Being away from your own country for 6 years gives a great perspective on it when you return. When you return from sailing its even better because we have been 'closer to nature'. We left England in 2001, 9/11 had occurred just 2 months before, world stock markets were halving in value, American Car Manufacturers were offering huge discounts to people to 'keep America Rolling', oil was about $15/barrel, iPod’s hadn’t been invented, cars weren’t MPV’s, websites and internet shopping were an exercise in frustration, TV was analogue, the Millennium Dome was starting to become a white elephant, George Bush had abandoned the Kyoto accord on Global warming, the Iraq war was a success (the first one that is), the Euro was weak and some city financiers were retraining as plumbers, there was such a shortage.
Returning to England 6 years later, the key difference I think is also the least striking: UK’s economy has continued since 1993 to grow during all this, and Britain, especially London is actually quite a prosperous and ordered country. I heard a definition of a millionaire recently – ‘Someone who bought a house in London a few years ago and is still alive’. (Bear in mind this is equivalent to $2 million). London’s streets are clean and well lit, there are lots of Police but the communities we see are well ordered, skill shortages are solved by Polish and other EU workers, websites work, people are concerned at CO2 emissions and the Health Service is actually rather good. Even transport in London is better, cleaner and seems to move a bit faster, partly due to the congestion charge.
The weather of course (being British I have to talk about the weather early on), is awful. Calling this a summer is almost libelous. Heavy dark clouds seem to be the norm, rain frequent, floods (first in the north, now in the south) significant. The temperatures have been in the 20’s C so its not cold but I am glad we had enough sun before we arrived not to miss it.
My first week was in Somerset, sorting out my mother’s affairs and the messy details that have to be arranged at the end of any long trip like cars, phones, computers, internet etc. Nicky wisely went with James to London, so it was a bit lonely and inefficient at first, but eventually everything was sorted, and I was able to travel to London to see Jame's new flat for the first time. Its near Kings Cross Camden Holloway and Islington in London, a 4 bedroom duplex, (not bad for someone who only graduated last year). It wasn’t in bad order at all, but James had definite ideas for it, including new bathroom and major redecoration, so for 2 weeks Nicky and I cohabited with a work in progress bathroom and Polish plumbers while struggling to redecorate and reshape the apartment. Luckily houses and boats are pretty similar, (water tries to get in, electricity flows around etc) and I realize I have acquired skills I didn’t have before I went sailing.
One aspect is much easier than maintaining a boat - there are masses of shops and superstores selling almost everything you need, whereas on a boat you usually have to carry everything you need, and after 10 days of pretty awful living, when being on Intrepid seemed like luxury, things started to come together, and when James started to interview people to share with him, the flat positively sparkled and looked like a House and Garden feature, with wood and polished steel and plain walls complementing fresh flowers. We had a car there, but mainly used public transport into London – our long red taxi the 29 bus stops within 100 metres of his apartment and drops us off 20 minutes later right in the centre of London at Trafalgar Square for a fare of 1 pound. Since it travels in a bus lane, it’s a lot quicker than using your own car. I am sold on buses – well the 29 anyway when it is this convenient.
By contrast cars have been pretty awful. Our larger car, a Vauxhall Omega had a cam belt break which pretty much destroys most of the valves and meant we had to scrap it (we received 30 pounds for it). It seemed so ‘new’, nice, clean, efficient then suddenly it was worthless. Luckily we also had a Ford Escort, which needed 300 pounds of general servicing but then ran well until Friday when we were due to go down to Somerset, it didn’t start. The AA diagnosed a faulty alternator, couldn’t be done over the weekend so we had a very pleasant if unplanned weekend in London with our friend Janet, exploring Greenwich, then hung and varnished more doors for James before finally making it down to Somerset. I am (slowly) realizing that cars do indeed seem to have a natural life and most components are designed for this, so when one thing goes wrong there are lots of others ready to fail as well. So we have gone green and bought an electric hybrid car – a new Toyota Prius with lots of electronics (like it parks itself, voice recognition sat nav etc).I am not sure this is going to save the planet but its fun, and it does 50-60 miles/gallon, not bad for a medium/large car. The car tax is only 15 pounds/year, it is exempt from London congestion charges, its cheap to insure and the warranty is 3 years and 8 years for the hybrid electric parts.
James now has 2 tenants – Ellie and Pete, and had a successful BBQ house warming for work and Uni friends – he is well set up now in his apartment. He is enjoying work but it is stressful – mainly because he is doing so well that he is now running his own project providing all the cost modelling for a 1.5 billion pound telecomms project and his main client is the CFO of a major telecoms organization – all within 12 months of starting.
In one week Nicky and I move back into our Kent house, it will be a welcome change to actually be in one place, with our own things; I guess in part that’s why we came back to Kent and the UK – to experience for ourselves what advantages there are in being in our own house, with broadband, having lots of facilities close to hand, plus friends who will still be there in 12 months time. (We made very good friends while sailing but its hit and miss whether we meet again). Nicky’s Blue Badge Guiding course (to take visitors round the SE of England) has been postponed which is annoying, but up to now we seem to have plenty to do, and we will of course spend some time on Intrepid in Turkey.
I realize that stories from England are not so exciting as the Pacific or Indian Oceans, so I am going to keep these short, and just put them on the website as a ‘blog’. That’s another change and I still have 2nd life and so on to come. On balance I think the last 6 years have made me realize that there is so much to enjoy in the real world (albeit some frustrations but approached in the right spirit they just become good stories to tell afterwards) that I have no need for a virtual world. But who knows, an open mind is a good thing.
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24th July 2007