Thursday, September 25

Going down!

We returned from our Summer vacation in August to find the escalators undergoing refurbishment at Swiss Cottage tube station. The first stairway is scheduled to be back in action by mid-December, with the second to be completed by May next year! While I understand the need to refurbish aging equipment, it seems extraordinary that each escalator is out of service for almost five months.

With only one escalator operational, we’ll be walking down 55 steps each day for the next nine months to reach the platform. Fortunately our station isn’t too deep. Angel Station on the Northern Line has the network’s longest escalator. It’s 60 metres long and rises 27.5 metres. Bank Station has an incredible 15 escalators in action.

Needless to say the tube isn’t a pedestrian friendly place when the escalators are out of action. I have sympathy for families lugging strollers and travelers dragging luggage off to the airport. It will be our turn tomorrow. We’re off to Dublin for a long weekend.

At last count there were at least 413 escalators across the network, travelling the equivalent of two round the world trips every week. With all of that perpetual motion it’s probably time for our station’s escalators to be refurbished. London Underground says that the average escalator remains in service for 40 years. Given that Swiss Cottage station was opened November 20, 1939, our escalators are probably 25 years old or more.

Sunday, September 21

Going digital

Last October the UK began progressively switching from analogue to digital television. For the next four years, more than one thousand transmitters nationwide will be switched to digital. London will be one of the last areas to change in late 2012. The USA is also in the midst of a similar switch over. Its last analogue signal is currently scheduled to be switched off on February 18 next year.

The first UK town to switch was Whitehaven, Cumbria. Almost 25,000 households began receiving digital transmissions in October 2007 before its analogue signal went dark on November 14. The town, famous for the nearby Sellafield nuclear plant (the world's first commercial nuclear power station), was chosen for its relative electromagnetic isolation. This made it an ideal location to test digital transmission without interference from other transmitters.

Ofcom, the nation’s communications regulator, says at least 84% of British households have already installed digital equipment. These households have digital television sets, or digital signal converter attached to their old analogue television. Signal convertor boxes cost as little as £20, and give consumers access to more than 40 free digital TV channels using a service called Freeview.

While there’s no need to dispose of your old television, retailers say many people are taking the opportunity to upgrade. Currently, a new digital-ready, 42-inch LCD TV costs less than £800. It makes me weep to think that our 42-inch Plasma TV cost £2400 four years ago. In fact, some retailers no longer sell analogue televisions. Last January, Currys, the nation’s largest consumer electrical retailer announced that its remaining analogue TV stock was its last.

Earlier today Garry and I carted a large, "old" CRT TV set to the dump. We aren't using it and couldn’t see any reason to hold on to an incredibly heavy, dated chunk of technology. Local councils expect millions more to join our junked TV over the next few years. Some are recycled as exports to developing nations, while most become landfill. In the USA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 18% of sets were recycled in 2007. I wonder where our TV will end up?

Friday, September 19

Memories to last a life time

My brother is back from Beijing full of stories about the Olympics. He was the team mechanic for the Austrian BMX bike team. I'm enormously proud of Hamish. He's the first in our family to participate in an Olympic event as more than a spectator. The photo you see here was taken from the centre of the Birdnest Stadium during the Closing Ceremony.

As the spectacle drew to its climax 396 performers harnessed on to a vast tower structure put on the most extraordinary acrobatic performance metres from where Hamish was standing. He says the stadium is surprisingly quiet mid-field as its sound system has been designed to project noise towards the stands. However, the sound of the crowd as the national teams entered was truly amazing.

The demands of supporting an Olympic team kept him busy every day, leaving little time to explore Beijing. He made a quick dash one afternoon to Tiananmen Square which unfortunately was barricaded to prevent large crowds gathering. Hamish also met one of New Zealand's most famous gold medal Olympian, Paul McDonald, in the dining hall earlier in the week and saw many other globally recognised faces pass by. In case you're wondering, the Austria BMX team came home without a medal.

This time last year

In two weeks time Garry and I celebrate the third anniversary of our departure from Australia. I can't believe our fourth year as expats is about to begin. Where has the time gone? Thank goodness for this blog. A few clicks and the memories soon coming flooding back.

This time last year I was riding a barge on Regents Canal, visiting Blenheim Palace and exploring Madrid. Go back another year and we were visiting Brighton, Bath and Stonehenge. Three years ago we were preparing for our flights to Washington DC and Canada. Wow! This continues to be a remarkable period in our lives!

Thursday, September 18

A hole in my pocket

Relocation opens up many opportunities for learning. It’s surprising how many new talents you begin master half a world away from home. Take currency exchange rates as an example. I’ve become a passionate observer of global currency movements over the last few years.

Since arriving in London we’ve watched the rate for the Australian dollar rise a high of £1.00 = A$2.54 in January last year, before falling to a low of A$2.04 in May this year. That’s a depressing 24.5% loss in value. The chart above, generated by ozforex, shows just how dramatically the Aussie dollar strengthened against the pound over the last three year.

Throughout this period Garry and I have been transferring money to pay our Australian mortgage. It been a constant challenge trying to predict rate movements and secure the best deal. We even have automated email alerts set up to warn us of favourable changes. However, I’ve never been able to secure a rate higher than A$2.49. The worst rate was a depressing A$2.04 offered two months ago.

This week I’ve watch the rate improve almost 4% in three days. I can live with large swings over 18 months, but the same swing in a week simply hurts. On Monday I shifted a large sum of money believing the rate had stabilized. I bet wrong. I could have earned an additional A$1,500 if I’d completed the same transaction today. It’s hard not to feel the loss.

Of course, the forex experience isn’t all negative. Since our arrival in late-2005 the pound progressively strengthened against the US dollar. The rate peaked earlier this year at £1.00 = US$2.10. Holidays in the USA soon became a bargain. It also meant that every store in New York automatically offered a savings bonanza regardless of the price tag. Sadly, the permanent bargain hunting has come to an end. This week the US dollar rate fell below $1.75 for the first time since April 2006.

Wednesday, September 17

When the party's over...

How times have changed..! When we first arrived in the UK I was stunned by the national obsession with personal wealth. Newspapers were filled with stories about stratospheric bonuses being paid to City workers; year after year. (The City is the name given to London’s financial district.) "Greed was Good" and it seemed to be absolutely everywhere!

At the time an endless stream of headlines rapidly convinced you everyone else was making hay, while you were making peanuts. In reality only a few investment bankers or financiers were securing bonuses worth millions of pounds. The rest of us were simply reading stories of their excess; rare and expensive bottles of vintage champagne being drunk in bars, rocketing Ferrari sales and so on.

These individuals were riding an unprecedented economic boom, one largely fueled by dramatic growth in the UK’s finance sector. Much of this growth was being driven by investment banking activity; global share trading, large merger deals and large commercial transactions. The City’s huge bonuses were cited as a key catalyst for London’s rapidly rising property prices and its high cost of living.

Garry and I certainly felt the impact when we went to negotiate our heart-stopping rent, while friends and co-workers were all pushing for spectacular pay rises as a natural birthright. In this atmosphere of greed and hype it was incredibly difficult to discern the nation’s true economic health, let alone that of the global marketplace.

Roll the clock forward two years and today’s headlines couldn’t be more different. Almost every broadsheet newspaper led today with stories of the same high-flying financiers out of a job as Lehman Brothers, an American investment bank, suddenly declared bankruptcy. The bank employs approximately 4,500 people in UK, all of whom are effectively unemployed. In a double blow, many had invested their bonuses in the company's shares, which are now worthless.

Media talk is of an unprecedented risk to the global economy. The specter of the Great Depression is raised in every article, while the phase “we’re heading into uncharted territory” is the cliché du jour. Once again media hype, this time unbelievably negative, makes it difficult to discern the true state of affairs.

The nation's Chancellor is also in on the act. Two weeks ago he was quoted claiming that the U.K. is facing economic times "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years." The media initially derided his statement as excessive and unrealistic. Today a few have started calling him prophetic.

As for the City heroes of 2006 and 2007, analysts forecast job losses of 110,000 people in the UK’s financial sector over the next 12 months. It seems that the excesses of the City really were too good to be true. Meanwhile I’m left with a new media-induced quandary. I’m not sure which is worst; boom time hype and the enduring sense you’re missing out, or recession gloom and the risk your job will be gone within a year.

I should be fair. Not all the news is bleak. Earlier today, Damien Hirst, the UK's modern art guru set a new record for an auction dedicated to a single artist. A two-day auction at Sotheby's generated an astonishing £111 million in sales. Hirst's work is odd to say the least. Take his piece called "The Kingdom." Its a tiger shark displayed in formaldehyde. Yesterday this work was sold for £9.5 million, far higher than the estimated £4 million to £6 million price tag. It seems that the City's days of excess aren't over yet.

Sunday, September 14

Bye bye fox

Our neighbourhood fox has gone. New tenants have finally moved into the empty garden flat next door. While we were holidaying Down Under, our neighbours began restoring their new yard to order. They've trimmed over-grown shrubs, cut hay-length grass and removed towering weeds. Our feral, furry friend is no where to be seen.

Saturday, September 13

Flying for fun

Something odd has happened. For the first time in three years I have no business travel scheduled for the next four months. Instead, Garry and I have flights scheduled for three weekend breaks in Europe, along with eight days overseas for Christmas.

As has become our tradition, we've booked three-day weekends away to celebrate our respective birthdays. Later this month we're off to Dublin for my birthday, then off to Barcelona for Garry's birthday in early-November. In between we have a weekend dash to Gibraltar; departing early Saturday morning and returning late the next day. The bargain fares from London are just too good to resist.

As has also become tradition, we've booked an extended Christmas break, seeking the warmest side trip available using our annual round-the-world ticket. This year we're off to Muscat, Oman for eight days of Middle East sunshine. I'm particularly excited by this trip as Oman will be the 60th country I've visited.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge

One of Budapest's most famous landmarks is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. It was the city's first permenant Danube crossing and remains its most stunning. At the time of its inauguration in 1849 its 202 metre span made it the world's second longest supsension bridge. On Thursday evening I took time out from a company offsite to wander along the Danube river bank, soaking up the dramatic backdrop of Buda Castle and the Chain Bridge illuminated at night.

The bridge has endured much over the last 160 years, including its total distruction during World War II. The first threat to its survival took place during construction when when it was struck by a cannonball in 1848. Austrian troops attacked retreating soliders of Hungarian Army of Independence during the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence. The Austrians even attempted to blow up the bridge, but the explosives failed to ignite.

Almost a century later, the German Army succeeded where the Austrian Army had failed. As German troops withdrew from Budapest they successfully destroyed all of Budapest's bridges including the Chain Bridge on 18 January 1945. The bridge's stone pillars were the only structure left intact. A fully restored bridge was finally reopened on November 20, 1949, exactly one hundred years after its first innauguration.

The first festive illumination of the bridge was installed in 1937, for a visit of Italian king Victor Emmanuel III and Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg. The present illumination is composed by two parts: the top and the bottom parts of the pillars are illuminated by reflectors, and a beading of light bulbs runs along the top chains and the edges of the pavements to emphasize the shape of the ironwork. The effect is breath-taking, helping to make Budapest one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

Monday, September 1

Doing hard yards

Scientists don't know why leaves change colour in Autumn. They only understand the internal chemical reaction in each leaf that creates spectacular red, orange and yellow hues before they finally fall. I wish they did. We arrived home from vacation last week to be greeted by leaves smothering our front yard.

It was clear the neighbours had done nothing to maintain the property in our absence. Along with the unsightly leaves, a month of recycling waste was also sitting scattered and uncollected. It was rather depressing to see. Our car hadn't fared any better. I suspect that every bird within ten miles had stopped to crap on our Saab. I've never seen so much bird poop in such a small area.

Yesterday Garry and I spent the afternoon restoring our front yard to some semblance of order. We swept and shoveled leaves, pulled weeds, bundled waste and replanted the gardens with more discounted flowers. A passing neighbour even commented on his relief that someone was finally rectifying a local eyesore. If only our landlord had the same interest.

Of course this morning we woke to discover that heavy rain had sent fresh piles of leaves cascading across the yard. It seems that even Mother Nature has a sense of humour.