Thursday, March 30

Here comes the sun

Today a total eclipse passed over Africa, the Middle East and parts of Turkey. The following photo was from the International Space Station. It shows the moon's shadow moving across the face of the planet. Spectacular! Meanwhile in London, we had our usual grey, overcast sky.

Pow Wow Events has moved

When is a bargain not a bargain? The new (heavily discounted) coffee table has arrived. Unfortunately it's far more damaged than we expected with marks and scrapes on almost every surface. It's not the bargain we expected. Fortunately, the store agreed to take it back and subsitute it for a new one, provided we pay the difference. Some bargains really are too good to be true.

Garry's also discovered another little piece of Swiss Cottage history. At least one of the previous tenants worked for an event management company. That's goes a way to explaining the endless limos filled with party girls that came and went at all hours. Click here for more details.

We've also got a new neighbour downstairs. A Japanese girl called Mi. She's a PR/production house specialist from Tokyo. She cornered me this morning as I was leaving for work to complain about the noise from our flat. I was stunned. We're quieter these days than we were in Sydney. However, it seems that our wooden floor is passing low frequency pressure waves through the ceiling which she finds unsettling. There's no real noise to speak of. She begged me to get a rug in an effort to dampen sound coming through the floor. I told her that Garry and I were shopping for a rug but she seemed unconvinced by my commitment

This evening Mi came up to our flat with a bottle of wine and half apologised for her morning outburst. It seems that she's had a few nasty experiences living in London. Earlier this year her handbag was stolen by a professional thief from a smart inner city restaurant. The bag contained her company laptop, mobile phone and purse with more than $300 cash. A guy later called her at home claiming that he knew where she lived. He threatened to break in and steal again while she was out. When Mii contacted the police they simply recommended that she relocate. Now she lives downstairs.

Mii has promised to come back soon and cook us an authentic Japanese meal.

Tuesday, March 28

No one can ever say I didn't sing

London weekends are finally starting to feel like regular days in the city. Saturday was spent roaming the local supermarket, stocking up on all sorts of odds and ends. With the car on the road we're able to transport everything home with ease. As a result the shopping trolley seems more and more heavily laiden.

Saturday night we caught a hilarious show in town called Glorious! It's a biographical comedy about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (b.1868 - d.1944), known infamously as the "the first lady of the sliding scale." She was a well-off, slightly eccentric, society woman from Philadelphia who created singing career for herself, despite having little sense of pitch or rhythm and being barely able sustain a note. Ms. Jenkins was once quoted responding to her critics by simply stating that, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." Maureen Lipmann (above) performed the lead role brilliantly, singing out of tune with great skill and conviction, generating more than one good belly laugh. All in all a fun evening.

During our walk to the tube station afterwards we wandered past the SANZA store. It sells all manner of goodies for Australian, South African and Kiwi expats seeking a taste of home. Garry spied some tempting chocolate Moro bars in the window so I think we'll be back during opening hours. I'll be looking for Sanitarium Marmite. Learn more here:

Sunday we caught up for lunch with friend before hitting the stores on Oxford street. We found a coffee table that we both liked in John Lewis (their Tokyo range). Even better, the shop assistant found one in stock previously returned to have some minor damage repaired. It was marked down almost 50%. We agreed to take it, after being given the option to return it if we weren't satisfied with its condition. It arrives on Wednesday. The store even offered to deliver free of charge. What a bargain!

Next weekend we're having a group of friends over for a roast dinner. It's become an unofficial house-warming now that we've pretty much got the flat in order. The table will be here just in time.

Thursday, March 23

22 hours in Holland

More than 15 years after my first trip to the Netherlands, I've finally made it to Amsterdam. I was in town for a day on Friday visiting our office for the first time. The city is incredibly picturesque. Each house is unique, sitting along side gently curving tree-lined canals and adorable bridges. Many of the simple bridges can be raised, allowing barges to pass.

My company put me up in a hotel by the Central Railway Station, an architectural masterpiece of its own. The station is bounded by a large canal, filled with colourful low-profile barges. All in all, Amsterdam is a lovely city. I'll definitely be back for a long weekend in summer.

I also spent two days in Munich earlier this week. Spring has definitely arrived there. The snow has almost melted, the trees are budding and the sun is actually warm. I even enjoyed lunch with a staff member at a sunny outdoor cafe. Sadly, the weather in London remains bitterly cold. However, the Met Office is promising temperatures in double figures this weekend. This'll be the first time we've moved beyond single digits since arriving in London.

Always pack a hedgehog

Last Sunday Garry and I enjoyed our first family day in the UK. We took the SAAB for a spin down to Fernhurst, a small village 40 miles south of London. My Aunt Shirley lives here, along with my cousin Hilary, her husband David and their daughter, Ellen. I last saw them three years ago during a holiday stop-over in Sydney.

Garry and I joined the family for a Sunday lunch. My cousin Nicholas and his wife, Carolyn, also joined us for a mini-reunion as they were in the area looking at property. They're hoping to move into the area when the right house presents itself.

We enjoyed a delightful afternoon, sharing stories and catching up. Garry and Carolyn were amused by moaning from the rest of us as we lamented turning 40. Garry also got to hear a few of the family's war stories, including tales about a family crest on my father's side. Rather than the usual falcon, boar or other fearsome animal, the crest includes a hedgehog. Apparently, one of my forbearers was returning from the Crusades when his horse tripped on a hedgehog. As the horse stumbled, an enemy arrow whizzed harmlessly by. The hedgehog had saved the returning knight from a fatal arrow.

As a result of our travels, we now know how long it really takes to wind your way through London. It took us almost an hour to get from our house to the motorway south. I'm sure we took the scenic route, driving past Kensington, Earl's Court station and the centre of Putney. Not an easy task with a pocket-size A-to-Z street directory. Narrow London streets tend to blend into a blur of confusing lines and squiggles when reduced to handy pocket size. No guessing what we'll be shopping for next week.

However, once out of town the drive was effortless. We're now planning day trips around the area, including Bath, Salisbury and Stonehenge.

A cut above the rest

Last week Garry and I paid another visit to IKEA. This time we came away with three new CD racks and a host of handy bits and pieces. Our aim was to finish off the main living room which , until now, a had few minor matters outstanding. First, hundreds of CDs and DVDs were given a permenant home, enabling our last remaining removalist box to enter recycling heaven. We also brought a beautiful plant and rustic pot for the room's bay window, and hung the final picture who's glass had been damaged in the move.

Finally, our living room is finished. It looks grand! The only items still outstanding are a rug by the fireplace and a new coffee table. Neither is particular urgent. We think we've already found promising candidates so the wait won't be long.

Our display curtains also arrived for the main bedroom, giving our sunny picture window a homely touch. We're still waiting for our armchair to make an appearance. It was ordered almost two months ago. The spare bedroom also sports a new set of coat hooks - another handy IKEA purchase.

This whirlwind of home decorating means that only one room is remains incomplete. Our home office still has a small piles of goods waiting for a final resting place. i wouldn't hold your breath. You might recall that ,18 months after we moved into our Sydney apartment, we still had a desk made from packing boxes and melamine. Given that we've already brought a new home office suite for Swiss Cottage, I'd say we're already ahead of the game.

Time for another amusing story
As part of the new home office suite, I purchased a shelving unit. The shelf has to be cut to fit the available space. London homes never have a simple, flat wall. You have no idea how many odd shapes, angles and small indentation found on every wall! Our home office at least eight different nooks, crannies and quirky alcoves - and its the smallest room in the house.

I've been waiting until the SAAB was on the road before taking the shelf up the street to the local mega-hardware store. Here they have a giant saw that cut boards into custom sizes. So, the SAAB is on the road. It's time to get the board cut.

Picture this. It's 8pm on a Saturday evening and I'm walking in the door with a 2-metre board. The security guard stops me. "Are you returning that sir?" "No. I brought it from MFI." " You can't bring that in here if you didn't buy it from us." A discussion ensues, during which I explain that staff on a previous visit had agreed to cut this board for me. First hurdle passed.

I reach the board cutting counter. No attendant is on duty. However, a handy 'press-me' button is waiting. I press the button. It doesn't light up. The button is broken. I abandon my giant board and walk to the other end of the store. Security guard eyes me suspiciously as I pass by as I'm now sans-board. I find a store clerk and beg for assistance. He can't help as he's not trained, but he'll look for someone who can. Second hurdle passed.

After a five minutes wait at the counter, a qualified board cutting specialist arrives. "I'm sorry to keep you. How can I help?" "Please can you cut this board into three parts. I have the measurements with me." "I can't cut this board. It's not from our store." A debate follows for the next few minutes as I explain once again that staff have agreed to cut this board on a previous visit. "OK I will cut it." A closer examination of the board follows.

"Actually, I can't cut this particular board. This is a solid board. We can only cut laminated boards." "No it's not. Trust me. The rest of the furniture that goes with this is laminated chipboard." A five-minute debate over the composition of the board now starts. I finally give up and ask to be shown the electric saws. I will buy a saw, a sawing brace and cut the jolly thing myself. The clerk takes me to the opposite side of the store shows me a grand selection of saws. However, he cannot find a mitre box to safely guide the saw cut. No sale!

We return to the board-cutting area. My friendly store clerk taps the board. He pauses. "Maybe you're right. Perhaps this is laminated chipboard. I'll give it a go but I can't guarantee that it'll work." "Please, please, please try! The board is useless to me in its current state. I'd rather ruin it than abandon it to the rubbish truck."

The troublesome board is duely sliced without problems. Then, while returning it to the service counter, the clerk drops it, damaging the laminate surface. He offers to forgo the cutting fee. I accept. Finally, 30 minutes after I've walked in with a 2-metre board, I walk out with an ulcer and three smaller boards, one of which is now damaged. The final hurdle is behind me!

I arrived home and positioned first board in the home office. Guess what? It's the wrong size! So is the next one. After all the drama, I'd given the store clerk cutting measures in the wrong order...! I'm now back to square one. The boards have to go back to the store to be cut again next weekend.

Tuesday, March 14

Springtime in Norway

I've just returned from my first tour of our three offices in Scandinavia. I spent a day in Copenhagen, two in Stockholm and a day in Oslo. It seems that my visit coincided with an unseasonal cold snap. All three cities had plenty of snow on the ground and falls occured most days I was travelling. Oslo had almost a metre of snow on the ground.

The cold snap has thrown Copenhagen airport into choas. When I arrived late on Tuesday I found myself in a baggage hall stacked high with piles of unclaimed luggage. It seems that cancelled and delayed flights had resulted in passengers departing without their bags in tow. The choas seemed to have grown worse when I passed through the following day enroute to Stockholm.

I managed to join the fray as my bags missed the flight from Heathrow. The SAS representative in the baggage hall was wonderful, promising profusely that my luggage would make it to Stockholm the following day. She even disappeared for several minutes, returning with an emergency toiletry kit that included a smart T-shirt along side the more regular soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Quite a contrast to our experience in Egypt last December.

This hitch seemed to set the tone for the rest of my journey, where flights were delayed for hours at a time. However, this did play to my advance on the last day when I found myself trapped in traffic as hoardes of Oslo folks headed to the mountains for a bumper ski weekend. I arrived at the airport 15 minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart, only to find that it had been delayed 40 minutes. Even better, I was home by 8:00pm, just in time for dinner. These short-haul flights are such a novelty after five years of red-eyes in Asia.

On a lighter note, our office in Copenhagen is situation above a popular micro-brewery. It's also located on the top floor of a old building, effectively built into the loft area. You enter via a large communal kitchen that has a sloping roofline, sunlight pouring through the windows and simple wooden floors. I felt as if Anne Frank was about to wander into the room. It's as if time has stood still. You have a wonderful sense of history coming alive and enveloping you, most unlike anything I've ever experienced in Australia.

Monday, March 13

Tying up loose ends (and odd boxes)

Swiss Cottage is finally looking and feeling like a regular home in the burbs. The last week has been one of several relocation milestones.

First, our car is finally on the road:
  • Our new UK car licence plates arrived on March 9
  • Our car registration papers arrived on March 11 (taking only six days to process, not the six weeks we were originally told)
  • We secured a resident's parking permit on March 11.
  • Today, we attached our new plates to the car, applied registration stickers and finally parked it outside the house.

Second, the last major house moving chores were completed. In particular, dozens of large moving boxes were collected on March 12, along with our old matress and an old fax machine. I installed shelving in the storage cupboard in our utility room over the weekend, giving yet more items a permenant home. At last, the spare bedroom no longer looks like a storage cubicle.

We're now making a few decorator touches to give the house a personal feel. Our latest project is a sunny nook in the main bedroom, by the attic-style window. This window faces south and receives regular sunlight throughout the day. We've ordered a new curtain to frame it and a cosy leather chair to relax in while grabbing a dose of Vitamin D. Both items should arrive this week.

Garry has also been contacted by several recruiters, including one woman who seems far more switched on than others he's spoken with so far. He has an interview with her tomorrow, plus another one with Sony. Fingers crossed that Garry will soon have a job.

Saturday, March 4

Where do cucumbers come from?

A trip to the Supermarket quickly becomes a lesson on the global economy. Most stores label their fresh produce with the country of origin. You'd be amazed where everyday items come from. In Australia almost every fresh item is Australian grown, not so in the UK. Many items travel a great distance to reach us. Today I saw white-flesh nectarines from Australia (only £2.99 for a tub of four), or regular nectarines from Argentina (half price).

The origin of some items is unexpected. Asparagus comes from Peru. Medium chillies come from Tanzania, while small ones come from Kenya. Cucumbers from the Canary Islands. Strawberries from Morocco. Avocados from Mexico. Seedless grapes from India (see the photo above).

Other items are a little less surprising. Mushrooms come from Germany. Capsicums and Iceberg lettuce from Spain (bags of mixed leaves come from 'various locations'). Where, I hear you ask, do Olives comes from? Greece of course! It seems that only milk and cheese are produced in the UK.

It seems incredible that a green, fertile island like the UK finds it cheaper to import so much produce from the opposite side of the globe, rather than grow and sell it locally. I can't help but wonder if an international trade backlash is behind the numerous farmer's markets you find scattered across London. These weekly markets pop up in local suburban pedestrian malls, selling everything from fresh muffins (baked with organic eggs and flour) to whole pigs roasting on a portable gas rotisserie.

Friday, March 3

Photos, photos, photos!

After a week of battling with dodgy internet connections, wading through 5000 digital images and near permenant RSI, I've finally managed to post photos from last year's sabbatical tour. Begin your photo essay experience by reading again my travel posts - start from Two decades of American Memories listed in the February Archive - then scroll downwards.

I've also updated some of these earlier posts with more stories from our travels. It's amazing what you suddenly remember when you start scrolling through old photos. Enjoy!

Snow, snot and speedometers

It snowed this afternoon. Large, white, fluffy flakes fluttered down from the sky for more than 30 minutes. It also snowed yesterday afternoon, and again in the evening as I was walking through Soho to a business function. The ground isn't cold enough for the snow to remain, but the experience of snow in the city is magical.

Along with colder weather has come ineviable winter aliments. I've had a shocking head cold for the last four days, while Garry has just recovered from a nasty cough and sore throat. I can't recall feeling so congested in my head and sinuses for years.

On the home front, Garry took the SAAB to the dealer today. It now has a sexy new speedometer faceplate. With luck we'll have the car certified by the VOSA next week and the registration papers submitted for processing.

Next week I fly to the Nordics for a four-day whirlwind tour of my company's offices in Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. The week after that I'll be visiting Amsterdam for a day and possibly dashing down to Johannesburg, South Africa for two or three days. Once I've completed thIS last trip, I'll have visited almost every office in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) network over a ten-week period. Phew!

Wednesday, March 1

A Very English Drought

Parts of southern England have had the driest two consecutive winters since 1920-22. Incredibly, the water authorities are considering garden hose bans in some areas. This sort of decree is certainly something we've become use to in Sydney, but to have same experience in damp, eternally green England is unexpected.

Figures released by the Met Office today show that South-east and central southern England have had:

  • the driest November 2004-January 2006 in over 80 years, with just 724 mm of rain;
  • November 2004 to January 2006 was the second driest 15-month period on record;
  • 13 of the last 15 months have recorded below the 1961-1990 long-term average, having only 72% of the average which is 1001 mm.

The map below shows that London's average rainfall compared with averages of the last thirty years. You can see that rainfall is 60-70% below normal (that's the blue bits, while the white bits are normal and the brown, higher than normal).

These reports certainly explain why our first winter in the UK has been surprising free of rain. While the sky overhead is almost permenantly grey, we've had very little rain since arriving. In fact, in the last two months, I can only think of three days where we really received a good soaking. There's certainly been the occassional damp day where you wonder if rain will break-out, but in general, other than a light misting we've rarely seen a serious downpour.

Sadly, we bought plenty of umbrellas and expensive rain gear but have yet to give these items a serious workout. No doubt next winter will be a rather brutal shock to the system!