Tuesday, May 30

The daily commute

I catch the underground's Jubilee Line to work every day. My journey starts at Swiss Cottage where I travel two stops south to Baker Street. Here I transfer to the Hammersmith and City Line which takes me to the end of the line at Hammersmith itself. I then walk a further ten minutes to the office. The entire journey takes me about 45-50 minutes each way.

After five months, I've learnt a few tricks to shorten my commute. For example, when I'm coming home at night, it's best to stand next to the chocolate vending machine on the Northbound Jubilee line platform at Baker Street. The carriage that stops here also stops right outside the escalator to street-level at Swiss Cottage. Don't ever put your money into the vending machine. It has a habit of swallowing every last coin and never coughing up anything in return. With a 100% profit margin every time I'm tempted to buy a few shares in Cadbury Schweppes.

The landmark chocolate vending machine

On the way to work in the morning, it's also best to stand at the end of the Baker Street platform on the Hammersmith and City line, the end opposite the stairway. The carriage at the front of the train stops closest to the exit in Hammersmith thus avoiding the peak hour crowd that disembarks onto the platform. I've noticed that several other people follow the same routine. I see them in the same carriage and watch them exit at the same station. People really are creatures of habit.

Swiss Cottage station escalator. Notice the old light posts.

Baker Street is an incredible station. It was opened on January 10, 1863. The sub-surface platform I wait on every morning is part of the oldest Underground line in London (and hence the world). You really do feel like you're experiencing at part of history. Of the stations on this section of line this platform is perhaps the best-preserved. Plaques along the platform also show old plans and photographs of the station.

The original Baker Street platform. Notice the street level light wells, top left.

Baker Street itself was immortalised by the fictional Victorian sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, who lived at house number 221B. Garry and I have wandered past this unassuming terrace house. A small brass plaque by the door is the only reference to its famed location. Inside is a small museum commemorating the Victorian hero and his life. The tube station has custom tiles glazed with a silhouette of Holmes and a large statue of the man himself standing outside the Marylebone Street exit.

Sunday, May 28

Columbia Road Flower Market

Amongst other things, Enda has raved about the Columbia Road Flower Market. Every Sunday, a narrow old Victorian lane close to Shoreditch tube station is transformed into a crowded, colourful streetscape of flowers, plants and Eastend accents offering "two bunches for a fiver".

A market has been operating here since 1869. In the early days a covered food market operated in a building that was demolished in 1958. Today, the market sells flowers and house plants in the open street.

We decided it was time to experience the market for ourselves. We set the alarm for an early wake up call, and duly found ourselves at the market by 11:00am. The place was packed with people and plenty of flowers. The accents were almost as colourful as the flowers themselves. More than once I turned expecting to find Dennis Waterman offering a dodgy bouquet of wildflowers.

Almost anything you'd like in a bloom or house plant was there. Aside from stunning orchids and roses, we also saw a few antipodean 'weeds' in hot demand. Australian bottle brush bushes, flowering lupins and even New Zealand flax bushes were all selling at inflated prices. I remember jumping all over flowering lupins as kid. I'm sure I single-handedly destroyed tens of thousands of pounds worth of fresh flowers. If only I known there was money to be made.

After several circuits, we decided it was time to buy. We'd noticed that as the clock struck noon, bunches had stopped being "two for a fiver" and were now "three for a fiver". Garry, never one to pass up a bargain, soon had us loaded up with a pile of Irises and a selection of meadows flowers. I'm pleased to report that Swiss Cottage is now filled with floral colour and spring possies. We'll have to try Petticoat Lane Market next.

On the road again

Garry and I were talking about our forthcoming travel plans today. It seems that I have quite a hectic schedule from now until the end of the year. At this stage I have no fewer than ten trips in my diary:

JUNE: Amsterdam (work)
JULY: Prague
AUGUST: Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (work)
SEPTEMBER: Milan (work) and Switzerland
(Garry's offered to take me to Geneva for my birthday. The flights are on special for less than £42 each).
OCTOBER: India (another company planning meeting)
(We're looking at a holiday package that does St Petersburg for Christmas, then Red Square in Moscow for New Year's Eve)

Garry's also keen to do ANZAC day in Turkey next year. Of course, I'll be doing my regular flights around Europe for work during this period. We'll also be having the odd weekend away to see the sights of England. Phew! A quiet weekend at home starts to sound like heaven.

Done and dusted

It's been raining most of today. A perfect day for shopping. The local hardware store had everything discounted by 10% this weekend, including all sale items. I found a coffee table marked at half price, with another 10% off at the till. At £22.50 it was a bargain. Better yet, it was the perfect size for a final corner at Swiss Cottage still lacking furniture. We've had a stereo and TV sitting on the floor of the home office since January. However, as of 5:00pm this evening, everything has a new home on our bargain table. Finally, after more than four months, the last unfinished corner of the house is complete. Home sweet home.

Saturday, May 27

How much do you want for that?

The British Pound is a very deceptive currency. Numerically, price tags in London appear about right to Australian eyes. I expect to see the numbers "70" associated with a reasonable business shirt, or the numbers "2.50" associated with a carton of orange juice. However, these numbers list prices in pounds and not Australian dollars, a currency with 2.4 times less buying power. I can't tell how many times I've handed over what seems a reasonable sum of money, only to remember later that I'm not spending Australian dollars. In other words, things can cost a lot in London.

Take the movies as an example. We went to see Mission Impossible 3 a few weeks ago. Each ticket cost £9.15, including booking fee. Convert this to Australian dollars and you'll find that $22 has disappeared from your wallet. Of course you can't keep converting everything, unless manic depression is your forte. (Talking of depression, MI3 wasn't any where near as compelling as its predecessors. The camera doesn't loves Tom the way it use to.)

Deceptive price tag syndrome struck home this week following the arrival of an insurance check from the removal company. We had several items suffer minor damage enroute to London. Our dining room table arrived with a rather nasty scratch across its surface (left) and the long planter box arrived with almost every corner dented and damaged. (We also had the glass in a picture frame and a couple of old crockery items not quite make the journey intact).

The insurance company agreed to pay for the repair of the table, but elected to pay out the planter box's replacement value. In hindsight, we probably valued the planter box more in Australian dollar terms rather than pounds - and forgot to add VAT (value added tax) to the price. In the UK VAT is 17.5%. Ignoring tax, on top of a 2.4 conversion rate, added up to a rather large shortfall in funds. It still can't imagine quoting a price twice what we paid in Australia.

The table goes off to the furniture restorer next week for an extreme makeover. The total cost of repair? An astonishing £848, including VAT. I've also been able to negotiate a deal with the restorer to cover repairs to our planter box (an example of the damage is shown left). They'll repair this for £442, only £32 more than the insurance payout we received. I got the original planter box quote reduced by a whopping £110. I dare not convert this amount for fear of heart failure. I can only just cope with being £32 out of pocket.

Abbey Antiques, the furniture restorer , is interesting company. It's a family-owned business based in Essex that now being managed by the eighth generation of family members. I can't imagine doing what my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather use to do (and I suspect he couldn't imagine doing what I do). Odd little facts like this remind you that we're no longer living in a young country.

Our table will be away for two weeks. Abbey has even promised to email photos showing each stage of the restoration process. It's their way of proving that they won't fill the wood with dodgy pollyfiller, then disappear down to the pub with the remainder of our insurance cheque. I'll post any interesting images that come through, but I suspect it's the next best thing to watching paint dry.

Tuesday, May 23

More Middle East Memories

We received an email today from Patti, a woman from Ottawa that we befriended during last year's tour of Egypt and Jordan. At the time Patti was on leave from the front line in Afghanistan, where she was serving with the Canadian Armed Forces. She's sent us some fantastic photos from the tour, reviving a host of memories.

The first photo shows me on a donkey in the Valley of the Kings, chatting to Mum and Dad in New Zealand. This is a great companion for the image I've already posted of Garry on a donkey. The shirt I'm wearing is a $5 find that keep me clothed for the first four days of our Egyptian tour. You'll recall that our luggage went missing when we flew into Cairo.

The photo below was taken at a Nubian costume party held during our Nile River Cruise. The Nubians are a race of people displaced by the rising waters of Lake Nassar. Garry and I are wearing a traditional Galabeya robe (Arabic: الجلابية), enjoying a traditional meal. We bought our outfits from the local market outside Edfu Temple.

This photo was taken in Egypt outside the local fez hat maker's shop. We were shown the tools of the trade inside including the steam press used to shape the felt into its familiar shape.

Finally, a few memories from the Dead Sea. The first image shows me holding a salt rock I've lifted from the seabed. This is a rock made of pure salt crystals which have precipitated out of the water. Entire reefs of these rocks littered the ground under foot. They weigh a ton and are covered in sharp edges. Salt crystals makes a rather nasty rock. The second image shows me giving Garry a natural mud bath. It's guaranteed to leave you with a perfect complexion.

Finally, the photo below shows how you literally float on top of the Dead Sea thanks to its high salt concentration. I'm on the left, Garry's on the right.

Saturday, May 20

Paris in the moonlight

This week I was in Paris for work. I was able to grab a couple of personal moments this trip, enabling me to see a little more than just the hotel or office. On Wednesday evening, the team went for dinner by Fontaine de Mars, literally in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. After dinner we went for a walk to the Tower itself. As you can see it was brilliantly lit, literally glowing in the night sky.

At the base of the tower were hundreds of Barcelona Football Club fans celebrating their club's win in this year's European League Football Cup. The final had been played in Paris earlier that evening. This was a game to remember. Barcelona had scored its winning goal against Arsenal in the final ten minutes after trailing for the entire game. Controversially, the referee had also sent Arsenal's goalkeeper off 18 mintues into the first half. Debate will rage over this particular decision for years to come. However, for the crowd at the tower this was all history as they lit brilliant red flares, danced and sung their club's anthem.

It was really was one of those moments when you know you're in Europe. There I was, an Australian, standing under the Effiel Tower with a French man and German woman beside me watching Spainsh football fans celebrate their win over an English football club.

The Arc de Triumphe from the back of a taxi.

I was also able to experience the passion of Arsenal's fans. My Eurostar train from London had been packed with Arsenal supporters on their way to the game. Upon arrival at Gare de Nord in Paris, we were given a wonderful taste of the impending stadium atmosphere. As the fans disembarked they began singing their club song at full volume, each verse echoing through the station. The English love their football.

During my final evening in Paris I caught the train into the La Defense for dinner. Afterwards I took a moment to to wander around the Grande Arche plaza, soaking up the atmosphere and savouring the moment. It's not often that I get time to enjoy the signts when travelling for business so this latest trip to Paris was rather special. I particularly loved the statue located directly underneath the main arch. You can see it below. It's a guy with binoculars looking skyward.

Saturday, May 13

Clean as a whistle

We've found an excellent cleaner for the house. Patsy is a Jamaican-born woman who cleaned our serviced apartment when we were staying in Little Venice. Finding her has been a real coup.

Garry and I had a terrific cleaner in Australia, one of those people you never want to lose once you find them. Finding an equal in London was always going to be a challenge. Garry successfully convinced Patsy to come and clean for us a few days a week after watching her work at Little Venice. She's delightful. Last week as I was preparing to fly to Munich she stopped for a moment to proudly share some photos of her pre-school son.

Patsy's only been working for two weeks but already you can see the difference. The pile of ironed shirts alone is a huge a relief. Finally, my choice of shirts isn't dictated by what's ironed and what's not.

Talking of cleaning. We took the car to get washed today. It's been sitting under a flowering tree for several days that's shed sticky pollen and flowers by the truckload. The stems and petals were up to five centimetres deep in places. After washing the car we discovered that we've been victims of a classic petty crime. Someone has keyed several panels, damaging the paintwork. Welcome to the big city.

Our first five months

Wellington Arch (not Marble Arch)

Today marks the start of our sixth month in London. It's hard to believe that its been five months since landing at Heathrow, seven months since leaving Sydney. It's been an incredible experience so far. I'm not sure how to encapsulate so many memories (this blog aside of course).

Simple things hold memories as much as our global trek. For example, we've watched the weather morph through two seasons, with a third clearly on the way. We arrived in the dead of winter, a time when it grew dark at 4pm and snow fell, then watched spring flowers appear. Over the last ten days the temperates have soared into the 20s. Tube rides have started to become hot and sweaty, while at home we're leaving windows open throughout the day.

Barge tunnel - Regent's Canal

Last night was also a magic moment. I flew back from Munich after a long day in the office. The final approach into Heathrow took me low and slow over central London affording a stunning view of almost every city landmark. The flight path took us past Greenwich, the Millenium Dome, Tower Bridge, London Eye, the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus, Regent's Canal, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Kew Gardens. Each sight had its own personal memory, making everything really feel like home for the first time. I was also reminded of how lucky I am and how amazing my life is.

Sculpture outside the Dali Museum.

Since October I've been in the USA, Canada, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Jordan, Austria, Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Spain - sometimes for work but still incredible when you stop to reflect! Garry and I have also seen and done plenty in London. Plenty of live theatre, Windsor Castle, Kew Gardens, Greenwich and Soho to name a few highlights. It's truly been an amazing time.

Today we're planning a few regular activities; washing the car, buying groceries, collecting dry-cleaning and maybe catching a movie. It's not all glamour and travel at Swiss Cottage.

Monday, May 8

An afternoon with the Queen

The Queen was in residence at Windsor Castle today. At least that what her royal standard flag indicated when we dropped by this afternoon - along with several thousand other tourists. Sadly she wasn't receiving guests so Garry, Rachael and I spent several hours touring the castle grounds and State Apartments alone.

We started our day with a coffee at Paddington station. As we sat sipping cappuccinos was I finally able to locate the famous Paddington Bear statue. It's located just outside Krispy Creme Donuts. Where else would you find a chubby little bear?

The train to Windsor took about 45 minutes via Slough, a town made famous in the television show, "The Office". Windsor station itself is a delightful Victorian precinct, faithfully restored in 1999. We stopped here for a traditional lunch of fish and chips and then made our way to the castle. A short walk up gentle hill takes you to one of the most wonderful castle vistas you're ever likely to experience. The roadway itself is guarded by a rather imposing statue of Queen Victoria, sternly watching over the town below.

Windsor Castle is said to be the largest inhabited castle in the world and the oldest in continuous occupation. It was originally built by William the Conqueror who reigned from 1066 until his death in 1087. His original wooden castle stood on the site of the present Round Tower (shown below).

Our entrance ticket included a free audio tour which gave a crisp and nifty commentary on every sight we saw. Queen Mary’s four-story high doll house was a real highlight, along with the recently restored St George’s Hall (it was destroyed by fire in 1992, but rebuilt and opened again in 1996). We also enjoyed the suit of armour worn by Henry the Eighth in his later years. As he aged, Henry became a rather rotund man, very much evidenced by his noticably bulging belly amour.

Unfortunately St George’s Chapel was closed today. However, our entry ticket provides unlimited access to the castle and grounds for 12-months. We’ll use it to tour the chapel some other time. While we were unable to see inside, the grounds surrounding the chapel were simply radiant in the late afternoon sun.

Sunday, May 7

Rachael and Andrew's Big Adventure

Rachael, my company's global HR director, is currently staying with Garry and I. Today Rachael and I decided to walk the Regent's Canal from Primrose Hill to Little Venice, a total distance of three miles. We set out from home, making our way to the canal via Primrose Hill. The view from the hilltop was as stunning as ever. If you look carefully, to the right of the BT tower you can see London Eye, yesterday's tourist highlight.

From here we wandered along Regent's Canal passing through the grounds of London Zoo, past the gardens of aging mansions and moored house boats. Late blossoms were still on display. Tour barges were also on active duty scattering ducks as they went. We eventually reached Little Venice where we discovered a wonderful cafe perched over one of the canal's many transit tunnels. We stopped here for coffee and a light lunch just as rain began to fall.

Regent’s Canal was opened in 1820. It was originally conceived as a transport backbone across North London. After an early burst of profitability the canal fell into disuse as railway reached the area. John Nash, the landscape designer responsible for Regent’s Park, built the canal. He’d originally intended to have it pass through the middle of the park. However public outcry forced him to alter its route. Locals were concerned that the colourful language of barge handler would offend residents enjoying the park’s surrounds. No such noises were noted today.

Once the weather cleared, we left our lunch venue and made our way past Little Venice to Paddington. At this point we’d planned to catch the tube to Waterloo. The previous night we’d placed Rachael’s laptop in storage at the station before visiting London Eye. As made our way underground Rachael suddenly realised she'd left her baggage receipt at home.

After a quick detour we were soon back on the tube. On approach to Waterloo, we made a spur of the moment decision to continue on to London Bridge station. Upon arrival we made our way to the riverside Thames Walk, following the river towards Tower Bridge. We made a 1.5 mile circuit across Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London, on to Monument and finally back across the Thames to the tube.

Monument, designed by Christopher Wren, was erected between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the 1666 Great Fire of London. The original fire started in a bakery near by, burned for three days, eventually wiping out 436 acres of central London. You can climb 311 spiraling stairs inside to an observation balcony 200 feet above the street. I've made a mental note to give this a go at some future date, but not today.

Perhaps the most memorable sight today was City Hall, seat of London's new local government, the Greater London Authority. This lop-sided oval building, completed in 2001, sits next to Tower Bridge. It was designed by famous English architect, Norman Foster, the same man that created Hong Kong's stunning airport terminal. Locals call it the egg - and you can even find a six-foot namesake sitting on the nearby Thames riverbank.

We've had a wonderful day, walking more than five miles passing many of London's famous sights.

Saturday, May 6

An eye over London

I've been promising myself a ride on the London Eye for more than five years. Each time I've visited London I make plans to give it a go but have never seen them through. The Eye is a 135 metre high ferris wheel situated on the bank of Thames River. You climb aboard one of 32 large, glass capsules that slowly ascend into the air affording the most stunning views of inner London. Each capsule holds up to 25 people in air-conditioned comfort, taking approximately 30 minutes to complete a full rotation.

This evening Garry and I took Rachael, my company's global HR director, for 'flight' on the London Eye. Rachael is staying with us for a few days while she is working in the UK. We caught our 'flight' at 8pm - just in time to watch the sun set over the city (well, Wembley stadium actually).

Our 'flight' almost didn't happen thanks to a tube delay caused by the heatwave we've been experiencing this week. The temperature reached 27C at Heathrow yesterday. This "intense heat" buckles the rails forcing trains to travel slower than usual to avoid derailing. There was a huge debate in the paper today about this issue as the unions claim that the problem is caused by poor maintenance rather than heat.

Given that we experience temperatures in the 30s for months on end in Sydney I tend to agree with the unions. However I digress. Thanks to the tube delays we found ourselves racing for the ticket office to collect our tickets moments before the Eye closed for the night.

The last minute dash was worth it as the view from the Eye was truly spectacular. The Houses of Parliament were literally glowing in the evening sun, as was the dome of St Pauls cathedral. We even spotted where our house is located once Garry had identified a few neighbourhood landmarks.

An brief argument ensued at this point as I was convinced that we couldn't actually see the Eye from our house. Garry assured me that we could (and subsequently went on to prove his claim when we got home). For the record; we can see the wheel from our bedroom window. It's particularly noticable when lit up after dark.

From the Eye we wandered into town across the Westminster Bridge, past Big Ben and along the river embankment to Covent Garden. We stopped for dinner at Navajo Joe's, a mexican style gastro pub. Our first dish was particularly divine; lobster and mango nachos served on three niffy mini platters. The Vodka Caprioskas were also rather tasty. All in all, a most enjoyable evening.

Digital history in the making

This posting marks another digital first for me. The photos you see here were all taken with the camera on my mobile phone. I've finally worked out how to download these images. I guess I have access to a camera now wherever I go.

Friday, May 5

Room with a view

I've just returned from a three-day business meeting in New York. The venue was incredible. The conference room was located on the top floor of our hotel, complete with its own rooftop balcony. The balcony offered stunning views of the Empire State Building, marking it a popular place for meal breaks and a quiet coffee. It's moments like this that remind me how lucky I am. While my job is hard work it also offers some amazing life experiences.

I also took some time out on Sunday to wander around around town, eventually ending up in Central Park. Every man, woman and their dogs were out in force. The Sheep Meadow was a sea of people such that the lawn had all but vanished. The final effect resembled a Woodstock revival with sun-seeking bodies lounging every where. The horse carriages were in action, as were the rollerbladers, cyclists and frisbee throwing gangs.