What I Learned from my Czech Mates

22 08 2012

In my last post about my trip to Czechia I thought I would tell you a bit about the lighter side of my trip. While it was a very educational trip, we did have our share of fun and I did learn some interesting and quirky facts about Czech culture, as well as get to see some things that I found particularly fascinating. Here is a list of what I learned from my Czech Mates.

1.) Jaromir Jagr is by far the most popular Czech athlete: Despite a long list of great hockey and soccer players the country holds a soft spot for the mulleted one. Our tour guide made sure to point out his home town and Czech national team jerseys available in tourist shops all had Jagr “68” on them.

2.) Tourism in Prague is absolutely crazy: The astronomical clock was the peak of the tourist chaos, but anywhere we went we were overwhelmed by North American and Western European tourists. Perhaps its the recent opening up of the city from the Iron Curtain, perhaps its because its so cheap, but it was a very interesting sight.

3.) The Czech Republic has exceptionally good beer: From Budweiser to Pilsner Urquell, to Kozel, to Staropramen to Samson…every beer we had in Czechia was very well made. Its probably a good thing I don’t live there

4.) The twin sons of famous director Milos Forman are making a living performing street theatre in small Czech towns: I’m not exactly sure why they are sleeping in trailers and performing in small town squares in the Czech Republic, but they were drawing big crowds! Here is a link to a part of the entertainment

5.) The best nights are usually the random ones: The Forman brothers hired a Jazz/Folk singer Yael Rasooly to perform for guests as they entered the show. It turned out the Israeli born singer went to school in Toronto and we managed to talk her into giving us a live Jazz Performance on the streets of Telc.

6.) Brewery Tours in Czechia could improve significantly: On our tour of the Samson Brewery we were overwhelmed with technical facts about how to make beer for nearly two hours. The health code seemed non-existent as there was beer all over the ground, the wires ran wildly around and the tasting room was in the actual brewrey.

7.) The street theatre in Prague is quite impressive: From the one man to the six -piece bands, you can’t walk around the Old Town of Prague without hearing some quality music.

8.) Watching 30 professors sprint towards a steam train is quite entertaining: As a surprise on our excursion we got to see a coal steam train departing. Despite the fact it wasn’t departing for 8 or 9 minutes all the professors (many retired) ran off the bus with their cameras and snapped every picture they could. I got this video of the steam train leaving, something that was close to home for me and Dad, as his father used to work on these trains back in South Africa.

9.) Seeing a hand crafted Nativity scene was much more interesting than I expected: When it was listed on the programme I wasn’t too sure how fun this would be, but as you can see by this video this nativity scene is incredible. It took the creator over 60 years to hand craft it.

10.) Christmas is not an ideal time for Carp in Czechia: Fish ponds are rampant throughout Czechia and at Christmas time Carp is the fish of choice. These fish are generally sold to families alive and kept in the family bath tub until they are needed to be cooked. The consequence of this is that the kids often get quite attatched to the fish and are usually quite devastated when they are killed prior to Christmas dinner – usually with a club to the head.

11.) The currency in the Czech Republic is still the Koruna: Having not done a ton of research before I left (see the note below as to why) I had been expecting to use the Euro as I had done in Slovakia in February. The move to stick with the Koruna is looking smarter and smarter as the Euro continues to struggle.

12.) Going from being extremely into the Olympics to not even paying attention was really weird: I spent the week before I left soaking up the Olympics and attending events, when I got to Prague the Olympics were all of a sudden the last thing on my mind. It was weird leaving halfway between, but I think I got the better of the two weeks in London!

Please look at the pictures for more things I learned in Czechia!


Eastern European Excursions

22 08 2012

One of the things that excited me about moving to Europe was the rich history of the continent. The place is filled with fascinating architecture and a wide array of facts about how a particular city, region or country has changed over hundreds of years. This year I have had the opportunity to explore a little bit of the history of this wonderful continent and it has really rejuvenated my passion for history and for teaching. Every time I visit a country in Europe I find myself wanting to go to several others to learn more about the history and to actually see the places I spent so much time learning about at the University of Guelph. During my time in the Czech Republic I was fortunate enough to be included on two excursions as part of the International Conference of Historical Geographers. These excursions offered some striking insights into the the history of the Czech Republic and allowed me to see a lot of the country.

As you can see in the pictures below, many of the towns we visited are still dominated by buildings erected during specific eras in the past. Standing in the square of Telc or Cesky Krumlov, or in the UNESCO heritage village of Holasovice, it is easy to believe that these places have changed very little in hundreds of years. Old buildings, stunning architecture and few signs of recent change suggest that one has walked into a living museum or stepped back in time. But what these landscapes don’t reveal, at least to the first glance or the typical tourist (fixated on the astronomical clock I mentioned in the last post) is the political and military turmoil that had occurred in this territory through the last century.

On our first excursion we went north west, to an area formerly know as the Sudetenland, to have a look at some of the border towns along the Czechia/German border. Guided by a young, knowledgeable Czech couple, our first stop was Prisecnice, a town that once had a population of 2,500 but was now located at the bottom of a resevoir, destroyed because it was never repopulated after the Second World War. We quickly discovered this would be a common theme of our trip as the repopulation of the Czech Germans resulted in the loss of approximately 3 million permanent inhabitants and in the depopulation of a large portion of mountainous and agriculturally unfavourable areas. Prisecnice was one example of more than 1000 villages that have disappeared since the Second World War.

As we continued on our excursion we discovered that some of these towns had made efforts to reinvent themselves. Located in the Czech mountains Bozi Dar had transformed from a 19th Century mining town to becoming almost uninhabited in the post World War II era, only to be redeveloped in the 1970s as a winter sports centre. While this has allowed the town to survive, the number of year round inhabitants has dropped significantly to only 200 as of 2011.

Another example is the town of Jachymov, where large deposits of silver were discovered in the beginning of the 16th Century. This became the second largest town in Bohemia through the 16th and 17th Century but because of the political and military strife of the 20th Century the population has rapidly declined. During the 1950s Jachymov survived as a location for labour camps for political prisoners of the Communist regime and became a closed town. Although almost 65,000 people passed through these camps during their exsistence the towns population continued to decline and now the town of 3,000 people has reinvented itself as a spa town.

Perhaps the most interesting example we saw of the impact of Czech German relocation occurred in Valec, a small Baroque town rich with beautiful statues and a gorgeous park. The statues and historical buildings in this town were in the process of being kept up with European Union money, but the interesting juxtapostion in this town was the condition of the houses. As you can see in a couple of the pictures below, the monuments and the chateau were upkept beautifully while the houses appeared to be on their last legs. We got the chance to meet the mayor of this town (who looked much more like an old Czech hockey player than a politician, with his flowing mullet and fu manchu) and he explained to us the difficulties of trying to rejuvenate a town on the Czech German borderlands.

Our second excursion, a three day journey around the wonders of Southern Bohemia, gave us a bit of a different perspective on Czechia and the development of towns around the south west portion of the country. The most intriguing part about towns such as Pisek, Jindrichuv Hradec, and Ceske Budejovice was despite the fact they are still densely populated towns the architecture does not reflect the changes in the Czech lifestyle throughout the last century. These towns, along with the others we visited (mentioned above), were typically European in the sense they were all connected to the Vltava river and centred around a square but were also designed in a specific period of time and have remained that way through all the turmoil of the 20th Century. Baroque and Renaissance architecture are prominent throughout Southern Bohemia, and these towns have been kept up in this fashion.

The one exception to this was the town of Tabor, located about 90km south of Prague. This was the home town of Michal, the younger of our two tour guides on the second excursion. As we walked into the centre of this town I mention to Dad that this was easily the most livable town I had seen on our excursion. Although there were some Baroque and Renaissance style buildings the town had buildings from every era right up to the current, post Communism, time period. Throughout the trip Dad and I had noticed a significant difference in attitude between Michal, and Marek, the older tour guide. Marek was brought up in the Communist era and it was very clear he preferred not to discuss things such as the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution. He mentioned to the tour group that this was quite common even today in the education system. Teachers, who lived through the communist regime, had a tough time teaching it and often overlook that era when teaching the history of their nation. Michal was much more open about his life growing up and we noticed that his english was also much more fluent than his older colleague. While Marek did a wonderful job on the tour, it was clear he had not learned english at a young age as Michal had and he struggled with a few terms.

While Czechia is a place filled with a history of political and military animosity it would be very difficult to tell that if you were unaware of the history. The architecture has been restored rather than rebuilt and the towns really do feel like something out of the 15th, 16th or 17th Century. The irony of course is that while there is all this history in Czechia a lot of it is only just being uncovered in the last 20 years. Tourism is rampant in all of Czechia (Prague in particular) because it has only recently become accessible to the world outside of the Iron Curtain. As we get further removed from the communist era I predict much more will be uncovered about the history of the country and the architecture will move forward rather than standing still. It would be very interesting to do a similar tour in 30 years and see just how much has changed throughout Czechia.

Czeching Out Prague

20 08 2012

It was approximately 10:30 AM when I landed in the Czech Republic. It had been a long day as I had spent the previous Sunday watching the Olympics in Hyde Park and through the middle of the night had made my way to Luton Airport to catch my 7:30 AM flight. As I made my way from Terminal 1 over to Terminal 2 I realized that my day of travel had been nothing compared to my father who I was about to see. Dad, arrived in Prague after a 21 hour journey from Vancouver via Toronto and Frankfurt. Although it was a long day for both of us, heading to the Czech Republic was very worthwile and the 8 days we had there were memorable. I plan to break up this trip into a few posts that I hope you will enjoy.

The first entry will focus on the 4 days I was able to spend in Prague.

Dad and I were able to meet up in Prague because of the International Conference of Historical Geographers being held at Charles University and because of this we were able to experience things other tourists may have missed. This began with a boat cruise down the Vltava river on our first night and ended with a traditional Czech dinner near Prague Castle where we filled up on traditional Czech food and beer.

Because Dad was there for work I spent most of the days touring Prague on my own. Fortunately it is a very easy city to navigate as most people speak English and the layout of the town is relatively straight forward. Our hotel was located just south of Old Town which allowed for a beautiful walk every morning down the Vltava river, past the Charles Bridge and into the Old Town square.

Although Prague is a city of 1.3 million people it is one that is extremely walkable. The journey up to Prague Castle is filled with gorgeous views and the fact it is centred around a river makes it very easy to not get lost! I spent the majority of my time just exploring the city, and learning what I could about the Czech culture.

Dad was able to join me one morning for a few hours of sightseeing so we decided to go to the Jewish Quarter, the smallest district in Prague.  This was a very emotional experience because of the past history of the quarter. During the Second World War there were 92,000 victims taken from this area and sent to Concentration Camps throughout Eastern Europe. The area is filled with synagogues that provide information about the Jewish culture and the history of the Jewish population in Prague, something that interested us both greatly. The Jewish cemetery is where the size of the atrocities in the second world war really hits home. When we entered the memorial building at the cemetery we were both taken aback by the display. It was very simple, the names of all the 92,000 victims on the wall. Upstairs were drawings from children who suffered through the holocaust, another thing very tough to look at.  This was followed by a trip to the actual cemetery which shows just how densely populated the Jewish Quarter truly is. It wasn’t the funnest morning, but well worth seeing, especially for a history teacher like myself.

Following the few hours in the Jewish Quarter Dad and I rushed over to Old Town square to watch the Astronomical Clock go off when 11:00 AM hit. While this was a sight to see, the true amazement for Dad and myself was the incredible amount of tourists in Prague. This is a common theme throughout the city and it is quite astonishing to see the price increases as soon as  you enter the square! The price for a meal in Old Town square compares to London pricing, but if you walk outside of the Old Town you can get that same meal for 1/3 of the price!

Prague is a city that lends itself to the photographer and I have tried my best to take a few shots of the city. I hope that you enjoy them!

Wimbledon – Olympic Style

5 08 2012

When I bought my Olympic tickets nearly a year ago the main selling point was that I would have the chance to experience the famous courts of Wimbledon. What I wasn’t expecting however was to be able to witness easily the greatest sporting event I have ever seen live.

It was an early start for my flatmate Sam and me as we made the cross London trek to Wimbledon with the intention of beating the inevitable rush but once we got there we were able to spend time walking around the famous grounds of the All English Lawn Tennis Club. It was a surreal experience seeing all the sites I had only ever seen on TV, especially as we managed to talk a volunteer into letting us roam around Centre Court and take a few pictures.

Our tickets for the day were for Court No. 1 and we were excited as the feature match was scheduled to be Andy Murray and Laura Robson playing mixed doubles for Great Britain. This match was scheduled to be fourth but the catch was that Murray was also booked to play in the Men’s semi final against Novak Djokovic earlier in the day on Centre Court. This didn’t concern Sam and I too much as the only way this would lead to a problem was if the first men’s semi final on Centre Court went long, and with Roger Federer playing the odds of that were slim.

The first matches of the day began, after a short rain delay, about 12:30. We were watching the Czech Republic play the USA in women’s doubles and Centre Court began watching Federer. Our match ended quickly and we rushed out to the famous Henman Hill to see what was going on. Roger Federer was being pushed to the absolute limit by his Argentinian opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, and as the match entered the third set we had to rush back into court one to watch the women’s semi final. As Maria Sharapova began dominating her Russian opponent we kept checking the score on Centre Court. We could hear the reaction from the hill on every break point or every long rally. It became quite a tense atmosphere as we realized, this match isn’t ending.

Our third match of the day began shortly after Sharapova`s victory and as Spain battled France in Men`s Doubles. Despite seeing world class players such as Jo Wilfred Tsonga and David Ferrer the buzz in court 1 had become all about what was going on next door. My friend Andrew was lucky enough to be in Centre Court and we were texting back and forth as the Federer match continued. He was texting me update after update and as Federer finally prevailed the cheers could be heard all around the Wimbledon grounds.

It was after this match that Centre Court began to empty out. Despite Serena Williams being featured in the Women`s Semi Final much of the crowd needed a break after the longest match in Olympic history. It was also at this point that Sam and I decided to try our luck at getting on to Centre Court! We knew that we were going to miss Andy Murray altogether if we didn`t try so we made the move and successfully managed to find some seats near Andrew.

What a fortunate move this turned out to be! The atmosphere on Centre Court as the players appeared was unbelievable and the tension built up as the players stayed on serve through the first 11 games of the first set. It was in the twelfth game that the match reached his peak with Murray breaking Djokovic to win the first set! Chants of “Murray, Murray” were reverberating around Centre Court for much of the second set which played out in exactly the same fashion, causing the place to erupt as Murray clinched the match and a medal for Team GB.

This was truly a memorable day for me as I was not only able to visit the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon but was also able to watch two of the top players on the planet compete for an Olympic medal!

Let the Games Begin!

30 07 2012

What a start to the Olympics! London is has been absolutely buzzing for a couple of weeks now and the first three days of Olympic events have been incredible!

I started my Olympic experience last week when I went to an African music concert at the Pontoon Dock in East London. It was further east than I had ever been in London and well worth the commute! The music was from all over Africa, as it was one of the “continent” stages set up throughout the city and the weather cooperated. An interesting cultural experience before I headed out of London for the bulk of last week to catch up with family. I ended up coming home late Friday night, just in time for the main event to kick off!

The Opening Ceremony, put together by Danny Boyle, was very impressive, incorporating British history, culture and humour to create a memorable show. I watched the ceremony at a pub in Covent Garden, which was filled primarily with UK residents who proudly belted out God Save the Queen when Queen Elizabeth II, the latest Bond Girl, arrived and cheered loudly at the comic relief provided by Rowan Atkinson. As a history teacher I quite enjoyed the theme of the night being a history lesson and thought Boyle did well to represent the many eras of British history.

Day 1 of the Olympics was an eventful one for me. I spent the morning around London Bridge as I had to pick up my Olympic tickets that I had purchased a few months back. Walking around the area and soaking in the atmosphere of the Olympic spirit got me quite excited as I popped into the ticket office and confirmed the tickets to gymnastics and tennis. I was lucky to not have to wait too long in the ticket queue as I had to rush from there to North Greenwich Arena (more commonly known as the o2) for the Men’s gymnastics qualification round.

After clearing the airport style security and making my way up to the last row of the stadium I settled in to watch a sport I am not all that familiar with, but was blown away by! Seeing the strength of the athletes on apparatuses such as the swinging rings, or the high bar was incredible. The balance and gracefulness with which they are able to move was something I never fully appreciated watching gymnastics on TV in previous olympics. The atmosphere in the three quarters full arena was very positive with the crowd getting behind all the athletes, particularly on the change overs where we would all clap in time as the competitors walked to their next apparatus. Team USA was easily the best team of the five I got to see and the American fans in attendance certainly felt the same way chanting U-S-A at any opportunity.

Day 2 was an early start for me as I headed over to west London to catch a glimpse of the Women’s cycling road race. The race began near Buckingham Palace before heading south of London and making its way back to the Mall for the grandstand finish. I wasn’t lucky enough to have tickets to the finish line but was able to stand about 2km away and see the cyclists as they started and just before they finished. The entire course was filled with supporters and it looked more like the Tour de France than a race through the streets of London, it is great to see the city getting so enthusaistic about the games! A Canadian, Clara Hughes, was one of the medal favourites but unfortunately, due to the typically British weather conditions, she wasn’t able to medal. I did however get to witness the first Great Britain medalist, Lizzie Armitstead, fly by en route to her silver finish.

In between glimpses of the road race we decided to head over to Hyde Park and see the live site for watching the games. Again we had to queue up and clear the airport style security before entering the venue which was filled with 6 or 7 huge TVs where people could sit down and watch the different events. While the site is a cool idea I felt it could have been developed a lot further by having more interactive activities for kids or having more entertainment throughout the park. The idea is a good one though and perhaps as the crowds really arrive in London next weekend the atmosphere of Hyde Park will pick up. I am looking forward to getting to Victoria Park, the other live site, to compare the two.

It was an eventful first Olympic weekend for me and London seems to be withstanding all of the tourists with relative ease. Outside of the venues the city seems oddly normal and the trains are running well. I think the true test will come today as the usual rush hour overlaps with the numerous events around the city, and as more people begin to arrive in London later this week it could be a different story, but so far all the talk of disaster and chaos has been overblown. How shocking that the British media would do such a thing!

Musings of a first year teacher

27 07 2012

A good teacher is always learning.

My first full year of teaching is now officially over! It’s hard to believe how quickly things have gone this year and how many different stories and experiences I have had. Obviously, I will not be able to cover all of these events in one blog (that would take up my entire 6 weeks off!) but I feel that reflecting on the year that was is an important part of improving myself for the year to come. Unfortunately for confidentiality reasons I can’t name the schools I worked at in a public forum such as this, so you will have to bear with me as I describe my adventures around London.

When I first began teaching October I have to say I was quite overwhelmed. I was entering not just one unfamiliar environment, but several.  It was truly a baptism by fire and I was jumping in with both feet. Not only had I recently moved to a new city and a new culture, but I was also making my first entry into a school environment, in a system and age group that I had not been trained for. This led to somewhat of a rocky start for me especially when teaching the lower age groups as my classroom management strategies that would have worked well for 16 year olds did not quite have the desired effect on 5 year olds! What I did quickly realize though is that it was still teaching and that as long as I kept at it I knew that I would be able to adapt. This didn’t happen immediately however, the learning curve was very steep and those initial days were extremely tough, but I feel as though I made a lot of headway this year and the experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one.

The most unexpected part of the first few teaching days was seeing the amount of poverty that exists in London and learning to teach in an environment I had very limited exposure to growing up on the Westside of Vancouver. The first month in particular was incredibly emotional for me as day after day I would hear the stories of a particular student and feel for them.  In teacher’s college we were taught to make sure we had a good support system during our first year of teaching, but as a supply teacher, and a foreigner, this was a very tough thing to find. I am fortunate enough however to have a strong family background in teaching and this was where I was able to turn to in these first few tough weeks for support. Frequent Skype calls to my parents as well as chatting to my sister really helped me get through those first few weeks.

 It wasn’t until my third or fourth week teaching that I realized that instead of feeling sorry for these kids, I have an opportunity in front of me. An opportunity to make a difference in their lives, however small it may be. This was really put into perspective one day in the staffroom when I was chatting with a teacher at a “last chance” school in Brixton. The teacher explained to me that as teachers it is our responsibility to say to these kids “ok, you’ve been dealt a poor hand in life so far, how are you going to make the most of what you DO have?”  This got me to thinking that I can’t go around feeling sorry for these kids, I need to work with them and try to turn them into respectable human beings at the very least. In some schools I noticed the teaching was not so much about maths, or literacy, but rather it was about discipline, respect, and simply making the right choices. The attitudes many of these schools have taken is one of keeping kids out of gangs, or keeping them away from drugs, rather than pushing them towards (almost) unachievable goals such as going to Oxford or Cambridge.

It wasn’t until around Christmas time that I truly got into the teaching routine and finally began feeling comfortable in the primary classroom environment. By this time I had experience teaching every year group and had lessons to fall back on if need be – a crucial part of supply teaching. In the lead up to Christmas I was working quite frequently at two rather low performing schools, one in Hackney and the previously mentioned one in Brixton. At first these were eye openers for me, but as I learned the personalities of the students I really began to enjoy both of these schools. The teaching was very challenging, and the classroom management had to be top notch, but what I really enjoyed was seeing the improvement. Not only did I see an improvement in the students, but I did in my teaching style as well. The kids, who initially would play up because there was a supply teacher, began to warm up to me and the classroom environment improved drastically. When I moved on after Christmas to higher performing schools I became very thankful I had learned what I did in November and December.

The Christmas holidays hit at just the wrong time for me this year from a professional perspective. I was really starting to get into the rhythm of teaching and despite working at a different school every day I was actually establishing some semblance of a routine. While the two weeks off at Christmas were a planned holiday, the week and a half of very little work that followed it was what really set me back. I began working for a new agency at this time and effectively spent the next few months juggling a few agencies and teaching at close to 40 different schools. That time in January however was the last exceptionally slow period I would have the rest of the year as I spent much of my remaining time with guaranteed pay (giving me financial stability), and once I got over the adversity of my step backwards I was able to really take a significant leap forward throughout the remaining six months.

It wasn’t until April that I was able to find another school where I felt as comfortable as I had in Hackney. I spent a lot of the winter visiting schools for a day or so but finally after 3 months I began working a lot at one school in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets is a very interesting community located right in the heart of East London. While many east London communities are known for their behavioural issues and low performance this borough is overwhelmingly very respectful and the students are quite eager to learn. At this particular school this was even more profound as it was extremely well run and demanded a lot of everyone, supply teachers included. Sometimes high expectations lead to high rewards, this is what worked for this school, but at other schools around London this theory would have been tough to duplicate.

It was in Tower Hamlets that I finally began to really feel accepted at a school. The staff treated me as though I worked there, the students seemed confused as to why I always wore a “visitors” pass, and I even began helping out with the after school programmes.  This was easily the school I most enjoyed going to and it led me to develop as a teacher in many different ways. The classes I had at each level were so well behaved that classroom management became rather different. I could allow the students much more independence and freedom while still maintaining control, something I much prefer to do as a teacher. This school is also where I was able to try many different techniques of teaching. I was able to figure out what worked for me, and what I could make work with a few improvements. This will undoubtedly benefit me down the road.

If there is one thing I learned that stands out above all the rest this year it is adaptability. When you are teaching you need to be able to adapt in almost every situation because of the simple fact that every child is different. Certainly routine and consistency are important parts of a classroom structure, but any teacher that is not able to change something that is clearly not working is not going to be successful. Supply teaching was an excellent way of learning that flexibility as I would have to learn the dynamics of the classroom, the school, and the borough I was in that day to truly be able to run my classroom effectively. No two days are ever the same as a teacher and no two students are ever the same, which is one of the things I truly love about the job – it never gets dull.

My first year of teaching was certainly one that I will never forget, it was emotional, difficult, rewarding, exciting and interesting but most of all I truly feel that teaching is the vocation for me. I never once dreaded going to work, as I did so much during my construction days, and even on those days that didn`t go well I would still leave the school knowing that I truly love what I do. Not everyone gets to work in a career they enjoy and I consider myself very lucky I have this opportunity. While I feel as though I have learned a huge amount this year by no means is the learning curve anywhere near complete – it never will be. Next year I hope to secure my own classroom long term and that will no doubt be another steep learning curve, as will getting back to teaching secondary school, something I really want to do. I hope that next year will be as enjoyable as my first one!

The London Underground

6 07 2012

Since I arrived in London nearly ten months ago I have tried my best to keep you updated on how I have adjusted to the city, what adventures I have embarked on, and how I have adapted to life across the pond, but one thing I haven’t gone into too much detail about is the London Underground. The tube, as it’s colloquially known, is a whole different world and I feel like it has taken me all this time to truly understand the significance it has on London.

When I first got to London I was very excited to board the Piccadilly line from Heathrow and head to my new (albeit temporary) home in Hammersmith, but the more I become accustomed to London the more I begin to realize that the tube isn’t much more than a necessity. When the system works well it is an incredible mode of transport that uses 11 different lines (plus 2 overground lines) to shift over 3.5 million people a day, but the key phrase in that sentence is “when the system works well”. Day after day I have noticed and experienced delays or closures throughout my commute and despite being the most expensive transit system in Europe it seems to actually be getting worse as the summer approaches. I will discuss this a bit more later in this blog but firstly I want to give you a sense of what the tube is like.

The typical routine of riding the tube is something I have previously described in A Day in the Life of a Supply Teacher  but what I will do here is discuss the tube in a more general capacity. The best word I can use to describe riding the tube is efficiency, the entire experience is based on passengers doing things in a quick manner and if you fail to learn the unwritten rules quickly you will cause an amazing amount of frustration to those waiting in the queue behind you. When I first experienced commuting during rush hour traffic I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, but within a few weeks I came to realize that commuting on weekends and in off peak hours can be much more exasperating as the platforms become full of people lackadaisically meandering on the wrong side of the escalator or looking completely perplexed right next to the turnstiles.  Admittedly the tube can be quite a daunting task when you first attempt to use it but for locals attempting to go about their day it gets rather infuriating.

While the tube is not the preferred mode of transport for many, it is the only option most Londoners have when they want to get around the city. The problem with this of course is that the workers of the London Underground are far too aware of this fact and have been using the threat of strike action to gain wage increases and bonuses for working during the Olympics. The threat of a strike, even for a day, causes panic in the city and eventually the government is forced to cave into the demands of the tube drivers, part of the reason the system has become so expensive!

One of the few benefits of the ever increasing fare hikes is that the tube does continue to expand.  Since its introduction in 1863 (the oldest underground railway in the world) the growth of the system has been continuous and this is only set to increase in the next few years. Since my last visit to London in 2006 the city has introduced the Overground section and the Docklands Light Railway, which has allowed the eastern part of London to develop and grow. While this expansion is still taking place the new plan for expanding the city limits of London has already begun. Crossrail, to be introduced in 2019, will essentially link Oxford and Cambridge to London via the tube system meaning daily commuting from these once quaint university towns will become commonplace. The rapid growth of the tube is certainly quite impressive for a person from Vancouver, a city that can’t seem to extend its rapid transit into the west side of the city.

One of the reasons I decided to write this blog now is that as the Olympics approach the tube is going to become a very hot topic. It will likely get global attention worldwide and will almost certainly be criticized by the international media and travelers. The tube is certainly not a perfect system, and during the games there will be delays and problems. If these problems are limited to overcrowding and being too hot it has to be deemed a success as the tube is overcrowded at the best of times, and if the weather cooperates it will be unbearably hot. More than likely however passengers during the games will face delays, temporary line closures and slow moving queues while boarding trains. I don’t think it will be nearly as bad as Atlanta was in the 1996 Olympics but I suspect the transport will be a point of contention. Within the last few weeks there has been a Central Line closure due to major flooding (2 million tonnes of water) in one of the tunnels and there was a train stuck in a tunnel in St John’s Wood on the Jubilee line that resulted in 800 people having to leave the train only to be led on foot via flashlight down the tunnel to the nearest exit. I fear London could become a laughing stock if similar incidents were to take place during the Olympics.

Although the tube is moaned about by most Londoners and usually only mentioned with negative connotations, there are some lighter points to riding the trains. The drivers and platform managers are quite often very colourful characters that will often crack jokes during announcements to lighten the mood. It truly is a fascinating mode of transport that, when working, is a very impressive way to travel.  In a city as dense as London such a complicated tube system is necessary and has far more positives than negatives. The system will certainly never be perfect but overall it is one of the better transport systems I’ve seen and something anyone who comes to London must experience…just please try and do so efficiently!

For more information on the tube, I highly recommend the BBC programme “The Tube”, a 6 part series all about the London Underground and the intricacies of such a complicated system

Also, while I have done my best to describe the tube I can’t hold a candle to the description by comedian Michael McIntyre. Check out this from Live at the Apollo on boarding the tube.

Finally, here is a blog focussed entirely on the London Underground. Going Underground.

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