Wednesday, January 31

No strike!

The BA strike scheduled to start today has been called off after marathon negotiations ended successfully. This is good news. I'll be off to South Africa as scheduled in two weeks. I'm looking forward to five days of Southern Hemisphere summer. I've also confirmed my flight plans for a return trip to Madrid at the end of February.

Plugging the gap

Until the Dental Act of 1921 became law anyone could practice dentistry in the UK. Barbers regularly advertised their dental skills as a handy side-line, typically offering swift tooth extractions. How times have changed.

Today I visited my first UK dentist. I'd scheduled an appointment after discovering a jagged edge on a back molar early last week. The tooth in question contains a large, old filling. Several years ago I had the original mercury filling removed and replaced with a modern resin alternative. At the time I was warned that the filling was sizeable and hence the repair might have weakened the tooth. I naturally feared the worst today.

However, I need not have worried. I’d simply had a decade-old erosion coating chip off the surface of my tooth. My dentist in Australia had applied this protective resin to save a worn molar from further wear. Apparently I’d been a little too keen during my daily teeth scrubbing sessions.

Fifteen minutes of high tech dental action saw me as good as new. I was relieved, not just for the simple procedure, but to have also found another reliable health care professional. I’ve been going to the same Australian dentist since 1993 and didn’t relish the thought of trying to find another dentist on the opposite side of the planet.

Ironically, I followed the advice of my Australian dentist during my search for a local replacement. He recommended that I find an expat Australian or New Zealand dentist. In his opinion, Down Under dentists are trained to be less invasive while the UK’s NHS bulk billing culture encourages dentists to conduct excessive procedures.

However, much like the steady bulk billing decline in Australia, UK dentists are progressively abandoning the NHS and entering private practice. A rapid increase in the cost of dental service has naturally ensued. As a result, many UK people travel to Eastern European for major dental work. The cost of a cheap airfare alone is now often less than an initial consultation in a private practice. Major dental work in Hungry can cost up to half the price of work in the UK. I can't image taking a dental 'vacation'.

After considerable web searching I came upon Adam Sapera, an Australian dentist ten minutes from home, renown for his use of modern, innovative dental technology. Phew! Another item ticked off the relocation list. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far, securing an excellent doctor (one who actually knosw what a skin cancer looks like and is equipped to treat it) and now a decent dentist. Much like my dentist, I'd been visiting the same doctor in Sydney for more than a decade.

The final health care professional I need to secure in London is an optometrist. I really must sort this out. My contact lenses supply is depleted and I need to order more. You can’t order lenses without a prescription and my current script is 15 years old. I doubt they'll accept it. Back to the search engine!

Saturday, January 27

More family on the way

Garry and I are about to be innundated by family visitors. Garry's parents are scheduled to arrive just before Easter, making their first visit to Europe. Soon after their departure, Garry's Aunt and Uncle arrive, also on their first tour of Europe. Finally, at the end of May, my parents arrive in time for my Auntie's 80th birthday celebration. Weeks before flying my father will have celebrated his 70th birthday. I guess we'll see plenty of champagne flowing before the last of our guests head home.

It will be wonderful to share our life in Europe. We're looking forward to showing off Swiss Cottage and our favourite parts of London. However, I suspect we'll be ready for a holiday by the time it's all over. Thank goodness we've booked flights to the USA, New Zealand and Australia in August.

Coming and going (maybe)

British Airways is currently embroiled in an increasingly bitter strike. A dispute over sick leave conditions for cabin crew has resulted in the airline cancelling all flights on January 30 and 31. Strikes have also been threatened on February 5, 6 and 7, plus February 12, 13 and 14. I'm currently scheduled to fly to South Africa for business on February 13. I may find myself going no further than the departure lounge.

I certainly hope I don't get caught out as I've booked myself a weekend stopover in Capetown. I loved my first visit last July and have always been keen to return. When I discovered earlier this week that it was cheaper to fly to Johannesburg via Capetown I naturally considered it my moral duty to do my bit and save the company money.

The last time I found myself in the midst of an airline strike South Africa also featured. In 1996, while in transit to Europe for my brother's wedding, I found myself stranded in Johannesburg. At the time South African Airlines had grounded every flight less than 48 hours before Hamish's wedding was due to start. At the last minute, while waiting at the airport, I was transfered to Lufthansa, enabling me to leave Africa on schedule. The departing aircraft was fully loaded with not an empty seat to be found.

I can't recall the last time I was affected by strike action in Australia. Union militancy wasn't a regular feature of antipodean life. However, since arriving in London, I've found myself caught up in several strikes including one involving the Underground.

In addition to the forthcoming South African business trip I also have a company event in Brighton to attend and a trip to Madrid in late-February.

Thursday, January 25

Living in a Winter wonderland

Compare this image with one taken in November.

We woke today to find almost four centimetres of snow covering everything in sight. This is our first proper snowfall since arriving in London. We missed last winter's snow cover that fell shortly after Christmas 2005 as we'd been holidaying in Austria.

The entire South and East of England was covered in snow today. Even Brighton beach received several centimetres. Not surprisingly, train delays were every where. I was greeted at the tube station with a simple announcement, "All London Underground lines are experiencing severe delays today." I was further bemused when my train pulled up to the platform, 30 metres below the ground, covered in snow.

The view from every window of Swiss Cottage was magic. Sadly it didn't last. By noon the the snow has disappeared and the city was back to normal. The Met Office is forecasting more snow tonight, possibly heavier than today. Areas in the Southeast are expecting up to 15 centimetres of cover. More snow is predicted for London early Friday morning. I hope so. It makes winter fun.

Wednesday, January 24

Comet McNaught

Every so often an event takes place that reminds me I'm no longer Down Under. This week I was sent photos of Comet McNaught, a spectacular comet that recently appeared in the Southern Hemisphere. I've always wanted to see a comet this stunning. Of course, I'm now in the Northern Hemisphere and the opportunity is lost.

The photo above was taken by Euan Mason, my cousin-in-law, in Christchurch, New Zealand. He's an avid amateur astronomer. I recall many years ago observing sunspots and solar prominences with his home made telescope. This was the first time I'd ever seen a sunspot myself. I was enthralled by the experience.

For the technically minded, Euan's photo is a three-minute exposure using a Skypod tracking device and ASA1600 film. The shutter was set at F5, using a 28 mm effective FL. Limited processing was done on the final image. (Copyright for this image resides with him). I wish I'd been able to see the image he's captured. I never imagined a comet would make me homesick.

Don't swing a cat inside

Every culture has its stereotypes. The English are no exception. However, every so often I read something that brings a few of these stereotypes to life.

Take yesterday's newspaper. It had a story about a 6ft by 12ft (1.8m by 3.6) London flat that came on to the market last week. This over-sized Chelsea cupboard is priced at £170,000 (A$428,000). However, any prospective buyer will have to spend another £30,000 making the flat habitable at it needs rewiring, repainting and other maintenance. Perhaps the English really do have homes that are smaller than average.

Today's paper was no better. It carried news of a survey that discovered UK women take an average of two baths a week. I've been living here for more than a year and I've yet to take my first English bath. Clearly the English really do love their baths.

Sunday, January 21

How much for the Crocodile Curry?

Soon after Henry VIII built St James Palace the surrounding area became one of London's most exclusive neighbourhoods. Today, almost 500 years later, the area remains home to some of London's more fashionable landmarks. Here you'll find the likes of The Ritz Hotel, the Burlington Arcade and Fortnum & Mason.

This afternoon Garry and I went for a wander through St James. Our excursion rapidly became a gourmet tour, taking in some of the world's more exotic delicacies. Our first stop was the famous cheesemonger, Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street. Since 1797, this store has supplied the English gentry with many of the world's most popular, and sometimes more obscure, cheeses.

Today samples of Mont D'Or were on offer. This creamy seasonal cheese comes from the Jura region in the French Alps (close to the shores of Lake Geneva). It's made every August and is generally available for five months. The last of this season's cheese were on sale, each wrapped in muslin cloth and packed in a small wooden box. Delicious. Much like a nutty Brie cheese. We bought a box.

We also picked up some Barkham Blue, an almost liquid blue cheese made using the milk of Jersey Island cows. It's brown, crusty surface mould makes it look like a dusty old potato. It's delicious with a glass of Jamieson Run Cabernet Sauvignon. Garry isn't a fan of blue cheese so we bought him a large wedge of Raclette - the perfect melting cheese for winter meals.

Our next gourmet stop was just up the road at Fortnum & Mason, the Queen's official grocer. This department store is also famous for its spectacular Christmas Hampers, available for shipping anywhere in the world. However, today we were fascinated by some of the more unusual items on sale including Chocolate Covered Scorpions, Reindeer Pate, Giant Toasted Ants and barbecue-flavoured Worms. Sadly, no samples were on offer and we weren't in a hurry to spend £13.95 for a tin of Crocodile Curry.

You known you're in the Queen's grocery store when you see bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne on sale for £400. That would be the 1976 vintage. The 1980 harvest was clearly rubbish at less than £150. We fortified ourselves with samples of Goat Cheese toast before departing for a late lunch on St Christopher's Lane. We've wandered past cafes here on several occasions but never stopped to dine.

Lunch was at Sofra, a popular Turkish restaurant chain. This is the only place in London where we've been able to find authentic turkish bread. We miss our Sydney weekends toasting tasty Turkish Bread for brunch. Garry dined on the Borek pastries and Mixed Grill, while I sampled the Lamb Kofta and Feta Salad. Another gourmet meal in the bag. Delicious.

Westminster Abbey

We've been in London for more than a year. However, we've yet to explore many of the city's traditional tourist sights. Today we chose Westminster Abbey to tick off the list. A church has been on the site of this grand building since the 10th Century. The current nave dates back to 13th Century and reflects the French design that was popular at the time. The coronation of every British monarch since William the Conqueror has taken place here. Many of Britain's greatest monarchs and historical figures are also buried within its walls.

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We made our way to the Abbey via Parliament Square. The area was bathed in brilliant sunshine making for a perfect winter's day. I stopped to briefly admire the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, glowering at the House of Commons, home to Britain's modern Parliament. It's hard to believe that this square was the country's first traffic roundabout. These days, roundabouts make an appearance throughout the city and even many of the nation's most remote country roads.

We explored every corner of the abbey. All sections were open allowing us to visit the tomb of Elizabeth 1, Mary Queen of Scots and most surprisingly, David Livingstone, African missionary and explorer. Along side the many tombs are memorials to many of the world's most famous figures including William Shakespeare, Franklin D Roosevelt, Charles Dickens and William Herschel (the English astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus).

Tomb of Elizabeth I. Her marble face was rendered using her death mask.

We arrived in time to watch the choir rehearse, swathed in bright red robes. The building seemed to come alive as their hymns echoed through each ornate chapel. Chapter House was also open. This octagonal room was built in the 13th Century and remain one of the best preserved medieval rooms in London. I was thrilled to finally see this room. It's always been closed any other time I've visited the Abbey.

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The Chapter House was initially used by monks who met here every day for prayers and to read a chapter from the rule of St Benedict. The English Parliament also met here until the Palace of Westminster was built. It then became a storage room for the nation's archives until being restored to its former glory. Today you can still see original 13th Century tiles on the floor.

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From the Abbey we wandered past Whitehall to St James Park. Here we stopped for a moment of silence in front of the new memorial erected to remember those killed in the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings. A single stone sphere sits in front of a curving wall engraved with the names of those that lost their lives. It seemed a particularly appropriate time to visit. The news this week has been filled with the trial of suicide bombers who failed in their attempt to blow up tube trains shortly after July 7, 2005.

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From here we made our way towards Oxford Street via St James Square and the exclusive Burlington Arcade. This 19th enclosed mall is home to some of London most lavish jewelers and fashion accessories. I was tempted by the vintage Rolex watches until I noticed the £10,900 price tag (A$25,000). This paled into insignificant when compared to the Cartier watch on sale for an astonishing £18,400 (A$45,000). Both watches made the £5,000 diamond rings next door look like a bargain. Now, where can I buy a Lotto ticket?

Friday, January 19

Swept off our feet

Our windy winter continues unabated. Powerful wind gusts hit 124km/h at Heathrow this afternoon and at least 110km/h in the city. Wind blowing consistently at 120 km/h is considered a hurricane. I walked to Hampstead for an appointment earlier today and found myself almost swept off my feet on more than one occasion. At times you could almost see ripples in the air itself as gusts reached their peak. I was certainly watching for flying objects.

Hurricane force winds also swept across most Europe. Severe wind warnings were issued in Munich, encouraging schools to cancel afternoon classes and send children home early. Eurostar cancelled its services to and from the UK after the wind brought down power lines in France. Deutsche Bahn, the German national rail company, also suspended its services.

The local news is full of stories about flight cancellations (123 at Heathrow alone), train delays, trucks being toppled and cars being flipped. At least 14 people are confirmed dead, while insurers anticipate claims of more than £1 billion over the next few days. Tonight Austria is forecasting wind gusts in the high reaches of the Alps of up to 170km/h.

We're also being warned that cold weather is finally on its way. The Met is predicting local snow showers next Tuesday in areas east of London. Quite a change from today's comfortable 14C. Temperatures should be similar tomorrow. Unfortunately, windy conditions are expected until Sunday.

Wednesday, January 17

A lot of hot air

Last winter soaring natural gas and electricity bills were the big news story. In 2006 British households saw their average gas bill rise by more than 42% in a single year. The dramatic price increase was driven by several related factors.

  • First, Russia's dispute with the Urkraine saw temporary supply restrictions in Europe, resulting in dramatic price increases overnight.
  • Second, the UK's natural gas self sufficiency has ended as its North Sea reserves slowly run down. As a result, the UK now imports about 10% of its gas. However, the country was ill-prepared for this change in supply. Until a few months ago it had only one alternative supply source, an aging, low-capacity pipeline link to Belgium. Sky-rocketing Russian wholesale prices often discourage suppliers from using the link at full capacity thus inflating local gas prices.
  • Finally, the wholesale gas market affects electricity bills as 39% of the UK's electricity is generated from gas.

Last year, to encourage loyalty, most gas utilities offered customers a range of capped price contracts. We decided not to sign up for one of these offers. The wholesale price of natural gas is expected to fall this year as a new pipeline from Norway comes on line and a new liquefied natural gas terminal opens for business.

However, for millions of households, the contracted cap period of their long term contracts came to an end this month. They're now locked into contracts with no discount. As a result, energy costs are soaring once again with some consumers experiencing increases of up to 70%. While our price was never capped, this month's gas bill was still staggering - in excess of £490. To say that this was shock is an understatement. Our last bill for a 90 day period was £30.50.

Keeping warm never cost so much!

Monday, January 15

Summer in New York

Last weekend a record temperature of 22C was set in New York for this date in January, breaking the previous record of 17C. The evening news was full of images of people sunbathing and eating ice cream. In Pennsylvania the current burst of warm weather caused Cherry trees break into bloom and bears have been reported waking from hibernation.

The continuing mild weather is playing havoc with nature here as well. The snowdrops have started sprouting in our front garden at least a month earlier than normal and I've also noticed ladybirds in the house. These insects typically hibernate over winter. Sadly, ladybirds coming out of hibernation now face starvation as the aphids they eat aren’t around to sustain them. A similar fate awaits local hedgehogs that apparently aren’t ready to hibernate either. So far winter has been more reminiscent of Sydney than Europe.

Sunday, January 14

The Thames Barrier

Central London was last flooded in 1928. 14 people lost their lives as the Thames River overflowed its banks, the flow swelled by a tidal surge. Almost 50 years later, more than 300 people died when a storm surge in 1953 overwhelmed England's east coast before sweeping up the Thames Estuary. Such events prompted calls for a flood protection barrier on the lower reaches of the Thames. In 1966 a Government report recommended the instalation of a moveable wall.

However, it was another 14 years before such a barrier was finally completed. The Thames Barrier, sited eight kilometres downstream from Greenwich, finally swung into action in October 1982. Its ten movable gates are positioned end-to-end across the river, stretching for more than 500 metres. The rotating mechanism for each gate are housed in gleaming stainless steel covers reminiscent of Sydney's iconic Opera House.

The four largest gates each have an opening providing a clear width of 61 metres. Each main gate is constructed as a hollow steel-plated structure over 20 metres high, weighing with counterweights, about 3,700 tonnes. All ten gates remain on the river bed during normal 6.4 metres tides, rising only when tidal surges are forecast. The barrier has been used at least 92 times since it was first activated in February 1983.

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On average the barrier is raised four times a year. However it's likely to get plenty of use in the coming decades. London is currently sinking at a rate of 60 cms every century. Add a little global warming and you're looking at a lot of rising tides! Some estimates suggest that the barrier could in use at least twice a month within twenty years.

Today I decided to see this modern engineering marvel for myself. The barrier is relatively easy to reach from Swiss Cottage. A 40-minute journey on the Jubilee Line takes you to Canning Town station. A quick escalator transfer to the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) gets you onto the new London City Airport line. The track runs on a series of raised pillars, with a new station convienently located just opposite the Thames Barrier.

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The Barrier looks every bit as impressive as photos suggest. When I arrived this afternoon the tide was at its lowest point. You could see that the Thames has a remarkable tidal range at this point. After a brisk walk in the new Thames Barrier Park, I jumped back on the DLR and continued past the airport to the end of the new line. A short walk then took me to the Woolwich Ferry.

This is a free ferry crossing, one of only four such crossings still operating on the Thames. Ferries have been operating here since the 14th Century. Its remarkable that such a service still exists in the heart of a city the size of London. It's likely to disappear around 2013 when the proposed Thames Gateway bridge opens. A final decision on this bridge is expected some time this year.

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The ferry was surpisingly busy. It was packed from end to end with cars and people. Rather than catch it myself, I decided to cross the Thames on foot using the Woolwich foot tunnel. This 504 metre pedestrian tunnel lies about 15 metres below the river bed. It was opened in 1912, and much like the Greenwich Foot Tunnel it was built to give South London workers swift access to employers in the city's docklands.

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From the tunnel's south exit I joined the Capital Ring. This walking route circles the city linking more than 125 kms of urban pathways. I only walked six kilometres today, passing the southern shore of the Thames Barrier and eventually finishing at North Greenwich tube station. This section of the Capital Ring also marks the start of the Thames Path, another walking route that takes you 180 miles to the soure of the river itself.

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The most dominant feature along this section of the Thames is the infamous Millennium Dome. Its bold white roof and tapering yellow support towers can be seen from almost any vantage point.The dome is currently being converted into an arena with capacity for 23,000 spectators. A shopping complex, hotel and casino are also planned.

These developments have been mired in political controversy, leading to the downfall of at least one Government Minister since our arrival in London. However, the dome does appear to be encouraging regeneration of the area, thus achieving at least one of its original goals. An array of colourful apartments are under construction in a style akin to that of Sydney's Meriton apartments.

The view today was spectacular. As I walked along the riverbank the dome was framed by the towers of Canary Wharf, which in turn were framed by dark, racing, winter clouds. All in all, a great afternoon exploring parts of London I've always wanted to see but never ventured into until now.

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Saturday, January 13

There she blows!

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I've just enjoyed several unseasonally warm days working in Milan. In fact, this morning I conducted an extended meeting while sitting outside on a sunny balcony. The same time last year I'd been shuffling through several inches of snow. Even more astonishing, last Monday in London, the overnight temperature never fell below 12.5C. It's starting to feel like a regular Australian winter over here!

My flight tonight was delayed more than an hour due to a combination of heavy fog in Italy and gale force winds in London. Wind gusts reached more than 40 miles an hour at Heathrow and continued most of the night. I believe it. Our large 757 aircraft was tossed around the sky on final approach. I was rather grateful to be back on terra firma once we'd touched down.

So far wind has been the dominant feature of winter. We've had more wind in the last few weeks than I recall all of last season. Wind isn't a common feature of London weather. Thanks to the protection afforded by Ireland, most of England experiences fewer than 15 days of gale a year.

A day of gale is defined as a day on which the mean wind speed exceeds 39 miles per hour for 10 minutes during a 24 hour period. We had at least ten days of gale winds in December and have similar weather for at least half a dozen days since 2007 began. More wind is forecast for Saturday and Sunday.

All this wind is going to be put to good use. On December 18, the Department of Trade and Industry gave the green light to an enormous Wind Farm in the Thames Estuary. It will consist of 341 gaint turbines, occupying an area of 90 square miles, 12 miles off the coast of Kent. The £1.5bn project will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity when completed. Another modern landmark is on its way.

The view from our Milan office.

Wednesday, January 10

Belsize beauty

History leaves its mark on every corner of London. About 15 minutes walk from home is a wonderful old Victorian church called St Stephen's. It sits at the corner of a busy intersection looking dilapidated and clearly abandoned. The external walls are pitted and worn. Windows are cracked and boarded. The boundary fence has a large sagging billboard soliciting donations for its restoration. St Stephen's has seen better days.

It's a wonderful old building. One of its most fascinating features is a circular gothic turret that juts from the bell tower's southwest corner. I can only conclude that this was a popular architectural flourish in the Victorian era. It appears on many houses in our neighbourhood that were built around the same period. While perhaps fashionable back then, it does seem rather out of place on a classic church facade.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I've discovered much about St Stephen's past. It was built in 1866-69 with room enough to seat 1200 worshippers. However, the building's capacity was never regularly achieved. At its peak, around 1886, a congregation of no more than 760 attended one of two services every Sunday.

Unfortunately, St Stephen's location on a sloping section effectively doomed it from the moment it opened. The building experienced subsidence in 1896, 1898, 1901 and again in 1969 when the neighbouring hospital complex was built. This final subsidence was significant, creating serious cracks. The cost of repairs effectively sealed St Stephen's fate and by 1977 the site was abandoned.

However, the building's true beauty is hidden. It's interior is spectacular. For a humble local church, St Stephen's has been aptly described as "one of the most moving Victorian interiors." The following photos of the interior show you what I mean. It' was no surprise to learn that the final construction cost was three times the original estimate. When you look at these photos you can also appreciate why a trust was created to fund and manage it restoration.

London is full of secrets like this and our neighbourhood is no exception.

Tuesday, January 9

You know you're in a big city when...

I read today that London has a bookshop that specialises in cookbooks. It's aptly named Books for Cooks and can be found in Notting Hill. The store even has a small cafe out back that offers a set lunch every day comprising recipes from books in stock. You know you're in a big city when a bookstore can make a living focused on such a niche.

This isn't the only specialist book store in London. There are stores that specialise in socialist books for the city's left-wing residents, stores for maps, atlases and travel guides, architecture and even the occult. I'm sure Sydney had several bookstores with similar specialities although I can only recall a store in Hunter Street selling maps and travel guides.

The number of speciality stores in London is fascinating. The city has a store dedicated to just about any quirk that takes your fancy. I've blogged before about SANZA, the store selling food and memorabila from the Antipodes. However, I've also seen shops that focus on items for left-handed people, Elvis Presley memorabilia (it's next door to the shop selling Beatles memorabilia) and kites. There's even a store dedicated to Tintin, the famous Belgian cartoon character.

Eight million dead trees

Last Friday was the eve of Epiphany (January 6), or the 12th day after Christmas. According to tradition, you'll suffer bad luck if your tree and decorations aren't removed by this date. So what happens to all of those abandoned trees? I'd never considered their fate until today when, quite by chance, I discovered the answer to this question. This morning I took a different route to work and stumbled across an enormous pile of discarded Christmas trees, several metres high, heaped on a large traffic island. Local residents had clearly been working all weekend to ensure their good fortune.

The size of the pile stunned me. According to the British Christmas Tree Grower's Association (yes, there really is one) more than eight million trees are sold every year. Local authorities in England and Wales recycle about two million of them, leaving six million to be dumped or burned in early January. In fact, London's rubbish output rises by ten percent over this period as people discard trees and festive litter.

Garry and I took down our (artifical) Christmas tree and decorations over the weekend. Hopefully luck will remain on our side even though we missed the midnight deadline on Friday. The house looks surprisingly bare now. I never thought I'd miss fresh holly and tinsel quite so much.

Monday, January 8

Mid-year clean air

Down Under is traditionally considered behind the times. However I'm often surprised how backward the UK regarding several social trends. For example, late night closing for pubs and bars kicked off shortly before our arrival in London. Meanwhile most of my favourite Sydney bars have been open until dawn for (far too) many years. In fact, in more recent times, some have extended their hours to the point they're basically trading 24 hours a day.

The latest social trend finally reaching London is the banning of smoking in public venues including pubs and restaurants. The ban comes into force in July this year. I was staggered when we first arrived to discover that smoking was still permitted in such places. One year on and it still surprises me to see someone light up in a restaurant or have clothes reeking of cigarette smoke after a night out.

The contrast with Sydney really stood out when Garry and I went back last year. We caught up with friends one evening in town, eventually ending up in a fantastic new nightclub. I recall being astonished at the clarity and freshness of the air despite standing in a large, very crowded venue. The venue also had a soaring atrium and lots of shiny glass surfaces. As a result, the combination of indoor space and smoke-free atomsphere made me wonder if I'd stepped into a science fiction movie, one in which the future is portrayed as green, clean and almost antiseptic.

This scene in Sydney should reassure UK publicans who fear that a smoking ban will dramatically reduce customers coming through their doors. A similar ban in Scotland saw sales fall 10% in the first few months but have since recovered. The experience in Sydney proves that punters still like a drink or two, even if they can't light up inside. I hasn't realised how normal clean air had become in a bar until I came to London. It's surprising what you get use to.

The UK is not alone when it comes to smoking in public places. Smoking continues in a manner of public spaces across Europe. So much so that I'm continually surprised where the smell of cigarette smoke is present. I've noticed it in airport terminals, shopping malls, restaurants, theatre lobbys and other public spaces where smoking has long been banned in Australia.

In fact, one of the few public spaces in London where smoking is genuinely banned is the Underground. Here a smoking ban came was finally enforced following the tragic Kings Cross station fire in 1987. This particular fire was started by a smoker dropping a match onto a wooden escalator. The sad irony is that a smoking ban had actually been put in place two years earlier.

Sunday, January 7

2000 visitors, 70 countries

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Nine months after adding a visitor counter to my blog I've just clocked up my 2000th visitor. I clocked up my first thousand in seven months, and the second in less than four months. The site seems to be gathering a small following. Last month I had a message from someone in Norway who's following our adventures with interest. Norway is just one of 70 countries reporting visitors so far. Incredible!

The Swiss Cottage originally started life as a handy tool for keeping family and friends in touch with our adventures. However, it's evolved over time to include general anecdotes about life in the UK. In particular I've tried to highlight differences that might amuse or entertain Antipodean readers, along with some of the quirkier news stories that hit the headlines from time to time. Posts have included stories about:

Next month I'll celebrate the first anniversary of this blog. I must admit that I really enjoy keeping it updated. It's become a terrific record of our time in Europe, and a great reminder of all that we're experiencing. I never imagined we’d have quite the adventure we’ve had. I’m constantly amazed by all we’ve seen and done each time I review the archives.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 6

Travel plans for 2007

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It's that time of year when everyone starts making grand plans. Garry and I are no exception. Now that Garry has a permanent job we've found ourselves having to plan vacations well in advance. As a result, we've already mapped out several travel itineraries for 2007.

First, we're off to an exotic destination at Easter, part of a surprise we've planned for Garry's parents while they're in town. Of course, I'm sworn to secrecy so I can't say anything more than we'll be out of town for five days.

In May we're planning an eight-day tour of Western Turkey. This tour covers Istanbul, Gallipoli, the Roman ruins of Ephesus and the spectacular, terraced, mineral pools of Pamukkale. We had looked at visiting Turkey during ANZAC celebrations, but the more we read and hear from others, the less desirable the whole experience sounds.

In essence we've been told to expect thousands of people camped overnight on a small site with limited bathroom facilities and the last of the winter chill still in the air, following by hours of sitting in idle buses queuing to leave the site, or catch a ferry across the Dardanelles. We've decided to give all of that a miss and visit when ANZAC cove is crowd free.

While ANZAC cove is a highlight for Garry, I'm really looking forward to seeing Pamukkale. I've wanted to visit after seeing photos as a child. I'm sure the vista is reminiscent of New Zealand's famous Pink and White Terraces, destroyed in the 1866 Tarawera volcanic eruption. The scale and beauty of this lost wonder has always captured my imagination.

At the end of July, Garry and I will return to Australia and New Zealand via the USA for two weeks. This to complete the final leg of the second RTW ticket we purchased last year. Our itinerary through the USA takes us to Orlando (for another tour of the Kennedy Space Centre), New Orleans and San Diego. Our tickets expire mid-August so this one trip we won't postpone.

Finally, we're looking at taking a truly relaxing week off in mid-Autumn, preferably somewhere reasonably warm. We're considering the Greek Islands or the Caribbean. However, we're also thinking that a leisurely driving tour of Ireland could be fun. For now, dates and venue have yet to be decided.

In between all of these scheduled trips we're still keen to grab some weekends away around the UK (and Europe whenever last minute ticket bargains appear). Canterbury, Dover, The Lake District and Wales are a few destinations on our list. I'm sure we'll do some of these weekends away while Garry's parents are in town. I'm also keen to see Iceland. There are great specials that appear every so often for a long weekend.

Friday, January 5

Getting some kulture

We have several cultural highlights planned for 2007. As I've posted before, we're off to see Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake production this weekend. I'm keen to compare this modern version of Tchaikovsky's ballet classic with the more traditional performance we saw at the Hermitage in St Petersburg last month. Matthew Bourne's production of Swan Lake has become the longest running ballet in London’s West End and on Broadway

Talking about long runs, in early February we're off to see The Mousetrap, the world's longest running play. Written by Agatha Christie, this murder/mystery started life as a short radio play. It opened as a full-length production in London at the Ambassadors Theatre on November 25, 1952 and continues to this day. So far more than 20,000 performances have been held. The cast is changed annually, usually in November. In its earlier days, some of the cast members performed their roles for years on end. I'm not sure I could cope with such a GroundHog Day career!

Finally, I'm off to Milan next week for a quick business trip. I had hoped to linger over a weekend and do some cultured winter shopping in the city's many boutiques. Smart leather shoes and suit pants were on my list. Unfortunately I've been called back to London next Friday for a client meeting in Cambridge.

Wednesday, January 3

Happy New Year

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Welcome to 2007..!

Garry and I joined friends at a bar in Soho for NYE. With so many people in the city centre streets had been blocked off creating a rather festive atmosphere. After a great night out we soon found ourselves caught in a swelling queue waiting for a tube ride home.

The police were progressively closing most of the inner city stations for lengthy period to prevent overcrowding on the platforms underground. As a result the entrance to tube stations in the West End was a scene of growing chaos. After 45 minutes of wandering we eventually found an open station.

The lesson? Stay out later and avoid the crowd! We hope you've had a great start to 2007 as well.

A growing crowd waits outside Green Park station at 2am.

Monday, January 1

An Inconvenient Truth

It's official. 2006 was the UK's warmest year since records began in 1659. This year the average temperature was almost 11C. The previous record of 10.6C was set in 1990 and 1999. Astonishingly, ten of the warmest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years.

We certainly saw the effect of these warmer temperatures in Russia. Cities normally covered in a foot or more of snow had barely a dusting. We even started removing our thermals on the last few days to avoid overheating. London is also warmer than this time last year. With only a day to go, the average temperature in December has been 6.3C, about 1.5C higher than normal. The Met office is also saying the there's a better than 60% chance 2007 will be another year of record warmth.

I must admit that these statistics and our experience in the UK make the concept of global warming seem increasingly real. Earlier this year I saw Al Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. It contains some sobering moments and genuinely astonishing statistics. I did feel slightly conflicted while watching the movie as it was screening on an inflight entertainment system thousands of metres above the Atlantic. Al and others claim that the airline industry one of the planet's more significant carbon emission sources.

While our weather has been pleasant, this looks likely to come to an abrupt end. New Year's Eve is set to be unpleasant with gales of up to 80 mph forecast for Scotland. We'll have rain and gusts in down here in London, but nothing extreme.

Soviet Service

The Russians have a terrific phrase for retail and hospitality service that's either poor or non-existent. They simply call it, "Soviet Service." It's easy to forgive such incidents when in Russia as a quick glance around you explains a lot. Soviet aesthetics in all aspects were rather souless, from dower grey concrete buildings to one-dimensional proletarian art. One hardly expects Russian service to be any different.

However, after 12 months, I have to admit that Soviet Service can be found in abundance right across Europe. I realise now that, by comparison, we're spoilt in Australia and New Zealand. Even the developing (and developed) economies of Asia offer consistently better, more friendly service. Europe has a lot to learn about good, professional hospitality. A few European hotel incidents illustrate my point.

Here I was actively deceived by front desk staff at a five-star hotel (Beau-Rivage). I asked the front desk to confirm my check-out time and was offered a midday check-out. I was surprised as I'd booked a package deal that included a 5pm late check-out. As I spoke with front desk staff I noticed a printed copy of the guest roster on the counter. This roster clearly stated that I was on a late check-out package, scheduled to depart at 5pm. A staff member saw me glance at the roster and immediately picked it up, holding the clipboard to her chest. When I challenged her actions and pointed out the roster details, my check-out time was suddenly adjusted without apology or a hint of remorse.

This same hotel provided us with a meal at its five-star, silver service restaurant, as part of our weekend accomodation package. Sadly, small aspects of the table service were consistently flawed, leaving us with an overall impression rather less than a five-star. This was a shame as the hotel itself is located in a wonderful old building.

Garry and I wandered into the breakfast room of our hotel (Old Ship Hotel) and encountered a scene of total chaos. The room had less than a dozen guests eating, yet none of them were happy. Dirty dishes littered almost every available table. Coffee pots were empty, glassware and cutlery was absent from the buffet table, serving dishes were empty, table staff were equally absent (or wandering aimlessly). It was clear that nobody was in charge of the dining room floor and situation was growing steadily worse.

This was also the hotel where the lift to our floor was broken. The staff thoughtfully put us in a room well away from the inoperative lift, and more surprisingly, even further away from the only working lift. As a result, we had to walk to a second set of lifts in another building and then cross back to our own building every time we ventured to our room. It was also clear that the hotel wasn't full. In other words a more convieniently located room was available had anyone at the front desk stopped to think.

We've encountered similar situations across Europe with call centres, retail staff, restaurants and public sector services. It not uncommon for retail staff to complete conversations with each other before serving waiting customers. I've also watched public sector staff stand around while queues form, then listen as they request a tea break from the supervisor, which more often than not is granted.

Garry could regale you for hours with stories of incompetency as he struggled to set up our new home. Few people in Europe seems to appreciate what good service looks like, and even fewer seem to care. Smiles are clearly extra.