Saturday, September 25, 2010

The AFL Grand Final - Part 1 of 2

Earlier in the week, I had made a commitment to LW to meet her at a bar in Putney this morning to watch the AFL Grand Final telecast. First bounce was at some ungodly hour - 5.30am or something, so I figured that making such plans any day - let alone a Saturday - was about as close to crazy as you can get.

Still, when my alarm sounded at 0400 hours, I managed to hear it and get out of bed without grumbling too much. It was a freezing cold morning, as far as I was concerned anyway, and I had to make a cup of tea before even thinking about heading into the bathroom.

I got out of the house ahead of schedule, which was a good thing too because the bus turned up early. The bus driver didn't use his brake the whole way to Putney, so my usual 15 minute commute was pretty much cut in half. It was great. I caught up with LW out the front of the Putney train station and together we power-walked up the High Street in the direction of the pubs we felt fairly certain would be open.

We got to the last bar on the street, a ridiculously-named place called The Wahoo. The last of the crowd was milling outside, lining up to get in and it was then that LW and I wondered whether we should have bought tickets in advance. I seem to recall making a rather loud pronouncement at the beginning of the week that I would never enter an establishment with such a ridiculous name as Wahoo, but I have to say that at 0525 on a cold Saturday morning, it seemed a pretty good spot to me.

But of course the universe has a bitchy sense of humour and as it turned out, the bar had reached capacity. Because we didn't have tickets, the bouncer wouldn't let us in. He told us that the closest bar - as a backup plan - was The King's Arms, across the Putney Bridge, at the top of the Fulham High Street. So across the bridge we went (again in record time), marvelling at how peaceful the Thames looked in the pre-dawn - a sick joke really, as neither of us could really see the River, as everywhere was still pitch black.

Showing some brilliant hospitality, The King's Arms welcomed us warmly, and charged us 5GBP each admission - we gladly paid it. There were loads of people seated around huge flat-screen TVs on either side of the pub, but hardly anyone was standing in the middle of the room. There was nobody lining the bar either, so that's precisely where LW and I stood - with an uninterrupted view of the TV screen behind the bar.

LW is a one-eyed, completely raucous Collingwood supporter and so I obviously wore black and white to keep her company. We chatted a bit during the commercial breaks, we screamed at the TV, we perved on the players, we alternately criticised and praised them; it was a great morning. The fourth quarter was so tense, I don't think either of us breathed and when it was all over - with the scores tied for the first time since 1977 - neither of us could follow what was actually happening. Would they go into extra time? Do they play until the first team scores? We had no idea. Then the players started leaving the ground and giving media interviews etc and we realised the game was over - well not only that, but it dawned on us that we'd both have to come back next week and do it again. Crikey! Talk about an emotional rollercoaster...

We left the pub pretty much straight after the game ended, and wandered slowly back the way we'd come. We crossed the Putney Bridge, marvelling (for real this time) that the Thames really did look peaceful after all. We stopped off at a small Italian cafe by the Putney train station for a greasy cooked breakfast and we both declared ourselves to be ready for a nana nap.

Sure it was tiring to be up and out that early today, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The atmosphere at the pub was really good and I think a lot of that was because the pub wasn't too crowded and what crowd their was, was really fun. I'm sure next week's adventure will be just as good.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Three down

Up until last week, whenever anybody asked me how long I'd been in London, I told them in weeks. It was never "two months", it was "8 weeks"; never "nearly three months", but "10 weeks". Precise, but weird. I know.

So last week I had my three month anniversary of living here. Appropriately enough it passed by uneventfully, and I didn't mention it at work lest they make me bring in cupcakes or something.

To be honest, three months is a long time (though let's face it, 12 weeks sounds a lot longer). Still, a lot has happened in that time, much of which I have shared on this site. Bits of the adventure have been stored in my brain for future recall to my therapist, while the rest - things like grocery shopping and eyebrow waxes - have been cast into the "too boring even to mention" category.

As I type this, I am shovelling forkfuls of Marks & Spencer heat & eat risotto into my mouth. I have become quite a devotee of these microwave meals - they're cheap; healthy; and accessible to me. I usually pick them up at the M&S at Waterloo station, before the nightly commute reduces my will to live and basically sucks my soul out through my ass. I think the promise of a delicious M&S spinster meal is the only thing that keeps me from going postal on those commutes.

I've slackened off on my theatre outings lately, partly because I was waiting until my cousin & his gf got here (we still plan on going together to see something). But partly I've been saving money because I need to look for another place to live at the start of November. According to an Aussie lady I spoke to the other day, the London rental/sharing market dries up towards the end of November, so I'm heading into busy time. Over the last 3 months I've also developed a bit of a snobby list of things I want (and don't want) in a sharing arrangement. Boring things like a double bed I can walk around; a shower that is hot and powerful; and room mates that keep the house clean and know how to wash (themselves and their dishes). Note that this is not an exhaustive list.

I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like I've had my settling-in period so the next three months will most likely be my settling-DOWN period. With the power of fantastical foresight, I suspect the next three months will be about finding somewhere more permanent to live; trying not to hurt myself (or others) on public transportation; and - perhaps most exciting of all - sampling new and exciting M&S meals. Uh-oh, that all seems like much of the same, doesn't it?

Well let's make a deal then. Over the next three months, I'll do all those things I mentioned above, but I will also:
  • Go outdoor ice skating at Somerset House, across the street from my Office (even though I lived in Chi-town for nearly 4 years and never once did this);
  • See more live theatre (with or without my cousin and his gf);
  • See Europe (nowhere specific at the moment - just Europe in general, since it's right there and all); and
  • Go back to Oz for a visit in November.
I cheated with the last one of course - my tickets are already booked. But it still counts.

We're in for a dynamic three months, friends. Just you wait and see...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Survival in three letters

"If you want a really good burger when you're living in London," my friend KB advised, "then look no further than GBK". And she pointed to the store on our right. Gourmet Burger Kitchen is known to the locals as GBK and those three simple initials are totally worth remembering.

GBK is actually a chain of stores that was started by 3 New Zealanders back in 2001 (I read this on the website). The first store that I saw that day with KB was in the Clapham High Street. Today I visited the store at Putney, tucked away down a little side street but I must have sensed it somehow. It's simple signage basically jumped out at me and I knew we had to go there. "Just to taste," as Crazy Granny would say.

Sundays at the Putney GBK is apparently Family Day. We got seated and then the useless waitresses asked us to move tables so that they could accommodate a family of mother, father and about 4,000 kids. At first I was irritated by this but then I realised they were asking us to move to the other side of the restaurant and that suited me just fine.

My burger was delicious. I ordered a Greek Mint burger, which is basically made of lamb mince with mint (duh), plus the usual salads and some chilli sauce with mild tzatziki added in. The best of the souvlaki and burger worlds, all mixed together. How could I lose?! As I stuffed in the piping hot chips I forgot about the screaming kids, even the charming child who decided to kick her mother in the shins at the cash register.

LW ordered a bacon & avocado burger (with the customary beef pattie) which she said was very tasty, though she hastened to add that in her expert opinion, Australian bacon is far superior to the British varieties. The only bacon I've ingested here has been in bacon sarnies stuffed in to fend off nasty hangovers, so admittedly I have not really savoured its flavour. Perhaps I need to work on this so that I can draw an educated conclusion of my own? Literally food for thought, no?

Anyway to walk off the burgers we wandered down the Putney High Street and it's great. It boasts loads of great boutiques, even ones you'd find on busy Oxford Street in the city - just without the ridiculous crowds. The cold air is starting to creep in to London now, so admittedly my post-lunch retail therapy focussed on warm fleeces and snuggly woollen goodies but I exercised discipline and came away empty-handed. Next time, maybe.

You say "exile" like it's a bad thing

It's Sunday morning and I'm already up, nursing a hot cup of tea and some pretty classy bed hair.

Yesterday I placed myself under house arrest - something I do when I need to catch up on sleeping/watching TV/reading (circle whichever is appropriate). In this case, I did a bit of all those things - and managed to knock off a fair bit of my latest Ken Folland reading project, the sequel to his amazing literary paperweight, Pillars of the Earth. My week had been a busy one and so in my view at least, the voluntary exile was necessary and very, very welcome indeed.

The week in review? Well let's check the highlights:
  • Monday was a visit to a cocktail bar near work, where the barmen were evidently having way more fun than the patrons (weird). The bartender at said establishment did something pretty disgusting with the cocktail shaker when I told him I didn't mind "dirty" martinis. And so, in thinly-disguised revulsion, and is my usual way anyway, I ordered a French martini.
  • Tuesday was pretty much a standard work day, but I knew what was coming in my week so I laid pretty low.
  • Wednesday, S&C got to London and I took a half-day off work to go out to Heathrow to meet them. I wasn't sure how many people would be in the T3 Arrivals Hall, so I borrowed an Australian flag to wave - more so S&C would have no trouble seeing me in the crowd. One of my bosses found this tactic slightly amusing and made an offhanded remark about my "uniqueness", and I'm still trying to figure out if it was a compliment or not. Ensuring my weary travellers got booked into their hotel OK, I took them for a really long walk through Trafalgar Square and up into Piccadilly Circus, where we had a really tasty Italian dinner.
  • Thursday was work happy hour day and because my office was hosting it, I worked behind the bar. S&C's Contiki trip was starting bright and early the next day, so I didn't get to see them but I wished them a safe trip and encouraged them to text me news as they tootled around the UK. Normally I don't drink when I work behind the bar at office happy hours (you're allowed to, I just don't like to do it), but obviously on this particular Thursday night I was influenced by the company I was keeping (oh isn't it so often that way?!). Fast forward to a rather boisterous Thai dinner after the happy hour, followed by a giggly commute home on the last train around for miles.
  • Friday morning was horrible and I would have complained about it, but I had lost the power of coherent speech until at least lunchtime. The office was vewy, vewy qwiet. There is something to be said for hangovers in your 30s - they are a vicious, horrible thing. Needless to say I was in no state to go anywhere after work but I made it through the whole day (hurrah!) and about 20 seconds after walking through my front door, I was in my pyjamas again.
  • Saturday, as we already know, was a day of rest and recuperation - not just from Thursday night, but from the whole week that was.
Today is different. Today I have rebounded and I'm actually going to leave the house and enjoy a delicious brunch in Putney, a lovely part of the city just southwest of where I'm living (only 1 train stop further on the line). It's not a particularly sunny Sunday today, but once this load of laundry has finished, I'm going to head out and face the day anyway. Bring it on.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Happy Roald Dahl Day!

September 13 is Roald Dahl Day - but you knew that, didn't you?

I knew it too, I had just momentarily forgotten about it and therefore missed all the celebrations going on this past weekend at the Roald Dahl Museum up in North Missenden, about 45 minutes on the train from London.

I think everyone my age has their own memories of growing up with Roald Dahl and reaping the benefits of his amazing imagination. My favourite of his books remains The BFG but then again I was partial to The Twits and James and the Giant Peach too. It is probably unfortunate that I rember the movie versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory better than the original book, but there's nothing I can do about that now. I read once that Dahl was a particularly grouchy old man, but I can't reconcile that impression of him with the author of such wonderful books. I dunno, it just doesn't fit.

So I'm going out tonight to toast this auspicious day, and enjoy something scrumdiddlyumptious in his honour, to celebrate the man whose creativity brought us all some much-loved characters and tales. Here's cheers, to Mr.D!

And PS on a literally related front, I read on the weekend that RD's grand-daughter Sophie is expecting her first baby, with her adorable husband Jamie Cullum. Aww, bless!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mimosas in Marylebone, and then some...

I had an early start yesterday thanks to Gus the Wonderdog, but I had always planned to get up early anyway because I knew that K & C would be coming to town, from Paris and Brussels, respectively. Both girls caught the Eurostar to London and that is a journey I must try someday soon. From Paris the journey is just short of 3 hours, and from Brussels it is much less than that. I maintain that any time I can remove airport queues and security screenings from a journey, it has to be a sensible decision.

So after coming back to my place to take a shower and get changed, I found myself on the train again heading back up to Marylebone. Talk about deja vu! It didn't matter to me though, because as we all know I love that neighbourhood. While I was waiting for the girls to meet me, I discovered another reason why I need to live there: Daunt Books. You must visit their online site by clicking here because the store (and the site) are fabulous - virtual tour included! The store features walls and walls of amazing travel books, biographies, as well as the usual works of fiction. I only called in because I wanted to read the blurb for the book they are currently advertising, West End Girls, by Barbara Tate. Needless to say I bought it, plus the re-released edition of Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis; and the new Bill Bryson book, At Home. It's so crazy that I will hesitate and cogitate about the purchase of a pair of shoes or a dress, but will think nothing about spending cash on books. G.E.E.K. I know, I know.

With my wallet a little lighter, I met the girls for brunch at Cafe Luc on the Marylebone High Street. It calls itself a Modern European Brasserie, but whatever - the eggs benedict and mimosa that I had sorted me out perfectly. It certainly gave me enough energy to face the afternoon ahead, that's for sure!

The girls and I walked down to Oxford Street, past the boutiques and cafes that I love (and I think K can now see why this neighbourhood appeals to me). Oxford Street was a whole different story, however. It was a real case of "elbows out" just so that we could navigate our way through the gorgeous shops - designers like Ted Baker and Karen Millen. If money were no object I could have seriously done some damage in those stores; their autumn/winter collections are so gorgeous.

We gave up on retail and sat down at a cafe to catch our breath (aided by a couple of cocktails each, naturally). It was getting close to dinner time, so we tried to think of where we might like to eat. [Are you getting the theme of the day? Eating/Drinking/Shopping? Perfect for a sunny Saturday, no?]

We caught the Tube to Canteen on the Southbank, by Waterloo Station. We got there just as the pre-theatre crowds were clearing out, so we didn't have to line up or else squeeze on to the end of long dining tables (these are characteristic of the low-key vibe of the restaurant). Canteen specialises in British cuisine, so the menu has pies, fish & chips, Eton mess, and the like. I enjoyed bangers & mash for my main meal and then split a dessert with Kate - we chose the Eton mess (a mashed up pavlova, minus the fruit but with jam drizzled over the top of it).

It was a long day out but we did a lot of things and it was great to just wander, without any tourist agenda, and visit brand new places with K&C. It's a shame that they both leave London this afternoon but what a send off we had.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Making friends with a four-legged fiend

Late last week and then again last night I looked after Gus, who belongs to one of my colleagues. I stayed at her place both times and the pooch and I got along famously. Gus is a nine-year old Jack Russell who came over to London with his owners about three years ago and he has made himself quite at home.

Gus lives in Marylebone, which I discovered is pronounced "Marla-bone", not "Mary-lee-bone" or "Marl-bun" (as I had first thought). Marylebone is my kind of neighbourhood: expensive; exclusive; and totally adorable. The High Street is home to some fabulous restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that I've seen around the city. I don't think I could afford to live in Marylebone of course, but I love spending time up there.

Last night was a bit of a mess though, because Gus was very restless and woke me up 4 times in the night so he could bark and chase burglars (all of whom fortunately turned out to be invisible). Obviously I did not sleep very well and woke up early this morning feeling quite cranky, but what can you do?

I took Gus on a really lovely walk through the Paddington Street Gardens (his usual haunt). Google tells me that these Gardens used to be the burial ground for the nearby St Marylebone Church, which is a little creepy but also secretly awesome. Though they are public spaces, the Gardens nevertheless remind me of the residents-only spot that Julia Roberts & Hugh Grant break into in "Notting Hill". I think it's because the Gardens are tucked away off the hustle & bustle of the High Street and you'd hardly know they were there. I suspect that most people in search of green spaces would likely head for nearby Regent's Park, so smaller parks like the Paddington Street Gardens are really for those "in the know" (like Gus).

Aside from getting to know another London neighbourhood, the good thing about looking after Gus is that I have been able to get my 'puppy love' fix. I have been missing Annie-Bot terribly and so it has been great to spend some time with another four-legged fiend again. I know that throwing a slobbery ball and picking up steaming poo is all part and parcel of dog ownership, but I could totally give those bits a miss!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Road trippin' with Tom & Katie

This past weekend I enjoyed a fantastic road trip with K, who was visiting from NYC. Truth be told, K has more friends in London than I do, but we decided to spend the first few days together on a road trip up north to visit two of her friends back from her high school days in France, J and L.

I have been friends with K for 15 years and throughout our friendship, K has told me all about her English friends, J&L who she met during her high school years in France. Indeed most of K's French high school stories are punctuated with laughs shared with J&L and antics revolving around J&L, to the point where in my mind at least, J&L almost become one wonderful person, whose influence and friendship still means so much to K today. The fact that J&L have recently had baby boys within just a few weeks of each other means it was a perfect time to visit them.

I went out to Heathrow to meet K on Saturday morning and I must be turning into a giant basket case in my old age. All around me, families were reuniting. It was literally the opening & closing credits of "Love Actually" and of course I felt like bawling. I am lousy at airport goodbyes and now I discovered that airport greetings slay me just as much. Hopeless. Ultimately K came through the arrivals gate and I spared her my old-lady blubbering and instead, I took the route of a friendly hug and the purchase of a ultra-large, very strong coffee for my jet lagged friend.

K had hired a Ford Focus to transport us around on the weekend. She also made the last minute BRILLIANT decision to throw in a TomTom satellite navigation thingy to make absolutely sure we made it to our destinations - and back to London again. I gratefully accepted the role of Navigator (aka Chief TomTom Programmer).

Having successfully charged Tom with plotting our journey, K brought out her car ipod radio tuner thingy and I set about tuning us in to Amy Winehouse. My success in this regard was limited, but I blamed the poor radio reception on that stretch of the motorway. By the time we hit the more open roads, we had a clear sound and we were as cheerful as Thelma and Louise. Well, at the start of the movie anyway; you know, the bits up to that part where they shoot that guy and it all starts to go downhill. You know what I mean. Move on.

If you're interested, I can give you a full report of the "services" along the motorway - those delightful oases of truck stop coffee; lukewarm toasted sandwiches; and public toilets of varying cleanliness. We stopped at a couple of these places along the motorway, more to mess with Tom than anything else. By this stage I had changed Tom's voice to a rather debonair Englishman's accent. Every time we veered off the motorway into a "services" stop, Tom would gently scold us and then chide us more firmly, all in his delightful, dulcet tones. We loved it! Tom wasn't coping well with our disobedience and our constant deviation from his carefully-planned route. It was classic.

We spent Saturday night with L and her family in Manchester. We didn't see anything of the city itself but it was lovely to finally meet L, her partner and their adorable baby boy. We had a delicious meal and a great catchup before it was time for bed - for all of us. The next morning we all enjoyed a bit of a sleep in and then we were on the move again, heading south in the direction of J's house.

En route we decided Tom needed an extra challenge and we wanted him to navigate somewhere interesting that we could visit along the way. At this point I had to resort to old fashioned means and review the atlas I had brought along with us, and we decided to detour to Nottingham. K and I decided that we were more interested to see Sherwood Forest of course, but as that sits just north of the city of Nottingham itself, we figured we'd ask Tom to plot us there.

Nottingham is...well, it's easier to say what Nottingham is not. Nottingham is not busy, even on a Sunday. It is also not as full of Robin Hood paraphernalia as you might think (and as I had so dearly hoped it would be). Nottingham is also not a well signposted city and as such, Tom nearly found himself flung out the window as he insisted on taking us down one-way streets and parts of town torn apart by roadworks and dead ends. Though it did not occur to me at the time, perhaps Tom was punishing us for our earlier unscheduled motorway pit-stops....

In any case, we pulled into a public carpark and visited the Nottingham Castle, just to say we did something during our visit. Truth is, we would have visited Nottingham Castle, but for the fact that it no longer exists. Obviously this is something we found our after we had paid our 5GBP entry fee. No wonder the ticket booth girls were surprised when we wanted to buy tickets! The old mansion on the site of the former medieval castle is now a Museum and Art Gallery, currently showing a very small exhibition of movie props and a few costumes from Russell Crowe's Robin Hood movie. Continuing the poor signposting that had come to characterise Nottingham, the signs in the Museum pointed to nowhere in particular and Kate and I became very quickly lost and irritated by the whole experience. I bought some postcards in the gift shop, and we headed back to the car.

Declaring a truce with us, Tom navigated us off the motorway and through gorgeous little English villages and gave us safe passage to J's house in the small but very charming little village of Whitchurch, in Buckinghamshire. J and her husband have been steadily doing up their house over the past few years and it is truly stunning. Their other labour of love, their baby boy, is especially gorgeous and quite the little charmer, cheeky grin and all.

After our uneventful detour to Nottingham (which caused J's husband a great deal of amusement), we ate a delicious curry dinner and again, it was time for bed. The next morning, J's husband had to work but J took us out to lunch at The Betsey Wynne pub in nearby Swanbourne and then we drove to the picture-postcard town of Haddenham, with its gorgeous thatched cottages, cobbled streets, and a lovely pond with white ducks.

By the time we said our goodbyes to J, both of us were feeling pretty tired so K and I deferred to Tom to get us safely back to Heathrow. He did of course, just as the rain started to fall. I was relieved for that because I wouldn't have liked to be out on those motorways in drizzly weather.

Weekends, but especially those spent out of town, always recharge my batteries and even though today at work was busy and my in-tray was almost overflowing, I'm glad that K and I had the chance to get away, see her lovely friends, and explore a bit more of this pretty country.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

It's not ridiculous when it's fabulous!

Last night I went to a girl’s night out organised by my boss’s wife (J). In the four years that she’s been in London, J has made some really lovely friends so I was happy to have been invited along to meet them.

We arranged to catch up at Crazy Bear restaurant & bar in the Fitzrovia neighbourhood – all new things for me. Naturally I walked in the wrong direction when I came out of the Tottenham Court Road station, but my trusty A-Z Guide saved the day – as it so often does. Once I was heading in the right direction, I found the restaurant without a problem.

Crazy Bear is one of those fancy-looking places that takes its fabulousness so seriously that it doesn’t even bother to advertise itself outside. You could so easily walk past it without even realising and perhaps that is the point. Maybe it’s a place only for patrons in the know? Fortunately last night I was one such patron and once I found the place and head inside, the d├ęcor is sleek and modern, offering its young & hip clientele some quirky footstool/ottoman chairs to sit on, some snug booths to hide in, and – best of all – dim lighting to add to the mystique. The wine list is great, the cocktails are strong and the yum cha are cheap and plentiful. No complaints on those fronts at all.

Hands down the craziest thing about Crazy Bear are the toilets. I’m serious! First of all, there is no signage on the toilet doors. In fact, there are no HANDLES on the toilet doors. You need to just feel your way along the wall, pushing it as you go, and hope that you get to the door. Then you hope (again) that you’ve pushed the door to the ladies – and not the alternative, as happened to me at least twice. If this isn’t anxiety-ridden enough, you go INSIDE the toilets and everything is dimly lit and mirrored. I ended up cross-eyed and totally confused. I couldn’t tell if the toilets were occupied; I couldn’t work out whether to push or pull the mirrored cubicle doors – it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. With the job done, and time to wash your hands, the sink is some sort of temperamental sensor-driven, rainforest-inspired dribble of water that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I was desperate to declare it all ridiculous, but I couldn’t – it was simply too fabulous for that.

I love places with character, don’t get me wrong. And Crazy Bear has character in spades. I certainly won’t be forgetting my visit any time soon. But perhaps there IS such a thing as too much fabulous?