Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Happy Accidents

Green Compass Macro
Originally uploaded by Red Canoe Cacher.

I'm really glad that I arrived in London during summer. Understatement of the century.

The fact that I have ZERO sense of direction means I am constantly getting lost. Doing so hardly seems so bad, when the weather is so nice and it's light until 10pm. But I'm starting to make such an alarming habit of wandering in entirely the wrong directions that I'm starting to worry myself. Maybe my office's suggestion of fitting me with a radio transmitter wasn't such a dumb idea after all?

Fortunately I have the Tube sussed out. I may not be on the most favourable of tube lines for my ultimate destination, but at least I know how to navigate the underground system so I know how to get myself to where I need to be. It's when I emerge ABOVEGROUND that things get ugly.

I got caught up in peak hour crowds at Waterloo Station this morning and ended up being forced out of an unfamiliar exit, facing a carpark I'd never seen before. Where was my bus stop?! Rather than make it easy on myself and go back how I came in, I thought I'd be smart and avoid the crowds by walking AROUND the perimeter of the station. In the wrong direction. Naturally. So I ended up in a complete foreign area, and ultimately came to my senses and went back inside the station until I got my bearings and found the exit I needed.

Not a good start to the day, I feel. But if I thought that effort was ordinary, tonight was an even bigger balls up. Dare I say I may even have outdone myself?

I stood at a bus stop by my office, fully intending to shop at Oxford Circus (why I do this to myself will forever remain a mystery). According to MY reading of the route, I could take about 4 buses that came along. I felt cool, up with it, ready to ride a double decker bus towards public transportation system mastery.

Unfortunately it appears that you can take any bus that comes along EXCEPT the bus I ultimately caught. Figures. If you're interested, the bus I actually caught takes you on a lovely ride through Piccadilly Circus, down towards Wellington's Arch and then almost to the doorstep of Harrod's.

I was so disheartened at this point I decided to get off and wander through Harrod's. Can I just say that browsing the 60% off racks in the women's wear section, when everything on there is STILL over 200 pounds a garment, is no way to cheer up!!??

Things were going from bad to worse, so I rode the Egyptian Escalator up and down a few times - just because I thought it was pretty - and somehow emerged in the Harrod's Food Hall.

Talk about a silver lining!

Faced with so much choice, and a loudly growling belly, I prowled the aisles until I settled on some takeaway Indian food. The lovely man behind the counter gave it to me at 50% off, even though he hadn't put the discount signs on it. I was so happy I nearly cried.

And can you believe it - getting home was absolutely no problem at all! It's as if my bed and me share a weird, umbilical relationship or something. And summer won't last forever, so I really have to get better at this navigation stuff, or I'll be riding buses into Wales in no time!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's elementary, my dear

UK - London - Marylebone: Sherlock Holmes Museum
Originally uploaded by wallyg.

Originally I was planning to spend my Sunday lying very still and not doing much at all. In the end, I forced myself to get off the bed and out into society - and I'm really glad I did.

Last weekend I bought a pack of cards and each card describes a walking tour of the City of London. Today I chose walk #27, "Bond Street to Baker Street". I have no idea why I chose that card over all the others; perhaps it really was the luck of the draw. In any case, the walk took me back to the neighbourhood I visited yesterday - Marylebone.

Getting off the tube at Bond Street, I turned entirely the wrong way (obviously) and got off to a pretty average start. Once I was back on course, I walked into Manchester Square and toured the "Beauty and Power" bronze exhibition at The Wallace Collection. The whole museum was really beautiful, if not a little stuffy, and I didn't stay too long in the end - I even resisted the icecream van set up outside the museum!

Given that I'd walked up & down Marylebone High Street only just yesterday, I skipped that bit of the walking card and cut down George Street over to Baker Street. Grabbing a takeaway Subway sandwich for lunch, I slopped BBQ sauce down the front of my white tshirt - naturally - and then succumbed to a walloping bad mood. The only thing that buoyed my spirits was the promise of browsing Sherlock Holmes memorabilia just a little further up the road. What I hadn't counted on (and perhaps should have) was the sheer number of people with similar plans to my own.

The Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b Baker Street is not the most remarkable of buildings; in fact it's quite pokey and not at all ventilated. Fortunately the exhibits are spread out in about 6 little rooms so it's quite easy to just zip through each one and have a little look. I have not read any Sherlock Holmes stories, so the displays and references in each room were a little lost on me. I did pick up a book of Sherlock Holmes stories in the gift shop though, a great little volume with gold-edges pages and hardcover, so I thought that made quite a lovely souvenir.

I stopped next door at The London Beatles Store for a bit of a browse but again, the store was simply not big enough to accommodate all the people that wanted to go through it. I was starting to get quite snappy at this stage - BBQ sauce on my shirt, desperate Diet Coke deprivation - you know the drill. So I gathered my wits and jumped back on the Tube, this time at the Baker Street stop, and headed for home.

I stopped at Oxford Circus and picked up some great bargains at Gap (yes, replacement tshirt was one of those bargains). By this time it was about 2.20pm, and I wanted to get to the pub before the England game started. I powered home, changed clothes, and walked back across the Vauxhall Bridge in the direction of The Grosvenor Pub in Pimlico.

Enough has already been said about England's 4-1 loss to Germany, so I'm not going to add anything about it here. It was nice to hang around after the game though and get to know the locals as they wandered in and out. When I move to my new apartment next week, I'll be quite a distance from this particular pub, but it was nice to spend some time in it this afternoon.

Back to work tomorrow of course, and the BBC suggests it's going to be another warm week. Sounds good to me - I'm lapping it up!

The jolly week that was

The end of another great week in London. Sightseeing wise, this has been a bit of a slow week actually. Largely my last 7 days have been spent getting stuck in to some work projects and then after hours, sorting out a place to live. Fortunately the latter has now been sorted and I move in on Tuesday. I can't tell you what a load off my mind it will be to have a bedroom of my own, a flat mate to chat to, and a safe place to unpack my luggage and hang up my clothes. Simple pleasures, really.

Thursday night we had a social event at work and I tended the bar. I know, right? But fortunately the drink prices were all fairly helpful (50p, 1 pound) so making change was easier than I'd first thought. Plus when you're behind the bar, the opportunities to meet people greatly increase. So I got to chat to a lot of people who work in my building, but sadly I found it difficult to concentrate on the person's name AND their drink order. Something had to give - next time I'm going to ask everyone to wear name tags!

Yesterday was a truly gorgeous day in the city and I left the apartment early to explore. I had to be at lunch with some old friends from back home at noon, and so I had some time to kill. I went into Covent Garden and looked around at the market, which was an assault on my senses. Tourists poured in from positively everywhere and the accents around me was like being in a UN meeting - just amazing. I didn't buy anything, but I certainly saw some tempting things - jewellery, clothing, souvenir trinkets and the like.

I caught the tube up to Bond Street and walked up into the Marylebone neighbourhood which was just gorgeous. The Marylebone High Street is a mecca of artisinal shops, chic boutiques, gastro pubs and wonderful restaurants and cafes. We had lunch at one such cafe called The Providores and Tapa Room Restaurant and it was excellent - particularly the delicious and very strong coffee (thanks to the NZ chef, who clearly knows what he's doing). My friends left after lunch to attend a music concert in Hyde Park and I continued on my way, walking up and down the High Street at a leisurely place.

With no particular destination in mind, I boarded the Tube to Notting Hill Gate, simply deciding to walk around the neighbourhood and see what I could see. Coming up to street level I saw signs for Portobello Road Market and figured I should just follow the ever-expanding crowds and see what all the fuss was about.

If I ever (and I mean EVER) decide to go to Portobello Market on a sunny Saturday again, please smack me over the head with something very heavy. That experience was like hell on earth. The crowds made it impossible to get anywhere quickly, and the only way to make any progress was to walk in the middle of the road, meaning I couldn't see any of the market stalls anyway. I will return another time of course, because I do love a market atmosphere, but I will time things better next time. It serves me right for trying to browse at 3pm on a Saturday. I retreated into a nearby pub for a very cold (and very large) beer to recuperate from the rush. Delish.

Today is an equally beautiful day but I'm not so inclined to get out and explore. I am going to the pub later today to watch the England game - I seem to be a sucker for crowded environments these days, don't I? While I'm not a huge soccer fan by any stretch, it's important that I watch this game and cheer on England (well, somebody has to!). C'mon boys!!

Until next time x

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A coupla cuppas

twinings earl grey tea
Originally uploaded by hwayoungjung.

Down the street from my office is the oldest Twinings store in London. I did not know this until AFTER I'd visited there of course, but nonetheless it's a nice piece of trivia that might be useful at a quiz night sometime soon.

I was actually walking back from grabbing a sandwich today and figured it would be nice to call into the Twinings store and get some peppermint tea.

Browsing the shelves at the sheer eye-popping number of herbal teas and fruit teas and whatnot, my attention was drawn to the big box of Twinings Traditional Afternoon tea, that has always been a firm favourite. I could hardly go past that!

Armed with my purchases, the shop assistant then tried to persuade me to adjourn to the tearoom at the back of the store for a complimentary mug of tea. What a lovely promotion! Sadly I had to get back to the office so I took a raincheck *SOB*

I tell you though, it's nice to know that such delicious - and free - tea is available only a block or so from work. That sure makes up for all the sub-par coffee joints close by. Here's cheers, I say!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Points A to B

London Routemaster Bus
Originally uploaded by DaveWilliams.

Call me crazy, but this morning I decided to catch the bus to work from Waterloo Station. One of my colleagues had told me where the bus stop was, and which buses to catch, so that left me rather little room to screw up really.

Against the backdrop of last week's pedestrian (mis)adventures, you would no doubt be as pleased as I was to learn that not only did I take the right bus, I got off at the right stop, and I was early for work! As they say in London, I was "well chuffed".

Bring on tomorrow's commute!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Who are the people in your neighbourhood?

Over the course of this week I have been looking for a place to live. Beyond web browsing, I've actually visited a few apartments across the City, trying to work out where I want to live - and with whom.

So far I haven't committed to anything, but I've enjoyed the opportunity to traverse the Tube map and learn a bit more about London's neighbourhoods by actively visiting them and meeting some of their residents.

The other night I did reconnaissance at Clapham Common, Friday night I was in Pimlico. On Saturday morning I was in Clapham today I visited Queen's Park and Whitechapel. Tomorrow is West Kensington and the day after that is Battersea. Phew - I'm gettin' around, let me tell you!

After finishing up at Whitechapel, I took the Tube to Oxford Circus to have a look around. Arguably the chain store shopping mecca of London, Oxford Circus is pretty much like Chicago's Michigan Avenue. At Christmas. Are you getting the picture? I wandered along Oxford Street, in and out of the stores, and then sought refuge at Marble Arch for a restorative Diet Coke and writing some postcards to my grandmas.

I walked back along the other side of Oxford Street this time, back to Oxford Circus tube station, and turned right to head down Regent Street. This is home to some pretty fancy-pants designer stores mixed up with souvenir shops but the best thing about Regent Street today was the fact that I was walking downhill! Bliss.

Through Piccadilly Circus I went, along to Leicester Square, where there was some sort of public gathering/street fair thing happening. I couldn't see through the crowd anyway, so i'm not sure what was going on but there were loads of kids and families and that was enough for me - I had to get out of there! By this stage I was starving and so I called into a cute Italian restaurant and enjoyed a pizza and red wine while I gathered my thoughts, referenced my maps, and plotted my next move.

Allowing the crowd to push me along, I soon found myself in Covent Garden and browsed some of the street stalls and market spaces. The sun had come out, everyone seemed really happy and relaxed and I was enjoying the afternoon until I realised that standing still only exacerbated my sore thighs and feet - time to keep moving.

Down Lancaster Place I went and across the - wait for it - WATERLOO BRIDGE! I found the stinkin' Waterloo Bridge and I hadn't even been looking for it. Glorious! With the Waterloo tube station in sight, I dawdled across the bridge, helping tourists take photos of themselves with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in the background.

Now that I'm back at my friend's place with my slippers on, the pace of the day is catching up with me and I know I'll sleep well tonight. After a day spent discovering some new nooks & crannies of this huge city, I'm looking forward to attacking the apartment-hunt with a renewed enthusiasm this week.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reflections on the week that was

I made it to the end of my first work week in London and job-wise, I didn't achieve much. We have been having some computer issues, so my boss said that my first priority should be to find somewhere to live and to get myself settled. Easier said than done, my friends. I'm browsing 3 or 4 flat-sharing websites simultaneously, and friends are helping out with emailed recommendations, but it's a slow process. I need to remember that I've only been here a week though and just like Pantene, this "won't happen overnight but it will happen".

I have also been spending the latter part of the week on a friend's couch in an area of town called Bermondsey. It is a pretty spot, with parks and gardens dotted around and the place is well serviced by the tube and rail. That doesn't mean of course that I have had a smooth time getting to work. I'm still as geographically-challenged as ever. The dilemma comes when I emerge from the Tube at the giant Waterloo station and I get caught up in the crowds of fellow commuters, all zooming off in different directions. I am never sure which group to follow and as a result, I've taken a different walking route to work every day - none of them the correct one.

The security team at work laugh at me and every day they ask me what weird and wonderful route I took to work. Yesterday I was able to give them the traffic report from Westminster Bridge (walking towards Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament). Trust me when I tell you that this was WAAAY out of my way. At the same time, it's not surprising in the least. I have a terrible sense of direction but even I'm surprised at how easily I lose Waterloo Bridge. I mean, seriously. Waterloo Bridge itself is enormous, and the pedestrian-only bridge right next door is equally monstrous and yet I have managed to follow commuter crowds out of the station, down windy backstreets, and bypass both bridges entirely. Crazy. I guess my only saving grace at this point is that I'm always running ultra early for work every day, affording me some time to amble across foreign bridges and past some of the most beautiful monuments and architecture I've ever seen. Plus I'm also using the wandering as an excuse to locate coffee shops, hotels and cute restaurants that I might need to visit later on (if I can ever find them again).

I got my bank account organised the other day too. This proved to be much less painful than the experience in Scotland, where I recall we were effectively interrogated, cavity-searched, rigorously background checked and generally treated like criminals. Thanks to the recommendation from work of course, the process of opening my London account was very quick and easy. My closest bank branch is also located right behind St Paul's Cathedral, so I got to visit another gorgeous monument just by chance. Score! I didn't get to go inside St Paul's of course, but my colleague said that church services run as usual on Sundays so I could always go inside for free then. The ABC (Another Bloody Church) Tour has begun.

Some good news is that all the walking here is doing me good already. I didn't realise that I had thigh muscles until they started groaning and twinging around about Thursday. All this up & down stairs business at work and on the Tube, not to mention navigating the uneven terrain - cobble stones and such - I may actually be headed towards that mysterious thing they call fitness. Help.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

So these are the sights?

Day 2 at work went pretty well. With permission from my boss, I spent much of the day browsing the internet looking for places to live, so that was quite good really. I have not really narrowed things down too much - I think I'll do a better job of that when I actually hit the streets and visit apartments, but so far I am using my desktop research to get better acquainted with the London geography.

I was on the tube this afternoon thinking back to my Chicago days and you know what occurred to me? I can't remember a time when I didn't know Chicago well. I know that Chicago was brand new to me 5 years ago, and I had to start from scratch and get myself around, but I've literally wiped all that experience from my brain. So having to learn London is a fresh challenge and one that I'm starting to enjoy.

My office uses a driving service on occasion and late yesterday I decided that it was all too traumatic to organise my own relocation to my friend's place (where I am presently couch-surfing). I just couldn't face two tube journeys with the two hefty suitcases all on my own. I wasn't being a baby about it; a fact's a fact. Plus I have no biceps to speak of and 30kg of luggage is coming close to killing me. So my boss approved booking the office driver to transport me and my bags to my friend's place after work today. Rock star.

Bless his cotton socks, Sam picked me up on time and helped heave my luggage into his car. Then he took the long way to my friend's place, passing a bunch of great London sights along the way. I got the full audio commentary tour too as we tootled past Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Waterloo Bridge, and the Tower of London - just to name a few! Can you believe it?! I was stoked. So far my whole experience of London has been underground. In Sam's car, listening to him tell me all about the history and architecture as our car hooned by, I actually felt really excited to come back to all these places on weekends to come and explore them for myself. If only I can find them all...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Zones and Tubes, Heels and Homes

I made it safely to London, after what was probably a 30-hour journey (I'm too scared to count). Both my flights were 100% full - and I'm quite surprised to say I actually got about 7 hours sleep en route to London, which wasn't too bad really.

Singapore's Changi airport was lovely and I had a delicious pad thai and a couple of beers while waiting for my connecting flight. I also enjoyed a complimentary foot & calf massage in one of those automatic machine thingies that I love. Of course there was a massage parlour (for want of a better expression) and I could have paid a human being to massage me, but given my strict 'no touch' policy, the chair was always the only choice!

When I finally arrived at Heathrow, the immigration & customs experiences were fairly uneventful. I breezed through actually - and I was really pleasant to everyone, which is a miracle given that I hadn't had any coffee whatsoever since Australia!

The tube from Heathrow to Bayswater was a bit of an adventure, simply because rather than reading the instructions on the tube ticket machine, I just started pushing buttons. What zone are you in? What zone are you going to? ARGH - menace. Anyway, I bought a ticket for zones I had no interest in going to, consequently overpaid for the ticket and then took a rather creative route to the tube station I actually needed. I was never actually lost per se, rather I was just over-complicating things and so ultimately the journey took longer than it had to. All good.

I had done some Googlemapping (from the verb to googlemap) before I got to London so I knew where my Bayswater hotel was, and in retrospect I was really grateful for that. I exited the Bayswater tube stop, turned left, walked a couple of blocks, turned right and VOILA. Hotel found. Also working in my favour at that point was the fact that hotel reception had a room available for me then and there, so I didn't even need to come back at the usual check-in time. I headed straight upstairs, took a lukewarm shower (hot is not an option at my hotel), and I got changed and headed straight back outside again. I did not even sit down on the bed, because I knew that if I did, I'd never get back up again.

Bayswater is a lovely neighbourhood - my hairdresser back at home used to live in London and he lived in this area for about 3 years and obviously loved it. Now that I'm here I can see why. There are plenty of coffee options, the houses/flats are gorgeous; the area is literally in the centre of things; and the shopping/food/entertainment precincts seem really great too. I just wish I could afford to live here...maybe I should look into that a little more closely now that I'm here....

I did a bit of shopping in Bayswater too, picking up some bathroom/toiletry essentials at the chemist and then I headed back to the tube station to rehearse my commute to work. That journey actually went very smoothly and I found my office in no time flat.

After this bit of reconnaissance, I walked down (or up?) The Strand and into Trafalgar Square. I paused for a cup of tea at the Square cafe, and watched the tourists and school kids take photos of each other and goof off around the fountains and Nelson's Column. It was a gorgeous day with some lovely sun, so I was quite spoiled rotten.

I wanted to call my family to let them know that I was doing so well (geographically I mean) and I stepped into a phone booth - and almost stepped ON some poo. Human poo. Or else it was from some giant animal like a rhino or something, but then how would a rhino open a phone booth door? Or more importantly, what would a rhino be doing in Central London (and who would he be calling?!). Anyway the point of the story is, somebody did a poo in a public phone booth? Gross. I gagged. But of course this is all part of the experience. And if poop in a phone booth is the worst thing that happens to me, I'll be okay.

Today was Day 1 at the office and I have to tell you, I was really nervous. Or maybe I was just excited. Who knows. In any case, I was in bed at 7pm last night, and wide awake at 5am today, so I stayed in bed watching TV for a couple of hours before getting up at 7am to face my day.

Again, the tube commute into work went well and only took 20 minutes, which was really great as far as I was concerned. The walk uphill to my office just about killed me - and made me immediately regret the fact that I wore heels today. This regret was further reinforced throughout the day as I realised that my office building - while beautiful - is one spiral staircase after another, and all my travelling up & down them played havoc with my poor feet. At this moment I'm trying to ignore the weeping blister on my 2nd toe. So tomorrow it's definitely ballet flats all the way, baby.

I won't bore you with the details of my work, suffice to say that my colleagues seem lovely and I met so many new people whose names all ran in together. I am sure things will settle down once I start working on projects and collaborate properly with people in real time.

At the moment however, the focus is on finding somewhere to live. I check out of my hotel tomorrow and relocate temporarily to a friend's couch. She has lived in London for about 5 years and she's offered to help me look for places to live, which is such a blessing. Hopefully the apartment hunt won't be as arduous as I fear, and things will settle down (literally) soon. I just want to unpack these stinking nice THAT will be!

More news to follow...

Friday, June 11, 2010

What a difference a day makes

This time tomorrow I will be en route to the airport. I can't believe that my D-Day has come around so quickly and yet, there you have it.

My suitcases certainly zip up but because not everything is packed, I know I'll have to do a pretty serious re-pack later today. Trying to decide how to consolidate my wardrobe into 20kg of checked luggage has been a huge challenge; one that I have clearly not yet mastered.

I am feeling a bit more confident about the trip, certainly in regard to getting to my hotel after what I'm sure will feel like 50 hours in the air. I've sussed out the travel options at Heathrow, I've re-confirmed my hotel reservation, and I've worked out the nearby shopping and coffee spots to keep me occupied until I can check-in. I just hope that when my alarm goes off on Tuesday morning, I'm able to drag myself out of bed with some degree of enthusiasm to start this exciting new job. Fingers crossed!

See you on the other side.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


Originally uploaded by m.aquila.

You would recall that I was supposed to fly to the UK yesterday but I had to postpone the trip because my visa had still not come through.

It should therefore come as no surprise whatsoever that no sooner had I rescheduled the trip and renegotiated my work start date, I got a message from the visa processors to say that my application had been approved. As I write this, my paperwork is in the back of a truck somewhere, on its way back to me. Typical.

I went to the travel agent yesterday and collected my revised airline ticket, so I'm set for a 13 June departure. I'll arrive in London on 14 June and start work the next day. I figure that by the weekend, the jetlag hallucinations will have abated. Well, we can only hope.

I also booked some hotel accommodation for the first two days, before my temporary couch surfing career begins. I'm going to be holed up in Bayswater, at a budget hotel around the corner from Whiteleys, the oldest shopping centre in London. I am pretty sure that in two short days, I will become very accustomed to living the Bayswater life. But from what I know of the area, from browsing accommodation ads, I probably can't afford to live there.

Never say never though, right? I mean, stranger things have happened. Perhaps while browsing at Whiteleys I will meet an old lady who lives alone in a palatial home (no cats) and who has an entire fully-furnished floor space that she'd like to rent to me. And then the old lady decides she can't handle the London climate anymore and she buys a house in Spain and gives me the run of the house in return for keeping it neat and clean.

Uh oh, the jetlag hallucinations have started and I haven't even taken off yet....