lot who got on soon after I did and exited at the same station, treating me to a long and very excited discussion of the pros and cons of local football players and, oddly, what they planned to reincarnate as next.  (The children, not the football players.)  It seemed a bit early for them to be planning their next incarnation… but as a guy who once booked a room in a farmhouse in Ireland 8 months ahead of time, perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones.  And, after all, something could go awry sooner; it’s important to have a Plan B.

I knew that I’d be arriving in the area at a little after 3:00, and I’d sent Kati a message saying, “This is when I’m arriving, but I can just hang out somewhere if it would be more convenient to meet me later, no worries.”  She said 5pm would be more convenient — it’s always a nuisance when people take you up on your considerate gestures, but what can you do?  So, I found a pub nearby called the Two Brewers, and got a pint of Guinness, and settled down to read and relax.

The middle aged woman tending the bar looked at me like I was from Mars when I tried to leave a tip. So, when I confirmed that it just wasn’t done, I took it back with a friendly grin.

It was a slightly odd place: off the street and several doors down into a residential neighborhood, with a very working class, neighborhood bar feel, like you’d expect a British Archie Bunker to show up there. There were pictures from Halloween over the bar, with a lot of superheros featured in them. The older folks hanging out in the other front corner from where I was sitting were talking about that Ryker actor’s new show, “that fellow from Star Trek but not the older series”, that was all about weird stuff (I think they meant Jonathan Frakes’ series Beyond Belief, though that’s almost 20 years old now), and then they started complaining about the Paki problem.  So, a weird mix.

And that’s not even counting this. I can only imagine the wondrous horror and fascination that little kids in the neighborhood must feel for this thing.

I had a pint, and that got me to about 4:15, so I had another, and some oatmeal crackers that I’d brought with me to soak it up.  About ½-way through the second pint, around 4:40, Kati messaged me to say she was home — which was considerate of her, to be sure, but mid-way through a pint it had little effect on my timetable. I worked my way through that pint, hit the street again, and arrived at about 5:04.

The Google Street View, looking northeast, of the road. The place I was staying in is near on the right, the southerly side.

So, I met Kati, got the brief tour of the place, set my stuff down, and had a nice chat with her in the garden for a while.  She seemed delightful, and I rather thought that there would end up being a lot more of that sort of conversation.  But then she had an old friend arrive from Hungary a couple of days later, and stay for a week — a woman who was probably nice enough, but in our every interaction she had a deer-in-the-headlights look, and I thought it best not to stress her.  (Plus, when an old friend visits, you don’t want a random stranger taking up valuable conversation time. And the random stranger doesn’t want that either, trust me.) And then Kati was under the weather for a couple of days. (I offered to get her groceries, or escort her to the doctor if she was feeling unsteady, and she was very appreciative but didn’t take me up on it — so, winning!)  And I had a lot of Elder Scrolls Online for a bit… So our paths managed not to cross very much.  It was always agreeable when we did, but there we are.

Elder Scrolls Online!

Speaking of ESO, there was rather a lot of that for a couple of weeks.  They had this “Midyear Mayhem” event, in one of the largest player-versus-player areas of the game — what you might dub the Warring States Area.  ESO players belong to one of 3 Alliances, and they’re fighting for control of the central, capital region, so you get massive groups of players invading towns and forts and fighting each other to control the most territory.  It’s pretty hectic, and the guys who are good at that sort of thing are way out of my league.

Even back in college, once you got past about 3 or 4 buttons on a video game, I was out. Some games I was quite good at, even drew a crowds (a handful of times) to watch me play, which was very gratifying.  But games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter where you’re hitting 6-8 buttons and combining them for special moves… it just was never my thing. (Maybe that was a reflex I could have trained, but at the cost of a quarter per play it never seemed worth it.) And some of these ESO Player-vs-Player (PvP) guys are switching back and forth between 2 sets of 6 moves apiece, and rotating between moves to take advantage of their interactions, and using potions, and triggering special armor and weapon enchantments, and they’re doing that while they’re dodging around rocks and jumping through trees…

Like the guy in this video.  I don’t know how much of it you’ll be able to watch — none, probably, if you are prone to motion sickness, because his camera moves around a lot.  But, if it helps, he’s a Red alliance player, of a type known as a Nightblade (basically, an assassin type, lots of attack power, but low on defense), and he’s running solo, picking off Blue and Yellow players.  I’ve been killed almost instantly many times by just this sort of guy, and I didn’t even understand how it was being done until I watched how this guy was playing.

And then you get players like this doing it in coordinated groups, and taking advantage of the terrain and their fellow group members’ special moves. It’s a lot of layers of reflexive coordination, and the Twitch-Kiddies (as I think of them) are welcome to it.

I normally stay out of those areas, and play the quieter, player-versus-environment areas, where you’re just doing quests, fighting monsters provided by the game, and there’s very little there that I can’t deal with one way or another.  Heck, I can very happily spend a couple of hours just picking useful plants and collecting natural resources of various sorts.  And mum and Sarah and I join up in those areas once a week, and can handle almost anything the game throws at us.  (Mum and Sarah also like to fish. I’m sorry, but that’s where I draw the line.)

But this event was in the PvP area, and there was cool stuff to get, and it lasted across two weekends and the week between. So, I arrived in Croydon, spent a few days in the game doing some things I wanted to get done before it started, and then I launched into it, joining up with (hopefully) large groups in my Alliance and fighting over territory. Like an American!  And, overall, it went pretty well.  I got a bunch of stuff, had some fun, learned a play style that works for me — basically, a support role in large groups, and attacking from a distance, not trying to go toe-to-toe.  Some of these guys carefully pick equipment that maximizes their attack damage; some maximize their defense; me, I maximize my ability to hide and run away, and I’m *very* good at it.  But this is in keeping with my longstanding battle cry:

Weirdly, it works really well.  I can usually keep up a kill/death ratio of 3/1 or better, and I have a few good healing/protection techniques for my team, and a couple of good long-distance techniques for slowing and weakening the enemy so that the heavy hitters can take them out faster.

So, that was most of my first 2 weeks there.  Then I hit that allergic reaction that I mentioned last post, and had a headache for several days after, that made me disinclined to do much other than play. So I did.  It was all a bit more than I’d really intended, but whatevs.  I got some decent in game stuff with it. And I joined a guild (an in-game player club) that I’d played with a few times during the event, who have been around for about 10 years across a bunch of different games, and I’ve had some very enjoyable runs with them since.  So, it worked out, as it tends to do.

Meanwhile, In The So-Called “Real” World

I did manage to get out a few times.  The first location was a nearby grocery store, a *huge* Sainsbury — a conventional U.K. grocery store chain, with a modest selection of organic foods.  I generally like their stock, although they do occasionally provide puzzlers.


The place was just a couple of blocks away, and right next to a local football stadium — the store was closed entirely on game days, possibly because their parking lot was shared and possibly because the store didn’t want to risk looting if the game went badly. Or if it went well, for that matter. You know Brits and their football.

The initial route to the store took me most of the way around the large block that it was situated on, until I noticed an alleyway that had a modest selection of potted plants laid out as some sort of community garden.  The alleyway cut the travel distance in half — which I had mixed feelings about, since I wasn’t really getting enough exercise.  Still, it’s hard to argue with a time saver that avoids a lot of traffic and car exhaust. And other things.

I mean, when an area is clearly marked as a Red Light District, how much time do you really want to spend walking through it?

But, as fascinating as a large grocery store may be, it was not the only place I went to.  Being in the neighborhood of the Crystal Palace, I was quite looking forward to going there.  So, just after the ESO event officially finished, I walked up to where Google said it would be, walking about 40 minutes along highly trafficked roads to get to a “main street” sort of central area with little shops and restaurants, at the corner of the Crystal Palace Park.  This large public park was notable for 4 things:

Large green spaces, like this one, often with people lying out on the grass, children playing, and general enjoyment of the fine weather.

Smaller, more intimate green spaces. One such was a small hedge maze, which was mildly amusing to wander through, but not terribly interesting to photograph since, from anywhere inside, you’re really just getting a picture of hedges. (We all know what hedges look like, I trust?)

A Sports Stadium. Or, being England, maybe a Sport Stadium? I know one of the ways you can spot a British writer is that they refer to sport instead of sports. Also, maths instead of math, because consistency is for the conquered peoples, not for a citizen of the Empire. And, of course, whilst. I assume that this applies to stadiums also. Unless they’re called “bonnets” or something. You never know with Brits.

And the Crystal Palace. Isn’t it amazing? It was originally built in 1851, out of cast iron and glass, to hold the Great Exhibition of that year, and… wait, what’s that? You can’t see it? Oh, that’s because it burned down in 1936, and the park that it was on just kept the name, misleading tourists for decades after. Sorry, no palace for you, thank you, come again.


If it *had* been there, it would doubtless look like the photos on the Wikipedia page, and would be super cool.  But our generation doesn’t get to have nice things, so never mind.  I’ll just return in a huff to my immersive online fantasy world, my streaming video, my infinite library, and chatting with people all over the world on a device I can hold in my hand. It’s so unfair.

I had been greatly looking forward to seeing Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets while I was in Croydon.  But there weren’t any theaters near me, and the closest, about a 40 minute walk, was described on Yelp as pretty basic, but Ok as long as you didn’t mind the smell of urine.  As it happens, I kind of do.  There was one theater a 25 minute train ride away that was described as very nice, but I was really not in the mood to pay over twice the ticket price by adding transportation costs to it.  None of which would have been a sufficient barrier if the movie had been well reviewed; sadly, the general sentiment seemed very blah.  My friend Damien tells me that at least it’s pretty to look at.  Oh well, it’s not like I won’t enjoy streaming it later; seeing it in a big hall with overpriced snacks is *hardly* a requirement.

I had thought to make it up to London proper once or twice, to see things.  The thing is, I’ve been London a couple of times before, and it’s cool to go there, but I didn’t really feel driven to return.  And I’d rollerbladed all over the interesting bits in my previous visits, seeing Winchester Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park, and 221B Baker Street, and the British Museum, and even sat in on a session of the House of Lords in Parliament — with Mark, no less, who was there on business. (In London, that is. Not in the House of Lords. He wishes.)

I *did* want to make a point to go back to the British Museum, though, because… come on!  It’s the British Fricken’ Museum!  Chock full of historical exhibits from all over the world, removed from their places of origin back when Britain was an Empire and could do pretty much whatever it wanted.  (They now respond to requests to return them with, “Hey, we preserved them from further damage and see no reason to stop now,” and “Look, we bought many of them fair and square,” and “No. We have nukes. Whachoo gonna do about it?”.)  So, I *had* to go back there.

And there it is! You can just see the outer wall there, out through the far windows of the pub! Magnificent, isn’t it? I can tell you, I felt very full of its magnificence when I left, nigh unsteady from the wonder of it all. Culture is a wonderful thing.

Oh, very well. Sigh. I *did* go inside the actual museum.  The thing is, when I got there, it was a Saturday, there was a considerable line to get in (thanks to the highly perfunctory bag check that you had to go through), and it was getting kind of close to lunchtime.  So, when I saw the Museum Tavern across the street, I thought, “What the hell?”, ditched the line, and had a wonderful (if a bit overpriced) lunch — a decent local stout and an odd sort of shepherd’s pie with a bit of lamb shank sunk into a bowl of potatoes and peas and gravy and such.  I figured maybe the line would be shorter when I got out, because the morning rush would die down, plus people would be going to lunch.  In the latter, I was proven exactly wrong.  The line was of almost identical length when I returned to it.  I, on the other hand, was much more fortified (and possibly slightly taller, if internal impressions count for anything), and between lunch and an audiobook, I found the line to be no great burden at all.  In really very little time, I was through the silly bit of bag checking and ready to enter the museum proper.

The very cool interior plaza of the museum, which looks like a somewhat later addition to the older, outer structures.

You may notice that one of the hanging posters on the central column is advertising a Hokusai exhibit. (He’s a famous Japanese woodcut artist, particularly known for piece known as The Wave.)  I was quite looking forward to seeing that exhibit. Unfortunately, while the general museum was free, the special exhibits require a ticket purchase, and while I would have gladly bought that ticket, they were sold out for the day.  I dallied briefly with being very sad about that, but in truth I have seen *many* woodcuts in my day, no few of them *in* Japan, and so I bore up fairly well under the disappointment.

I realize that it is my custom, during such museum visits, to include a large number of pictures, with accompanying commentary, some of which may even be said to venture towards the amusedly critical.  And I would like to do that here.  Unfortunately the British Museum, while certainly interesting, is not really what you could call amusing.  Much of it consists of things like this:

A hall chock full of some of the aforementioned, “acquired” marbles. Oooh, marbles. Seriously, what am I supposed to do with that?

I mean, it’s impressive. It’s dramatic. But is it art? Ok, sure, it *is* art, technically. You got me on that one. Damn.

And, really, without anything worthy of semi-sarcastic commentary, I might as well just include a link to Google Images.  In fact, I believe I will!  Here, take that, boring old British Museum!

I did wander around here for a few hours, but not as long as I normally would have, because it became an increasingly unpleasant space to be in.  In addition to the crowds, it was unpleasantly warm and humid in there, growing more so as the afternoon progressed.  I don’t know if it’s normally like that in the summer, or if their A/C was having problems, but the standing fans scattered about the halls were having little impact on the unpleasantness of the space, and I grew increasingly miserable until I’d had enough and bailed.  It was awesome to step outside into the cooler, fresher air, and the walk back to the subway station was much more pleasant.

A random bit of street. It almost made me think I should have stayed inside the city after all. More expensive, but I would have had something outside my door worth walking around in. This is always my quandary with cities: I don’t really want to be *in* them, and yet that’s the only way I’ll easily get out and see what’s there. It’s a balance that I’m constantly fiddling with.

Of course, once in the subway, my day was back to being warm and humid, but that’s not the A/C being down. It’s the fact that the tunnels are dug through clay, which has been banking the heat of their constant operation for a century, gradually getting hotter and hotter, until now it’s bordering on intolerable, with no ready solution in sight.  Here’s a fascinating article on the subject, which I enjoyed immensely while I was still in Edinburgh. Less so when I was experiencing the phenomena directly.  This is why experiencing the world through books, TV, games, and the web is *so* much better than so-called “real” life.  It’s much more comfortable, snacks are readily available, and you never have to hunt for a public restroom.

Speaking of which…

A Book!

I’m kind of torn between discussing some book that I had read recently, at that point, like one of the Hugo Award novels, or one that I read while I was in Croydon.  Honestly, there are just too many choices here. I think I’ll save the Hugo books for the Finland post, and go with what I actually read, L.E.Modesitt’s Assassin’s Price.

I’ve reviewed one of Modesitt’s books, Heritage of Cyador, at the end of one of my posts a couple of years ago, he’s one of my favorite authors.  As I noted there, he can be a bit formulaic, but I read pretty much anything he comes out with immediately.  This book was another set in his ongoing Imager series, set in a fantasy world where a few people can create objects out of nothing but their imagination (although with some costs), and Modesitt seems to be varying his formula a bit with his recent ones. The last books in that series didn’t involve a young man with growing powers, learning to use them in a fairly standard progression pattern; they centered on an older, established man dealing with a world and abilities he was very familiar with.  And this latest one, though it was back to the young-man learning-tradition, it was a man without powers in that world, dealing with essentially political problems and having to rely upon the powered people without really firmly understanding their world or what they do.

Side note: I’m not sure what the book cover really has to do with anything in the book. The scene it portrays is nowhere to be found. Hardly a unique sin in the literary world, but still.

It was an enjoyable read… but I’m not sure how broadly I can recommend it.  Quite a lot of it is really kind of expository, a lot of discussion about petty politics, and trying to get sensible solutions to problems implemented, and an intelligent young man in line for the throne learning stuff that will be useful to him.  There’s some assassination stuff, but it’s just brief bursts of action in an otherwise fairly dry story.  As I said, I enjoyed it, but… well… you have to like Modesitt, I guess.  If you want to read his work — and many of his books are well worth the read — start with The Magic of Recluce. Don’t start here.

Tuesday, August 8th — Leaving

I have rarely left a place as easily as I left Croydon.  Not merely because there wasn’t much to interest me there, or to hold me, but because the actual physical process of leaving and going to Helsinki was perhaps the simplest bit of international travel that I’ve had yet.  My hostess was away for the night, so I didn’t need to tiptoe around in the morning as I got ready.  I left on time for the walk to the train station, and had an easy wait for the 1/2-hour train to Gatwick Airport.

Though, if I’d wanted snacks while I was waiting, I’d have been out of luck. (These signs amused me greatly. Well done, retail servants!)

Airport security was pretty easy — I had the usual unpacking/repacking to do, and the pull to the side and double-checking of all my electronics, but I’ve long since worked out how to minimize the inevitable nuisance of that, so no worries.  I’d been concerned that Norwegian Air Shuttle would make me check my large pack, but they didn’t, and the overhead bins had plenty of room.  I got a nice window seat, folded my jacket behind me for lumbar support, and after a modest delay we were off to Finland!

Yaaay!  🙂

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