Sunday, April 30

Covent Garden to Hyde Park

Garry and I took advance of today's sunny weather and went for a walk through Central London. We started our afternoon walk at Piccadilly Station and finished several hours later in Hyde Park. Our first stop was Soho, where I grabbed a quick haircut, then on to Covent Garden via Seven Dials.

We spent a delightful hour wandering the markets halls and watching street performers. On any given day you're guaranteed to see a gaggle of living statues (today's performers offered the full spectrum of statue colours including black, bronze and silver), jugglers and acrobats.

We stopped at Wagamama's for lunch, then dropped into the SANZA shop for a few quick snacks from home. A short walk soon had us fighting our way through the "Love Music Hate Racism" concert crowd in Trafalger Square. Nelson's Column is currently behind scaffolding as it under goes its latest cleaning and restoration. The noise of the band was deafening at the Square so we ducked down The Mall only to be confronted by rows of riot police waiting in nearby vans.

St James park was filled with families and couples enjoying the spring weather. It's clearly not summer yet. At least half of the rental deck chairs were empty (£2.00 for two hours resting in uncomfortable green stripe canvas). Buckingham Palace was attracting its usual horde of tourists and the surrounding parklands were filled with late blooming daffodils.

From here we crossed to Hyde Park Corner and Wellington Arch. The Australian War Memorial, dedicated in 2003, is located here. The flagstones are still covered in ANZAC day wreaths and floral tributes. It's odd to sense a piece of home so far from Sydney.

From here we caught the tube home in time to wash the SAAB. You can see it here, parked outside Swiss Cottage. You can see how quickly the trees are starting to green. The top two floors of windows on the left-hand side are our new home in London. The uppermost set of windows is home to the sunny nook in our main bedroom.

Saturday, April 29

Leaving on a jet plane...

It's bank Holiday weekend in London. Our first truly British public holiday (as opposed to all of those popular Christian holidays at Christmas and Easter). Sadly, I'll be working. I fly to New York on Sunday for another executive team meeting, returning on Thursday morning. The following week I'll be in Munich for two days, then in Paris for two days the week after that. South Africa is also on the agenda, possibly at the end of May. As always, Garry will be holding the fort while I'm off destroying miles of ozone.

Garry and I also have some personal travel scheduled. We've booked flights back to Australia in early-August, thereby completing last year's RTW ticket. This will be our first trip back Down Under since departuring early-October. Our homeward journey will take place immediately after a long weekend in Prague celebrating a friend's 40th birthday. We literally fly back to Heathrow in time to catch our flights to Australia.

To break up the long flight we've scheduled three and a half days in Japan as a brief stopover. It's a whirlwind tour, but enough time for me to share some of my favourite highlights with Garry. We'll fly into Osaka (via Hong Kong) and catch the bullet train (Shinkensan) straight to Hiroshima (about two hours from the airport).

We'll then spend a full day in Hiroshima visiting:

  • Peace Park and the epicentre of the WWII atom bomb explosion,
  • the famous Shinto shrines of Miyajima, complete with scarlet torii gate and
  • the classical Japanese arch bridge at Iwakuni, before returning to Hiroshima for a tasty Okonominyaki dinner.

Our second full day will take us via bullet train to:

  • the white hilltop Shogun castle at Himeji,
  • the buddist temples, Zen shrines and Shinto shrines of Kyoto. Then, after dinner at a local teppanyaki restuarant, we'll catch the evening bullet train to Tokyo, passing Fuji, the iconic mountain symbol of Japan.

Our final day in Japan will be spent in Tokyo:

  • catching stunning city views from the Metropolitan Government Centre in Shinjuku (hoem to the world's busiest rail station),
  • traversing the city's mind blogging department stores,
  • exploring the wonders of Tsukiji fish market and,
  • the people watching mecca of Shibuya before catching the train to Narita airport for our mid-evening flight home.

I think we'll be ready for some home comforts and pampering by the time we reach Australia. I'll head over to New Zealand for a few days before catching a flight to London via Sydney and Johannesburg. The stop in South Africa enables me to work, while breaking up the journey home. With luck we've have done enough travel for me to retain Gold status with Qantas Frequent Flyer, but sadly not enough travel to retain my Platinum level. I'll miss the First Class lounge!

Friday, April 28

Swiss Cottage - A Photo Essay

My new digital camera finally arrived today. As a quick test run I've taken some picture of Swiss Cottage's more famous locations including:

  • the shelf from hell
  • the sunny nook and
  • the sofas that locked our neighbour out on his landing.

So, welcome to Swiss Cottage. The first photo you see here is taken from our living room fireplace looking towards the dining area. Here you can see the famous sofas (complete with cushions from Peru), the cozy reading corner and the dining areas with its sunny bay window.

The second photo is taken from our kitchen looking towards the dining area. Here you can see some of the wonderful IKEA storage that kept Garry busy for days when I was last in New York. You can also see the "bargain" coffee table on the far right side.

The third photo gives you a better feel for the reading corner complete with CD racks. It's one of my favourite areas for kicking back and reading a good book. With a heater along the wall it's a very cosy place in winter.

Photo number four shows you the kitchen with a fridge and stove on the left and the sink with dishwasher on the right. Plenty of cooking space here by London standards.

Swiss Cottage has several stunning feature points. The first is a bank of windows two-floors high offering a green, leafy view across neighbouring yards. The second is a wonderful display fireplace. The third, and perhaps most novel feature, is the minstrels’ balcony overlooking the main living area. It opens out from the top floor next to our main bedroom and utility room. The next photo show an aerial view of the fireplace from this quirky location.

Below is a photo of the new sunny nook we've created in our main bedroom. You can see why we went to such lengths to create this wonderful feature corner. The new tub chair is unbelieveably comfortable.

Next we have a quick snap of the home office, complete with the new shelf that refused to fit. To the left you can see a large wall map of central London that I recently had laminated. The idea is to progressively familarise ourselves with the layout of the city. The window you can see look South, giving this room plenty of sunlight during the day.

Below is the handy utility room with linen storage and the laundry. The louvre doors in the background house the hot water and supplementary water pressure pump. It's here that the Great Flood of 2006 started.

And finally, a look at the spare bedroom with its homely wall of books and aging teddy bear collection.

More photos coming soon!

I can also report that we've found an excellent cleaner. She starts next week, just in the nick of time. I'm not sure we have an ironed shirt left in the house! These shirts have been carefully hidden from view in each photo!

Wednesday, April 26

Mana from heaven

I finally made it to the SANZA store in Convent Garden last week. SANZA stands for South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. This is a little slice of antipodean heaven in London, selling all manner of foodstuff and memorabilia from home.

I managed to secure an enormous jar of Marmite. My toast tastes so much better. I also grabbed a few treats for Garry including Double-coated Tim Tams and Arnotts Pizza-flavour Shapes. I saw L&P from New Zealand, along with plenty of stuffed kiwis and All Black jumpers. With such a large expat population in London this store struck me as a licence to print money. My jar of Marmite set me back £5.

Beyond SANZA, there are some home pleasures freely available. Every supermarket is stocked to the rafters with a broad range of great Australian wine, and there's plenty of New Zealand wine also going begging. There is one simple pleasure from Down Under that Garry and I really miss. We've yet to find anyone selling Turkish pide bread in London.

Sunday, April 23

A tube honeymoon

When we first arrived in London one of the first questions everyone seemed to ask was, "so, what do you think of the tube?" At first I assumed this was simply a demonstration of London pride. It wasn't. In fact the opposite is true.

The oldest line on the London Underground system (part of the circle line from Paddington to Liverpool Street) is more than 100 years old. Upon opening it was the world's first metropolitan underground rail system. A century later, the system is showing it age. Signal failures are a daily occurrence. As a result at least one of the tube's lines is part suspended or experiences delays every day. You come to expect delays and inevitably start to factor in extra travel time to accommodate them.

This week I worked three days (Easter made this a short week). I experienced a delay on all three days. One was caused by a signal failure, another because people were trespassing on the tracks and sadly, a suspension caused by "a person under a train." Since arriving I've heard at least three "under a train" announcements. Apparently more than 50 people commit suicide on the underground every year. The most common time for such event is 11.00am.

With all of this going on, it’s no wonder people anticipate a complaint when they ask your opinion of the tube. However, despite these delays, I'm still in awe of the tube system. It makes travel around London incredibly easy. I've been told that my positive impression will wear off within twelve months. It seems that every new arrival has a similar honeymoon period with tube. I guess the day I start complaining will mark another milestone of our time in London.

Tuesday, April 18

Project Sunny Nook completed

Another furnishing milestone was reached today. Our sunny nook in the main bedroom was completed by the arrival of a new low-profile, brown leather, tub chair. We ordered the chair more than two months ago in a moment of winter sale madness. I discovered the reason for its delayed arrival this morning, thanks to a small tag on its base. It seems that the chair was imported from Italy, making it a close cousin of our living room sofas.

With new chair in place, the window alcove looks simply stunning. Everything we've cobbled together is working perfectly. The new curtains and matching cushion compliment the new chair, while Garry's old brown side table comfortably completes the picture. Finally, as if on cue, the sun emerged this morning, filling the space with dazzling sunlight. I'm sure Vogue Living will be over shortly to plan it centre-page spread.

"Thank you Easter Bunny!"

The Easter Bunny successfully found us in London this year. When I came down from the bedroom on Sunday morning, a large wicker basket of chocolate eggs was waiting for me. Today, two days later, the basket is looking rather spartan. Easter Bunny also visited Garry, delivering a large Lindor egg and a truly enormous foot-high egg covered in colourful swirls that sits on its own chocolate stand. Time for the CSIRO diet I think.

The Great Outdoors

It's wonderful to be outdoors again. Today, Garry and I spent an afternoon in the sun (well, partly cloudy sun) hanging out with two mates, Mike and Chris. Mike recently returned from two months studying in Paris so this was our first chance to catch-up again. We started with coffee at Earling, accompanied by Bondi, Mike's 70kg Alaskan Malamute dog.

Bondi attracts a crowd wherever he goes, resulting in a common set of questions. Mike and Chris have an established Q&A response that goes something like this; Malamute, Malamute, seven, no, Malamute. Typically the first question is, "What is he?" Followed by, "Say that again? "How old is he?" "Will he grow any larger?" Finally, the enquirer asks, "What is he again?"

After coffee we dropped Bondi at home and took a pleasant walk across the Thames to Kew Gardens. The grounds are ablaze with Spring flowers; daffodils, tulips, magnolias, crocus and other assorted blooms. Other highlights included a photo stop at the posing plinth (otherwise masquerading as a Victorian drinking fountain), a 20-minute queue for ice-cream at the rather dysfunctional cafe and a rather hearty plumber's crack on full display at the Easter petting zoo (not nearly as tempting as the lambs and ducklings). Oh, there were the regular sights as well, the Temperate House (the world's largest surviving Victorian glasshouse), the Palm House and Kew Palace.

We're getting outdoors more and more now. Good Friday was spent wandering around the local Stables Markets in nearby Camden, before taking a leisurely stroll home along the Regent's Canal and through Primrose Hill park. The hill gives you a great skyline view of London, including St Pauls and the London Eye. It was here that the first Martians landed in H.G. Wells' classic novel, War of the Worlds. These days camera-toting tourists are the only noticeable invaders.

Sunday, April 16

Globetrotting in Greenwich

We crossed the globe today, stopping in the Eastern and Western Hemisphere, before briefly leaving the planet. All it cost us was a ticket on the tube and a 15 minute walk through Greenwich to the Royal Observatory. Here we stood astride the Greenwich Meridian marking the border between East and West. Garry, underwhelmed by the experience, when on to comment that a short jump would also see him briefly depart the planet.

Our Greenwich tour today also included a late-lunch of traditional English fish and chips (sheltering from a sudden rain shower), a walk under the Thames river (courtesy of the Greenwich foot tunnel) and a wander through the local markets. Learn more about the foot tunnel here.

Aside from globe-trotting, we took time out to install some shelves this morning. One in our ensuite and one in the home office. However, it seems that our shelf curse is back with vengence. You'll recall last month my failed attempt to cut the shelf board. Today I managed to drill two holes in the wrong location while Garry found his wall tile tough going, requiring several drill bit changes before the job was finally done.

Friday, April 14

Wanted: One Domestic Cleaner

Some wonderful news to share! Garry was offered his first UK contract today. He's secured the three-month business analyst contract he interviewed for on Tuesday. The job is at West Hampstead, only three stops north on the tube. Garry will probably have London's shortest commute when he starts on Wednesday. It takes me at least 45-50 minutes door-to-door. He'll be home in 15 minutes or so.

I know Garry's glad to finally have work. Until now he's been managing the household, cleaning, washing and ironing. He's definitely ready for a change of scenery. It's time for a new domestic cleaner!


Wednesday, April 12

The sound of music

On Tuesday, Garry was finally able to attend the interview he cancelled after the Great Flood of 2006. This is a three-month contract as a business analyst at a digital music distribution company that's literally ten minutes up the road. Garry felt that the interview went well. Fingers crossed that he might have his first UK job in the bag. I'll looking forward to all those free concert tickets, private parties with the stars and, of course, limos that take us home to Swiss Cottage afterwards.

BBQ, snow and ice

I've just returned from a two-day business trip to Munich. I took the opportunity to catch up with my brother Hamish in Austria for a day on Sunday. I flew out early on Sunday morning, arriving in time to catch the 11:03 train from Munchen Flughufen to Kitzbühel. Hamish, Nicole and Steffie were waiting for me at Worgl station 90 minutes later. Steffie greeted me with an enormous hug, while Nicole was more reserved (she made up for it later with an endless stream of hugs throughout the day).

The weather was rainy in Munich, but the alps were enjoying blue skies and fabulous sunshine. The sun was warm enough for Hamish, Karin and I to spend much of the afternoon sitting in the sun. We even went as far as lighting the BBQ for the first grill of the season. Karin also managed to spread out the last vestiges of melting snow on the lawn. By dinner time the last of the winter snow had melted. So much for the metre of snow that Garry and I saw on the ground over Christmas. Winter was officially banished.

I caught the train just before 8am the following morning, arriving at the office in Munich soon after 10.00am. After a successful day of meetings, I was talked into dinner at a local Bavarian pub with plenty of home brewed beer, seated at long bench tables and a live Bavarian brass band. The band soon caught wind of my Australian accent and promptly broke into a lively rendition of 'Waltzing Matilda'. This wasn't the only surprise in store for me in Munich.

After such a sunny weekend, it was surprising to wake this morning to two inches of snow covering the city. Snow continued to fall steadily for most of the day. In least than 12 hours, a snow-free city was back in the grip of winter with snow covering everything and ice forming on the pavements. I was happy to fly home to far warmer conditions. I heard that half a metre of snow fell in the alps today. Karin will be out on the lawn soon removing the last of the winter snow for a second time.

Saturday, April 8

We're signed up members of the NHS

Under the UK's national health service (NHS) you have to register with a local doctor before you can access most forms of health care. The system is rather rigid. You can only register with a GP that's assigned to your "catchment area". Ours is a new catchment, established last month when a shiny, new council leisure centre opened at the end of our street. The doctor's surgery is located in the centre and supports a catchment area about ten city blocks wide. We're located about 20 metres from the eastern boundary. This week Garry and I signed up, after successfully proving we really were long-term residents. It's seems that passing tourists aren't so welcome.

The new leisure centre is incredible. It has a glass fronted atrium filled with climbing walls that glow at night, a heated swimming pool, squash courts, all-weather football pitch and workout gym. It backs onto a new park with landscaped hillocks, an enormous water feature and trees covered in spring blossom. The local library, attractive apartments and a first-run live theatre complete the surrounding development. All in all the entire scheme is a wonderful addition to our neighbourhood. Learn more here.

Good news. We'll soon have plenty of photos to share. I've purchased a new digital camera to replace the one almost destroyed on the shores of the Mediterranean last year. (See February's post titled 'In the footsteps of Moses'.) It's another Panasonic with lots of clever functions. Click here for details.

The Great Flood of 2006

When you're living on the top floor of a Victorian house, water pressure isn't the best. To ensure that our fourth floor ensuite has a suitably luxurious shower, the landlord installed a supplementary water pump in the utility room. It's the size of a compact vaccuum cleaner and, when in operation, makes a similar loud, high-pitched whine . To be honest, the poor machine sounds like its going to blow a valve at any moment. Today, our pump actually did destroy itself in spectacular style.

While Garry was in the shower this morning, one of the pump's water outlets shattered. Within mintues our utility room was flooded. Water continued to flow across the floor, pouring through gaps in the walls and cascading into the kitchen below. By the time Garry discovered the disaster unfolding, the kitchen was awash, along with the contents of every cupboards. The pump subsequently shorted out as the flood finally penetrated the electrical system.

Poor Garry was forced to spent the rest of the day organising plumbers and electricians, while struggling to release our kitchen from its watery grave. Worse still, he had to cancel a job interview, his first with an actual employer since arriving in London. The interview was with a digital music company, 15 minutes walk from Swiss Cottage. They were looking for a business analyst on three months contract.

Because the company was so close to home Garry found himself canceling his interview a mere 45 minutes before the scheduled time. Travel time in London is typically an hour or more so I'm sure the company thought Garry was blowing them off. In a final twist of irony, Garry received a call late today for another job interview - one that's seems better suited to his skills and experience. Perhaps fate isn't so cruel after all?

I'm working in Munich again next week. I've decided to fly in early on Sunday morning so that I can spend a day with Hamish and the family in Austria. I've catch a train to work on Monday, arriving about the same time I do when flying directly from London. There's more travel coming, with a trip to Paris and a three-day meeting in New York all scheduled before the end of the month.

Thursday, April 6

In search of a flat white paradise

I miss ordering a simple ‘long black’ coffee. I'm no connoisseur, but I have to say that the English have some odd caffeine habits. Take your standard Americano, a weak imitation of the long black coffee you’d typically order in Sydney. Every café here asks me if I want milk in it. It seems that there’s no such thing as a flat white in England, and a latte isn’t considered an appropriate substitute. I just cant’ get use to the extra question, “do you want milk with that” every time I order my Americano. They’d never ask me in Europe, the US or Australia.

Of course, my order is further complicated by the assistant’s accent. I’ve noticed that the question is usually delivered in a cacophony of East European syllables, or asked so rapidly in a local dialect, that the words simply make no sense to me. An uncomfortable silence ensures while the assistant waits for my response. The question is eventually repeated. I inevitably fail to understand the accent and suggest they try the question again. Of course it never occurs to me that I’m being asked for milk. I was asked three times today before I suddenly remembered that an Americano order automatically attracts a 'milk' question. I’m now on a mission to evangelize the term 'flat white'.

Spring has finally arrived in London. We've been enjoying temperatures in double-digits for more than a week now, with regular periods of sunshine almost every day. It's also getting dark later and later. When we first arrived it was getting dark around 4pm, now it's light until after 7pm. The garden at the front of Swiss Cottage has also transformed itself into a sea of yellow daffodils, while fruit trees in the back garden are awash with blossom. I even saw someone in a pair of shorts this week. Rather brave I thought, as we're not experiencing temperatures in the lower teens yet. My hayfever has also struck with vengence. Garry's taken to complaining about my heavy breathing as I struggle to overcome congestion in my sleep.

With Easter only weeks away we've started planning a few day trips. At the moment we're thinking of visiting Windsor, Greenwich and possibly a trip to the coast to see the famous sand-free beaches of Brighton.

Finally, we had three friends over for dinner on Saturday night. We went the whole hog, with a real table cloth, the ubiquitous oak barrel cheeseboard and plenty of our recently imported Australian wine. Garry cooked a roast provided by our mate Chris. His family owns a farm up north. He picked up a side of beef last time he was home and has been looking for the right opportunity to use ever since.

We had a great evening, including several interuptions from the neighbours. They weren't knocking to complain, instead one was seeking tools to assemble her IKEA furniture while another was after a strapping lad to help move furniture - we sent Garry down to help. It seems Garry's efforts were much appreciated. While leaving for work this morning I tripped over a "thank you" bottle wine left for him on the top step. That will go a little way to plugging the new holes in our wine rack.