Friday, March 30

The Aussie invasion

Garry's parents, Murray and Rhonda, have arrived safely in London this morning after more than 22 hours in the air. They report that Virgin Atlantic's new Premium Economy is genuinely as good as it sounds on paper. Rhonda's lower back also seems to have coped after some initial discomfort on the flight to Hong Kong. She's in good spirits.

Plans are already underway for a walking tour of London's more famous sights next week. I've quickly mapped out a route that covers Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and Trafalger Square. We've also shown them how to get to Primrose Hill from our house. We thought this simple ten-minute walk might help to ward of the worst affects of jet-lag later today.

Wednesday, March 28

Counting down the days

The newspapers proudly announced today that Heathrow's new Terminal 5 opens for business in exactly one year. I've noticed that pseudo-public service updates like these are a popular news tradition in the UK. In November papers were heralding the final year countdown for the start of services on the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link into Kings Cross/St Pancras. When you consider the reputed British passion for queuing such announcements almost make sense. Why not promote a lengthy wait and satisfy the nation's passion.

Those who know me well are familiar with my love for public works, especially large infrastructure projects. Sad as it may seem, I'm quite excited by the thought of being in London when the new High Speed rail link opens for business, or completion of Heathrow Terminal 5.

The new rail link will dramatically reduce travel time to Paris on Eurostar. Once the new terminal opens at Kings Cross, the journey will take no more than 2 hours, 15 minutes. Our house is less than ten minutes by tube from the new terminus, effectively putting Paris within three hours of our doorstep (including time for passport control and check-in). Earlier this month a Eurostar train ran into St Pancras for the first time. Regular services will start on November 14.

Having the Eurostar on our doorstep will make an incredible difference. It currently takes me about 1:45 hours to get home from the moment my plane lands at Heathrow. This means that door-to-door the train is the fastest form of transport for many European destinations including Brussels, Paris and much of France. Later this year a new high-speed rail link will open between Brussels and Amsterdam making it possible to reach the Netherlands in only 3.5 hours. A similar link in early-2008 will put Cologne in the same travel time range.

Terminal 5 is a massive undertaking. From March 30 next year this single building will process 30 million passengers a year, or about 40% of all people currently passing through Heathrow. I can't wait. The current facilities at Heathrow are among the worst in Europe. Air travel in this pass of the world is a definite step down from the new and spacious facilities I once used in Asia.

Plans are now in the making for the construction of a second terminal at Heathrow that will replace three other aging buildings. This second structure will support more than 30 million passengers annually when it opens shortly before the Olympic Games in 2012.

Monday, March 26

The Hilton is open for business

Our guests will get their first taste of the tube on Friday

Final preparations have been made for the arrival of Garry’s parents from Sydney. They arrive for six weeks on Friday. We’ve emptied drawers and cupboards in the spare room and Garry has spent time tidying the front yard. The spare room looks grand.

Earlier today we made a dash to IKEA to secure some new curtains for the spare room. Until now it's only had translucent blinds. However, the shift to Summer Time this weekend will make the room too bright for sleeping.

The crowds were crazy at IKEA. People were swarming every where and the roads were filled with slow moving traffic. Perhaps everyone has guests on their way? We eventually secured our curtains, along with a host of kitchen knickknacks from the marketplace hall.

Our Antipodean guests can expect showers on Friday with a high of 11C and an overnight low of 5C. Temperatures should rise again to 15C by Sunday, accompanied by sunny blue skies.

Sunday, March 25

The British Museum

In 1798, Napoleon's army landed on the African coach at Alexandria and proceeded to march towards Cairo. His army soon overcame the Ottomans, giving the French unfettered control of Egypt. The army set about building fortifications, including construction near the port city of Rosetta. It was here on July 15, 1799 that French Army captain, Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone.

The stone is scribed with a decree from Ptolemy V repealing taxes and ordering new statues to be erected in local temples. The inscription in two Egyptian languages and classical Greek enabled scholars to previously untranslatable hieroglyphics. Today, the Rosetta Stone sits in the British Museum in London. It arrived in England in 1802 shortly after the British Army successfully routed Egypt’s French invaders.

This afternoon Garry and I finally got to see the Stone for ourselves. We’d previously seen a replica in Cairo, donated by the British Museum in 2005. The Rosetta stone sits just into the main Egyptian hall of the British Museum. It’s easy to spot. Just follow the crowd.

The building’s newest addition is a stunning covered atrium known as the Great Court. It was opened in 2000. Effectively, an enormous glass dome covers the Museum’s former courtyard transforming it into Europe’s largest covered square. The sensation of space and light is stunning. A truly spectacular public space.

The British Museum boasts the largest and most comprehensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo. It also has an impressive collection of Greek items, including an extensive selection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon. These stunning relief sculptures of horsemen and warriors are also known as the Elgin Marbles. They were named after the 7th Earl of Elgin who controversially shipped them out Greece in 1806. The Greek government has been trying to have them return ever since. At times the British Museum feels more like a dodgy collection of stolen goods.

Today’s trivial fact de jour? The Parthenon’s current state of ruin isn’t a result of ancient decay. It was destroyed in 1687 when a gunpowder store inside was set alight by an enemy bombardment. It’s hard to imagine an ancient monument was used as a munitions dump. Who says history is dull?

Saturday, March 24

You're not who you say you are

I have a confession. I was born in New Zealand. I first left the country at the age of 17 and lived for a year in the USA as an exchange student. I returned home to study at University, then moved to Australia where I spent the next 16 years in Sydney.

I’ve effectively spent my adult life living outside of New Zealand. As a result I consider myself an Australian who was born in New Zealand. Such a distinction is understood and commonly accepted in Sydney. Even Russell Crowe is one of us. I travel on an Australian passport, speak with an Australian accent and own Australian property.

However, since arriving in London I’ve found myself described as a Kiwi time and time again. Beyond Australia’s borders the concept of an Australian born in New Zealand doesn’t exist. From a British perspective your place of birth defines you, not your place of last residence or personal identification.

Somehow I’ve become a stranger in my own body. I feel like an Australian and consider myself an Australian. Yet for the first time in my adult life everyone wants to make me be somebody else - a person that isn’t me. I'm expected to know when the Kiwis are playing cricket and care about the fate of the All Blacks. I don't. Friends and work colleagues can’t understand the problem. “You were born in New Zealand, you must be a Kiwi.”

I don't dislike New Zealand. I'm not ashamed of my birthplace. However, its not a place that feels a part of me. To have my identity reassigned without my consent or consultation has been a most surprising and unexpected consequence of relocating to London. I feel as if some part of me has been stolen.

More than 460,000 Kiwis currently live in Australia, almost one in ten New Zealand citizens alive today. Another 200,000 live in Britain. I wonder how many of them have also lost their identity?

Snow! What about Spring?

Blossom smothers a neighbourhood tree

We've been experiencing a cold snap for a week now. Last weekend I went walking a friend along the Thames Path toward Greenwich. Our 20 minute walk started in warm sunny weather and finished in the midst of bitterly cold wind with snow flurries. Since then we've had several light flurries during the week with temperatures plunging as low as 2C. So much for Spring!

The warmer weather returns next week with temperatures climbing as high as 18C. I'm sure the squirrels are confused. Winter this week, Summer the next.

Thursday, March 22

More kulture coming

With our many family visitors almost upon us, we've been booking tickets for plenty of live theatre. London is full of theatre. It's staggering how much is on offer. The West End alone has more than 50 productions live every day, competing against an equal number of active fringe theatres.

Over the next few months we're off to see:
  • Boeing, Boeing- a classic comedy that's been revived on the West End. I recall first hearing of this play while at school in Morrinsville, New Zealand. The local amateur theatre group staged a production in its aging Little Theatre. I never saw it but a story involving commercial airlines captured my imagination and has remained with me ever since.
  • King of Hearts - another comedy that explores a world in which the future King of England wants to marry a Muslim bride. I'm sure it'll have its moments of controversy. It's on at our local theatre literally five minutes walk from home.
  • Dame Edna Everage - we've scored tickets to watch the taping of Dame Edna's new television show on ITV1. This should be a unique experience watching the show come together, sharing outakes and witnessing moments that never translate well on to the small screen. I've not seen a television show taping for ages. I recall taking my parents to see a live Australian lunch time talk show go to air many years ago. Bananarama were guests at the time.

It looks like we got plenty of laughs ahead of us. I've also booked my parents tickets to see The Mousetrap. The show must go on.

Hit me! 3000 times!

London Eye at night from our bedroom window

Swiss Cottage hit another milestone today. The blog clocked up its 3000th hit. Amazing! The first 1000 hits took seven months, the second thousand only four months and the last thousands barely three months. Who are these people? At the current rate the site will receive close to 6000 visitors in 2007.

The original purpose of this blog was to capture the adventure we're having in Europe, while describing what it's like to live in Europe. I worry that as time passes I'll lose my foreign observer's eye. It's only natural that daily differences will eventually become the norm. I'd hate for this to become just a blog about life as usual. The world's got to be more interesting than that.

I've decided to expand the scope of the blog in future to include memories from past travel adventures. I've been traveling internationally since leaving home at the age of 17. At the time I was an exchange student in Syracuse, a city in Upstate New York. My teenage adventure kicked off a history of wanderlust that continues to this day. Come August we'll visit Mexico and I'll clock up my 50th country. It's time to capture some of these travel memories and liberate thousands of photos stored in shoe boxes around the house.

Look for stories about my trip to Easter Island, climbing the Rock of Gibraltar, sliding down the Great Wall of China, stalking leopards in Africa and cruising the islands of Tahiti. I've been lucky to have seen so much of the world in the last 25 years. It helps that my job enables me to revisit much of it every year. Hopefully these new posts will inspire a few mystery web friends to explore more of the world as well.

Monday, March 19

75 years old? It's a baby

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was closed today for a public walk-over. The event celebrated the 75th anniversary of the bridge's opening. Australia's festivities made me wonder which was London's oldest surviving bridge.

The oldest bridge across the Thames River in London is Westminster Bridge. This wrought iron bridge was opened in 1862, replacing an even older structure that opened in 1750. The bridge sits along side the House of Commons in the Palace of Westminster. The first bridge on this site was the second Thames crossing built in London. It's remarkable that there was only one bridge crossing the river until the mid-1700s.

Previously the oldest bridge had been London Bridge, built in 1831. A bridge has been situated in this area for almost 2000 years. The current bridge was opened in 1973. Its predecessor was famously sold to an American millionaire, disassembled and shipped to Arizona. The resurrected bridge is now the centrepiece of a planned community called Lake Havasu City.

Congratulations Sydney Harbour Bridge. You'll be old once you reach 145 years of age.

Saturday, March 17

The glory of the empire

I was back in Amsterdam this week. I love visiting. I defy anyone to despise Amsterdam's picturesque canals lined with 17th Century merchant houses. The glory of an old sea-faring empire is still very much alive. I stayed a night in the Renaissance Hotel which sits in a quiet cobbled stone laneway, literally metres from Singel, one of Amsterdam's famous canals. The hotel has one of the city's more unusual conference centres, built in the shell of a 17th century, brick domed church.

While in town I attended a meeting inside one of the city's grand merchant homes. We met over lunch in a high-ceiling drawing room, complete with crystal chandelier and beautifully restored painted walls depicting rural landscapes from the 1600s. It was one of those moments when I'm reminded how special my job can be.

I was in town mainly as a keynote speaker for an industry event in Amersfoort, about 40 kilometres from Amsterdam. My presentation on the rise of online social networks and the immersive internet was warmly received by more than 110 industry peers. My host was Hans Appel, a delightful man, with a generous, playful spirit. With more than 30 years in the IT industry he's something of a local icon.

Tuesday, March 13

The proud Australians

Headlines this weekend were dominated by the much delayed completion of the new Wembley stadium. Late on Friday, Australian developer Multiplex officially handed over the stadium’s keys to the Football Association. If all goes well this year’s FA Cup final will return to Wembley in May after an absence of five years.

The stadium’s completion had originally been scheduled for January last year. In 1995 when planning first began, it had been hoped the stadium would open in the Summer of 2005. However, a series of delays and cost overruns have plagued the site since work began. The final price has been equally high for Multiplex. As the new stadium's cost increased from £352 million to a mind-numbing £757 million, Multiplex lost a reported £75m on the project. It also issued four profit warnings in 2005, had its executive chairman resign in disgrace and watched its share price subsequently plunge.

We arrived in London in December 2005 as delay headlines were dominating the news. The big question at the time, "Would the stadium be ready for the FA Cup Final in 2006?" All this is now history following Friday's announcement. The new stadium seats an impressive 90,000 spectators and contains 2,618 toilets – supposedly more than any other building in the world. The stadium's dramatic signature arch, 133 metres high, can be seen from many parts of the city (including the top of the London Eye).

We’ve also seen the stadium precinct up close several times since arriving in London. It’s a quick 15 minutes North by tube from our local station. Close by the stadium is retail park, consisting largely of large furniture, home electrical and furnishing stores. This was our weekend haunt for many months when we moved into Swiss Cottage.

Wembley isn’t the only major construction project being undertaken by Mulitplex in London. Most working days my tube train takes me past White City where a truly gigantic office and retail complex is rapidly taking shape. This 40 acre site is being built for another proud Australia, Westfield.

The scale of the project is mind-boggling. The site includes new motorway access ramps, a new tube station, multi-story car parking, leisure centre, cinema and retail mall. When completed it will rival some of the largest malls scattered across Australia. While common Down Under, such retail destinations remain relatively rare in London. It’s also uncommon to see such an enormous construction site so close to the heart of London.

Fingers crossed. All appears to be on schedule at this Multiplex site.

Saturday, March 10

Spring has sprung

Spring has arrived. Temperatures are slowly on the rise. The Met Office is predicting a steady period of daytime temperatures hitting 12-14C for the next ten days. Likewise, the overnight temperature is expected to hover around 7-9C. A month ago, daytime temperatures were closer to those now being forecast overnight.

I continue to be amazed how distinctive each season is in the UK. Daffodils are starting to bloom in the garden and neighbouring trees are smothered in blossom. The Royal Horticultural Society has confirmed that most spring flowers are in bloom, at least a month earlier than usual. Garry and I have decided to schedule a trip to the London Zoo and see the new born animals this year. The Zoo is located on the edge of The Regents Park, less than 15 minutes walk from home.

Last week the Met Office reported that the winter just ended was the UK’s second mildest on record. For London, it's been the mildest ever recorded. In fact the last 12 months (March 2006 to February 2007) have been the warmest period for 348 years. The rest of Europe is reporting similar records. MeteoSwiss says that Switzerland has experienced the warmest winter since records began 140 years ago. The German Weather Service also declared winter the warmest on record across Central Europe.

Friday, March 9

Don't park there!

The Saab has a puncture. Well, there's a nail in the tyre. While its been holding pressure since we discovered it last month, I'm sure it'll eventually deflate if left unattended. As a result, I took the car into the local tyre shop today. What an experience!

I thought I'd stepped on to the sound stage of a television sitcom. First, as I drove into the repair bay and parked the car I was greeted by a stern rap on the window. "I'm sorry mate, you can't park your car there without authorisation. Please move it outside and report to reception." I duly reverse the car and double park behind another customer. A filthy look is offered from the passenger seat. I shrug.

Upon entering reception, the same gentleman that greeted me in the repair bay, now greets me from behind the reception desk. I describe the errant nail. "I see. Please can you drive your car into the repair bay Sir." "The one I was just parked in?" "Yes Sir." He's serious. I move the car back to its original parking spot. Is this Candid Camera?

The tyre is repaired. Now, a new slap stick routinue unfolds in reception as two rotund, grease-covered men in overalls attempt to print a receipt. Several paper jams later, accompanied by endless opening and closing of printer doors, removal of printing cartridges and paper trays, I'm presented with a well finger-printed invoice. The successful printer technician hands it over with a wide greasy, grin - complete with missing tooth.

I drive off and barely travel 100 metres before discovering that the boot is open and the lid is flapping widely. I attempt to pull over as a stream of impatient traffic nips at my heels. This is London. The street is narrow. The terrace houses lack driveways and parked cars line the street as far as the eye can see. In desperation I pull into the first driveway I can find. Disaster strikes. It's a daycare centre and the car behind me wants to drive in. Now I'm stuck in a driveway. Glaring parents are starting to pile up behind in their SUVs. Move over Mr Bean!

After much frantic arm waving in the rear vision mirror I'm finally able to reverse out of the driveway, close the boot and make my way home. The biggest joke of all? We're £146.50 poorer. Tyres aren't cheap in London.

Wednesday, March 7

Time for a change

On March 25 we'll be moving our clocks forward one hour to British Summer Time (BST). The UK has been doing this every year since 1916. BST was also in force permanently during the Second World War from February 1940 until October 1945, with double summer time used between 1941-1947 (1946 was an exception).

In 1996 all clocks in Europe changed to summer time on the same date for the first time. In 2002, the UK also agreed to permanently link its clock changing dates with Europe. However, in more recent times, regular calls have been made for the UK to remain permanently on BST rather than turn its clocks back every October. Such a move would put the UK on the same time zone used by the rest of Western Europe (with the exception of Portugal).

I can see plenty of logic for doing this. Paris, which is roughly due south of London, is always an hour ahead of the UK. It seems crazy to have cities at a similar longitude on different time zones. It's amazing what a difference that hour can make in winter. I recall the shock I received last winter when I opened my Parisian hotel curtains about 8am only to discover it was still pitch black outside.

As was the case last year, a private member's bill has been tabled in Parliament seeking a permanent time zone change. However, as in previous years, this bill is unlikely to succeed. The UK did trial a time zone change to Central Europe Time from February 1968 until October 1971. However, politicians lost their nerve and ended the trial once newspapers began printing headlines about Scotish children killed while walking to school in the morning darkness.

While young deaths were a tragedy, researchers found during the trial period that evening road accidents fell by a far greater rate than morning accidents rose. Currently, at least 450 people are left dead or injured on Britain's roads as a result of early darkness returning in the winter months. Surely, the perfect reason for enduring signal failures on the tube every evening.

Sunday, March 4

The moon stops traffic

The first total lunar eclipse for more than three years occured last night. Garry and I were out with a group of friends in Soho. As we came out of the pub around 10:30 we found people everywhere standing in the street looking skyward. Traffic in the area had almost come to a halt.

Our timing was perfect. The earth's shadow had just begun spreading across the moon. The sight was incredible. As we watched the moon was progressively swallowed by darkness, its surface being lit by an ever decreasing crescent of light. The last total eclipse visible from the UK was in May 2004. However, it was obscured by clouds. Last night the sky was clear and the air was still.

The last time I recall seeing a lunar eclipse so clearly was in 1984. I recall this event so well because I was at Toronto Zoo at the time and the moon had been making one of its ghostly white daytime appearances. We'll see another lunar eclipse from the UK on 21 February next year.

Saturday, March 3

Torres Colón

I've just completed a whirlwind two-day business visit to Madrid. The weather was wonderful and my hotel was centrally located in Plaza Colón. The plaza has two prominent landmarks. The first is a tall, slender obelisk capped by a statue of Christopher Columbus, the man reputed to have discovered America. Cristóbal Colón is the Spanish name for this famous local hero. The plaza also includes a giant flagpole with a truly enormous Spanish flag. Strong winds on Thursday kept it flowing all afternoon.

The second landmark is Torres Colón, a copper-coloured twin tower block crowned by a green roof and twin green masts. For the last two days I've woken to a view of this stunning building from my hotel window. The building is known locally as the 'Enchufe' (plug-in) thanks to its roof design. Torres Colón was one of Madrid's first skyscrapers when completed in 1976. Each tower is 116 metres tall, sitting high above other buildings in the area. As a result, it offers a stunning, uninterrupted panoramic view of Madrid. Despite its age, Torres Colón remains a wonderful monument to modern architecture.

Earlier this week, I had a lunch meeting close to Liverpool Street railway station in London. Coming back from lunch I was enthralled by the unexpected sight of another wonderful high-rise icon. 30 St Mary Axe, more fondly known as the 'Gherkin', stood out against the local skyline. At 180 metres, this bold Sir Norman Foster designed building is currently London's second tallest building. It really did look spectacular against a drab foreground of dusty Victorian buildings.