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A bit of Essex, a bit of Kent

As I mentioned, our car needs repairs. So I went to look for a shop.

In England, they are called garages. There is a ton of them around where we live, including a Vauxhall dealer one about ten minutes away. But I still have a lot of Brooklyn left in me, and Brooklyn wisdom suggests that a Russian mechanic will be cheaper and easier to deal with that a non-Russian one. Cheaper is the operative word, as I am reluctant to throw too much money at this car (and not very much keen on putting in an insurance claim for scratches and dents).

Our new friend Valera is knowledgeable in this field, so I ask him for an advice. He recommends a mechanic that he knows and trusts. Unfortunately, the shop is in Essex (north-east of London – we live in the Southeast), 25 miles away. Valera himself warns me that it is in the middle of nowhere, far from public transportation and all.

I decide that I have not got much to lose – I need to show the car to the guy to get an estimate, at least. So I get in the car, and start driving. First on motorways, then on major local roads… then on narrower roads… then on country roads where two-way traffic readily incorporates muddy swaths of grass on each side – it is either that or a head-on collision…

At some point, the navigation system makes me turn onto an unpaved dirt-track lane. My fairly small vehicle almost touches the hedgerows – on both sides at the same time. The road continues for about a mile, and I am thinking to myself, If there is a car going in the opposite direction, how the hell are we going to pass each other? Luckily, the track must have been one-way. Either that, or nobody else is stupid enough to drive on it.

Did I mention the grooves and potholes?

You gotta hand it to my navigation system, though. It knew exactly where I was and led me to the right place. For those who has never heard me talk about it, I bought a Magellan 700 a couple of years ago, loaded it with both North American and Western European maps, and cannot praise it enough. It has its own idiosyncrasies. You cannot easily dictate it your preferred approach beyond choosing an option from amongst shortest time or distance or most or least use of freeways and then relying on its algorithms for optimal route selection. The algorithm, on occasion, produces weird maneuvers (for instance, once, the system made me effect a left turn by turning right, then immediately left, followed by three right turns, and then going straight). New road patterns sometimes stupefy the system. But I have used it all over the States, in Canada and in five European countries by now, and it gets the job done. One of the more worthwhile personal technology investments, in my opinion. I also like the fact that it is portable, so I can use it in any car that I drive. It has become much cheaper, also, with competition from Garmin, Tom-Tom and the like driving the prices down.

Enough of the sales pitch. As the mechanic’s business card did not specify the house number, I found myself on the right street, but not able to locate the garage. I knew it had something to do with a place called Brook Farm, but when I drove up to it, I could not figure out where to go from there. It is a fairly deserted area, truly in the middle of nowhere. I pulled over to a muddy patch by the gate and got out. Beware of Dogs sign predicted what happened next with incredible clairvoyance, as two large shepherds did not fail to materialize, purposefully setting off in my direction. I started to retreat but then a woman got out of the house and called the dogs back. She kindly explained that I had to go through the gate and around back to find the garage in some farm outhouse. Whew!

So, in no time afterwards, Jilvinas – he is Lithuanian – gave me an estimate for repairing all the dents and scratches. Quite a lot of money that is, but at the lower boundary of my expectations. I told him to go ahead, and will be bringing the car to him prior to our Brussels trip. That is bound to be yet another adventure: First, figuring out how to avoid the dirt lane, and then getting home by public transport when there is none in the vicinity…

Switching gears, Becky spent the day today with her friend from school. We dropped her off at their house in the morning and the friend’s parents dropped her back late in the evening. They went rollerblading in Greenwich Park – the day was quite nice and sunny – and then visited an indoor water park with pools and slides. Quite a lot of fun, I am being told.

The rest of the family took it slow, going to a mall for some idle shopping and following that up with a visit to one of my co-workers who lives in Chelsfield, Kent, a bit farther out of the city. I have been mentioning in conversation that we will possibly be looking for different accommodations (including buying) at some point, and she suggested that we take a look at her area.

The area is definitely cleaner, quieter and overall nicer than where we rent now. The train station is about as close from their house as our train station in Mottingham. Express trains get to the city as quick as from where we are, but I suppose that on weekends the trains do not run express, so weekend city outings will probably be a bit less simple.

The cost of our weekend trips to London actually deserves going on a tangent. My monthly pass for zones 2-4 (Canary Wharf, where I work, is not in central zone 1) costs £74.50. When we go to the city on a weekend, I need to get an additional daily “off-peak” pass for zones 1-2 (there is no such thing as just a zone 1 pass) – £5.10. Natasha has to get a similar pass for zones 1-4 – £5.70. Kids get daily passes for just £1 each when they travel with an adult who holds a monthly pass. Our total transportation cost for a day in London is £12.80.

Karen, my colleague, lives in zone 6, and, unlike from Mottingham, there is no convenient way of getting to Canary Wharf besides riding a train into the city center (zone 1), and taking a subway from there. So, if I lived in Chelsfield, I would have to get a monthly pass for zones 1-6, which is £165.20. However, I would not need to buy a separate ticket when traveling into the city center on a weekend. Kids’ passes would still be £1 each. We would only need to buy one adult “off-peak” daily pass for zones 1-6 – £6.70. Total day-trip cost: £8.70. Obviously, the difference not close enough to offset the monthly pass increase, but still an unexpected outcome.

I guess I could buy myself a zones 1-4 monthly even now at £127.50 and reduce our weekend costs to £7.70…

Anyway, back to Chelsfield. If we were to move there, my daily commute would also increase timewise to about one hour each way (door-to-door; from about 40-45 minutes right now). Driving to the city, if we wanted to do that, would definitely be longer by at least 20 minutes. More importantly, it would become completely unmanageable to keep Becky in her current school, and while finding her a public school (which are much better in Kent than in Greenwich) would be a welcome step for financial reasons, I am very reluctant to uproot her like that again, given that she has really taken to the Blackheath High and found herself quite a number of friends already.

But we would be living in an area where kids can actually ride bikes in the street and the cars do not queue up for minutes at an intersection.

There are other places like Chelsfield, obviously, that present a very similar choice of improved quality of surroundings at the cost of certain sacrifices. Something to think about. Our rental agreement runs through the end of September…