Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sizing Things Up

Tape Measure
Originally uploaded by Sue90ca: Will be commenting soon, promise.

It's funny, you know. When you move to a new country, you wonder what settling in is going to be like. You think about where you'll live, who your friends will be, and what you're likely to do for fun.

These are important things of course, but there are other more routine considerations you need to make that really only present themselves once you finally arrive. Things like going to the doctor, where to buy public transport cards for your daily commute, and finding the best hairdresser to visit.

Trust me when I tell you that these administrative considerations are nothing compared to the utter mindf*@k that is clothes shopping in a new country.

No matter how much sense it makes, there is no such thing as universal sizing, in clothes or in shoes. So if you wear a size 10 in Australia, you're a size 8 in the US, but you're a size 12 in the UK. And something totally different again in continental Europe (38 or something I think).

Shoe shopping is equally problematic. You're a 7 in Australia, and conveniently a 7 in the US (God Bless America!), a 5 in the UK and a 37.5 in Europe. Or is it 38, same as clothes? Ugh I forget. But don't look to the internet for help on this one; there are almost as many "international shoe size charts" as there are shoe shops, often reporting ever-so-slightly different results. It's a minefield, I tell you!

If you've ever had the misfortune of shopping with me, you'll know I tend to get irritated very quickly in stores. This could be for any number of reasons of course, but mostly it's because other customers are in the store with me. High maintenance, I know - but there you have it. Because I know this about myself, I tend to do a lot of my shopping online. I was so desperate for new clothes the other week, and having a hell of a time finding UK stuff that I liked (or that fit), I ended up ordering a couple of things from a US-based retailer that I know well, and I had the goods shipped over to me. No muss, no fuss. I know the items will fit, I trust that they're good quality, and I shopped for them in my pyjamas. Genius really.

When it comes to building a life in a foreign country, finding the doctor you like, or the supermarket you prefer, or even a hairdresser that won't murder your mane is child's play. Finding clothes and shoes that fit you, without losing your mind in the process, can be really hard work.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

No trolls, but lots of (book)worms

South Bank Book Market
Originally uploaded by Miss Gab.

It's a good thing I finally worked out how to find Waterloo Bridge from the station, because just underneath the giant structure is The South Bank Book Market. Every day until 7pm, trestle tables are stocked with second hand books covering just about any subject you can imagine. Given that the day was so nice, and I had no plans at all, I had to go check it out.

The dude in the white hat shadowed me as I wandered from trestle to trestle. At first I thought he was one of the vendors but no, he was just a fellow book worm, trying to find a book to catch his eye.

Along the trestles there were lots of tattered, leather-bound books and some of them were obviously quite special because the vendors had lovingly wrapped them in plastic to protect them. Those books were about 25GBP, depending on the condition. Not knowing anything about rare books, I'm not sure if that amounts to a bargain or not.

I was tempted by quite a few titles, but I settled on "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco (saw the film and loved it); and "The Travels of a Fat Bulldog" by George Courtauld, the story of a Royal Courier who travels to British embassies around the world carrying the Queen's official, confidential correspondence. The blurb assures me that the book is funny, but we'll see. Both of these books were 3GBP each and they were in very good condition, so I considered that sum to be perfectly reasonable.

Given it was such a nice day, I wandered along the South Bank precinct that is very similar to the North Terrace riverbank back home. To my left was the South Bank Centre, home to many arts & festival events in London - big exhibition halls and the like. To my right, the River Thames with loads of boat activity today - I guess everyone wanted to take full advantage of the sunshine.

The South Bank Centre is currently celebrating Festival Brazil, and there were lots of advertisements for music, theatre and dance events associated with it. I stopped to watch a presentation by a circus troupe who were trying to get members of the crowd to join in with them. Some poor schmuck volunteered to learn how to cartwheel and it was excruciating to watch. The poor guy just couldn't do it - but fair play to him; he squatted and flipped the entire length of the rubber mat, encouraged by rows of kids applauding his efforts. Sometimes I am so uncharitable.

I wandered along the riverbank, past Westminster Bridge (Aquarium on my left, Big Ben across the river to my right) and I headed towards Lambeth Bridge.

For reasons known only to the universe, I followed some signs for the Imperial War Museum. I am not interested in warfare of any kind, and even less interested in Britain's role in warfare of any kind, so I'm not sure what inspired me to keep walking. Perhaps it was the prospect of exploring the road less travelled (which given my history is a completely stupid idea as it usually ends up with me getting lost). But on I trudged.

Approaching the Imperial War Museum, I was surprised to realise just how many people were going through there. So many tourists, with so many children, it was a nightmare. I couldn't make sense of the place and the signs for the exhibits were so small, I couldn't work out how the museum was laid out, or how I should approach my visit. I got stuck behind a young family with two kids and the mother decided to read each and every information panel to her kids; it just about killed me. Mum, Dad, two kids and a stroller stopping dead every 6 feet to read - ALOUD - the world's most boring information panels. Yikes.

Perhaps it was the information panels, perhaps it was the crowds, but most likely it was the air conditioning - bottom line was I left the place after about 15 minutes. I will read about it online though, to see whether I should be going back sometime - when the Museum is closed to everybody else but me, perhaps.

I didn't spend a great deal of time outside today but I enjoyed just enough society to say that I have had a lovely weekend. I got to explore a bit more of the city and I didn't get lost. Best of all, I discovered two places this weekend - the Borough Market and the South Bank Book Market - that I suspect will become regular haunts while I am living here. Food and books - easy ways into my heart.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gluttonous to the Maximus

Borough Market
Originally uploaded by Geordie Munkey.

I set off very early this morning, taking the train to London Bridge Station bound for Borough Market. If you haven't been to London but you've been to the cinema, you might recognise the Market as the place Bridget Jones walks through when she catches love rat Daniel Cleaver with the stick insect from the New York Office. And given that Bridget's apartment is above The Globe Pub that literally overlooks this place, I suspect Borough Market was the very place that Bridget bought the ingredients for her birthday dinner of blue soup, orange marmalade and caper berry gravy. Could be....

Borough Market (pronounced 'Burra', for those Americans playing along at home) is a literal feast for the senses. I got there just before 9am, almost an hour after the market opened. Sellers were still setting up their stores, laying out their wares carefully, just-so. Coffee shops and bakeries were already doing a roaring trade and it was very hard to decide where I should go for my morning cuppa. I ended up choosing a fairly la-di-da place called Monmouth. It's one of those 100% ethical, fair trade places but the real attraction for me was that the line of customers extended right out the door. Whatever they were selling, I had to be part of it. The coffee was good - it started my heart, but I can't say it changed my life.

Feeling energised by 100% ethical caffeine, I proceeded to get completely lost amidst the sights and smells in this place, and this time I didn't mind a bit. I did a couple of laps of the Market for reconnaissance purposes, and quickly realised that my shopping bags would simply not accommodate all the goodies I wanted to buy. So I used today's shopping trip as a chance to replenish my stocks of hummus, carrot sticks and fruits - with a delicious French baguette, some figs and gorgonzola cheese thrown in for kicks. The flirty cheesemaker did wonders for my self-confidence, I can assure you.

The highlight of my visit this morning was finding Maria's Market Cafe in the Jubilee section of the Market. On his TV show, Jamie Oliver commented on Maria and how her little cafe serves, in his opinion, the best bubble and squeak in London. Known locally as "bubble", Maria's version is not at all pretty to look at, but he raved about it's crunchy texture and delicious taste. I simply had to try it for myself. I found Maria's place without a problem - it was like I had inbuilt GPS for food or something! I ordered an "egg, bacon and bubble bap" (a bap is just a bread roll). Squirting brown (HP) sauce on top, I stuffed the breakfast in and it was well worth it. Sure it was like eating 100% grease - I think the napkin was the healthiest part - but I am so glad I tried it. I can now say I've tried an authentic - dare I suggest famous - London dish! Yummo!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Me, Adam. You, Jane.

I remember being addicted to the Nescafe coffee commercials that screened in Australia in the mid-late 1990s. You remember the ones - it was like a long, drawn out soap opera and the whole country followed the relationship between the two central characters. The storyline bubbled along for way longer than it should have but nobody cared because it was a great idea.

So it's little wonder that I have become equally glued to the British Telecom (BT) commercials starring the fictional characters, Adam and Jane. It doesn't hurt that Adam is played by the adorable Kris Marshall, who you may remember from "Love Actually" (he played Colin, the enthusiastic fellow who decides to leave England and head to Wisconsin to get laid...and does, in rather spectacular fashion).

Anyway the BT commercial/serial has actually been screening since 2005 so I'm coming into things quite late. But the most recent storyline suggests that Jane may actually be pregnant, and the marketing gurus over at BT have turned it over to the British public to vote and decide where things go from here. You can view the ad for yourself here:

So of course I voted.

I know, I know - I'm cringing in shame, but my fondness for commercial/serials is exceeded only by my love for Kris Marshall, so what choice did I have?! Naturally I voted for Jane to be with child.

Hey, I may be a loser, but at least I'm a romantic loser.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Feeling the strain

Originally uploaded by portobellospy_version2.

I am going through a fat phase.

Actually to be fair it's one of those in-between phases, where you've been fat and then you're losing weight. You're not back to your goal weight yet, so you linger in this awkward in-between phase where nothing in your closet fits like it's supposed to, and yet you don't want to go out and buy a whole new 'fat' wardrobe to see you through.

Everything I try on in my usual size is too tight, and because no UK clothing stores seem to be air-conditioned, everything I try in a size larger than normal seems to cling to me too. It's all so demoralising and frustrating.

Even the cute leather ballet flats I bought last weekend are too tight for me, but I swear they fit when I bought them. It seems my fat feet are too big for a size 4, and too small for a size 5. Do they make a 4.5 - nope (well at least not in the stores I've been frequenting).

The more I walk the streets (so to speak!) and the more often I go up and down the staircases at work, I know I'm doing the right thing. I'm eating well, drinking lots of water (more water than wine anyway), and so that has to be helping too. It's just so demoralising not to be able to slip into the cute summer outfits I see other girls wearing - though admittedly some girls have shoe-horned themselves into cute summer outfits, and kudos to them for their body confidence.

It probably comes as little surprise that when I start to get like this, my thoughts turn to the consolation of wine. A previous boss once suggested to me that the solution to all of life's problems could be found at the bottom of the bottle. Not the most rousing of motivational speeches perhaps, but it has stuck with me and is particularly timely because I've started looking for a London-based wine club to join.

I found a wine bar in my area called "Artisan & Vine" which I visited tonight and very much enjoyed (the Austrian rose on the recommended list was very tasty). Walking distance from home, it is a very convenient spot to enjoy a glass of wine from the extensive menu (plus they are also a wine retailer which is a bit of a bonus). But I thought it would be fun to look for a wine store that offers classes too, and fortunately I found two work colleagues/kindred spirits who are likewise inclined, so at least I will have some company.

In the mean time, I just have to steer clear of the mu-mu aisle in the department store and know that just like a good wine, my body image will improve with equal parts time and patience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Tale of the (almost) 12-Hour Tourist

I have had a HUGE day playing tourist, taking a bus tour to Oxford, The Cotswolds and Stratford-Upon-Avon. The bus departed London Victoria just before 9am, and dropped us back there again at 7.15pm - it was a mammoth day.

The good thing for me is that the train to Victoria leaves from Clapham Junction, the same train station I use every day. I set my alarm to wake me up as if today were a work day so even though a 7am Saturday is ugly at the best of times, I was prepared for it and so it was okay. I think the promise of train station coffee got me through (it's Illy coffee, which we have back home, so that helped).

London Victoria at 8am on a Saturday was pretty crowded, as I'm sure it is on most days really. The station is serviced by rail, the Tube and coach buses, so it's pretty intense. I had Google Mapped where I needed to be, and felt pretty confident that I'd find the bus departure gate, which I did - no problems. Good start. I also remembered to bring my ticket with me - even better!

All checked in, I waited in the queue for the bus and guide to arrive. Queuing proved to be a challenging concept for some of my fellow bus trippers. They had already begun to push and shove, with one rather rotund lady and her whippet-thin husband deciding they were bored with our queue, and they started their own. I regretted finishing my coffee so quickly.

Shepherding us on the bus, we were alerted to a woman and her husband running right for us, scared we'd leave without them. By now we'd all settled into our seats and Mr & Mrs Latecomer started to have a combined panic attack that they wouldn't be allowed to sit together. Inside, I steadfastly refused to budge and when the guide asked me (at full volume), "Are you travelling alone?!", I replied in the affirmative and said nothing more. My eyes dared her to ask me to move. She backed off. We were going to get along fine.

With Mr & Mrs Latecomer shoved down the back of the coach (somewhere near the toilet presumably), we set off for Oxford. The guide prattled on about complete nonsense the whole drive out of the City center, but I was just enjoying the view as we drove past Harvey Nichols (oops, Harvey Nicks), then along past Harrod's (hey, been there!) and along the residential streets of the well-to-do areas. The soothing voice of the guide, and the promise of a day where I wouldn't have to think or be stressed, lulled me into relaxed mode very quickly.


Our first stop on the day's program was Oxford and our only stop there was Christ Church College & Cathedral.

The Great Hall, Christ Church

Heading up the stairs into the famed Great Hall, things descended rapidly into a pushing and shoving match. People were desperately trying to photograph the portraits around the wall, nobody having a clue who was in them or what significance their portrait might carry. I recognised The Great Hall from the "Harry Potter" movie - though they only briefly filmed here. Filming got expensive and disruptive rather quickly, so the College booted the film crew out and they had to build a Great Hall replica on a sound stage someplace else. I stayed in the room long enough to snap that photo and then I scurried under a barrier and got the hell out of there - through the same entrance I used to come in. No sense of crowd control here. None.

Christ Church, Oxford

As we were coming into the Christ Church, our tour guide had given us a great little Guide to the College and Cathedral that detailed all the gorgeous architecture, stonework and stained glass that we would encounter along the halls. You know what? I hardly saw any of it. I was jostled from start to finish by hundreds - and I mean literally hundreds - of Italian school students. The place was crawling with them and they jostled and shouted and then stopped dead in their tracks and generally caused me a great deal of grief. I sat down in the Latin Chapel inside the Christ Church, to flick through the Guide we'd been given, but honestly I just wanted to hide from the ragazzi.

I left the Christ Church after that, having completely lost my tour group (and almost my mind). I emerged onto the streets of Oxford with no map, and no clue how to find the meeting point we'd agreed on. Naturally I headed left when I should have gone right, but it all ended well as I had plenty of time to get to the tourist office, seek directions, and buy a gelato on my way to the pick-up point. I even remembered to find some postcards for my Grandmas too.


I now realise that when someone refers to The Cotswolds, they're referring to a place like The Hamptons or The Cinque Terre - it's not a single place, but a region or an area. The tour description online said that we would be going to The Cotswolds for lunch, which you could pre-book, or else you could opt for a lunch-on-your-own thing. Guess which one I picked?! As it turned out, the tour company had made the decision for us and we had been booked for lunch at some middle-of-nowhere place called The Duke of Marlborough pub.

The Duke of Malborough pub

Don't get me wrong it was a nice place and all, but it was effectively on a main road leaving us no options but to cough up 10GBP for bangers & mash and all eat together like a big happy bus family. I was not a happy camper, despite the gorgeous landscape - which is still owned by the current Duke of Malborough (a real person, who is about 80-something years old. And happily married).

I wish there was more to say about our trip to The Cotswolds, but this was literally all we experienced. The rest of our sightseeting was done from the bus, looking out at the gorgeous thatched-roofed houses and quaint little villages that I desperately wanted to walk through. Oh well, I guess I will just have to come back.


En route to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we stopped off in Shottery to walk through Anne Hathaway's cottage. Anne married Shakespeare when she was 26 and he was just 18, which must have been quite a scandal in those days.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage

The cottage is a gorgeous example of Tudor architecture and we discovered that 13 generations of the Hathaway family have lived in that house. The last lot of relatives moved out of there only in 1911, which is an amazing bit of family history, don't you think?

The cottage garden is also very impressive, having been maintained pretty much as it would have been in the times. The garden is rich in flowers and plants, as you can see from the photo, but many of the vegetables are species that date back to the 1600s - it's incredible that they've been so well cared for.

The gift shop was also particularly impressive, and I thought it was very appropriate that I buy a copy of "Shakespeare's Wife" by Germaine Greer - a bit of serious reading material never hurt anybody, and it's nice to say where I bought it.

Back on the bus we went, off to see Anne's hubby's home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, about a mile from the Hathaway house.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

The Shakespeare Centre reminded me very much of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot. Weird connection to make, I know. But the fancy new Centre entrance sits right alongside - and is even a part of - the original Tudor property that Shakespeare and his family occupied. In this way it's like the Lorraine Hotel that has been consumed by the new Civil Rights Museum. Neither is particularly distasteful, but both strike me as very unusual tributes to their subjects.

I did not find anything remarkable about Shakespeare's birthplace, I have to say. I did enjoy the lecture that a British tourist gave to a trio of giggly Italian girls when they tried to photograph a bedroom in the house, thereby "defacing a piece of my culture" (or so sayeth the British woman). That pleased me very much indeed.

I took off into Henley Street at that point (basically the High Street of Stratford-Upon-Avon) and tried not to vomit at all the tacky merchandise with Shakepeare's likeness glued onto it. I did find a lovely bookshop with the usual plays and bios and stuff in it, but I bought a book by Bob Smith called "Hamlet's Dresser" which is the story of his life and how he came to love Shakespeare. As with the Greer book, I figured it would make a nice story about when and where I was when I bought it.

By this stage I was almost dead on my feet, and had given up stressing about ignoring tourists and pushy-shovey bus passengers. On the way back to London I even slept a bit, though with a typically paranoid white-knuckle grip on my handbag and purchases.

We all pushed and shoved to get off the bus at Victoria and I was really pleased to power walk through the station to my train home, but hoping to find a bottle of red wine somewhere in the rack - I figured I had certainly earned it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

No grey elephants, balancing...

Originally uploaded by Miss Gab.

When I first came to London I was walking through Piccadilly Circus, dodging crowds and trying not to get in the way, when I encountered some giant fibreglass elephants painted in amazing designs and colours.

I had seen something similar before in Chicago, though these had been fibreglass cows that were auctioned off and raised a lot of money for charity. Small replicas were then sold at major tourist shops around town. It turns out that these elephants were a very similar idea.

The giant elephants of Elephant Parade were installed at various points around town and then auctioned off (for loads of cash) a few weeks ago at a charity event for Chelsea Hospital. One of my colleagues went along and said the elephants were just gorgeous and she had been sorely tempted to bid on the Australian-themed elephant, which ended up selling for over 20,000 pounds!

Sure enough as a follow-up money spinner from that event, collector pieces were created from some of the major pieces and these were being sold at an event I attended tonight. My colleague was automatically invited to the event, having been to the major charity auction, and I tagged along with her. I was disappointed to learn that the Aussie entry had not been replicated, though I suspect that's because it was a bit too ornate - the original was covered with those collector-item spoons that you used to collect from tourist spots - they came from all over Australia; it was amazing!. Anyway, only 5 replicas of each chosen design were created, and these copies stand 75cm tall, so while they are nowhere near the size of the original, they're still pretty impressive pieces. The replica elephants were being sold at a set price - upwards of 1,900 pounds - so not exactly peanuts (ha elephants, peanuts - ha!) but the detail in them is still great and all funds raised goes towards Elephant Family in its campaign to save endangered Asian elephants.

Naturally I did not purchase an elephant, but I did take photos of the ones I liked and you can view them by clicking here. Under each photo I also listed the artist and the asking price (because I'm sure you could email a bid through if you really wanted to!).

Alternatively you can view the professional photos of the full range of large elephants that were painted and auctioned by clicking here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mistress of her domain

Brief - but enthusiastic - shout out to Courts, who has taken the big leap of faith into buying her own domain name to host her great website, Coco Cooks.

No longer a slave to the amateur land of Blogger (like yours truly), Coco has stepped up and redesigned her site and the results are really impressive. You need to check it out!

Just a word of warning before you visit though, Coco Cooks should not be read on an empty stomach!

Bon Appetit (and well done, Courts)!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Yeo-ho-ho, off to the Tower with ye!

Tower of London visit
Originally uploaded by Miss Gab.

Last night I had the very real privilege of observing a ceremony that not too many visitors to London get to see, but one that has been performed in the same way, at the same time, every night for more than 700 years.

The Ceremony of the Keys takes place at the Tower of London at 10pm sharp, and it is a wonderful ritual where all the gates of the Tower are locked up, and the keys are returned to the Tower Governor for safekeeping overnight.

The ceremony is carried out by the Yeoman Warders, or 'Beefeaters' as they are sometimes known (though not to their faces). There are about 35 Yeomen Warders serving at the Tower now, and they live onsite with their families. To be a Yeoman Warder, you have to be a veteran of the UK armed services, having served with distinction for more than 22 years.

I was a guest of the Yeoman Warders last night and having met a number of them before the Ceremony, and afterwards at drinks in their Club, I can assure you that they are dedicated, proud bunch with a deep love of their country and their job.

I did not get the chance to look at the Tower of London itself, however that is definitely a job for another time. Part of my tour last night did explain the history of the Tower; it gave some gruesome details about the public executions held there (including some of the more famous prisoners such as Oliver Cromwell; Thomas More; and Anne Boelyn). We walked through the chapel where many of the bodies were buried - some with their heads, some without! Eerie stuff.

It did not occur to me until much later to ask about ghosts or hauntings at the Tower. I read about those stories online today and figured it would not be the sort of place I'd like to hang out after dark - even WITH the protection of the burly Yeomans.

The Tower of London is still classified an Historic Royal Palace, meaning that if Queen Elizabeth II decided that she wanted to move back in there tomorrow, she could. Chances are that won't happen of course, and it's just as well because it would mean ousting the Yeoman Warders, the Governor, the Doctor, and whichever country's army is visiting at the time.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Tower of London site and particularly the rare opportunity to witness the Ceremony of the Keys. On reflection the pomp and ceremony is all a bit fluffy but when you're watching it, in such imposing scenery on a grey, blustery London evening, it's hard not to be just a little impressed with the show.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

On a high....street, that is

Keep Calm & Carry On Shopping Tote Bag
Originally uploaded by mooosh ♥ miso funky.

What a day! This has been a super sunny Saturday and I've enjoyed it by single-handedly helping to keep the British economy afloat.

I woke up early today, owing to the fact that in summer time here it gets bright at about 4.30am. By 7am I was wide awake, and starting to get really warm so I knew it was going to be a gorgeous day.

The only commitment today that I knew I had was a hair salon appointment at 2pm; otherwise, I was fancy free. I headed out at around 11am and walked up to the High Street. It's not called "High Street" though; rather, that just seems to be what an area's main shopping street is called here [FYI, the High Street in this 'hood is actually called St John's Road].

Up and down I went, in and out of stores, spending cash as I went. I called into Clark's and bought two pairs of black leather ballet flats (one matte, one patent). The Pakistani shop assistant helpfully suggested I should buy heels because I am so short, which he thought was terribly amusing. I replied that after a day spent in heels in this city, he'd have to carry me everywhere I wanted to go. Wiped the smile right off his face, ha! Fortunately we both laughed.

A few doors away is a great little place called "Recipease", a Jamie Oliver place. I suspect he must own it, because it's chock-full of his products, ready-made meals and even a test kitchen down the back where they run cooking classes. I am thinking about doing one, because they look really good. There are some longer courses like knife skills, which goes for 4 weeks but is a bit serious; and then there are one-off classes like a pasta one or a green chicken curry one, where you focus on preparing just one meal and eat it at the end. There are about 8 stations in the kitchen, so the classes would be pretty good and I thought a nice way to meet people. The students I saw in today's class (the pasta one) didn't seem to know each other, or at least they weren't talking to each other - so it's hard to tell, as nobody seems to talk to anybody else in London.

But I digress.

I stopped at the 3 store and got myself on a 12-month plan, which I'd been meaning to do for ages as the pay-as-you-go thing was costing me a fortune. I will have a different phone number until Monday (apologies in advance for any confusion that causes), but then I will get to switch my phone number back to the old one and order will once again be restored.

I called into the charity shop and bought a top and two trashy novels to do my bit for cancer research, then I turned left from the High Street onto Battersea Rise, and found my hairdressing salon, entirely on time for my appointment.

I was a bit nervous going to the hairdresser for the first time, to be honest. My regrowth is so bad right now it's a miracle I have the confidence to leave the house at all. Still, with all the shopping I did today, I can't really afford to get my roots done until next pay day - not properly anyway - so I decided just to have a cut. My hair is only short, but it's dead straight which doesn't leave a lot of room for imaginative styling. Still, the instant my hairdresser and I saw each other, we fell in love. He is so lovely and we chatted for ages about everything, me rambling away about nothing and he spritzing and snipping. He is not from London - rather, a small town somewhere about 2 hours' drive north of here - and he lives walking distance from the salon and really loves the area. His girlfriend is studying to be a ballerina and so as a result he gets dragged along to a bunch of live theatre and dance productions, including in the Royal Opera House, which I haven't been to yet. Turns out his girlfriend is going to live at her ballet school, so he'll be looking for a room mate soon (around the same time as me). He even suggested we could live together - but I chose to think he was joking. Or was he? Thinking about it, there has to be advantages to living with a hairdresser, right? Especially a straight, clean and self-sufficient one who knows how to cook and gets along well with his family? Yep, I can see it now - we're going to be best friends. I will reassess this situation in a few weeks' time when I go back to get my hair colour done - more news to follow.

So much adventure on the High Street today, no wonder I'm ready for a nanna nap!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Lilies on Leicester

I took an intentional detour this afternoon to walk back through Trafalgar Square en route to the theatres in Leicester Square. I really like Trafalgar Square; I like the immensity of it and the way that even though it's essentially concrete, a fountain, an obelisk and a couple of lions, the space is really impressive. Even crawling with tourists, as it was tonight (a swarm of them dressed in fluoro green tshirts no less), I still enjoyed it.

Skirting around in behind the The National Gallery, I took my detour up to Leicester Square and all of a sudden found myself faced with bollards and bobbies blocking my path doing crazier-than-normal crowd control. What gives?! So I did what any self-respecting lady about town would do. I allowed myself to be pushed and shoved into a cute little hotel bar just on the outskirts of the Square. Hoisting myself up onto the barstool, I ordered a french martini from the barman and asked him what was going on. Leo DiCaprio, he tells me. Movie premiere, he says. Oh great, okay - so "Inception" was premiering in London tonight. Just as my cocktail arrived, the crowd outside starting screaming and applauding, clickety-clacking their cameras to try and preserve all the hysteria. Safely inside, I sipped my drink in quiet solitude.

Dashing off just before 7pm, I took a forced detour this time - around the premiere crowds - and found my theatre not far away. I had some dinner at a pizza place across the road, sitting alone next to a table of an Australian family. As I was sitting there, trying to enjoy my linguine and a glass of Chianti Classico, I could feel the daughters at the next table staring at me. I was starting to feel really self conscious. They were blatantly staring, but not saying anything. Then the conversation at the next table went dead altogether, and I got really nervous. So I ate faster and tried to look anywhere but in their direction. Why was I getting so paranoid? I wasn't doing anything wrong! Ugh it horrible, but the pasta and wine not; that was just fine.

The play I went to see was called Lilies on the Land and it was the story of four women who were members of the Women's Land Army in England during WW2. I bought a ticket for 12 pounds (normally 35 pounds) from the Time Out website, purely because the reviews were so good. I really enjoyed the show, and was entertained from start to finish. The stories came from real-life letters and diaries from women who had really been in the WLA and so I think that really helped the story to ring true.

Getting home is a lot like auto pilot these days, particularly when I've been out all day. I had no trouble at all trudging through the Tube to Waterloo and switching for the train home. Then the man at the baguette store sold me 2 Diet Cokes for the price of 1, and my day was complete.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Well, there you are!

Leicester Square, Tube, London
Originally uploaded by greenwood100.

If you've been keeping up with the blog over the last couple of weeks, you'll know that I am directionally-challenged. And you'll also appreciate what kind of understatement that last sentence was. Tonight though, I really feel like I turned a corner. The right corner.

I set off from work with the intention of going to see "Shrek 3D" at the cinema in Leicester Square, about 15 minutes walk from my office, and I wanted to walk through Covent Garden to get there. In itself this was a very ambitious agenda for me, but I was determined to get it right.

Turning off Aldwych into Drury Lane (with no sign of The Muffin Man), I turned left at Long Acre and sensibly bypassed the crowds of the Covent Garden piazza in favour of the nearby fashion shops and cafes. No less crowded of course, but much more window shopping variety - particularly for somebody in desperate need of some new leather ballet flats.

At this point I turned left into Upper St Martin's Lane, knowing that Leicester Square and the cinema was somewhere around there. I dodged pamphlet wavers, and some woman that wanted me to save the children/rainforests/lemurs/whatever, and tried to look like I knew where I was going.

Shock of shocks, I actually turned the right way at the traffic lights and voila - Leicester Square proper, and the cinema facing right out onto it. Genius! Sadly the session of "Shrek 3D" that I wanted to see was almost sold out, so I decided to go another time. I wandered down a couple of cobbled side streets, not really walking anywhere in particular - just looking to explore the immediate surrounds and see what diversions I could find there.

In the distance I saw Gaby's Cafe which I had only just been reading about on the Time Out London website. It's such a dive place, but it's a NY-style Jewish deli and its food got a great review. Sure I was eating dinner alone - and before 6pm - but I figured that my chances of finding the cafe again were pretty slim, so I had to seize the moment. I was not disappointed at all. I chose the falafel which are home made and came jam-packed into a pita pocket with salad and loads of hummus slathered on top. Washed down with a Diet Coke, it made for a very satisfying, cheap and cheerful meal.

From Leicester Square station I took the Northern Line south to Waterloo (where Napoleon did surrender). Switching to my train home, I spent the commute trying really hard not to marvel at my good fortunes, lest I jinx myself good and proper.

Let's just hope that this successful adventure is the sign of really good things to come.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Does lemon sorbet contain ibuprofen?

I am only a little over 3 weeks into this whole overseas experience and already I want to torch every item of clothing I so carefully packed into the 20kg of checked luggage that Singapore Airlines let me bring over here. I've even bought a couple of tops since I arrived, and I'd be happy to set them alight too now that I think about it.

I'm sensing quite a theme actually because I went shopping tonight for a couple of wardrobe staples and the common adjective I can use to describe the clothes I looked at is FLAMMABLE. I just can't find the store with the cute tops; or the one that makes the great work dresses; or the one with all the jewellery I like. Every store I go into resembles a jumble sale, and women turn into raving lunatic harpies, clawing at items of clothing as if their very lives depending on them. The clothes they don't want, they abandon on racks or else just drop them where they stand and step over them. Shopping the chain stores in London has been, in short, a demoralising experience.

Groceries have been easier though - or so I thought. Around the corner from my place is a store called LIDL (England's answer to ALDI in Scotland and the US). It's dirt cheap and 90% of the product labels are in languages other than English, but the store is close and it's easy to get the basics there. I approached the store tonight and was not really thinking about much, other than what I might buy. I nearly walked head-long into the exit doors. Oops, my bad. So I walked around the other side of the store, thinking the entrance might be around there. Nope. I had no idea how to even get into the store! This was not starting out well at all. I could have just given up and walked up the hill to ASDA but (a) I was not going to give up; and (b) boo to going up hills. There were people inside LIDL, indeed there were people coming out of LIDL. How the hell did they all get in there? I followed a man and his wife a little further along the building (while they both no doubt got on their mobiles and called the cops), and I ever-so-casually walked through the entrance. Nobody inside LIDL was any the wiser, which was just as well.

By this stage all I could think about getting out again - as it turns out, not shopping is much more exhausting than shopping, I think. So I grabbed raisin bread, yoghurt, some dehydrated pasta thing from Finland and some lemon sorbet (the latter always makes me feel better just for having bought it). Then cool as the proverbial cucumber, I sauntered out the exit - because I knew where that one was!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Enclosed at Henley

My flatmate and her friends invited me to accompany them on Saturday afternoon to the Henley Royal Regatta 2010, which is apparently one of THE events of the London summer season.

My flatmate is traditionally the coordinator of the big trip to Henley and in that capacity, she arranges the transport and refreshments and all we have to do is kick in the cash. This was my flatmate’s 7th year of Henley, so she’s well-practiced in terms of organising. The night before the big event, I helped shop for provisions; I have never seen so much party food go into one trolley! But then again we were feeding 21 people, so I just helped load up supplies and help cater for everyone – carnivores and vegans alike!

Early Saturday morning we were up, emptying the fridge into a number of cooler bags and eskies so they could be transported more easily. It was quite an exercise and clearly my flatmate was very good at Tetris at one stage in her life – everything was very well packed!

It was at this point that the day threatened to head south, because we had engaged the services of a transport company that was headed up by a charlatan. The man had told my flatmate that he had a bus that could easily transport 21 of us to and from Henley but unbeknownst to us, he had lied. So there we were, half of our party at one pick-up point and half at another, waiting for a coach bus that did not exist. I was starting to get irritated but my flatmate remained calm and swung into fix-it mode, negotiating with the transport company to arrange a back up plan: a 4-sedan convoy. Each driver that we had was more irritated than the last – lack of communication, general job dissatisfaction, it was all over the place and we were stuck in the middle of it, almost an hour behind schedule.

Ultimately we made it to Henley though and unpacked the cars, reuniting inside the Courtyard Enclosure at Remenham Farm, a gated little oasis very close to the starting line of the whole event. The Henley Royal Regatta actually stretches over two days – Saturday is traditionally the party day while the final serious race is held on Sunday. Our tickets were just for the Saturday (of course!) and the ticket price included a table just inside the marquee, a glass of champagne on arrival, a ticket for the hog roast (which I assume was a pig on a spit, though I did not actually see it), and all the musical entertainment you could handle. It was fantastic value for money.

We had a lot of food and wine of course, but danced it all off throughout the afternoon. We even managed to take in the Germany/Argentina match on the big screens at some point during the afternoon so it was a great day out. Plus best of all, the sun shone the entire day which made it all so much better. I met a bunch of English people who were telling me how unreliable the weather can be and how perfect the 2010 weather was, so it seems I had the perfect first Regatta experience!

Getting home was a bit of a nightmare though, I have to admit. After a day of fun in the sun, we packed up the leftovers and headed out to meet our transport, but hadn’t counted on just how slow and miserable the traffic would be. We had arranged a 10.30pm meet up time with our cars, but I didn’t get into mine until nearly midnight, by which time I was almost falling asleep where I stood. Fortunately the weather held out and it was a cool, crisp evening. I perched myself on top of one of the eskies and just waited for the car to find me. I think I fell asleep in the car on the way home, which is a bit of a surprise given that we were speeding the whole way and almost airborne at some points. One of the girls in the car had to tell the driver to slow down – perhaps he was just as anxious to get home as we were.

Falling into bed at 2am, I slept like the dead until 11am the next morning, and didn’t move much farther than the couch all day Sunday, arising only to munch some leftovers and then resume the reclining position. Blissful.

Friday, July 02, 2010

When smoking may actually be good for you

London has no ventilation.

To people living here, the above statement comes as no surprise whatsoever. It appears that Londoners are deathly afraid of fresh air and they don't even want to think about what might happen if you start up an air conditioner! I am assuming all this of course, without any shred of evidence beyond my own personal experience. But what other excuse could there possibly be for the sweaty, steamy and generally miserable experience of catching public transportation in London during summer? There is just no air - not on the Tube, not on the buses and certainly not on the trains.

As a by-product of this of course, people stink. I'm sure some people stink all the time, but this is exceptionally pronounced in the absence of ventilation. I was almost overcome by the stench of a woman's armpits - a woman's no less! - when she wedged herself in the two square inches of personal space I had left on the train tonight. Somewhat involuntarily (and only fleetingly), I screwed up my nose as the fetid stench hit my nostrils. She didn't indicate if she'd noticed.

And then what happens is I get paranoid. Do I smell? Or have I absorbed your body odour, in the same way that cigarette smoke seems to bury itself into hair and skin? Either way I can't handle it. So I discretely try and smell myself and end up looking like a big pervert. But STILL people squish on the train and get their armpits all up in my business.

Maybe I should just take up smoking - clove cigarettes, I mean - or something equally sophisticated. Smelling like that has to be better than the current alternative, right? Yuck.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

I'm not alone, I'm with Muriel

Tonight I took myself on a date. And not just any date either; one of the good ones! Tonight I actually treated myself to dinner and a show!

Through the Time Out London magazine's website I scored a half-price ticket to see a creepy ghost story play called "The Woman in Black", about which I had already heard a great deal. I don't get too upset about seeing movies or going to the theatre on my own, because I figure that by the time the show starts you're sitting in the dark, so who can see you?

I'm still getting used to the idea of going to dinner on my own though. I always wonder whether people at adjoining tables are wondering if I've been stood up, or if I'm just exceptionally boring and nobody wants to eat with me. I find myself dreaming up storylines about friends I was supposed to meet, only they bailed at the last minute and I didn't want to lose the reservation...oh the fantasies get nuttier and nuttier - and I never have to say them aloud anyway. But tonight the play I was seeing didn't start until 8pm, so I had to think about dining alone and wondering what excuse (if any) I might use to explain my friendlessness.

I figured I would treat myself to a nice pre-theatre dinner in Covent Garden, where there are always so many people that nobody was likely to notice somebody on their own. I had done a bit of Google Mapping beforehand, which we know has had mixed results in the past. But this time I found the restaurant first pop (my stomach must have led the way)! Maxwell's Bar & Grill is not a high-brow establishment in any sense, but it's location cannot be beaten. It faces right out onto the Covent Garden piazza and has alfresco tables so you can watch the world go by. Flying solo, I wasn't really in the mood for visibility, so I requested a table in some dark, dingy corner so I could people watch from the shadows. My flirty waiter brought over the French martini that I'd ordered, only leaving me in peace once I'd declared the cocktail delicious. He returned periodically to wink and flirt, at least I think he was flirting - I was having trouble understanding his very thick Irish accent. So I did a lot of nodding and "uh-huh"ing - which on reflection is probably the very WRONG thing to be doing if you can't understand someone. Hmm.

The two-course, prix fixe meal of herbed chicken & garlic mash with a dessert of spotted date pudding was delicious but I knew that if I had that second French martini (happy hour or no), I'd settle in for the night and miss my show. No chance of that, thank you.

So I emerged into the Covent Garden Piazza, dodging people and pigeons and some crazy pamphlet-wielding evangelist trying to recruit me to his plethora of crusades. Denied. I headed downstairs to the delightfully named Crusting Pipe Wine Bar. Underground as it is, the whole bar has a sort of mysterious, hidden-away quality that I quite liked. But it is also quite dank and has an unfamiliar odour about it that I wasn't so crash hot on. I also found the Sancerre Rose rather unsatisfactory, but that was hardly the bar's fault. By now though, we were getting close to curtain-raising time and I had to head out.

The production of "The Woman in Black" was really great and I was in the third row from the front, so I had a perfect view. I think that's the bonus of going to the theatre on your own - it's much easier to find a great solo seat, particularly at the last minute. The foyer of the theatre had a bunch of brochures for current and upcoming productions too. There is one with Joanna Lumley (Patsy on "Ab Fab") and David Hyde Pierce (Niles from "Frasier") that I desperately need to see. I wonder if Time Out magazine will help me with a discount on that one, plus the two hundred other shows I want to see?!