Monday, June 28

The side affects of Summer

Summer is here! Last night the portable air-conditioning unit was switched on in the bedroom for the first time this season. We enjoyed temperature over the week approaching 30°C which slowly heated the top floor of our apartment (which is also the roof of our building) to an uncomfortable level.

For more than a week now we've been enjoying sunny, blue skies and temperatures in the high twenties. Today's high is predicted to reach a very pleasant 28°C, with more on the way for the rest of the week. In many parts of the nation this month has already become one of the driest June months on record.

Of course, the warm weather has its side affects, not withstanding the need to activate our air-conditioning unit. Since the start of the month the tube has become unbareably sweaty. I find myself glowing and dripping every time I walk into the office. The outdoor crowds have also become rather mind-blowing. A short stroll through any popular location involves weaving through a crush of pedestrians.

Garry and I ventured into Oxford Street on Saturday to check out the early Summer sales now popping up everywhere. It's seems that the warm weather encouraged everyone to do the same. The photo above was taken on the street mid-afternoon when the crowds were at their worst. Oxford Street was literally a sea of people as far as the eye could see.

Thursday, June 24

Lisbon redux

We’ve had a relaxing weekend in Lisbon. It was Garry’s first visit, my second. We were blessed with perfect weather; blue skies and sunshine. We also took advantage of a special rate stayed at the Sheraton hotel. It sits on a hillside overlooking the city, awaking each morning to a glorious view. Even better, it was recently refurbished so everything was rather new and shiny.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the city itself. Lisbon’s glorious days of ruling a global empire are clearly behind it. Its streets are filled with elegant stone mansions, classical buildings and noble statues. However, their collective upkeep is clearly beyond the nation’s means. Most are stained and slightly tatty, paintwork is often faded or peeling.

Our first full day was spent wandering the city. We walked a couple of kilometers from our hotel to Baika and the waterfront. These are the oldest sections of the city. However most of the structures you see today were built after the devastating earthquake of 1755 that killed up to 100,000 people. The most noteworthy sight in the area is the Elevador de Santa Justa. It’s an iron elevator rising 45 metres above the narrow cobbled streets, offering passengers easy access to the hillside district of Bairro Alto (which literally means, Upper Quarter). It was opened in 1902 and has run continously ever since.

Access to the shore of the Tagus River is gained via an impressive triumphal arch built in 1875. The structure is crowned by bold, dazzling white marble statues representing Glory, Ingenuity and Valour. Through the arch lies an expansive waterfront plaza known as Praça do Comércio. This was once the location of the royal, or Ribera Palace. On November 1, 1755, the entire area was demolished by a massive tsunami that followed the Great Earthquake.

It was here that we purchased two days tickets for one of the typical open bus tours circling almost every city of note in Europe. However, this one had a twist. It also offered a tram-based tour of the winding hillside streets of Alfama. This district surrounds the ruins of Lisbon Castle which dominates the local area. The tour was definitely a highlight of our weekend. When we weren’t marveling at the impossibly narrow lanes our tram slid through, we were being captivated by stunning views across red tiles roofs and the Targus.

We then caught a tour bus out to the ornate Belem Tower. It’s often considered the symbol of Lisbon. The tower guards the river mouth, offering views across the water in every direction. It was designed by architect, Francisco de Arruda, and constructed in 1515. de Arruda had previously worked on Portuguese fortifications in Morocco and thus his work was heavily influenced strongly by the Moors. The resulting building has clearly identifiable Moorish-style watchtowers, along with delicate Venetian-style loggias, and a statue of Our Lady of Safe Homecoming, a symbol of protection for sailors venturing out to sea.

We explored the tower for almost an hour, climbing an endless number of stone spiral stairs to the very top of its main tower. We then headed back into town for dinner at Taberna do Chiado, a Portuguese tapas restaurant in the swanky inner-city neighbourhood of Chiado. We dined by an open window, watching the world pass by in the street below. It was the perfect end to enjoyable day.

Our final day in town was spent touring the riverside districts upriver. This eventually led us to the Lisbon Aquarium located in the grounds of a former Expo site. It bills itself as the largest such complex in Europe. An enormous central tank, rising several floors, is home to adult sharks, giant sunfish, manta rays and schools of fish. It’s an incredible scene. We spent most of the afternoon there before grabbing an early dinner and making our way to the airport.

Friday, June 18

The big reveal

Lisbon Bullring

I can now reveal that Garry and I are off to Lisbon, Portugal tonight. Garry is thrilled. He's been talking about seeing Lisbon for more than a year. He says this will be the 54th country he's visited. Hooray!

Thursday, June 17

Out for the weekend

Garry and I have a couple of weekend excursions scheduled over the next three weeks. On Friday evening we're off to an unnamed European location (it's a surprise I've organised for Garry). All I say is that it'll be considerably warmer at our mystery destination than London is forecast to be on Saturday. The Met Office is expecting a high of 16°C here, while our holiday city will be a cozy 25°C, rising to 27°C on Sunday.

We'll then be off to Copenhagen for a weekend at the start of July. This is holiday we'd originally booked for May but rescheduled after rolling strikes plagued British Airways. We booked this weekend away using a discount voucher the airline gave me in February, thus enabling Garry to complete his tour of the Nordics. We've previously visited Helsinki, Stockholm (plus the Arctic Circle) and Oslo. I guess there are some perks to living in London after all!

Saturday, June 12

Cup fever

World Cup fever has taken hold across London once again. The quadrennial tournament literally kicked off yesterday following a colourful, vibrant opening ceremony at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. Garry and I saw this spectacular venue back in January while the final touches were still being made. It’s an impressive building. South Africa has clearly spent a lot of money preparing for the World Cup as Africa’s first ever host of the tournament. Since 2004 South Africa has spent about 40bn rand (£3.55bn) on stadiums, transport infrastructure and upgrading airports.

Yesterday more than 94,000 were at the venue, while hundreds of millions worldwide watched the live broadcast. The saturation coverage has prompted the installation of large outdoor screen across London, including one on the doorstep of my office. They were still applying finishing touches to this screen at lunchtime yesterday. Apparently, builders were focused on having it completed for the inaugural competition game at 1:00pm. Instead, its today’s game, England vs the USA, that everyone wanted to be ready for.

The British Beer and Pub Association expects nearly four million fans to head to pubs and big public screens today. It estimates beer sales will be by £35 million as punters down an extra nine million pints. Supermarkets are also expecting their busiest day since Christmas as home viewers stock up. No doubt we’re in for a sea of flag waving, as was the fashion here four years ago. I’d already seen more than one car on the street flying England’s St George’s flagwith pride. The prime minister has even agreed fly the same flag over Downing Street for the duration of the World Cup.

As our office we set up a special viewing room for ardent football fans to indulge in sporting passion. The room was already in use during yesterday’s game between South Africa, and Mexico. The hosts held Mexico to a 1-1 draw. Tomorrow, Australia takes on Germany. No doubt we’ll have our television on at some point. New Zealand has also made it to the tournament for the first time since 1982. It’s first game, against Slovakia, kicks off on Tuesday. Game on!

UPDATE - June 13
South Africa held Mexico to an impressive one-all draw. Germany slammed Australia, beating the Socceroos 4-0.

UPDATE - June 15
New Zealand came from behind to score an equaliser goal during injury time. The resulting one-all draw gave the nation its first ever World Cup point.

Monday, June 7

10,000 miles

Our Saab clocked up 10,000 miles on its odometer today. That's 16,093 kilometres for non-Imperial blog readers. The Saab celebrates its sixth anniversary in September. This means it's clocked up barely 1,740 miles annually, or 2,800 kilometres. Today's momentous occasion occurred while returning from our weekly pilgrimage to the supermarket. Given its low mileage, I'd have to say that our car has officially become the world's most expensive supermarket shopping trolley.

On a separate note, readership of this blog passed 20,000 hits a couple of weeks ago. The blog's fourth anniversary occured three months ago which means I've average about 4,800 hits every year, or 400 hits per month. Thanks for helping me hit another milestone.

Sunday, June 6

Sweaty nights

We're experiencing a brief heatwave in London. The temperature peaked at 28°C yesterday, and is predicted to remain above 20°C through most of the night. Garry and I don't quie know what to do with ourselves. It's been a while since we had crank up the air-con and drag our portable fan out of storage.

Celebrating life and love

I’ve found myself in a reflective mood this week; the product of three unrelated events. Garry and I went to the theatre on Thursday evening to see Tommy Murphy’s adaption of Holding the Man, an award-winning book by the late Tim Conigrave. There’s a copy on our bookshelf that I bought shortly after it was published in 1995. It’s an autobiographical story of Tim’s life with his childhood sweetheart, published shortly after his death from AIDS in October 1994.

However, unlike most love stories, this one has a twist. Tim’s partner of 15 years is a man - John Caleo. The author’s skill is remarkable. His book is an incredibly moving, and very readable, love story. I’ve read reviews in the past where Tim revealed that he intentionally romanticized the story. He did so in part to eulogize his partner’s memory, and to remind readers that love is a truly universal emotion.

As a play, Holding the Man was both funny and deeply moving. Matt Zeremes and Guy Edmonds held their own as the respective lead characters; John and Tim. The West End production also stars several high profile actors including Simon Burke and Jane Turner, better known as Kath in the Australian comedy series Kath and Kim. We even had a celebrity sit immediately behind us in audience; Matt Lucas of Little Britain fame.

Afterwards I was sufficiently moved to retrieve the yellowing paperback from our dusty shelves and read it again. The book remains a true classic, reminding me how precious life is; and how special is the gift of love. Life should be lived to the full. You can never predict what tomorrow will bring.

My reflective mood was subsequently reinforced by news from Sydney later that evening. Garry’s father was admitted to hospital in considerable pain. Fortunately the diagnosis proved nothing more sinister than an unpleasant dose of Shingles. Ironically, I discovered the following day that my own father is currently suffering the same aliment. Both men should bounce back in no time.

Reflecting on the fragility of health can make one morose. However, the week also brought unexpectedly positive news. I learnt yesterday that my father’s ongoing cancer therapy is proving a resounding success. His latest scans reveal a complete absence of any discernable tumors; a result far better than we dared hope for. He’s now unlikely to require further treatment for five years. Likewise my mother was recently declared disease-free by doctors following her own breast cancer surgery. It’s wonderful to know my parents have been granted a reprieve. Let’s go live!

Thursday, June 3

Strange bedfellows

As I was boarding my plane to New York last month televisions across the airport terminal were broadcasting live images of British history in the making. The former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was announcing his resignation, before driving to Buckingham Palace to officially inform the Queen. This moment marked the end of five fascinating days as Britain’s first coalition Government in 70 years negotiated the terms of its eventual political union.

The Conservatives agreed to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. This is the first time these two parties have ever agreed to a power sharing deal at a national level. Conservative leader David Cameron leads the new government as Prime Minister, while the Liberal Democrat’s leader Nick Clegg serves as deputy prime minister. The Lib Dems also have five seats in Cabinet with a further 15 ministerial jobs likely to follow.

I found the daily political twists and turns of this unfolding news story fascinating. The local media went into a collective frenzy immediately after the election. The reaction was completely out of kilter with reality. Unlike the UK, coalition governments are the norm across Europe as only five nations here are currently governed by a single party holding a majority of the electorate’s primary vote.

I think the new coalition will be good for Britain. Last month’s election result forced two parties to merge their policies, resulting a legislative agenda that now meets more of the electorate’s expectations. During the election both parties had held unnecessary extreme positions on several policies as they attempted to quash internal dissent. Now, with negotiations over, the new coalition’s revised policy agenda is actually something I rather like. I’m sure much of the electorate feels the same.

In fact, the creation of a Coalition government seems to have gone some way to neutralizing the influence of both party’s extremists. I'll support anything that reverses the trend of endless polarising partisan politics. This change can only bode well at a time when public confidence in politics and politicians is at an all time low. Garry and I have certainly picked an interesting time to live and work in the UK.

Wednesday, June 2

Deadly history

A rather bizarre news story has prompted me to finally download photographs from my recent business trip to the USA. Yesterday three people were killed in central Germany while attemping to defuse a World War II bomb. Unexploded WWII bombs dropped by Allied planes are frequently found in Germany and in Britain, despite the war having ended 65 years ago. What, you ask, is the connection between this tragic incident and my latest travel photos?

While in the USA I visited the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a new extension of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. It's exhibits include the Enola Gay, the bomber from which the world's first atomic weapon used in combat was dropped on Hiroshima. As you stand under the nose of this polished metal aircraft it's hard to fathom its critical role in the death of almost 166,000 people, many of whom died within minutes of its deadly payload exploding.

Experiences like this and tragic stories like that in today's news remind me again and agin that history isn't a series of remote events. Last century's World Wars really did happen - and each bought incomprehensible death and destruction. This harsh reality always hits home when you live and travel in Europe.