Monday, January 20, 2014

Officially moved.

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All the old posts are archived, new ones will be coming fast and furious. Join me, now in China on a new adventure.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to not be a jerk in London: 10 ways

There are a lot of things that newbies, tourists, and clueless foreigners do that Londoners or people who generally live here find irritating. There are two reasons for this: 1) cluelessness and 2) stubborn resolve to not conform to London/English etiquette. 

I can't help the people determined to be jerks. (I'm looking at you Americans who resolutely refuse to apologise for being bumped into -I have heard your conversations declaring to one another that you will never be complicit in this seemingly backwards system that we also employ in Canada!) But for those of you who genuinely don't want to piss people off or are curious about why someone dressed in [likely expensive] ripped clothing, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a beer on the sidewalk is giving YOU dirty looks, read on. 

10. Be a conscientious umbrella user
Won't hit anyone here!
Being a wee woman myself, using an umbrella on narrow sidewalks is difficult. Raincoats and ponchos are a lifesaver for the vertically challenged. If you must wield an umbrella, hold it as high above the heads of the crowds as you can. 

9. Be ready to swipe out
When you got off any train transport, you will need to swipe out with your Oyster card or put your ticket through. Scrambling in your bag to find your card while dozens of people are trying to get on with their day? Huge London faux pas. 

Also, if you're on a longer trip outside of London, your ticket will be checked at least once on the train. Keep your tickets accessible. 

8. Ask for the bill
When in doubt, ask for the bill. Service here is worse than almost every where else I have been in the world. Unless you're dining with celebrities and paying triple digits for your meal, you're probably going to have to ask for your bill. If people are queuing at the door, you've finished you're meal, and you think you're being polite by hoping someone will stop by with your bill: you're probably not.

7. Cross the street carefully
Pedestrians do not have right of way. Even if a car is turning onto a different street, it has right of way, not the people crossing. Plus, cars drive on the left, so for those of us from the 72% of the world that drive on the right, crossing the street can be particularly frightening. I have stopped many a tourist from walking into traffic since we moved here, despite painted explanations of which way to look on most corners. 

Don't stress people out or be a burden on the health care system. Watch your step.

6. Don't travel during rush hour, especially in the morning
Basically between the hours of 8 and 10, stay off of the main London streets and off the tube unless it's necessary. Don't take the tube with your luggage during rush hour. Don't take your pet with you on the tube during rush hour. Just generally let people who have places to go at the busiest times of the day get on with it in the least painful way possible.

Plus, it's more expensive to take transit during peak times (6:30 to 9:30 and from 16:00 to 19:00 Monday to Friday)! Save a few quid and sleep in.

5. Be on time
Events start on time, or even early, here. I'm continuously guilty of being rightontime for events and squeezing in at the last minute. This is marginally rude but the odd person who is truly late for events is really stepping on toes (often literally). Be early. Everyone else was and doesn't want to watch you get to your seat when the show/talk/whatever has already started.

(Caveat: this does not apply to clubs, which the Irishman and I learned the hard way. We went to an event on time, weren't allowed in until 10 minutes after the venue had opened, and were the only ones there for over an hour. I have never felt older or more uncool. Spare yourself the embarrassment.)

4. Don't "red rover" the sidewalk
This game isn't fun anyway. (Flickr)
People who walk in a line across the sidewalk on Oxford Street are committing a massive urban sin. At most, walk beside one person. Rows of 4+ people taking up the whole path, walking at a leisurely pace, when there are thousands of people trying to get to their destinations are responsible for blood pressure spikes in Londoners daily.

3. Get in line
Queuing is a British pastime, as we all know. While everyone is in a rush when they are walking places, they come to a screeching halt once the goal is in sight. Butting in to join your friends is probably unwise. 

Complaining is also a primary British activity, so feel free to commiserate with everyone else waiting in your vicinity. 

2. Be quiet

That being said, don't be too friendly. Customer service here, see #8, is all about leaving people alone and getting interactions over with as quickly as possible. Small talk happens but it doesn't get personal. Generally, don't talk to people on transit. Keep your voice down when you do talk to people. 

Coming from Canada, I feel like the volume here is set on "low" and several times I have questioned whether I am losing my hearing due to the quiet nature of communication. Then I go to a pub once people are a few drinks in and suddenly, my hearing is restored! Magic.

1. Walk fast, walk straight
Especially in Central London, walk as quickly as you can and in as straight of a line as you can to allow for people who know where they are going to get there. Sidewalks are full of zigzagging commuters trying to get around clueless tourists. This problem is so prevalent that multiple proposals over the years have suggested "speed lanes" on foot traffic heavy Oxford Street.

If you think you are lost and want to check your phone/guidebook/map, treat it like you're in a car and look for a good space to pull over that won't obstruct people before you stop.

Bonus ways people are jerks that should be common sense:

  • If you stand on the left on the escalator, don't be surprised to hear tutting, throat clearing, coughing, or a drunken "get out of the f---ing way!" 
  • Elevators ("lifts") often have an entry side and an exit side for traffic control. There is a special place in hell for people who jump the queue and enter from the exit side.

Really, this can be summarized as get out of the way. It may seem excessive but, unlike Hong Kong where density seems to have resulted in everyone being complicit in getting places very slowly, Londoners still want to get places in a reasonable amount of time. Whether you agree with it or not, you're going to be a jerk if you're taking up space.

It's inevitable that you will be in someone's way, hit someone with your umbrella, loiter at a restaurant, or generally irritate someone for a reason you can't pinpoint. When in doubt, apologise. The English love a good apology.

If you have any other tips on how to not piss people off in this excessively dense tourist trap of a city, please share in the comments!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Saving cash in London (the fun way): 10 tips

The number 1 thing most expats I meet in London say about the city is that it's expensive. And it is. Rent and transport are crazy; I can't believe how much we moaned in Toronto! Salaries, especially for non-manager roles, are completely inadequate in a lot of sectors. And if you are here on a working holiday visa, your odds of a decent wage are even lower.

But being young and having a good time in London can be semi-affordable if you plan a bit and keep your eyes and ears open!

1. Bring on the emails.
You're probably familiar with Groupon and its competitors. While I have found the deals in London much less dramatic than in Toronto, there are still great deals to be had. Theatre tickets, clothing, exercise, spa treatments, and nights out can all be had for steep discounts.

The Irishman and I got a Wowcher coupon: 6 cocktails and free cover at a club in Soho for £10! Each drink, normally £10 each, was expertly shaken (with 2+ shots of alcohol in each) and there was a comfy lounge area for us to hang out in.

There are tons but my subscriptions of choice:

2. Stay fit -no excuses!
The climate isn't really ideal for outdoor activities and incredibly long escalators in the Underground could make anyone fall out of shape quickly. But even if a rainy jog or yoga in a shoebox of a flat don't appeal, you have no financial excuse!

Like yoga? Lululemon hosts free classes throughout the week. Many studios also offer amazing intro deals, including triyoga and Bikram.

Free exercise pops up around the city if you're looking for it. Boot camps can be pricey but, especially if you`re willing to get up early on the weekends, you can find totally free classes (e.g. Hyde Park) and most companies will let you try your first session for free.

As mentioned above, group buying deals are a good default. And if you can stand the emails and texts, sign up at gyms and studios near your home or work to find out about great deals that may find you at the right time!

3. Save on transport.
Speaking of exercise, walking is the best way to get around the city. Avoid any rail service or cabs, leave your heels in your bag, and hoof it! If you're not going far, it can be quicker to walk than make your way deep underground and then surface, anyway. Handy maps are dotted all over the city to help you sort yourself out.

Get an Oyster card. If you are in the city for a week, get an Oyster card. The £5 card save you money on every trip, you can register it so you get the cash or pass back if you lose it, and you can top up your balance online.

App CityMapper is all the rage now. It gives you your various transport options, including cost and weather at your destination. For free. iOS and Android users, get downloading.

The bus is way cheaper and can be faster, especially during rush hour. The price is fixed, unlike trains, so you can get pretty far on a couple of pounds. They're usually much less crowded than the tube. You can see the city rather than concrete walls. And they often are double-deckers. Which is cool.

If you're a braver person than I and have good waterproof gear, cycling is a great way to go. Beware of roundabouts, buses, pedestrians (especially drunk ones), motorcycles, thieves...Just wear a helmet and buy a good lock, okay?

4. Good shopping.
One of the best things about London is the charity shop culture. People automatically think of donating their clothes to the shops and they are EVERYWHERE. Usually named after the specific charity they support, often several will be side by side. Especially for women's clothing, you can find tons of clothes at deep discounts and support charities.
5. Head outside.
There are regular markets in every neighborhood of London. And look for signs for mini-markets in your area. We have at least 3 on the weekend within a 15 minute walk! Browsing, grabbing an inexpensive lunch, catching some streetside entertainment --you can spend only a few quid in an afternoon but have a lovely time just hanging out outside. (Bring your umbrella.)
The biggest Chinese New Year outside of Asia. It was disappointing (food was not actually Chinese and the entertainment was awful) but the rest of the fests have been great!
Especially in the warmer months, free festivals abound. Being a Torontonian at heart, I'm used to spending weekends festival hopping, enjoying free entertainment, samples, street food...It's even better in London with more lax public drinking laws where you can BYOB to many events! TimeOut London is your source for all London events.

6. Join the club.
There are two deal cards in particular that I would recommend to anyone moving to London, even for just a year: Tastecard and Nectar.

The Tastecard gets you 50% off food or 2 for 1 courses at tons of restaurants in London. Pizza Express and Zizzi are two delicious chains included. Combine with happy hour for extremely cheap eating out. They have a great app and after choosing your restaurant, you can have the address and map texted to you. What's the catch? A one year membership is £80 and you have to make a reservation when you use it. You can get a one month free trial to give it a whirl. They frequently have 50% off the card deals; they will likely offer it after the trial or, if you are patient, you'll get an email offer. £40 will pay off in about 3 outings or less!

The Nectar card is free and gets you points at tons of places when you shop (including eBay and grocery giant Sainsbury's). You can redeem the points for cash. Simple and costs nothing!

There are tons of loyalty cards in this city, many of them free, so stock up!

7. Enjoy cheap/free cul-chah.
Most museums and galleries are free. Many have late hours scheduled in. It's a no brainer. Check ahead for tour times, which are usually free and bring museums to life! If you are a student, you can get enviable deals on entry to exhibitions and places that charge admission. The British Museum (check out free talks by curators or guest speakers at 13:15 Tue-Sat), gettyimages gallery, and Somerset House are my personal favourites, but I still have several smaller museums on my to-see list.

Rush seats are the way to go if you want prime seats for minimal dough. Show up at the theatre a couple of hours in advance at many shows, put your name on the list and see if you've been lucky enough to get yourself one of the hottest tickets in town at a massive discount. Book of Mormon front row seats? £20 each. The real seats? Over 6x that price.

8. Hang out at pub.
Listening to a Johnny Cash impersonator on St Paddy's day for free? Why not.
Sorry Mom. Hanging out in pubs is a British institution. And when your flat is a shoebox, you have few friends, and the rain is making you sad, grabbing a warm ale in a cozy pub is just the answer. Not only are the prices fairly inoffensive by urban Canadian comparison but free or inexpensive entertainment abounds.

Televised sports, live music, themed DJs, pub quizzes (trivia nights in North American-speak), movie nights, comedy nights, even affordable theatre, can all be found at pubs around the city. Speed dating, speed flatmate hunting, Meet Ups -pubs are hubs for meeting people.

We randomly stumbled upon Pint of Science through Facebook, an event where experts in different fields of science offer free lectures in pubs around the UK. Did you know dolphins sleep with one half of their brain at a time so they don't forget to breathe?

9. Don't bother with TV.
Going out to the movies for £10+ per ticket or paying £145 a year for a TV licence is restrictive if you're on a budget in London. (TV licenses are required if you use a TV to watch digital stations. Not having one is a prisonable offence which people are reminded of quite often. Enforcement drive around inspecting houses that don't have licenses. For an outsider, it is weird, to say the least.)

If you have WiFi, the world is your cheap entertainment Oyster. Competition is heavy between streaming companies at the moment and you can take advantage. Most providers offer a free one month trial. Group buying deals for subscriptions are common. We got 6 month of LOVEFiLM (Amazon's answer to Netflix) for £10! Netflix is rising in popularity here and BBC iPlayer is free, as are many other channels' streaming apps.

Renting movies digitally is also cheap; you can get new releases without a subscription with services like Tesco's Blinkbox, LOVEFiLM or Sony Entertainment Network.

10. Keep your eyes peeled! 
So many deals and freebies pop up every day in the city, it isn't hard to find ways to occupy your time. I had a friend tip me off to a poorly advertised promo by a radio station to see Of Monsters and Men in a private gig. It was supposed to be a contest but we just emailed our names in on the day and we had tickets, including a couple of free drinks for ourselves and our +1s!

Selfridges was offering free facials a few months ago that I happened to notice in a free newspaper.

I suggest following groups on Facebook like Walk London, Yelp London, London for Free, and Handpicked London to get the scoop on what is going on that you can take advantage of.

Enjoying yourself in London on the cheap isn't that hard if you know where to look.

If you have any tips about things I have missed, add them to the comments!