Sunday, October 24, 2010

Moving on by standing still

I don't understand that title either, so I'm sorry in advance for what is likely to be an oddly philosophical and potentially off-kilter post.

I did not have a great week, it's fair to say. I thought I was kicking goals at work during the week but I received a couple of emails that dented my confidence. Admittedly those emails were poorly worded and written by somebody generally accepted to be moron of the highest order, but they were still enough to put me in a funk by week's end.

Saturday I spent the whole day out and about, seeing two flats on opposite sides of town. The first room was small and the apartment building entirely uninspiring, but the second flat was just right. Exactly the sort of place I wanted, in exactly the sort of neighbourhood I should be living in. Unaccustomed as I am to the protocols of renting apartments in England, I left the flat in high spirits, sneaking around the corner into the neighbour's driveway to text the landlord (who I'd only just left 20 seconds before), to tell her I wanted the flat to be mine. I knew she had other people coming to see the flat, but I wanted her to be assured that I saw the place as mine. Marvelling at my wonderfully swift decision-making skills, I almost skipped down the street in relief. I made it as far as the end of the block when the landlord texted back to say that somebody had already put up the money for the room, and I therefore couldn't have it. Have you ever been kicked in the stomach? I haven't, but I expect that I now know what it feels like. Where had this sneaky cash-giver sprung from? Who walks around London with enough cash in their pockets to cover a room deposit and first month's rent? Certainly not me!

I was pretty upset for the rest of the afternoon, not just mourning the loss of the room, but because I seem to be fighting a losing game. In looking at apartments, I don't want to be embarrassed by where I live. I know you can't judge a flat on the building's exterior (especially not in London, where ugly ex-council flats have been done up so beautifully inside). All the same, I don't want to live in a dodgy, ugly neighbourhood. I want to be able to invite people over to my flat (though who these potential guests might be is anybody's guess right now). I want my bedroom to be an oasis - a comfortable, spacious, clean and bright living space. I want a kitchen I can cook in, a bathroom I can use without fear of foot fungus, and all this in a clean and safe environment I can come home to every night.

If this reads as snobby, fussy, or princessy in any way, it's not my intention. Or maybe it IS my intention but all the same, I make no apology for it. Most people I tell this to understand my feelings, particularly locals or expats who have lived here a while and have done their dash in dodgy share flats. My strongest advocates seem to be the UK police whose guidance I have sort in the course of my dealings with them at work. The UK police have been a great source of advice for areas of London that I should definitely look to live in, versus the areas of London best left avoided. If anyone's going to know about safe vs unsafe neighbourhoods, its the people that patrol the streets, right? Unfortunately none of these uniformed Good Samaritans came forward with offers of spare rooms or empty flats I could rent from them.

So for now at least, it's back to the drawing board for a new week, and with (hopefully) a new attitude.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Walk This Way

As the flat search rages on, today's excursion took me north-west of the City, into the neighbourhood of St John's Wood. If Wikipedia is to be believed (and it isn't always), this area "is home to some of the most expensive properties in the world". I don't think I need the internet to tell me that, to be honest.

The streets of St John's Wood are leafy and - dare I suggest it - really suburban. I don't mean that in a condescending way either; rather, I just mean that it's clear that people actually live up there. Sure there are flats (like the one I looked at) and council estates, but there are also really beautiful and stately family homes, and that's a combination I really liked.

Bus-wise, St John's Wood is also really accessible to Notting Hill, Shepherd's Bush, Maida Vale and a whole bunch of other areas that mobile young things like myself might want to hang out in. The shops of Oxford Circus are also about 15 minutes down the road by bus. But to be honest, it's pretty much miles away from where I work. The commute to my office would not be an easy one (two buses, or a Tube/Bus combo), and given that I am not a morning person at the best of times, I just don't think I could do it.

I don't see today's visit as a waste of effort though. I loved St John's Wood as a neighbourhood, plus my bus went right down Abbey Road. We literally drove over the pedestrian crossing that The Beatles made famous on the cover of their album of the same name. So after I viewed the apartment, I walked back a couple of blocks to the recording studio and read some of the graffiti that Beatles fans have scrawled on the walls outside. I didn't go into the studio though - I'm not sure if you could, plus the place was crawling with Beatles fans eager to snap photographs (just like I had been doing), and obviously I just wanted to escape them. So I dashed across the pedestrian crossing - dodging much more traffic than The Fab Four ever had to - and I jumped on the first bus that came along, and headed for home.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

She seeks it here, she seeks it there

I am back on the wagon again after a very - VERY - ugly Tuesday evening 40th birthday party for one of my bosses. Fortunately it took most of us 3 days to recover from that event, so I don't feel quite so old and useless. All the same, I think I will take things very slowly this coming week.

I am coming to the end of my house sitting stint too. This upsets me on a number of fronts, chief among them the fact that I have become quite accustomed to gazing out the lounge room window at night times, just watching the twinkling City lights reflected in the Thames. I have enjoyed my 45 minute walks into work (on clear days), and I haven't really minded my pushy-shovey bus commutes (on rainy days). So the search has been on - again - for a flatshare in this crazy town. I am still not wedded to one particular part of town, refusing as I do to succumb to the silly notion that you have to be a "North of the River" or "South of the River" person. With my sense of direction, if I can even FIND the River, it's a good day.

I've been browsing a number of flatshare websites (Gumtree and Spareroom seem to be the most reliable for me). I was initially irritated because people weren't responding to my expressions of interest in their rooms - I mean, how dodgy must I have been sounding? So now when I'm responding to room adverts, I've taken to lying by omission. I gloss over how old I am, and I comment on what industry I work in, rather than reveal who my employer is - and so far, that is working for me. I'm seeing a number of rooms tomorrow (Sunday) and with any luck, I'll come out a winner. If not, I'll keep trawling sites next week and try not to take it all personally.

It was wonderful to spend today with my cousin EG, who flew over to London for work. Because she was taking the Tube from Heathrow this morning, I met her at Green Park station (the closest to Buckingham Palace) and the minute we saw each other, I knew something wasn't quite right. She hobbled towards me and revealed that in a rush to get onto the Tube she had twisted her ankle. Not a good start! So we limped as far as Fortnum & Mason down the street from The Ritz and we had soothing pots of tea. The tea did not soothe her ankle of course; we had to buy a compression bandage at Boots for that.

EG is quite the trooper though and insisted that we keep walking so that she could exercise her ankle, rather than rest and risk it swelling up like a grapefruit. I wasn't so sure we should be pushing things, given that she was due to fly back home tonight, but I do as I'm told. We compromised a bit and caught the Tube back to Covent Garden. I stuffed in a meat pie for lunch at a very cute little place on the lower ground level, and then we browsed the Jubilee Market, in search of some Banksy artwork. EG didn't find the exact piece she was looking for, but she still came away with a couple of small canvases for her bedroom wall. Score! Taking the rambling, direction-less route for which I am now famous, we eventually found Neal's Yard (a first for EG), and we paused for a coffee in the colourful courtyard area in between funky fashion boutiques and world food delis.

More walking followed and we meandered through China Town (celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival), down Haymarket and through Trafalgar Square. Writing this and thinking about the route we took, I still can't believe EG wandered all this way on her poor ankle - compression bandage or not! I took EG to witness the subterranean eeriness of Gordon's Wine Bar (another first for EG), but apparently the cat is well and truly out of the bag and now EVERYBODY wants to go there. Jerks. We couldn't get a seat and the place was packed, so we left. As the grey clouds looked more and more menacing, we called into a nearby Italian restaurant and split a pizza - well, I ate most of it but that's hardly surprising really.

The day went really quickly and it was quite sad for me to leave EG on the Tube, as she headed back to Heathrow. The visit was really brief but I hope it will be the first of many - fingers crossed. I just need to keep thinking of places I can take her when she comes back - she's not interested in the tourist traps; rather, she wants local sites. If I'm supposed to be the local here, it's time I stepped up to the plate. Eek, the pressure!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Out-geeking myself...again

A few weeks ago, you might recall I had a night out with J and her friends at The Club With The Invisible Toilets.

Tonight I met up with them again, but this time we went to Las Iguanas, a delicious Latin American place by Waterloo Station. The restaurant's lights were dimmed at 5pm, I'm not sure why, but the awesome music in the background had me doing some in-seat dancing with deep shoulder action. It was the worst solo samba/ramba/zumba routine you've ever seen but I was having a good time. Sadly the happy hour included every cocktail except the one that I wanted, so I settled for a huge glass of merlot instead. The first quarter-glass was pretty average, but it improved exponentially as I sipped. I couldn't decide what I wanted to eat- the whole menu looked pretty good, and very cheap, so I settled on a steak burrito. This was pretty unimaginative of me, I'll admit, but I was not disappointed. I wasn't too hungry when I ordered it but by the time the burrito arrived, I happily stuffed it in - and the side salad too. Perhaps it was garnish. Whatever it was, it was delicious.

After dinner, we shuffled across the footpath and into London's Southbank Centre, to listen to readings by the six finalists in the Man Booker Prize 2010. J and her friends met in a writing class about two years ago, so they are all rather literary sorts. I like to read and write and whatnot too, but I had not done any background research into tonight. I had heard of The Man Booker Prize (or The Prize Formally Known As The Booker Prize), but I hadn't read any of the finalist books, nor did I know who might be reading tonight.

From a longlist, the six finalists were selected and the final winner will be announced on Tuesday. It was weird listening to each finalist answer one question from the Emcee about his or her inspiration etc, and then stand up to read a self-selected passage from their work. Why did they choose the particular passage that they did? How could judges shortlist six works that seemed so very different - surely judging the Man Booker Prize is like comparing apples and oranges....well, that's how it seemed to me.

I didn't think that any of the authors were particularly brilliant, which sounds obnoxious I know, because i'm not exactly a Pulitzer-winner, but I just mean that none of the finalists made me feel like running for the nearest bookstore. I have to say that I was very pleased to see Peter Carey up on stage, not only because he is a fellow Aussie (whose past 20 years in the US I cannot hold against him), but also because I loved "Oscar and Lucinda". I will probably buy his nominated book, but I have a small bookcase of novels to get through first.

The tickets for tonight's event was 15GBP and so I was a bit let-down that the organisers didn't factor in audience Q&A, as they apparently did last year. I think that probably would have been better value for money, but only if done properly. To be honest, I normally hate the audience Q&A part of events, as most people do. I mean, they're always the same. You always get some moron that dominates the question time, asking some bone-headed question that makes everyone roll their eyes. Or else you get that frustrated postgrad weirdo who demonstrates that they've read everything the panelists have ever written, and then uses the opportunity to grandstand about their own unrealised thoughts, dreams and feelings and then forgets what their bone-headed question even was, until everyone in the audience, and everyone up on stage, either lapses into unconsciousness or contemplates mob justice. The lady in front of me had read all six finalists and she didn't look like a frustrated postgrad weirdo, but I still wouldn't have given her a microphone. Just in case.

As a compromise, I suggested (to J) that perhaps the organisers could have opened an online forum asking people what questions they might like the panel to address. Then the organisers could have selected 20 or so questions and posed them to finalists at random. See? Brilliant. I should totally be on the Organising Committee for this thing next year.

So after the book readings, the authors were in the main ballroom downstairs selling copies of their books and signing them. J told that once the winner is announced, you can usually buy the finalist books at half-price online - so I think I'll just wait for that and re-assess later.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Caveat Emptor

The UK Government has come up with a cunning way to make me dress like an Englishwoman. It has made it totally cost prohibitive for me to shop for clothes online, from websites outside of the country.

While I lived in the US and back home, I would order cute dresses and jewellery from a great online boutique whose link I found on one of my all-time favourite websites. I am not naming the boutique or my favourite website, because I don't want either company to think I'm being nasty about them - that's not what this rant is about. I only refer to the sites incidentally. In truth, this post describes yet another pitfall of living abroad that I have only discovered by face-planting directly into it.

So the other day I placed my first order from the boutique website, to be shipped to me in the UK. Inside the box destined for me was a gorgeous dress that I wanted to wear to a friend's wedding back home in November; plus some other really cute tops I wanted to wear for work.

The UPS dude delivered the package to my office today, but wouldn't hand it over because there were outstanding fees on it that still needed to be paid. The look on my face must have been priceless, because the guy took great pains to describe the concepts of customs tax, import duty and VAT. I can't tell you exactly what he said, but in my case, those three concepts added up to over 100 British pounds, that he clearly expected me to pay on the spot.

So there the UPS guy and I stood, in the office foyer, at an impasse. I couldn't work out how the high cost of the clothes plus the high cost of international shipping still resulted in such high additional charges. As it was, the extra fees amounted to a significant percentage of the overall cost of the contents. I was outraged, my friends.

The delivery guy promised to return with the box tomorrow, giving me 24 hours to swing into administrative action sort out what I wanted to do. Back at my desk, I placed phone calls to the necessary parties in a swift attempt to right the wrongs, insofar as I saw them.

The delivery company helpdesk lady was responsive (the best adjective I can find for her), because she simply re-explained to me the three concepts of customs tax, import duty and VAT - all the while I patiently listed to her explanation. I then asked her to at least admit to me that all three charges, while understandable in a legal sense, were nevertheless completely excessive in my case. Fortunately she conceded that - a minor victory on my part. Still, the law is the law and if I want my purchases, I have to pay them. Then I asked her what my recourse might be, and she confirmed I could officially reject the package as long as the online boutique was willing to accept the box back and process my refund.

I double-checked the international shipping conditions of the online boutique and while they caution their global customers about some countries charging extra import fees, they never estimate them, nor do they suggest that the charges can be anywhere near 100 British pounds.

So the next call I made was therefore to the online boutique, which was naturally 5 hours behind London and obviously unresponsive at the time that I was calling. A few emails and calls later, I had succeeded in sharing my tale with the voicemail boxes of just about every poor sod who works for the boutique, no doubt ensuring that I have a spectacular black mark against my name on their books forevermore.

On principle, I refused to accept the third (and perhaps most obvious) resolution; namely, that I could just simply pay the extra charges. I have had a really bad week at work and remedying this situation to my financial satisfaction was the only thing I could think of that would make happy quickly.

Later tonight I called the online boutique back and got through to a customer service person almost immediately. She confirmed that the boutique would indeed accept the package back (as long as it was clearly marked Return to Sender), and they would process my refund accordingly.

So while this little purchaser is financially restored, she is still sans outfits and Cinderella ain't got no dress for the November wedding. When that refund comes through, I guess I'll be hitting the London shops. Something tells me this will take more tolerance (and Valium) than understanding customs tax, import duty and VAT combined!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The AFL Grand Finale

I am house sitting at the moment and, joy of joys, the house comes with a cable TV package that includes ESPN. This is not normally a cause for celebration as far as I'm concerned; however, this morning I was super happy about it. This morning was Part 2 of the AFL Grand Final and kickoff was at 5am. ESPN was screening the game live, which meant that I still had to get up early, on a Saturday, but the rain could fall outside as much as it wanted - and I could sit smugly on the couch - in my pyjamas. Perfect.

LW came over to watch the game too, wearing her brand new Collingwood football shirt courtesy of her family. It must have been a very good omen because the Pies stormed home victorious - in fact, the game wasn't all that exciting - certainly not as nail-biting as last week's.

When the game ended and I had made us a greasy cooked breakfast, LW headed home and I stared at the walls trying to work out how to spend my day. The rain started and basically made my decision for me - definitely a DVD day. It's funny how cable TV has about 200 channels and yet you can still find absolutely nothing to watch. It hardly seems fair really.

Tonight I'm heading out to see my cousin & his gf who are back from their UK Contiki tour. I'm seeing them for a beer at their hotel, and then I suspect they will have an early night because they are flying out to Munich bright and early tomorrow morning. I hope they realise that I am coming out in the rain to meet them - that's friendship right there!

Before all that, I'm going to relax with "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and try and ignore the fact that on the other 199 channels, there is literally nothing worth watching.