Saturday, September 5, 2009

First Few Hours in London

Flight arrived on time with no apparent problems whatsoever. The walk from the gate to Passport Control took as much time as if you’re walking to another dimension – I think I spent 15 minutes walking (fast) just to meet the Passport Control line-up of another 15 minutes.

It seems that becoming a Canadian Citizen and obtaining a Canadian Passport has been a very wise choice. I have never been stopped at any Passport Control station anywhere. Here in the UK, it turned out that they have recently revamped their procedures so their Passport Control is tougher than before (hence the longer lines); to my surprise, the only question I was asked was “what are you here for?”.

- “For a concert”, I replied.

And that’s it. Boom, bang, stamp the passport and I’m on my way. I guess that the huge backpack on my back, as well as the Baby Taylor guitar wrapped around me, didn’t really create the impression that I’m going to settle in the UK and work illegally. I don’t know… if I was working in Passport Control and I was seeing a guy with a huge backpack and a guitar, I would require more convincing than “I’m here for a concert”.

A quick check on the hotel’s website revealed that I can get there using the Piccadilly underground. Checked the schedule; 52 minutes from the airport to the station – an ultimate fail, considering the fact that I was extremely tired and hungry. Another option that cost 5 times more was to take the London Express train that takes you to the Paddington Station in 15 minutes and from there getting to the hotel is a no-brainer. It was an enjoyable ride.

Countering any known strategy for coping with jet lag, I arrived at the hotel and immediately crashed on the bed. Woke up a couple of hours later for my first walk in exploring the city.

So I took a small backpack, packed my Netbook and a camera and off I went. My first goal was to find & purchase a local SIM card for my Blackberry, so I can avoid the tremendous roaming charges imposed by Rogers Wireless (my Canadian cell phone carrier).

So after spending 2-3 hours exploring options and troubleshooting problems, here is the deal guys. For any of you planning on going to Europe and would like to use your phone, let me save you hours of research and mistakes:

First of all, ensure you have a GSM phone. CDMA/TDMA and such simply won’t work here, and if they do, your reception will suck. GSM is the de-facto mobile standard in Europe. In Canada, of the major carriers, only Rogers are GSM.

When you buy a GSM phone, ensure you’re buying a phone that is capable of working in all GSM frequencies (this is called “Quad-Band”, as there are four GSM frequencies used around the world).

Before you leave Canada, unlock your phone if it hasn’t been unlocked already. Otherwise, you can only use your carrier’s SIM card, which means you pay stupid amounts of roaming charges outside of Canada. Remember, you only need to unlock it if you’re planning on using other companys’ SIM cards (see below).

Now: If you have no interest in having BlackBerry services (this is true if you don’t have a BlackBerry, or if you have a BlackBerry but couldn’t care less about BlackBerry applications working while you’re away), then ignore all the ads in your home country enticing you to buy international SIM cards. It’s a waste of time and money. In Europe, the mobile phones’ world is much, much more advanced than in North America. You can buy SIM cards at supermarkets here.

Your best bet would be to buy a “Pay As You Go” SIM card with a major carrier. In the UK, that would be Vodaphone, T-Mobile, O2 or Orange. The SIM card in the UK would cost you 5 pounds (approximately $9 CDN), and you can “credit” your Pay-As-You-Go account pretty much everywhere. VERY cheap. Also, if you need Web access through your phone, you can add it to your Pay As You Go plan for very cheap.

The problems become when you have a BlackBerry and would like to use BlackBerry Services, so neat functionalities such as BlackBerry Messenger, Google Talk and the other variety of BlackBerry applications. As it turns out, at least in the UK, there is no Pay-As-You-Go plan that provide access to BlackBerry Internet Services. You simply can’t do that. Of course you can stick a local SIM card and browse the Web for very cheap (see the previous option), but BlackBerry applications won’t work.

So if you insist on using BlackBerry Internet Services, you have two options:

  1. Go on a monthly payment plan. This doesn’t make sense at all if you’re just visiting for a short period of time; however, if you stay for a long period, it’s by far the best approach.
  2. Buy an international data roaming add-on from your Canadian carrier.

I stuck with option number (2). Contrary to whatever they say about Rogers’ customer service, their service was FANTASTIC. Not only they added it right on the spot, they also agreed to credit me for the roaming data charges I incurred so far today.

So now I’m travelling Europe with my own phone number, using my neat BlackBerry with its useful applications (Google Maps for BlackBerry is so helpful that it is worth it to pay extra just to make it work). Not worried about being charged hundreds of dollars for roaming, having a great time, and can even use my BlackBerry as a modem, so I can publish to my blog where Internet access isn’t available.

Dinner time now…


At the Airplane

Airports have a certain feel to them.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I go on vacations, I usually don’t really appreciate the fact that I’m actually going on vacation, until I’m at the airport. Until I got to the Toronto airport, I didn’t fully grasp the fact that within hours I will be across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving at London, England – one of the most interesting and exciting travel destinations on the planet (according to some people; I have never been there, unless you call a 2-hour connection at Heathrow “being in London”).

So indeed, I am definitely looking forward to spend some time in London. However, being in London is far from being the only experience to look forward to in this trip.

It is somewhat unfathomable for me that, in less than five days, I will be at the Hurlingham Club in London, holding a VIP ticket to a charity concert performed by no others than Mark Knopfler and his band (only the Brits this time; the Americans stayed west of the pond) – a group of musicians who, for the last ten years, I have been regarding as the best performing group on this planet.

Refer to to get an understanding of how appreciative I am for their music.

So, Mark’s new album, named Get Lucky, is to be released in mid-September; not only will I have the honor of being of the first group of people to listen to some of the new material performed live (and whoever has ever been to a Mark Knopfler concert would tell you that, as much as Mark Knopfler’s albums are great, listening to this band playing live is infinitely more rewarding), I am going to do so while being seated in one of the best seats in the house, right after having Mark play a “private concert” for us in the VIP group.

This truly is something worth looking forward to. The Kill to Get Crimson tour last year has been one of the most defining periods in my life, if not the most defining one; in fact, it has been so meaningful and inspiring to me, that I decided to do this all over again in the 2010 Get Lucky tour, only this time I am going to include Europe in my trip. Unless something dramatic happens, I am going to attend all of the Get Lucky shows in 2010.

So that’s one thing to look forward to. The next thing I’m greatly looking forward to is to reunite with my friend, Jeroen Gerrits, whom I first met during the KTGC tour and we’ve been in touch ever since. We are going to meet-up in London and fly to The Netherlands (his home country) together. I visited Jeroen about six months ago, it was so great – something tells me we’re going to have a lot of fun again.

The next thing to look forward to is visiting two other European cities I have been expecting to visit: Berlin, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic.

I have never been to Berlin before but heard so much about it that I am very intrigued.

I have been to Prague before – nine years ago, with my girlfriend at that time. They say that Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe and one of the most beautiful cities in the world; you know what? it might as well be correct. From what I remember, this is an amazingly beautiful city (with stupendously beautiful women, but that’s a topic for some other post). There, I am going to meet with Jane, whom I was introduced to by my good friend Kyle Hawke of Vancouver, BC.

So many things to do, in so little time; my flight back to Canada departs September 20 from Frankfurt, Germany, unless I happen to win tickets for yet another Mark Knopfler show in London (invitations only; no public access) on the 23rd, in which case I will be forced to postpone my flight.

See you all at the next post.