Monday, November 27

The Sushi's a killer

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On September 7, 1978 the Bulgarian Secret Service poisoned Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov. He was poisoned in London, at the end of Waterloo Bridge, using the popular rat poison, Ricin. A tainted pellet was injected into his leg using an umbrella tip built with a hidden pneumatic device. The umbrella had been developed in conjunction with the KGB. Markov died four days later.

This week the news is filled with another dissident poisoning in London. In a surreal flashback to the Cold War, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and Federal Security Bureau (FSB) officer died on Thursday after being poisoned. The FSB superceded the KGB as Russia's primary intelligence organisation in 1995.

Litvinenko fled Russia in 2000 after speaking out against the alleged FSB-orchestrated murder of Boris Berezovsky, a billionaire businessman. Since arriving in London, Litvinenko had become an increasingly vocal critic of Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Most recently he'd spoken out about the murder of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment.

Litvinenko was poisoned by Polonium 210, a radioactive poison used to trigger nuclear weapons. It's not exactly the sort of stuff you have lying around your house. Officials suspect that the Polonium was administered during a Sushi lunch in central London. The papers claim that, over lunch, Litvinenko was given documents confirming Politkovskaya's killers.

It's hard to imagine that such cloak and dagger events are still occuring in Europe. It's even harder to comprehend that they're happening in the very city I live in. I can't describe the sensation of living in a city where world news is being constantly created. It's both exciting and frightening.

The other night Garry and I were watching old WWII footage of the London Blitz. Again, it was surreal to realise that these images were taken in the same streets we now wander through in daily life. Without realising it, you some how feel more vulnerable living in London. I never expected to feel this way. Life in Australia felt an awful lot safer.

Sunday, November 26

Shopping for a Ушáнка

Today was Ушáнка (Ushanka) day. A Ушáнка is a Russian fur cap with ear flaps. It's the sort of hat you always see Russian border guards wearing in Cold War movies. Garry and I have decided we'll need some for our upcoming winter tour of Russia. As a result, we've spent most of the afternoon at Portobello Road Market, wandering the clothing and bric-a-braq stalls, seeking the ultimate in rabbit fur fashion.

After some searching, Garry came across the perfect Ушáнка. It was made in Finland from heavy brown rabbit fur and cost only £20. Unfortunately, the stall he bought it from didn't have anything in my size.

This was our first trip to Portobello Road Market. The crowds were thick in all directions. The market itself spreads across several streets in Ladbrooke Grove/Notting Hill area. It was far bigger, and with a greater variety of goods, than I'd expected. The quality was also surprisingly decent with few of the £5, tourist trinkets and T-shirts that tend to dominate most other markets. No wonder a good crowd had gathered.

We stopped for a late lunch at a delighful cafe on Portobello Road called Visible Cafe and Bar. The decor was cosy, with wooden floors and lovingly worn leather sofa. Everything had a delightfully dishevealed air. The service was brilliant, the menu varied and the food itself was perfect. We'll definitely be coming back again!

Thursday, November 23

Room with a view

I thought I'd share the following scene. This is the wonderful autumn vista that greeted us upon our return from New York ealier this month. This photo was taken from our main living room window. After almost a year in London we've finally experienced four very different seasons.

The Dinky household

Good news! Garry has found himself a job. He starts work on Monday as a Business Analyst, working full time in a permanent position for a consulting firm based in the centre of London. His first client assignment is with an institutional fund management company. Garry thinks that the job offers opportunities to develop his knowledge in new areas of the finance industry.

Garry met with the MD today and agreed final terms and conditions for his employment contract. As of November 27, we're a Dinky household once again (Double Income, No Kids). Garry's been wonderfully patient after more than a year without work. Aside from a brief ten week contract in April/May this year he's been house-bound, cooking meals and surfing the Internet.

I'm thrilled that he's finally found work that furthers his career, gives him a decent income and restores his independence. It's also handy that he'll have a relatively short commute - less than 45 minutes door-to-door. Short commutes are a luxury in London. I have staff that travel up to two hours every day by train which isn't an uncommon occurrence.

Life at 143

I've posted blogs before about the Tube (the London Underground). However, it's hard not to share more silly facts about such an amazing transport system. We use the Tube for everything. I commute to work every day on it. We travel to Heathrow. We visit friends. We go to the pub. We go shopping. The tube is everywhere in London.

The Underground is the largest urban rail network in Europe. It has 235 miles of track, with 45% of it in tunnels. More than 500 trains are in motion at any given moment during rush hour. The busiest station is Kings Cross where 77.5 million passengers pass through every year. The deepest station on the network is just a few stops from our house. Hampstead station is more than 67 metres below the surface.

Sadly 21 people were killed on the Tube between April 2005 and April 2006. 19 of these deaths were suicides.

Two of my favourite trivia facts are:
  • The most common cause for signal failure is commuter rubbish tripping a train detector beside the track. You see signal failures happen on the Tube every day. I now know that the signal system is fine, it's someone's Walker's Crisp packet that's causing the problem.

  • On many of the smaller bore tunnels, there's only two inches of clearance space between the trains and the roof of the tunnel. This enclosed space explains why the Underground doesn't have air-conditioned carriages (aside from the simple fact that aircon hadn't been invented when the Tube first opened).

    Quite simply, hot expelled by an aircon unit would have nowhere to go. Each aircon unit would simply increase the temperature inside the tunnel to the point that units on later trains would fail, or waiting passengers would be roasted by scorching air from approaching trains as they stood on underground station platforms.

The Tube is amazing and doing well for a system that's 143 years old.

Tuesday, November 21

Finally, some English weather

Tonight's weather forecast predicts rain and showers for the next ten days. The Met Office also predicts more rain during the first week of December. We've seen so little serious rain since arriving almost a year ago. After seeing so little rain for so long, we're finally getting a dose of the weather that England's famous for.

The poor weather acutally started in New York earlier this month. It rained for at least five of the nine days I was there. The weather then followed us across the Atlantic. I've taken an umbrella to work almost every day. Garry and I have also taken to carrying an umbrella when we go out in the evening.

Rain brings with it a few more lessons about life in London. First, fallen autumn leaves are incredibly slippy when soaked with rain. Walking down a leaf-strewn street soon becomes a workout worthy of a professional stuntman. Second, a cheap £2 umbrella starts to leak once it's water-saturated. Buy a better umbrella.

Finally, after a week of steady rain we've had a minor damp patch appear on the roof above our (formerly) sunny bedroom nook. How do you repair a steep, leaking roof four floors above the ground without expensive scaffolding?

I guess we should count ourselves lucky. They're currently predicting rain for almost 28 straight days in Hobart, Australia. I'm also not going to complain about the increasingly cold temperatures in London. New Zealand is in the news at the moment thanks to a flotilla of icebergs floating up the coast of the South Island. Last week one of the icebergs was visible from the Dunedin coast. People are paying up to $NZ500 to fly over the icebergs. Not exactly the sort of sightseeing I'd be expecting at the start of Summer.

Sunday, November 19

Culture for Christmas

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Christmas is coming! In London, Christmas lights are on display once again along Oxford Street. In New York, a 70-foot spruce Christmas tree was erected outside the Rockefeller Centre last weekend. Garry and I are now scheduling meals with friends and family, as well as finalising visas for our Christmas trip to Russia.

We've also booked seats for a few cultural events. Later this month we’re off to see Donkey’s Years, a comedy by British playwright, Michael Frayn. It’s the story of six former students who celebrate a 25th year reunion at their old university college. I've seen an earlier production from Michael Frayn called Noises Off that had me literally crying with laughter.

In early January a group of us have made plans to see Matthew Bourne's controversial production of Swan Lake. His production is renown for its casting of male dancers in place of traditional ballerinas.

Thursday, November 16

Catch the ferry for dinner

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Garry and I were invited for dinner last Friday by Rachael, my company's global HR director, and her husband Alan. You'll recall that Rachael stayed with us when she visited London in May. Rachael and Allen recently relocated their family to live in New York.

They're renting the most amazing apartment located on the New Jersey banks of the Hudson River. It's a new complex offering some outstanding features (indoor children's play room, swimming pool, mini-cinema for hire are just a few of the amenities). However, the best feature would have to be an uninterrupted, jaw-dropping view of the New York skyline.

We spent a wonderful evening drinking wine (a superb bottle of Grange even made an appearance at one point), sharing relocation stories and lapping up the world's most famous skyline. It's moments like this that make our time in the North Hemisphere a very special life experience.

A little dose of culture?
The following evening Garry and went to see Spamalot, a witty Monty Python show on Broadway. The show really was every bit as funny as we'd expected. For me the highlight was definitely a power ballard aptly titled "The song that goes like this". The song simply took the mickey out of every diva power ballard that's ever been scored. Too funny.

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Afterwards, we walked home in light rain with the neon lights of Times Square reflected in a slick, wet pavement. It seemed the perfect setting for our own power ballard moment until Garry reminded me that my singing skills were no match for those of the artists we'd just heard. I clearly won't be opening on Broadway any time soon.

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Tuesday, November 14

Polar Bears in Central Park

Garry and I have just completed an extended weekend in New York. On Garry's birthday we went for a wander in Central Park, enjoying the last of the autumn colours. The squirels were busy and ice skaters were out in force on the historic The Wollman Rink. As we passed the entrance of the park's small zoo we noted signs promoting its polar bear exhibit. Garry mentioned that he'd never seen a polar bear in real life. As a quick and simple birthday treat we bought two zoo tickets.

Out timing was perfect. We arrived as the afternoon feeding sessions were starting. We watched the feeding of sea lions and penguins before venturing over to the polar bear enclosure. The zoo has two polar bears; Gus (the larger male) and Ida (female). Both were born in 1985, in captivity. During our visit Gus dozed on a distant rock. Ida entertained us by swimming and playing in her enclosure pool. The pool has underground viewing room with glass walls which afford a spectacular view of a polar bear below the water line. We stood mesmerised for almost 20 minutes.

Perhaps the most poignant moment was when we placed our hands on the glass, comparing our hand span to that of a polar bear's paw. These bears are big. In the wild a male Polar bear can weigh up to 1500 lbs. This is due to his blubber which may be 5 inches thick. However, in New York, Gus weighs a mere 1000 lbs. Ida is smaller and tips the scales at a svelte 700 lbs.

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Later the same afternoon we took a tour of CNN's New York studio then headed back to our hotel to change for dinner. Garry's birthday meal was meant to be an extra special treat, as well as an opportunity to dress up in some of our smart new clothes (see yesterday's post for more about our adventures in Macy's department store). I'd secretly booked dinner at the Rainbow Grill, located on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Centre. On a clear day you can see for more than 30 miles across the city and its surrounds.

Unfortunately the clouds rolled in less than 15 minutes after we sat down for dinner. Our city-at-night view swiftly transformed itself into a dull, grey haze. Further disappointment soon followed as the food and service was rather average. We left the restuarant feeling like a couple of well fleeced tourists. Garry probably summed it up best when he later commented that he'd have been just as happy with a greasy plate of ribs in a regular diner.

More about our adventure in New York here.

Sunday, November 12

Macy Madness

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Garry and I hit the holiday weekend sales while in New York (it was Veteran's Day on Saturday). Friday was spent scavenging the racks and shelves in Macy's, said to be New York's largest department store. All sales items were marked down up to 50%, plus we were eligible for a further 11% sales tax discount as international visitors.

Macy's is famous for its sponsorship of New York's spectacular Thanksgiving Day Parade, effectively a Christmas parade that takes Santa to his in-store grotto for the start of the festive season. Macy's has sponsored the parade for more than 75 years. However, unlike today's mega-crowd extravaganza, the first Macy's parade was only attended by about 100 people.

We did get to see a colourful Veteran's Day parade making its way up Fifth Avenue on Saturday. The marching cast included baton twirling majorettes, brass bands and jeeps filled with kakhi-clad veterans. Armed soliders patrolled the kerb, making for some eerie pseudo-combat moments. I had to remind myself that this wasn't a movie set. We were actually witnessing the world's mightiest military power on display.

It would be fair to say that we shopped ourselves stupid at Macy's. We collected some staggering bargains (and subsequently tested the seams of our now bulging suitcases). Perhaps the best bargain of the day was a black leather jacket that I picked up for less than US$145 - marked down from an original price of US$495. The jacket is tailored in the same manner as a classic suit jacket, making for a very stylish look!

Our suitcases are now loaded with underwear, socks, cashmere scarves, gloves, overcoats, shirts and jeans. Garry even found room for a new pair of shoes and really smart navy blue duffle coat (also half price). I'm not sure how we'll feed ourselves for the rest of the month. Thank goodness the final credit card bill will appear in £££, making our bargains look even better.

More adventures in New York here.

Tuesday, November 7

On top of the world

I flew into New York on Sunday in preparation for an intense week of business meetings. On the spur of the moment I took advantage of a warm and sunny afternoon, visiting the Observation Deck that recently reopened on the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Center. The original deck closed soon after the World Trade Centre was completed in 1973. At 70 floors, the venue couldn't compete for tourist viewing dollars with the Empire State Building (86 floors above the street) and the WTC (at 110 floors).

Much like the WTC before September 11, the Rockefeller Centre observation deck sits on the roof of the building. The result is a stunning, unobstructed, panoramic view of New York City. With blue sky overhead and the wind in your ears, this is as close to flying one can get without wings.

The deck gives you a stunning view of the Empire State Building, the autumn colours of Central Park and the mid-town street canyons spreading in all directions. It all brought back memories of my first trip to New York in November 1983 as an exchange student. I recall going up the Empire State Building and being truly mesmerised by the view. At the time it was quite a contrast to vistas of my home town in New Zealand. Somehow 5000 people just don't have the same visual impact.

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Read on for more about our adventures in New York.

Sunday, November 5

Cellar for rent, central city location

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The 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day
was celebrated last year

In 1605 English Roman Catholic conspirators made plans to kill Protestant King James I, his family and most of England's aristocracy in one brutal act. The 13 conspirators planned to destroy the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament using 817 kgs of gunpowder. Guido Fawkes, also known as Guy Fawkes, was placed in charge of executing the plot because of his military and explosives experience. However he was discovered in a cellar under Parliament along with the barrels of gunpowder on November 5. The date of his arrest has been celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day ever since.

Tonight as we walked down the street for dinner at our favourite Chinese restaurant, he could hear the sound of home-lit fireworks resounding across the city. The noise was incredible. Explosions were constantly taking place as rockets lit the sky in every direction. I don't recall so much noise as a child on Guy Fawkes Day.

Garry later commented that this must have been what the Blitz sounded like during World War II. An unnerving thought as you're walking the streets of London. As a brief aside, I read a published letter recently in which an old man recalled collecting spent bullet cartridges that fell from the sky during the Battle of Britain. He recounted how the cartridges were still warm to touch as they landed.

Given that we're now living in England, I've been doing a little research on the The Gunpowder Plot. It makes for some fascinating reading. Astonishingly, Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators were actually able to rent a cellar beneath the House of Lords. It's hard to imagine such an act happening today. By March of 1605 they'd hidden the required volume of gunpowder, more than eight months before the state opening. It's staggering to think that this quantity of gunpowder went undetected for so long.

The plot was only uncovered when one of the conspirators wrote a letter to William Parker, 4th Baron of Monteagle, who was also a Catholic, warning him not to attend the State Opening. Lord Monteagle forwarded the letter to the secretary of state who in turn initiated a search of vaults underneath the House of Lords. Fawkes was discovered and arrested during a cellar raid on the morning of November 5. The State Opening had been scheduled for later the same day. It's clear that if the warning letter had not been sent a very different event would be celebrated every November.

The King subsequently granted special permission for Guy Fawkes to be tortured, thus ensuring that his co-conspirators were also revealed. It's hard not to draw parallels with the latest civil liberties debate that's raged since 9/11. As a final amusing epilogue, I learnt today that the cellars of Parliament are searched every year just before the State Opening in an enduring, but purely symbolic, tradition. This year's State Opening is scheduled to take place on November 15.

Friday, November 3

An ASBO for Christmas

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Football hooliganism seriously threatened the UK's social fabric in the late 60s. The government soon responded with the 1968 Public Order Act, allowing the courts to ban offenders from football grounds. This social scourge hit the headlines again in 1985 when 39 people died during a pitched battle between Liverpool and Jurventus supporters at Heysel Stadium. Events like resulted in English clubs being banned from European football competitions, a ban that remained in place until 1990.

Hooligans were eventually brought under control using a form of court-issued restraining order know fondly as an ASBO (pronounced az-bo), or Anti-Social Behaviour Order. ASBOs first made their appearance in 1998. I must admit that it took me several months to work out what an ASBO was when we first arrived in London. They were in the news a lot, but the terms was never explained.

In March, the Home Office reported that 7,356 ASBOs had been handed out in England and Wales in the last seven years. Aside beyond traditional anti-social acts like hooliganism, ASBOs have been issued for an expanding range of behaviours. Last year a woman received an ASBO banning her from jumping into rivers and canals or on to railway tracks. Apparently she kept placing rescue services at risk as she continually attempted suicide. Other more obscure orders include:

  • Two teenage boys from Manchester forbidden to wear one golf glove.
  • A 13-year-old forbidden to use the word "grass".
  • A 17-year-old forbidden to use his front door.
  • An 87-year-old man ordered not to shout, swear or make "sarcastic remarks to neighbours or their visitors".
Today the papers are full of news that ASBOs are losing their deterrent effect. It appears that British teenagers are running amok, increasingly treating ASBOs as a “badge of honour”. It seems that more than half of the ASBOs issued in recent times have been breached. You begin to wonder about British youth when other research in today's paper paints this generation as the most wayward in Europe with spiralling teenage pregnancy rates and alcohol and drug abuse.

Thursday, November 2

Happy Birthday Hamish

I called Hamish today for his birthday. It was such a joy to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a family member during normal waking hours. I actually called him while walking to work, something I use to do with my parents but can't do any more given the time zone difference. I'm sure Hamish also appreciates having family only one hour out of synch with himself.

Wednesday, November 1

Fireworks and the Big Apple

It's Guy Fawkes Day this coming Sunday. This will be our first opportunity to celebrate this fireworks festival in London. Unfortunately I won't be in town. I'm scheduled to fly to New York on Sunday morning for nine days. There are a number of fireworks displays on Friday and Saturday so all is not lost.

Garry will be joining me in the Big Apple on Wednesday next week, arriving in time to celebrate his birthday on the following Sunday. I'll be taking a four-day weekend so that we have plenty of time together. Garry tells me that he's planning to do a little Christmas shopping. I've also got a few surprises lined up for him. Roll on New York.