Sunday, October 28

A story about banks

Last year the number of people using internet banking in the UK passed that of people using telephone banking. Almost 17 million people, more than a third of the adult population, now bank online. Four years ago, only 7.5 million people used internet banking. Garry and I are part of the UK's growing online community. We have been heavy users of internet banking for many years in Australia, so it was natural for us to set up internet banking facilities when we arrived here. However, it soon became apparent that this country has a lot to learn from its antipodean cousins. A few anecdotes paint a grim and often frustrating picture on online banking in London.

First, we’ve found that each bank has its own unique process for logging customers onto its site. Some use pass codes, others use passwords, while some require both in differing combinations. Even worse, password creation varies enormously. Some want more than six letters in your password, some want both numbers and letters, while one site even wants at least capital letter as part of the combination. The result is a confusing mix of passwords, making it almost impossible to remember access details from one site to the next. I currently use six different password combinations to access four different banking services in Australia and the UK. Needless to say I’ve locked myself out of at one site more than three times in the last six months alone.

Our primary UK bank took the entire access challenge to an entirely new level last month by introducing both passwords and electronic key-chain security tokens. These tokens generate new digital access codes every minute on a tiny display screen. The whole set up is incredibly inconvenient. You always need to have your token on hand to access your account. This simply means that I can’t access my accounts from the office or any overseas location as I’m disinclined to carry my token with me – my pockets are cluttered enough as it is. Of course if I misplace my token I’ll have no internet banking access at all.

Simply setting up internet banking access has its own set of challenges. One UK bank required us to open an account before we could even apply to have online access using a separate set of paperwork. Why on earth we couldn’t simply apply for online access simultaneously was beyond me. The mystery only grew when another bank facilitated both processes using one application.

Equally mystifying is an major national bank that’s unable to provide access to its credit card services from the site I use to access other accounts with the same bank. This was never a problem in Australia, but for some reason, is totally impossible to do in the UK. Needless to say, we’re not fans of online banking in the UK and miss the simple, efficient services available in Australia.

Saturday, October 27

Found: thai to die for

I have a confession to make. Garry and I are fans of Thai food. Back in Sydney there were three or four tasty, simple venues within walking distance of our apartment offering the best cuisine at bargain prices. Sadly, since arriving in London almost two years ago we've struggled to find a decent Thai restaurant. We did discover a delightful Thai-influenced fusion restaurant a couple blocks from our serviced apartment shortly after we arrived, but nothing more. That is, until last night.

On whim we walked into the most unassuming Thai restaurant in Soho. Cheap decor, ugly red storefront and plain tables. However, no sooner had the first dish arrived at our table and we knew we'd found a long lost friend. Finally, a Thai fishcake that was chunky rather than rubbery, with a real fish taste. Finally, stir fry dishes and currys with fresh, authentic Thai flavours. Chiang Mai restaurant on Frith Street is now our second home.

We later learnt that the restaurant has been open for more than 17 years. It's original owner, Vacharin Bhumichitr, is a renown Thai chef who's published several popular cookbooks. I can't be sure if he's still involved with Chiang Mai as web reviews claims that new management took over in 2006.

Thursday, October 25

More travel ahead

I have another period of intense travel coming up. On Saturday I fly to New York for a working week in the USA. A further three trips are then scheduled for November: three days in Malta for Garry's birthday, followed by a business trip to Paris and two weeks in the USA starting in San Francisco. I'll be ready for our Christmas vacation in Dubai by the time December rolls around.

Monday, October 22

Petrol at £1.00 a litre

DieselMax - it recently broke the land speed record for a diesel vehicle

The price of petrol in Europe continues to astonish me. Today we saw our local Tesco supermarket selling fuel for 98.9 pence a litre (A$2.27). The average price in our area is currently sitting at 98.6 pence. I’ve read that local stations are charging up to 101.9 pence. Approximately 52% of this price is taken in duties and a further 15% in VAT (value-added tax). Only a quarter of the price at the pump represents the cost of the fuel itself.

As is the case in Australia, some of the duties are used to fund road and highway maintenance, while most disappears in the Government's consolidated fund. UK fuel taxes rocketed during the late 1990s when the former Conservative government introduced a “fuel escalator” designed to discourage private car use. Under this policy duties increase 3% above inflation annually. By the time the escalator was abandoned in 1999, taxes represented 81.5% of the retail price.

I guess we should be grateful that petrol is only £1.00 a litre in London. Last month a European-wide survey found the average fuel price was a staggering €1.60 a litre in Norway (£1.11). It's difficult to understand why petrol is so expensive in this Nordic nation given its extensive North Sea oil industry. My brother in Austria regularly tops up at a price of at least 80 pence (€1.15). The current price in Sydney is around A$1.25 a litre, a bargain 56 pence, while the USA average price is a stunning 38 pence. Thanks goodness for the Tube!

DieselMax broke the land speed on August 22 this year, reaching a speed of 350.092 mph (563.418 km/h). I saw the car on display at Vienna airport in early-June while enroute to Graz. I've yet to discover how this airport came to host such an unusual exhibit.

Sunday, October 21

Around the world in a single day

Winter has arrived – at least after dark. Night time temperatures in London have fallen below 5°C this week. The portable air-conditioning unit Garry bought last Summer clearly won't see active service in 2007. News reports claim Scotland’s experiencing its coolest Autumn nights for more than a decade. The dramatic drop in London temperatures has prompted us to swap our summer duvet for a much cosier winter edition and turn on the heating in the evening. I can endure cold weather while we’re still greeted by bright, sunny, blue skies every morning. The last three days have been wonderful.

Today we decided to make the most of the good weather by taking a walk along the eastern stretch of the Regents Canal beyond Camden. We’ve previously walked the canal from Camden to Little Venice. We started our trek by passing through Primrose Hill then venturing down to the canal along side London Zoo. The peacocks were on full display in the Snowdon Aviary, and the African Hunting Dogs were on the prowl on the opposite canal bank.

We stopped at Camden Markets for lunch. Every weekend several rows of temporary stalls appear, selling the most amazing, mouth-watering street food from all corners of the globe. Today’s highlights include Venezuelan Arepas (thick corn pancakes that you split and stuff with meat and vegetables), Japanese Takoyaki (vegetable dumpling balls with a tender piece of Octopus in the centre) and spicy West African stews. After a brief debate Garry and I settled on the Ghanaian stews. They looked delicious and proved to be so in the eating.

From here it was off past the Camden Locks, three twin locks that straddle a sweeping bend in the Regents Canal. The grassy bank proved to be a popular spot for other punters eating food from the market stalls. We also witnessed a barge passing through one of the hand-operated locks. Sadly, these were to be the only real highlights for the remainder of our walk along the towpath.

A scenic moment near Regent Park

Unlike the Camden to Paddington section, this stretch of the Canal passes largely through drab industrial estates, or is lined by dull buildings of little architectural merit. One question did arise during our walk. How deep is the Regents Canal? I later found out that its 4.27 metres deep, far deeper than either of us expected. As we neared Kings Cross we left the canal behind and made our way home via the Tube.

The evening was spent enjoying a Japanese fusion meal and drinks in Soho with friends. Our tube ride home was crowded with England Rugby supporters mourning their nation’s defeat against South Africa in the World Cup Final. I knew South Africa had won within seconds of the final whistle thanks to a text message from an African colleague in Hong Kong. It’s moments like this that remind me how global our lives have become. We dine at a Japanese restaurant in London, while English and South African teams play rugby in Paris on television, in the company of friends from America and Asia.

Tuesday, October 16

Back from Budapest

We 're back from a refreshing three-day weekend in Budapest. I'll have more to share shortly, including plenty of photos. I hope our pictures do the experience justice. The hilltop view across the Danube River alone is a memory worth sharing. Stay tuned.

I've posted more from our time in Budapest. Scroll down for details. More photos tomorrow!

Monday, October 15

Down by the Danube

The fog was still lingering as I left the tube station in Hammersmith on Thursday morning. As I walked to work I wondered if the weather was causing delays at Heathrow. In less than 12 hours we were scheduled to fly to Budapest for three days. Sure enough, when Garry and I arrived at Heathrow shortly after 6:30pm, it was immediately clear that chaos had descended. Long queues at the ticket counter snaked out of the departure hall. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen this sight at Heathrow over the last two years.

Our flight was due to departure at 8:10pm. This deadline soon came and went. It wasn’t until midnight that we turned on to the main runway and heard our aircraft engines roar to life. It was well after 3:00am local time before we finally reach at our hotel in Budapest, exhausted and ready to hit the sack.

Needless to say we slept until almost 2pm the following day. At first it seemed we’d let our first day in Budapest go to waste. However, we soon made up lost time with an afternoon and evening packed with activity, leaving us with some of the weekend’s most memorable highlights. Perhaps the first such highlight was our hotel.

Our weekend away was a birthday treat so I’d splashed out and booked us into the New York Palace, a recently renovated, grand old, 19th Century hotel. The main atrium alone was truly breathtaking - five floors of white marble balconies framed by a series of graceful arches.

Commissioned by the New York Insurance Company, the architect was briefed to create "most beautiful café in the world". It opened for business on October 23, 1894 and soon became a centre for intellectual life in Budapest. Sadly, the First World War brought this experience to an end and the hotel never truly recovered until the mid-1950s.

We had afternoon tea in the street front café on our first day. The experience was extraordinary leaning against velvet-covered railings taking in a vista of gold leaf trim, crystal chandeliers and unmistakable opulence. It was easy to imagine the city’s most influential gathering here all those years ago.

We walked into town on our first day via Andrassy Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. This is a broad, majestic street lined with mature trees and grand buildings. Many of the entrance ways were works of art in themselves. The opera house was a particularly spectacular venue. We eventually reached the Danube and caught our first glimpse of the Chain Bridge, the city’s oldest river crossing. This low-slung suspension bridge is a masterpiece all of it own. On its opposite end sits the Buda Castle District - a long, low hillside topped by a magnificent castle.

We caught an old venicular railway (c.1870) replenish with wooden, tiered carriages up to the top of the castle hill. Here we enjoyed our first spectacular view across the Danube and the city beyond. We made our way back to the river via the castle's empty, winding cobblestone access road. This leisurely route took us through mighty stone gateways, past towering defensive walls and an array of classic castle abutments.

Later that evening we ventured out again to see the city lights by night. The Chain bridge and castle hill were impressive, as was the nearby gothic-influenced Parliament building. After some wandering we came upon Karpatia, a restaurant that’s become something of a local institution. For more than 120 years Karpatia has been serving local Hungarian food in one of the most spectacular interiors I’ve ever had the privilege of dining in. We enjoyed amazing meals while being entertained by a roving band of gypsy musicians. Our experience was silently witnessed by a wall of dusty old paintings and intricately carved wooden panels. All in all an incredible experience.

Our second day saw us climb Gellert hill. This is the site of perhaps the city’s most visible communist artifact. On the summit sits an over-whelming 17-metre statue of a woman holding aloft a giant palm frond. She symbolizes the fight for freedom of behalf of all good proletarian workers. As with so much socialist art, the effect is dramatic and over-powering. However, while the public art on this site may be a little crass, the view quickly redeems things. The scene along the Danube, across the city and over nearby castle hill is one of the most memorable I’ve ever experienced in a major city. Budapest is blessed by natural beauty.

From our high vantage point we made our way back into the city for a late-afternoon lunch, then wandered through the heart of the old town. Our stroll took us past the square outside Parliament where dozens lost their lives in 1956 as Soviet troops violently quashed remnants of the nation's attempts to throw off communist rule. Nearby is a sculpture of a lone man standing on the bridge. This is Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister who formed an interim government following the collapse of the Soviet-backed leadership. He was later executed following a brief show trial.

As we headed back to our hotel we made a final stop at St Stephen's Basilica, completed completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. Like so many churches in Europe, this is a majestic building, set at the edge of open plaza. We stopped for coffee at one of the many upmarket wine bars nearby, watching the sun's last rays slide across the dome of the basilica. Later that evening England beat France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final being televised from Paris.

Our third and final day in town saw us soak up the last of the city’s most popular tourist sights. First on our itinerary was a visit to the local House of Terror. This bold stone building once housed the feared State Security Service during Communist Rule. Today it’s home to a moving exhibition on the nation’s post-Nazi horrors and the lost years of communism. I was astonished to learn that the last person deported by the Soviet Army after World War II only returned home in 2001. It’s staggering to comprehend how long it’s taken this nation to overcome the last of its socialist legacy.

Perhaps the most poignant moment inside this building was the last stop on our self-guided tour – the basement. Here in simple, bare concrete cells many of the government’s opponents and so-called "enemies of the state" were tortured, and often executed. Standing in these cold, dull rooms was spine-chilling.

Our next sight was rather more uplifting. We caught the aging metro line to Hero’s Square where a striking plaza sits dominated by a tall slender column. Atop this columns rest a welcoming statue of the archangel Gabriel. Behind the plaza is the lush City Park filled with classic buildings, including a neo-classic castle consisting of a series of wings built in differing architectural styles; baroque, medieval and gothic.

Our final tourist highlight was a quick afternoon tea in the drawing room at Gerbeaud Café, a city institution serving some of the finest pastries on the edge of Vorosmarty Square. Sadly, as our empty coffee cups were cleared away we knew it was time for us to also disappear. Our flight home awaited. In contrast to our inward flight three days earlier, we departed on time, arriving in Heathrow on schedule.

Tuesday, October 9

Desparately seeking sunshine

Garry and I have decided to head South for Winter. You may recall that we'd planned a Christmas excursion to Iceland. However, as we researched sight-seeing options, we discovered many sights would be closed during this period. As a result, we're abandoning plans for snow and ice in favour of sun and sand. We're now off to Dubai for eight days. There will still be time for a little snow as we plan to visit Ski Dubai, the world's largest indoor ski slope. Perhaps we'll have a white Christmas after all.

We were able to secure cheap tickets to Iceland for five days over Easter 2008 so all is not lost. We have also had to abandon plans to visit Greece. It's not possible to visit Athens and Dubai on our current RTW ticket. Instead we're now heading off to Helsinki for a long weekend in early May. At first I thought this might be a disappointment, but last night, I discovered we can take a day trip by ferry to Tallinn, capital of Estonia. This sounds interesting.

Greece isn't entirely off the agenda. We've found a series of fantastic cruises through the Greek Islands in late-May. Debate is now raging at Swiss Cottage as to whether we can justify a week's vacation. Every thing is so close in Europe that cheap deals become awfully tempting.

Olympic Fever

Montreal's Olympic Stadium

The 2008 Summer Olympics open in Beijing in exactly ten months time. Fourteen days later the world’s gaze will shift to London as it prepares to host the games in 2012. I can’t believe I’m once again living in a future Olympic city.

I still recall joining NSW's State Minister for the Olympic Bid for drinks in his office the day that Sydney formally announced its host city bid. I was sharing a house with his official chauffeur at the time. Sydney was subsequently awarded the 2000 Summer Games in 1993. As the years passed I watched a new Olympic Stadium emerge from a peaceful field of cows, while the city progressively upgraded its infrastructure - opening new a rail link and underground motorway.

During the actual games the festive atmosphere around the city was contagious. I secured tickets to the Water Polo, Platform Diving, Beach Volleyball, Gymnastics and the spectacular Closing Ceremony at Homebush Stadium. I still marvel at the experience of watching the start of the women’s marathon on television, then wandering across a local park to photograph its competitors run by. It’s not often a world event unfolds outside your front door.

Two years ago, on July 6 2005, Garry and I were in London to witness the announcement of this city’s winning bid. Now, in recent months we’ve watched Olympic fever starting to build – after all there’s only 1753 days to go. Last week formal planning permission was granted for the construction of venues within the new Olympic Park at Stratford, on the east side of London. In support of its planning application the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) submitted two volumes of supporting data, totaling an astonishing 10,000 pages.

The first construction project is already completed. Two 6km underground tunnels have been built across the stadium site - on time and on budget. These will bury cables from 52 electricity pylons currently blighting the area. Ground clearance work has also started for the 80,000 seat stadium’s construction platform. Ground levels vary across the site, requiring the removal 600,000 tonnes of soil over the next few months. Other venue plans are announced, almost every week now. I wonder if we’ll still be here during the Opening Ceremony in 2012?

Monday, October 8

Year three begins

It's been two years since Garry and I departed Australia for life up north. Some days it feels as if we've always been in London, other days it seems like just last week. I worry some times that we're losing our perspective as objective observers of life in Britain. I once found it easy to highlight differences in blog posts, now I'm sure parochial quirks are passing me by.

Thanks everyone for following our adventures. I hope you're still enjoying our news and photos. I noticed recently that I hit a record 50 daily visitors back on September 25. This was the day I wrote about my time in Easter Island. I must set aside time to share more photos from our archives.

Over the years Garry and I have been lucky enough to see some of the world's most amazing places. I was recently reminded of this good fortune after the British Library opened an exhibit of China's famous Terracotta Warriors. Four years ago, Garry and I visited Xian to see these oriental icons for ourselves. Xian was a fascinating place. It contains far more history than I ever imagined. On this same vacation we also walked the Great Wall of China; Garry's first time, my third.

I think I feel another post coming on...

Friday, October 5

Back in the big apple

I've been in New York on business since Sunday evening. The weather here has been surprisingly mild - a complete contrast to London. Last week winter definitely started making its way toward the UK. Temperatures in London took a rather nasty plunge, dropping as low as 11°C . We were forced to turn on the heating at least twice.

Meanwhile, here in New York, today's temperature peaked at a toasty 27°C and a high of 29°C is forecast tomorrow. I hope the good weather lasts as I will be back here two more times in the next eight weeks. I'll also be visiting San Francisco, Boston and Rochester in November as part of a quick tour around our US offices.

Since arriving in New York, I've been staying at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Chelsea. The hotel appears to in the midst of rather unpleasant labour dispute. Every morning, at precisely 7:30am, union protesters armed with placards begin chanting noisy slogan outside my window. Passing truck drivers soon join in with loud horn blast. Needless to say, I've had no use for an alarm clock since my arrival.

Wednesday, October 3

Remembering my youth

On Saturday a group of friends joined Garry and I to celebrate my birthday. We spent a loud and fun-filled afternoon dining and drinking at the Freemason's Arms, a local Gastro Pub. Don't be alarmed. This isn't an establishment guaranteed to leave you bed-ridden for a week. It simply a pub offering gourmet meals.

However, I must confess that on this occasion, our group enjoyed one too many glasses of wine, beer and champagne. Needless to say the next morning I felt less than 100% - and I couldn't blame the food. Even worse, I had to catch an evening flight to New York. I must be getting old.