Thursday, October 11, 2012

Same Name, Different Street

And now, I'm in London. The Crystal Palace area, to be exact. I'll be here a month.

My approach to London (and really, my entire trip) is perhaps a little unique. I didn't want to make this trip frantic--- running from city to city, hustling through the sites, snapping pictures but not really absorbing the culture. Instead, my goal is to experience the places I'm staying in, to try to figure out what it is like to actually live abroad, to immerse myself in the culture and everyday routines. So, I'm staying in London for a month, and I'm living in a tiny (tiny!) apartment in what is essentially a suburb.

My neighborhood

I chose this suburban existence for a couple reasons. The first, and primary consideration, is money. London's crazy expensive. Living 20 minutes by train outside of the city helps. Still expensive, but more reasonable. Second, I decided a while back that I still wanted to keep training for triathlons even as I hop from city to city. I had a notion that it'd be easier to run, cycle, swim, etc. in an area described on the internet as "leafy" than it would be in the middle of London.

The "leafy" street on which I live

The first thing I've learned, and I learned it very quickly, is that a suburb in London is nothing like a suburb in the U.S. Yes, I'm not in the city center, but it's busy out here. Really busy. I'd compare it more to a still-busy-but-not-downtown northern neighborhood in Chicago, like Lincoln Square (where I live) than to something like Naperville, or Upper Arlington, where I grew up. There might be quiet side streets here or there, but they're sandwiched between busy roads, with cars whizzing by on the WRONG side of the road.

Yeah, this driving on the left side of the road thing has perplexed and scared the snot out of me. Intellectually, I know it's all opposite-like. I know that. But it doesn't stop me, when I approach intersections, from consistently looking the wrong direction and almost getting taken out by annoyed drivers shaking their head at this blonde American idiot. There are even helpful directions, painted right on the street before most intersections. A-like so:

Doesn't help. Too blonde. Habits engrained too deeply.

I'm getting my bearings in London, slowly but surely, but that first day was a doozy. I had tasks to accomplish....getting groceries, arranging for a gym membership, picking up the road bike I'd arranged to rent (or hire, as they say here) during my stay. With maps on my phone leading me through the day, I found my way to the grocery store and figured that out. I also found a great gym, with a 50 meter pool and a beautiful track, a mere 10 minute walk from where I'm staying, and I got my short-term membership set up. I made a friend there, Joe, the membership director. When he heard I was from the U.S., he became quite jealous. "America, I LOVE it there. So beautiful. Here, in London, it's just cold, and grey, and rainy. Not like America." Of course, his experience with the U.S. was a three-week stay in Southern California, and he was shocked (shocked!) to hear that Chicago is awfully cold, grey and rainy, too. He determined at that point that I was a big fat liar just trying to crush his American dreams, and the rest of the transaction was clearly met with suspicion.

I will be swimming in this pool for the next month. Not bad.
With those tasks done, I got a little cocky, and decided that I'd step it up a notch and actually take a bus to get to the bike shop from which I was renting my bike. The shop's website told me the proper intersection-- Croydon Road and High Street. So I pulled up some maps, plotted my route to the corner of Croydon and High, wrote myself detailed notes (after the bus turns on Anerly, go 5 stops and then get off) counted out enough pounds and pence for the fare, and set out on my way, feeling all invincible and confident. I got off at the proper stop, right where Croydon and High met, looked around, and didn't see anything resembling a bike shop.

Thought about grabbing some MFC, but decided against it. Because I've never heard anything good about the fried chicken in Miami.
Then, I looked at the street numbers, and saw an address of 3 Croydon Road. The shop was 439 Croydon. OK, this is weird, but I just must have gone the wrong way. So I decided to hoof it up Croydon until I got to 439.

So that was a long walk. And there's something about British neighborhoods--- I just can't judge if the area is nice or totally ghetto. It's a fine line. The neighborhood I was walking through didn't strike me as that nice, and there were large groups of teenagers, having just left school, hanging out on the sidewalks. In America, if I saw a group of teenagers just milling in a group on a sidewalk, I'd figure they were up to no good, turn around, and take a different route. But these teenagers....they were all dressed like they just came from Hogwarts. And their accents threw me off. They just sound so sophisticated when they say things to each other like, "your behavior is really very offensive to me." That sounds smart, right?? Dignified. Self-aware. So I'd deem the teenagers all a bunch of child geniuses and soldier on through the crowds, not really knowing if I was walking right through somewhere I shouldn't be walking, just looking for #439.

Of course, I never found 439 Croydon. Before the numbers got that high, the street turned into a totally different street. No more Croydon, just like that, no bend, no turn, now its new name is Penge Road. Ta da. So I sucked it up, turned on the data on my phone with its international roaming charges, and pulled up a map. Turns out there's another Croydon Road, like two miles away. Completely different road, same name, which also intersects with High Street, which may or may not be the same High Street but probably not. Because that makes sense.

At that point, approximately three miles from home (in the other direction), I called it a day, gave up on the idea of picking up my bike, and walked it home, pouting and feeling completely, totally alone. Cars whizzed by me, on the wrong side, and I convinced myself that I was a failure and there was no way I was going to be able to get in any cycling, at all, in this town. The roads make no sense, they all have the same names, they're too busy, I'm never going to be able to do this. I gave up on the idea of Ironman New Zealand. I mentally composed an email to my coach saying, "sorry, this was a bad idea, I'm never going to be able to train and travel, let's just pick up again next year." I decided, triathlon or not, this trip was a mistake. A huge mistake.

And then, just in the pits of despair and feeling completely lost and out of my element, I stumbled upon this shop:

It was a cycling training center, Cadence Cycling Performance Centre. Right in the middle of this random suburb. I could see in the window that they had several TACX trainers, which are like Computrainers, but very much cooler (with videos of the ride you are simulating). They had high-end bikes in the window, cycling gear for sale, triathlon magazines spread on tables in a cafe created for cyclists. So I walked in, on the verge of tears, and asked the man behind the desk to help me find my way.

A half-hour later, he'd hooked me up with several cycling routes. He gave me contacts for cycling groups in the area. He reassured me that I'd be able to do my training and find places to ride that aren't terrifyingly saturated with speeding cars. He promised to call me whenever anyone from the shop would be heading out for a ride. He set me up with a package that allowed me to use the trainers (sorry, the turbos) a couple times a week for a very reasonable price. He said things like, "travel is really hard, I know the first few days whenever I go abroad, I feel completely out of place and worry that I've just wasted my money." He made me smile again.

I know cycling is only a small part of my travels, but I walked into that store feeling so discouraged and lost, but walked out feeling so much more encouraged about everything, that it's not an exaggeration to say that guy saved my trip. It was a remarkable bit of cycling and travel magic (I really think this might be the only training center of its type in London and I literally stumbled upon it). It restored my optimism that I can do this and do it well.

The next day, I found the bike shop on the other Croydon. I got my bike (which is awesome). I took it to the Centre and rode a course. I was clearly far, far away from home, but what I was doing felt familiar and comfortable. New place, same routine, same speed, same cadence, same watts.

America, get Tacx trainers. Now.
And during that ride, I figured out why, exactly, I've been so adamant that I'm not giving up my training to travel. Sure, I have goals (and quite lofty ones, to be sure) for this triathlon season. But more importantly, I needed the familiarity and the stability. Before I even started, I knew that putting myself into uncomfortable situations for a year, making myself a stranger in a strange land over and over and over, would be difficult. And to be able to fall back on something that felt swimming, or riding, or running....would make me feel a little more like the surroundings had changed, but I hadn't. A pool in Iceland or London or wherever is not that ALL that different from a pool in Chicago. I may not be able to speak the language, or I may keep almost stepping right into oncoming traffic, but in a pool we're all just swimming, and it's the same here as it is there. It's amazing how much better that makes me feel.

I have been in to actual London. Here's a preview. More later.


  1. This MAY be my favorite part of your travels because London is my favorite city on earth. I spent a semester there in college and the magic never left for me.

    Great work all around here. I admire the way you seize opportunities.

    1. Thanks, Stef! If you have any London suggestions, definitely send them my way....