Wednesday, February 27

Big Apple update


I'm back in New York for work again. The Atlantic never seems to get any smaller. However, BA has finally begun upgrading its inflight entertainment system. I can now watch movies and TV on-demand which generally means I'll find something to watch that genuinely interests me. Small things like this help the flight pass swiftly.

When I arrived in New York I was surprised to see a blanket of snow on the ground and regular piles of compacted snow in every gutter. Apparently 20 cms of snow fell in the city last Thursday and Friday - the heaviest fall so far this winter. More than 1,100 flights were also cancelled. Incredibly, only four days earlier people were out jogging in 18°C weather.

I read today that it costs New York about cost $1 million an inch to clear the snow each time it falls. The Met Office is now predicting another light fall tomorrow evening. I hope it happens. I'd love to see New York in the snow.

Saturday, February 23

Six thousands visitors

In March the visitor counter on this blog hits the two year mark. Today it passed another milestone, recording 6000 visitors. For the last 12 months I've been monitoring site traffic using Icerocket, a free online tool. It's been fascinating to watch the average visitor count grow and stabilise over the last six months. The site now averages more than 50 unique visitors a week, or more than 200 a month. The best week saw in the site receive 96 hits.

As our third year starts to fold I hope you're still enjoying our Swiss Cottage adventures. There's plenty more to come as we finalise holidays in Iceland, Gibraltar and Helsinki. Thanks for reading. Life is good.

A spring in our step


Winter is clearly on the way out. The first daffodils are blooming in our front yard, while several trees in our back yard burst into blossom this week. This morning I noticed three plump, colourful native wood pigeons in the back yard gorging themselves on swelling blossom buds. We see a lot of these birds in our yard. Not surprisingly, a survey in 2005 found wood pigeons were the UK's most commonly sighted bird.

It's been a remarkably mild winter so far with only a couple of cold weeks in late-January. As of January 20 the mean UK winter temperature had been 0.6 °C above the 1971-2000 average. Forecasters expect the next few months to remain mild. We'll know more when official Spring weather predictions are released on February 26.

Rainfall was also above average, standing at 122% of the same comparison period. However, this appears to be increasingly normal. Winter rainfall since the turn of the century is up by around 30% over the previous 80 years. Grey skies remain as prevalent as ever.

Friday, February 22

Men at Work


Our local Tesco Express store is located on England’s Lane. Until the 19th Century the only buildings in the area were located on this road - two simple farm cottages. They're still intact today and can be found just across the road from Tesco. These cottages stand in stark contrast to five modern tower blocks nearby. Collectively known as Charlots estate, they were built over five years (1965 to 1970) on land lain derelict since the end of the Second World War.

Each tower was named after a village near the town of Eton; Blashford, Dorney, Bray, Burnham, and Taplow. They contain 711 homes, of which about 20 per cent are owned by leaseholders. The remainder are public housing administered by the local council. The tallest tower is 23 storeys high, offering commanding views across London. They’re a prominent local feature; so much so that I use them as landmarks to locate our street, often on flights passing over central London.


Shortly after we arrived at Swiss Cottage, the council started refurbishing the towers. Every tower is being reclad and every flat refurbished. It’s a huge undertaking with each building progressively wrapped in scaffolding, while temporary construction lifts and plaforms are installed on the exterior. The entire project is part of a staggering £65 million, 15-year maintenance contract, largely funded by the central Government.

I learnt today that one tower on our street has 141 carparking spaces - almost one per unit. However, this number will fall to 83 spaces after refurbishment as only 38 were in active use when the council approved redevelopment. This isn’t surprising. The tube makes it so easy to get around London that many people never bother to own a car. We rarely use our car in the city. We've clocked up barely 5000 miles in it over the last two years. Garry’s parents were responsible for much of this mileage when they used the car to tour much of Britain last year.


Last October, Blashford was the first tower to complete its make-over. As a result, work on the towers closest to us is now well underway. I’m fascinated by the progress. Every morning on my way to the tube station, I’m mesmerized by workers erecting scaffolding, or riding work platforms up the side of the building. I’ll be watching for a while. Work on the last tower isn’t scheduled to be completed until January 2010.

This isn’t the only major construction project undeway. At the end of our street, opposite the new Fitness Centre, hoarding has gone up around a former retail complex. The council has approved a £7.5 million development of 76 residential units, including 25 affordable homes, and retail outlets on the ground floor. We’re living in a construction zone!

Monday, February 18

Snow and Ice


I've just returned from a wonderful weekend in Kitzbuhel with my brother and his family. We spent a superb day outdoors on Saturday; ice-skating, Bavarian ice curling (Eisstocksport) and hiking in the snow. As you can see, the weather was perfect. Our day started with a leisurely walk across the frozen surface of the Schwarzee (Black Lake). I last recall walking on a frozen lake in 1984.


An oval track has been cleared on the surface making an ideal walking track and ice skating surface. Karin and the girls took off for a couple of circuits while Hamish and I made our way to a cafe on the far shore. Long, straight curling lanes were carved into the lake's surface outside the cafe. We hired a set of traditional Bavarian curling 'ice sticks' and spent several hours tossing them down the ice with great abandon. Unlike regular curling stones, Bavarian curling ice-sticks are made of wood and are thrown using a handle in their centre.


Lunch was then ordered on tables along the lake's boardwalk, where we soaked up the view and the warmth of the sun. The Hahnenkamm's white slopes literally dazed in the light. Hamish then headed off for work, while the rest of us took an excursion up the Kitzbuheler Horn. I love the Horn. It's a sharp, pointed peak the dominates the town's eastern flank. At 2000 metres, the Horn one of the area's highest peaks and always looks inviting.


I've been to the top only once, back in 2002, during the height of summer. At the time its slope were green and lush. Last weekend the contrast couldn't have been more stark as it was cloaked in a stunning mantle of snow. Two swift gondola rides from the town soon had us standing outside the Gipfelhaus, a cafe located just below the peak. The view from here was as magnificent as I'd remembered it.


While Karin and Nicole went skiing, Steffie and I explored the peak. In winter it grows temporarily higher thanks to the winter snow. We carefully climbed to the peak, soaking up the spectacular view of St. Johann in Tirol in the neighbouring valley and the majestic Kaizers, rising to the north, against a clear blue sky. At 2344 metres, the Kaizers are the highest mountains in the area.


Steffie and I then decided to go 'off piste' and trek back down the mountain to the Alpenhaus, a restuarant located almost 35o metres below. The distance looked easy and the snow seemed rather tame. In reality it took us almost an hour to make our way down the mountain; overcoming slippery, icy slopes and other other winter hazzards.

Steffie spent much of her time sliding down various slopes on her butt, laughing and shouting. I called her a "crazy women" which she initially denied. However, before long, Steffie was yelling, "I'm crazy" to anyone in earshot.

Saturday, February 16

Munich moments


I've been in Munich all week for business. In between meetings and conference calls I was able to steal a few moments on Friday to admire some of the city's sights. In the afternoon, I was taken for a refreshing walk along the shore of the Nymphenburger Canal, less than ten minutes from our office.

Almost a kilometre in length, the canal is one of Munich's largest. It leads towards the large, imposing Schloss Nymphenburg Palace; once the summer residence of Bavaria's rulers. Today the canal was partially frozen, making for a rather unusual winter landscape. In previous years the canal has frozen solid, encouraging local children to ice-skate on its surface.


Earlier in the day I'd passed by Munich's spectacular town hall, or Rathaus, while enroute to a business appointment. This ornate, neo-Gothic building was constructed between 1867- 1908 and dominates neighbouring Marianplatz. It houses a famous Glockenspiel, or set of musical bells. Three times a day, 43 bells play a 15-minute carillon while 32 mechanical figures of musicians, knights etc re-enact festivities from the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V to Renate von Lothringen in 1568.

Nearby is the equally famous Viktualienmarkt, a fresh produce market area filled with wonderful smells, colourful fruits, vegetables and piles of wurst. Many of the stalls were setting up for the day as we wandered by. I marvelled at the thought of this industrious scene being repeated daily for more than 200 years.

Sunday, February 10

Shopping by numbers


Almost every weekend we shop for groceries at a giant Tesco Supermarket. It's always busy. Sundays are usually the worst as shopping hours are restricted. Stores larger than 280 sq metres cannot open for more than six hours and only between 10am and 6pm. Some department stores artifically extend their hours by allowing customers to browse the shelves up to an hour before the tills officially open.

Sunday trading was generally not permitted anywhere in England and Wales until 1994. Only small corner stores and specialist outlets like garden shops were exempt from such restrictions. Today these small stores can still set their own Sunday hours, unlike larger brethren. However, despite this restriction, Tesco still saw a market opportunity. It operates its own chain of small Express stores with extended trading hours.

We have one such store in our local area. It acts as our primary source of bread, soft-bake cookies and milk. Despite the convenience Tesco still manages to attract local ire. Last year the local residents successfully campaigned for Tesco to stock the store using a smaller delivery truck. Previously Tesco replenished the store using a larger truck that carried enough stock for two or more small stores. Residents complained that the truck was noisy, blocked traffic and generally harmed the local quality of life.

No matter how you cut the numbers Tesco dominates the UK grocery industry. It holds a 31% market share for grocery sales and operates 1,988 stores, making its one of the nation's largest retailers. Currently more than £1 in every £7 (14.3%) of UK retail sales is spent at Tesco. It's Clubcard is also the largest loyalty card program in the UK. Garry and I are one of its 13 million active Clubcard holders.


Every time we shop at Tesco I am astonished at the variety on offer. Perhaps the most unusual item I've seen is Passover Coke. Every year in the lead up to the Jewish Passover holiday season Coke makes its flagship drink using a special recipe. Coke is generally sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. However, Jewish law prevents the consumption of cereals and grains, including corn, during this period. As a result, Passover Coke is sweetened with traditional cane sugar. Fascinating. My local supermarket is the last place I expected a lesson in religion.

Saturday, February 9

Light up my life


My company moved into a spacious new office earlier this month. The contrast between the old building and our new location is stark. Previously we were holed up in a cramped, cluttered space spread over three floors. Small windows let in limited light most days, while the surrounding neighbourhood of industrial lanes, pawnbrokers and imposing rail bridges added to the overall gloom.

Fast forward to our new location; a modern, smart office building with banks of wide, windows flooding the interior with light. We’re located five floors above the traffic, just high enough to provide us with sweeping views across much of London. Wembley stadium stands majestically to the north, while glimpses of the London Eye and Canary Wharf draw comments to the east. Each morning we ride one of two glass-enclosed lifts up the outside of the building to our floor. It’s probably the nicest office I’ve ever worked in.


Perhaps the most striking difference between the old building and the new is my mood. The constant barrage of sunlight throughout the day has been quite a shock. Winter in London has suddenly become less depressing and demoralizing. The light was initially disorienting as it felt so foreign, almost overwhelming. The entire experience has left me thinking there’s some credence to the concept of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

I recall discovering a regular seasonal pattern in my behaviour many years ago. As winter drew to an end I consistently found myself depressed and demotivated. It didn’t matter what was happening in my life, the pattern always persisted. It disappeared when I began traveling more frequently between hemispheres throughout the year. Living in Australia and working in Asia meant that I encountered very limited winter conditions for many years.

Up to 3% of the UK’s population suffers debilitating SAD every winter. A further 20% are said to suffer sub-syndromal SAD. If you’re worried, you can check each day to see if today’s weather is conducive for SAD. Seasonal mood variations are believed to be related to light. Extended periods of darkness and dull light over winter are thought to interfere with normal serotonin or melatonin levels. Exposure to bright lights at specific wavelengths will often improve SAD symptoms.

It comes as no surprise to see the Undergound inundated recently by an advertising campaign for alarm clocks that glow progressively brighter as wake-up time draws closer. While the concept sounds practical, I think I’d prefer an alternative cure. SAD is said to be very rare among people living within 30 degrees of the Equator. Moving to the Bahamas sounds a lot more fun.

Not the Bahamas!

Monday, February 4

Okonominyaki


In April 1993 I visited Japan for the first time. It was Spring. It was also Sakura Season. Translated in English this simply means "Cherry Blossom" season. Everywhere I ventured trees were smothered in beautiful pink flowers. Every day felt like a postcard come to life. I recall one particularly special moment walking along a narrow path that traced a stream in Kyoto. As I walked a gentle rain of pink petals continually fell from trees overhead.

On the same vacation, while in Osaka, I discovered another uniquely Japanese experience; Okonomiyaki. Unlike sushi, sashimi and tempura; this simple tasty dish is rarely found outside Japan. I've actually heard it described as Japanese peasant food, which probably explains why an enterprising local has yet to export it to the world en masse.

Okonominyaki is best described as a hybrid savoury pancake/pizza. Anything you can add to a pizza, you can blend into special Okonominyaki batter and cook it on a wide, hot grill. Okonomi actually means "what you like", while yaki means "grilled." Once cooked, you serve it topped with bonito flakes (dried fish shavings), nori (seaweed flakes) and rich Otofuku sauce (a type of BBQ sauce). While the dish doesn't look particularly inviting, the taste is truly divine.

Garry and I briefly stopped in Hiroshima couple of years ago. While there I introduced him to this delightfully simple, tasty meal. He instantly fell in love with it. I’ve since seen it on offer at the food court in Westfield Bondi Junction, but nowhere else. That is, until last month when Garry and I stumbled across a small Okonominyaki restaurant near Leister Square called Abeno Too. We immediately promised ourselves we’d be back to sample its wares.

Today Garry and I took our friend, Chris, out for an Okonominyaki lunch at Abeno Too. The restaurant was simple, the staff friendly and the food deliciously authentic. As our chef cooked our meal in front of us he was delighted to discover we were seasoned Okonominyaki connoisseurs. Yes, we knew the difference between his Osaka-style recipe (everything mixed into the batter) and Hiroshima-style (where the pancake is created in layers on the grill itself). We’ll be back!

Saturday, February 2

Bills, glorious bills

It's been a quiet week at Swiss Cottage after our lively weekend. First, Garry put the finishing touches on a new computer server for our home network. We now have hundreds of gigabytes of storage waiting to be used. Second, annual household bills have started coming due again; home contents insurance, car insurance and the like have been arriving in the post on an most daily basis. Each is a timely reminder that we've just finished our second year living in Swiss Cottage.

We've finally booked hotels for our Easter vacation in Iceland. The itinerary is now locked away. We're going for a self-driving experience; spending time in the capital, Reykjavik and then heading east toward Skaftafell National Park, home to the nation's largest glaciers. The photos online look stunning. Iceland has always seemed so remote and mysterious. It's hard to believe we'll soon be there.

Garry and I have also started dreaming about a tour of North Korea. A few weeks ago we caught up for lunch with an old flatmate of mine. He'd recently come back from a trip to Pyongyang and was full of stories about life in the Hermit Nation. The experience was like none other.

NEW YEAR ROAD TRIP UPDATE
I've finally completed the last details on posts covering our recent road trop to Scotland. Commentary and photos can be found here. A separate post on our brief visit to Hadrian's Wall is here.

Friday, February 1

Secret schooners unmasked


Last Saturday we caught up with friends for lunch. However, our afternoon soon morphed into a evening at the pub that continued until closing time. Thank goodness for Burger King, purveyors of fine dining for the intoxicated. Its hallowed halls fuelled us for the night bus, reminding me of another subtle difference between Australia and the UK.

It took me more than a year to work out why three beers in Australia found me in fine form, while three in London left me much worse for wear. At first I put it down to the random cruelty of getting older. That is, until someone pointed out I was drinking the equivalent of a fourth beer after three transactions at the bar.

In Sydney we typically order beer on tap by the schooner - the largest glass behind the bar. Each one contain 425 ml of amber fluid. The same order in London is served using a pint glass. At 568 ml a pint glass contains at least 143 ml more than a schooner. Three such pints and you've unwittingly downed a fourth glass by Australian standards.

Futhermore, the average alcohol content of most tap beer in the UK is higher - up to 1.0% more. As a result, as a third pint glass empties, I've consumed the equivalent of a fifth schooner. The mystery of my London hangovers has been solved. Thank goodness for 11.00pm closing.