Monday, January 31, 2011

You're smiling? You must be new here.

I had my first day at work today and like all first days, it was quite overwhelming.

K kindly accompanied me through Grand Central Station and up to my office building. I would have found it on my own eventually (you reckon?!), but faffing around with my ridiculous sense of direction was not something I needed to do today.

After a delicious coffee with K, I arrived in my building early and got through the building security process just fine. Safely inside my new office, I was taken through the usual inductions and I met so many people. In typical post-30th birthday fashion, names went into my head and immediately whizzed out again. Hopeless. I was trying to make sense of acronyms galore, who's who in the zoo, and generally where my role fits in the greater scheme of things. Everybody at the office was understandably patient about this of course, as they've all been through it before - but everyone I met today seemed lovely and helpful and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better.

Lunch time was rather administrative, in the sense that I got my US banking business sorted, followed by a ridiculously large shop for all manner of toiletries to furnish the main bathroom in the new apartment. We're moving in tomorrow and I wanted to make sure that the main bathroom (that I will be using) has all the usual stuff in it so I'm not caught short on Wednesday morning when I have to get ready for work. I'm such a nerd, I know. The poor man at the store probably thought I was stocking up for the end of the world or something but there was no point explaining. I bought a red hairdryer. With a retractable cord. Hands down, the best purchase of the day.

My brain is tired now, so fortunately the most strenuous thing I'll have to do tonight is to help K pack the last of our moving boxes. As long as I don't have to think as part of that process, we should be fine.

It's really cool to think that by this time tomorrow, we'll have moved in to our new bachelorette pad. I reckon it will take us some time to shift things around into a layout that we're happy with, but I know it's going to be fun. I've told K that I'm going to have a crack at growing herbs on our kitchen windowsill. She didn't laugh at me, but I don't think she really took me too seriously either. Perhaps she was just flashing back to the last houseplant that we managed to kill with kindness. We named him Dennis and he lived in our bathroom. We figured that if we named him, we'd be more inclined to take better care of him but in the end, we loved the poor thing to death. It's been a couple of years since the demise of Dennis, and I'm totally ready to tackle some kitchen herb cultivation. Wish me luck.

I know this is only the end of Day 1, but I reckon it's going to be a really fun couple of months ahead - at work and at play.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday in the City

Originally uploaded by andrewkist.

American TV cracks me up.

For one thing, I had forgotten how intense the Food Network can be - but that addiction was never really too far away. Second of all, the infomercials are amazing. Just yesterday I saw ads for pyjama jeans - so called because they look like denim but are made of pyjama fabric and the ad ASSURES me that I can wear them anywhere, anytime. Riiiight. Then there was the little reusable press-stud snaps that you stick on to the bottoms of your jeans so you can hem them effortlessly (so you can wear your pyjama jeans with heels OR flats). Genius. But ever the glutton, my favourite ad is the chef basket. It looks like a lobster pot made of chicken wire, and it has so many uses - its handles never get hot, so you can handle it straight out of the pot, with no fear of burning yourself. You can cook pasta in it, you can steam veggies in it, and it all folds flat and stores in a drawer. Inspired.

Such silly TV viewing conjured up quite an appetite, so it was very timely that we visited Mario Batali's "Otto" enoteca pizzeria last night. Don't ask me where it is because I just followed like a little duckling. K told me the neighbourhood but I forget. We had dinner with a couple of Aussie friends in from London, and a few of their relatives/friends. It was great - we just ordered a heap of different dishes and shared them. We had a fennel salad, plates of cured meats, some pastas and pizzas, washed down with some lovely red wine.

Walking back through the streets to find a taxi home, I was really grateful for my new, long down-filled winter coat. NY is still recovering from a really heavy snowfall the other day, and a winter chill is still in the air. Just as the food coma overtook me, I fell into bed and a fabulous deep sleep. Love it.

Tu vuoi far' Americana

Statue of Liberty
Originally uploaded by Pragmatic1111.

Ok so I've been back "home" 24 hours and already it feels like the best decision I've ever made.

My flight was on time yesterday and even though I wasn't sad about leaving London i still felt weird about going through Heathrow. In fact I was so distracted that I picked up all my stuff off the security conveyer belt EXCEPT my bright pink carry on suitcase! I got a few minutes away before I realised how lightly I was travelling and by the time I got back to security, nobody had even noticed my abandoned suitcase. I'm not sure how I would have been able to explain myself had they decided to detonate my stuff. Ugh.

I flew over on a BA flight and I don't think I'll ever do it again. K tells me that no trans-Atlantic flights offer good TV services but honestly, it feels positively archaic when the airline tells you that they're screening movies in two cycles. You have no control over the stop-start of whatever you want to watch. As it was, I half-watched "The American' with George Clooney (yawn) and half of "The Kids Are Alright" with Annette Benning. Otherwise I was drinking red wine to try and drown out the noise of two young baby girls who were seated behind me. Ugh it was really annoying but what's the point of getting annoyed at babies on planes? The air pressure blocks their little ears and they can't help but get distressed by it. I just wish they could be a bit quieter when distressed, that's all. I'm so mean, I know.

But I got to NYC and all was well. I settled in to K's place and slept like the proverbial dead. This morning we got up and went to a diner not far from K's place, for some breakfast. I was craving some rye toast and it proved totally worth the effort to go to the restaurant for something to eat. After that I went across the street and chose a queen size bed to store in the new apartment that K and I have rented.

The flat is really beautiful, I have to say. The bathrooms are dated but the rest of the place is bright, airy and perfectly suited to the two of us. K has an ensuite bathroom and mine is the main bathroom, so we worked really hard to scrub both rooms today and make them something that we're going to be able to use every day. My bathroom walls were so filthy - mostly dust really - but when I was done, I was really pleased with the result. My bedroom is quite spacious too and I think when I finally get my furniture in there, and my luggage unpacked, things are going to be really great.

Photos will follow of course, when things are in their places and we're a bit more settled. We move in on Tuesday - my new bed & mattress included - so the new NYC lifestyle will really kick in then!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Closing Time

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

So it is on my last night in London, I'm sitting here thinking about what an amazing six months I've had here. I was going to write a bit about the things I loved (and the things I didn't) but I just don't think my brain is up to it.

This past week has been a whirlwind of handover during the day, and eating waaaay too much at night. I did get to try some fantastic new restaurants though, so that was a definite plus. This week's gluttony has reached such a zenith that I'm pretty sure that my blood is no longer full of red blood cells; rather, I now consist simply of red meat and red wine. I am going to have to take things easy for a while...and perhaps eat something green, for a change.

When the dust settles and I'm safe and sound in New York, I'll kick my brain in gear and provide a better wrap-up of my last week in London. It will be a literal retrospective, but I am confident you'll cut me some slack on that one.

So until then friends, stay safe and well and I'll see you back "across the pond"!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Call the waaaaa-mbulance!

A friend asked me the other day whether I will be sad to leave London. Quick as a flash I answered "no". We laughed about that - I think my rapid response shocked her. Days later I still stand by my answer but in retrospect I would like to have taken longer to respond. I've been thinking about it ever since and I just wish I could feel torn about moving on from here. But I don't.

Please don't misunderstand me - it's not that I don't like London. This is a beautiful city that has so much to offer its residents and tourists alike. I would recommend that everybody visit here because for architecture and tourist treats alone, London is an absolute winner. The museums and galleries are incredible. The transport links are great, even when the carriages are overcrowded and their ventilation a little sporadic. The shopping is fantastic too - wonderful and cheap choices for groceries and market foods, but also amazing boutiques and high street stores for the fashion-conscious too. The public parks and gardens are relaxing and well-used spaces that are gorgeous in summer and awesomely spooky winter wonderlands. And that's saying nothing about Europe being right on the doorstep.

But let's face it, being in London on your own is a bit of a fizzer. Hey, being in any foreign city on your own probably is too, to be honest. Spending the last six months on my own here has been a real learning experience. While I'm not sad to be leaving here, I think for my own future recollections I should probably remind myself why.

For starters (and at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious), London is a really expensive city. To live well but also within my means (as I was really desperate to do), I knew I would have to share a house and I found that really hard. Not conceptually - I was happy about the idea of sharing, but I was just continually disheartened by constant rejections and the ridiculous competition for fleabag s**thole apartments that I identified within my budget. I was just looking for somewhere warm, comfortable and affordable, close enough to the city that I could still stay out late at nights and not be stranded in the city if I missed the last train home. I wanted a house I could come home to after a night at a funky restaurant, or going to the theatre - a place where friends and family could stay when they came to visit me. I think those are fairly simple things but I struggled to make them happen for myself. Too many other people seemed to want exactly those same things. Typical!

From my experience, London has not been the friendliest city in the world either. Many of the Aussies I've met seem so settled here and breaking into their established friendship groups is really tiring. Maybe you get too old to keep trying? Being an Aussie is nothing special here either and I confess that was a bit of a surprise to me. As I have often said to people when talking about the Aussie invasion here, the guy next to you at the pub is an Aussie, but the guy pouring your beer is too. We're just everywhere - the city is crawling with Aussies. At first I thought that would be kinda cool - an easy familiarity and a friendly, welcoming environment. It just hasn't been that way....for me, I mean. I know lots of other Aussies for whom this whole posting will be weird and the polar opposite of their London experience but I can only comment on what I know.

My immediate workmates were really supportive and in that family atmosphere, their encouragement really helped. I was even fortunate enough to stay with a couple of them during the horrible transition times and that was so generous. I maintain that so much of my enjoyment of London is a direct result of my love for my job and my workmates. Then again, I know people outside of my immediate office (but still within my building) had made snide remarks about what a snob I was being and how if I just looked further out of the city and settled for a longer commute my accommodation problems would surely be over. Fair enough perhaps, but what about my quality of life and the things I wanted to do here (theatre, restaurants, entertainment)? Long commutes be hanged. Did they think that comments like theirs wouldn't get back to me?! Discouraging attitudes like that I will definitely not miss.

In answering my friend the other day, I know I'm not sad to leave London because I don't regret coming here. If I hadn't have come to London, I know I wouldn't have been as qualified for my new role in New York. The challenges I've faced here have made me curse, cry and generally be a complete grouch at times, but I am glad I dealt with them. For six months I have done a job that I've loved, and worked with an amazing bunch of people. I'll certainly be sad to leave them - but for now I feel ready to skip back across the pond and see what the Big Apple has in store for me.

Let's start with a well-ventilated public transport system, and go baby steps from there.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A grey day out, and one head still attached

The last time I visited the Tower of London I arrived after hours to observe the Ceremony of the Keys. This time I was up early to join the first tour of the day, "headed up" by Yeoman Warder McGrath. [See what I did there? "Headed up" - Tower of London - beheadings - oh man. Tough crowd.]

Anyhoo, the Yeoman Warders are the guards of the Tower and keepers of its history. Our tour guide was full to the brim with anecdotes and tall tales of the bloody, tragic and mysterious that have come to characterise the Tower of London. There were a couple of young kids in our tour group and the Yeoman Warder always made sure that they could see and hear everything. I stood not far from them, so I could see and hear everything too. The tour went for about 45 minutes, after which time we were released and left to explore on our own time.

The skies were getting darker by the minute, so I headed indoors to go check out The Crown Jewels. The sparkly collection is truly beautiful. Hard to believe that the jewels have been in the Tower's care for over 600 years - and some of the collection is over 900 years old. In the main gallery room, I rode a small travelator (those moving walkway thingies in airports - aren't they called travelators?) that tootled me past the most impressive collection of precious stones I've ever seen in one place.

After that I stopped into the gift shop (of course) and proceeded on to the chapel, into the White Tower to see the armoury, and back onto the lawns. When I came to see the Ceremony of the Keys I didn't get to see the six ravens that live in the Tower, but I did today. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall. Have you ever seen a raven? They're damn big. I reckon if one flew into the Tower, that might be enough to knock it down. Or perhaps I've been playing Angry Birds on my phone a little too often these days. To the sound of the ravens squawking at me, I left the Tower of London (through two more gift shops) and had some lunch at the nearby pub, Hung Drawn and Quartered. Their house pie is excellent, but their vegetable side dish is not so much.

I've scored a new job in the US and I start at the end of this month, so I've only got two weekends left to see some key London tourist attractions on my bucket list. Tomorrow is a long overdue haircut (not a tourist attraction) and an afternoon hiding out in one of the city's - and probably the world's - best-loved galleries.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Some Yum Dim Sum

In the interests of word economy on this site, I've decided henceforth to refer to Gus the Wonderdog's parents as S&M. After all, this way I'm giving an accurate representation of both their initials - and there's no risk of confusing them with a supermarket.

So S&M are headed into their literal home stretch, getting ready to head back to Australia after an enjoyable four-year stint here. I know I've really enjoyed hearing their stories about it and I will certainly miss them when they go away. We don't have many days left together, so I was really pleased when they invited me out tonight for dinner in Chinatown and a movie in Leicester Square (in the same theatre where the movie premieres are held).

I have eaten in Chinatown a couple of times since I moved here, but I find it such a confusing place that I've never been to the same place twice - cause I can never find the same place twice! Typically dodgy sense of direction.

Tonight the girls took me to Dumplings Legend, a place that they had been to before, and really liked. The place was doing a roaring trade and while we waited for a table, we got to see inside the dumpling-making kitchen. We could clearly see two very practiced chefs fill and mould a huge variety of little flavour pockets, and ready them for the bamboo steamers. It was quite mesmeric actually. In almost no time we had our seats and I took a look at the menu. Crikey - so much choice! Naturally we deferred to M to select our items.

I think tonight was actually my first authentic dim sum meal since 2005, when Reg and I were in Hong Kong and we went to a floating dim sum restaurant called Jumbos. I remember being totally overwhelmed by that place, but I loved it all the same . Like Jumbos, Dumplings Legend was cheap, cheerful and really tasty. M ordered about 8 little plates and at first I thought that might have been a bit ambitious but I tell you, it was the perfect amount. M made some great choices too and the meal was just delicious. I was particularly intrigued by the soup dumplings, where the soup was actually inside the dumpling! S kindly demonstrated the art of eating them and I did my best not to slop anything down the front of any of us - hooray, success!

After my gluttonous experience, I was really relieved when we took our slow walk back to the cinemas in Leicester Square. We called into Stanford's Map Shop en route and I somehow managed to avoid buying anything, though the NY subway map shower curtain was very tempting...

Having very much enjoyed "The King's Speech" when I saw it in Chicago, I was really hoping that S&M would like it too. The Odeon in Leicester Square is one of those cinemas where you have to choose your seats beforehand, and we were fortunate that the three seats we picked were far enough down the back and away from other people that we felt like we had some space to ourselves. I actually found the movie to be more enjoyable the second time around, and I'm totally back on the Colin Firth Admiration Wagon again. After our Dumplings Legend experience, Mr Firth was definitely our 9th tasty dish of the evening!

The V&A is AOK

I've only been back in London a week and I've become a bit of a culture vulture again. Case in point, on Monday I spent several pleasant hours wandering around the Victoria & Albert Museum. A big fan of the Queen Victoria & Prince Albert love story, I couldn't resist calling in.

In fact, we'd only been talking about the V&A when I was in New York for NYE so I was really looking forward to exploring it when I got back to London.

Having visited the place now, I have to concur with AH that the V&A has the most beautiful and diverse gift shop I think I've ever seen. I couldn't resist buying some goodies, though I only scored one gift for myself and bestowed the others on my Mum & sister. Gold star for me.

I didn't go into any of the special exhibitions that the Museum was showcasing, simply because I figured there was so much else to occupy my attention. I spent a long time browsing the jewellery collection, and nearly got kicked out for photographing a really ugly jewel-encrusted Jack Russell brooch that I wanted to show Gus the Wonderdog's parents. Fortunately the museum guards didn't see me photograph the 19th Century amethyst & diamond grape necklace that I emailed to K. I'm such a rebel.

I was equally impressed with the silver & gold collections (anything sparkly, it seems). Some of the cases had really comprehensive information panels so I learned a bit about how silver was used in the olden days as a symbol of wealth and prestige - and passed down to family members through the generations. There was so much to see that I didn't know where to look next.

It's a good thing that like the V&A, most London museums and galleries are free to visit. I love to visit them, but I find it really easy to overdose on all the information and spectacle that I find there. Having left the V&A I seriously thought about calling into The British Museum across the road, but I didn't because I thought my head might explode. Still, they have an Egyptian exhibition on at the moment that I simply HAVE to see - a job for next weekend, maybe.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Back in Londonland

It's such a wrinkled cliche but time really DOES fly when you're having fun and before I knew it, my Christmas/New Year break was over and I was back to London to get ready for work.

When I got back on Sunday I settled into yet another sublet arrangement, this time looking after a bedroom for a NZ guy who's gone back home until 23 January. So far, so good. I have my own room at the top of the house where I can close the door and read, or muck about on my computer, or I can go to bed early. This may sound anti-social to you, but bear in mind these are the sorts of things I would do if I lived by myself anyway, such is my dynamic nature (not).

I don't know...I think I'm probably just getting old and grouchy. I'm over the whole 'share-house' thing - too many people living in a house make me think of hippy communes. I can only take a shower every day if I don't think about how many other people have showered in it since it was last cleaned (shudder). Ditto the toilet, whose seat one room mate insists on leaving up, even though I know there are at least 2 other girls living here. I guess I shouldn't complain too loudly, as said male room mate at least has good aim.

I haven't cooked any meals in the kitchen yet; indeed, I haven't even been into the kitchen since I moved in, so I'm not sure what state that's in. I know that the washing machine is down there, so I'll check it out this weekend. I hope the machine isn't complicated. I also hope it has been serviced recently - I don't think I could take it if my underpants got stuck in yet another strange washer's rinse cycle and refused to come out.

The NZ guy that rents this room does have a good DVD collection though, and I'm tempted to borrow some to watch on my computer. I'm sure he wouldn't mind, but just as I'm about to grab one I wonder what would happen if a disc got jammed in my machine. How would I explain that? What if I broke it and my computer wiped the movie? In total lameness, I leave all the DVDs on their shelves - untouched, and where they belong.

Subletting is a weird way to live, I'll admit - but at the same time, I've met some nice people and managed to get to know the city a bit better (or at least experimented with new bus routes). It feels weird sleeping in a bed that's not yours, on sheets that aren't yours, hanging your clothes in a wardrobe that's not yours (and isn't entirely empty either). I desperately want to spin this guy's bed around so it faces the other way because I honestly think it would be more spacious but I don't do it because a) it's not my room and b) I couldn't be stuffed. Obviously.

From a financial standpoint though, subletting is a really good idea. The rent is cheap and most people are happy to pay their bills while they're away, so you don't have to. At Tube stations around the city this week I've seen billboards for some great art exhibitions and theatre shows that I really want to see, so having some discretionary dollars for those diversions is great. A subletting silver lining, if you will.

I've settled back into work well this week; it was almost like I never had a holiday at all. We've been busy, but we're all getting through it and counting down the hours until the weekend. The office Christmas tree got taken down yesterday too, and that's a sure sign that the silly season is over and it's back to real life again. So it's a deep breath and as the English like to say, "Keep Calm and Carry On".

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Year, New Town, New York

There is something really great about getting off a plane and knowing exactly where you're going. I love being able to stride past the jet-lagged masses to the luggage carousel, fetch my bag without smacking something with it (accidentally or on purpose), then exiting the airport terminal through the one door that takes you straight to the end of the taxi queue.

There are only three airports in the world that give me these experiences each time. The first is Adelaide Airport; in my home town, so of course familiarity reigns. Good coffee, great toilets, Coopers beer. Gold.

The second is Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Sure it’s big, noisy and full of grabby TSA staff who give you an enthusiastic pat down, but at least they don’t give you a dirty-old-man grin as they do it. I love O’Hare for its cold beers, huge food court, and peaceful airport lounges. I also love the Chicago accent on the dude that does the voice overs to tell us that the transport safety rating is "o-range". No really, I love that.

And last, but by no means least, is La Guardia Airport in New York. I’ve only flown in and out of here a couple of times but already I've totally taken to it. The bars are sadly non-existent, but the souvenir shops are fabulous and the taxi guys like to laugh - which really helps when you're so jet-lagged that you hate everybody.

So you’ll appreciate the irony of how relaxed I was, when I landed at La Guardia on 31 December, arguably one of New York City's busiest party days of the year.

Breezing through the terminal to reclaim my baggage, I took my place at the end of the taxi queue and was ushered into a cab in a matter of minutes. Zooming towards the concrete jungle I chatted amiably with the taxi driver about the state of the city’s roads after the horrible blizzards. Sure enough snow was piled high along the sides of the roads – waiting until the next fleet of ploughs, or perhaps just a good drenching rain, could come along to clear them away.

On the day I arrived, K and her family were helping to strengthen the US economy at the outlet malls, so I let myself into her apartment and watched a couple of episodes of “Criminal Minds” – man, I love that show. When the family came home, we all got ready and had some pre-dinner drinks before heading out in the cold (but clear) night.

Dinner on New Year’s Eve was at a French restaurant called Millesime and it was just gorgeous. The follow-up Restaurant Review in the NY Times probably hasn’t hurt its reputation either (click here to read that). There were 10 of us at the table and I shared a lobster soufflĂ© starter with K’s Mum and then enjoyed a tuna steak with a sauce vierge, plus a side order of potatoes cooked in duck fat (duh) as my main course. The duck fat tried to clog my arteries, but the tuna steak wouldn’t let it, so all in all it was a well-balanced meal. Sort of. Kate’s Dad took charge of ordering our dinner wines and they were so good. As with the rest of the silly season though, I totally over-indulged in the food and drink sensations, and basically put myself in a food coma by about 2am. In the midst of my blame spiral, I was cursing my enthusiasm for the punch-you-in-the-face red wine that Kate's Pa ordered - I think that's what finished me off.

The next day started with brunch and admittedly I was feeling pretty ill – though not as sick as K who had to go home from the brunch restaurant and sleep all day. Stupid gunky gems had invaded her and she looked and sounded pretty rotten. The rest of us stayed in the fresh air and headed into Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library (Breakfast @ Tiffany's moment, anyone?). We wanted to check out the little Holiday village they’d set up there and the outdoor skating rink that was still proving really popular. We then wandered in and out of stores on Fifth Avenue, peeked across the street at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, then wound up back at the apartment. Nobody really had the energy to head out, so we stayed in and got pizza and watched Eddie Izzard DVDs. Loved it.

Time really does fly when you’re having fun and this holiday proved it. I awoke on 2 January feeling much better than I had the day before, and ready to face a great day. Rain had already started to fall, which basically declared it a Museum Day, but I didn’t mind a bit. While K’s parents explored flea markets on the other side of the city, we met up with PL at the Museum of the City of New York – incidentally the one museum in town that I’d actually been to already! Never one to resist a gift shop, I picked up a book about John Jacob Astor and his fantastically wealthy life. I haven’t started reading it yet but I can’t wait.

Later in the afternoon we called into a Mexican restaurant around the corner from K’s place and had a few too many margaritas but we needed to – how else to wash down the ultra spicy guacamole and salsa?!

Pouring myself back into a taxi, I bade farewell to P & K and headed for New York’s JFK airport – not my preferred option but as Mick Jagger said, “you can’t always get what you want”. The lovely dude at the British Airways counter let me board really early, so I was happily seated down the back of the plane with my book and music before the other yahoos came aboard. What followed was a full but happy flight, where I didn’t sleep a wink (again), but had a great time thinking back over the wonderful holiday that I’d had in the US cities – and airports – that I love.

See you soon, gang!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Post #2 (or The One Where Gab Leaves On A Jet Plane)

Mrs Gump may have maintained that life is like a box of chocolates but for my money, you never know what you're gonna get when you pack a suitcase a) drunk or b) hungover.

After the Boxing Day birthday lunch, I returned home to finish the last of my packing and then watched “Sister Act” on TV. I cried whenever Whoopie Goldberg and her choir of nuns sang, and again when Harvey Keitel finally got arrested. I have seen that movie thousands of times and never cried, so I’m totally blaming the red wine and general holiday gluttony for this one.

To be honest, I really should have known better than to over-indulge on this particular occasion, because I had been looking forward to the next morning (December 27) for ages. Not only did that date herald a move to my new sublet situation, it was also the day I was leaving for my US holiday.

On the day in question I got up quite early and was mercifully spared anything resembling a hangover. That said, I did enjoy a breakfast of Nurofen and Diet Coke, so perhaps that helped.

After a quick shower and a last cleanup of the bedroom, my car service turned up on time to take me to my new (albeit temporary and sublet) home. Lugging all my suitcases down the four flights of stone steps and into the car represented the only cardio exercise I have done in months, so even though it nearly killed me it was probably worth it. While my fledgling biceps were still warm (or at least momentarily stunned), I then dragged a couple of suitcases UP three flights of stairs into my new place, before locking the door behind me and driving off.

The car then took me out to Paddington Station, where I paused for a coffee before taking the Heathrow Express out to the airport. I arrived 5 hours early which I’ll admit was not really my plan and in retrospect was both unnecessary and kind of ridiculous. I am not really sure what was going through my head when I booked the car so early. It was probably a combination of fear that the car wouldn’t show up (or else show up late), and my worry that the airport train would be late (or not running at all), which would all ultimately result in my being late to Heathrow and potentially missing my flight. Totally irrational fears when you lay them out like that, but when you’ve had a couple of madcap weeks like I have, perhaps I was really sensible in the long run.

Things weren’t so bad once I actually got to Heathrow. I was one of the first people to check in for my flight when the gate opened and by that time, the thunder & lightning storms in London had blown themselves out, leaving us with grey – but very clear – winter skies. As a result, boarding happened without incident and we actually took off on time. Whee!

The flight was uneventful, for which I am of course grateful. I didn’t sleep a wink because I was so excited to be visiting Chicago for the first time in nearly two years and instead, I watched a bunch of movies that I can’t remember, and started reading a new book I’d bought at the airport.

Once I arrived at O’Hare I was shocked and annoyed to be part of the longest passport control & immigration queue I think I’ve ever seen. It took me nearly 90 minutes to get to the front, all the while three Italian tourists behind me invaded my personal space every time the line moved. They poked me with their jackets, kicked my ankles a few times, and the guy even tripped over my roll-along suitcase in his haste to get as close to me as he could. And just when I got to the front of the queue, a customs official appeared out of nowhere and opened a brand new line that the Italians rushed to join. Turns out they got to the front of that line and cleared passport control a good 20 minutes before I did. Bastardi.

Once I was through passport control and customs, I caught up with LH in the Arrivals Hall at O’Hare – she was so good to wait for me that whole time! We drove to Target to pick up some supplies and then headed back to her place where the adorable Preston was waiting for us. I don’t know anything about dog memories, but Preston had not seen me for nearly two years and he still remembered me like it was yesterday. Every time I sat on the couch, he sat right on top of me – almost as if he wanted to pin me down and not let me leave him again. Adorable.

The allergy tablets I’d picked up at Target helped me coexist with the two Persian cats that populate LH’s apartment. The cats (Simon and Norman) belong to LH’s room mate who was visiting his family in California at the time of my visit. They are friendly enough as far as cats go, but they are used to sleeping on room mate’s bed (where I was) so I didn’t want to be attacked by nasty allergies or pink-eye or something because of them laying on the bed and shedding all over me.

Tuesday morning, after a wonderful sleep, we got up and headed into the city for lunch with my friend, Courts. We met in this little Lebanese diner in the Loop, built at the back of a jewellery store. You actually have to walk THROUGH the jewellery store to get there; it’s a weird concept. We had a really lovely lunch, though it wasn’t a long one just because Courts was on her lunch break. Since I left Chicago I had been keeping up with Courts’s life through her blog so I was across all her major news, but that’s not the same as seeing her in person and catch up properly, you know? Lovely.

Speaking of lovely, LH and I spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering down Michigan Avenue, before we jumped on the bus and headed back to her place. Packing an overnight back, we drove back into the city (with Preston this time) to spend the night at the Peninsula Hotel. In 2009, LH and all her work colleagues had each been given a gift voucher from the hotel to thank them for their work and partnership during the year. The gift voucher was about to expire, so LH cashed hers in to treat us both to a night’s accommodation. It was AMAZING. We actually had a suite with two of the most comfortable double beds ever. The room overlooked Michigan Avenue and we had a great view of the John Hancock building, the Water Tower, and even NoMI at the Park Hyatt a block over. The suite we had is valued at $950 a night, and I’m not sure whether that’s cheap or expensive by Chicago five-star standards, but I was well and truly spoiled rotten, it was wonderful. Preston was a little angel too and seemed to know that he was in a fancy-pants place and needed to be on his best behaviour.

For our evening meal I decided I wanted to have a traditional Chicago deep-dish pizza and when the line up for Giordano’s proved too long to bear, we crossed the street and ate at Pizzeria Due instead. The pizza was amazing and the pomegranate margaritas were too. The combination of those two dining choices put me in a delightful, if not a little bit drunken, food coma.

The next morning we were up early-ish and I had coffee with a friend Downtown while LH drove Preston back to the apartment. We met up again at the Lucky Strike bowling alley in the city, where my friend LB is the Sales & Events Manager. A delicious lunch followed and it was lovely to see LB again and chat about the plans for her wedding later this year. My good friend LA joined us for lunch too, and it was great that my friends got along so well together and we all chatted freely during lunch.

Afterwards, I went along with LH and LA to see “The King’s Speech” at the cinema that is part of the bowling alley building. Hmm perhaps the bowling alley is part of the cinema building. Ugh whatever, you get the idea. The movie was fantastic and we all really enjoyed it. Funny because only the week before at Christmas, Gus the Wonderdog’s parents had asked me whether I thought Colin Firth was hot. I replied that I was certainly in love with him as Mr Darcy (in “Pride & Prejudice”) but I fell out of love with him when I saw his dodgy kissing in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – good kissing is a selling point, you see. Having seen “The King’s Speech” I can certainly tell you that I’m back in love with him, kissing prowess aside. I think he is amazing in that film and I don’t know whether acting ability wins Oscars anymore but in Colin’s case it certainly should.

It was really nice to just hide out and do relaxing things in Chicago, without the added pressure of seeing tourist attractions or museums etc. It was great to be able to revisit my old haunts and see the city as I used to do. It was a shame that I wasn’t in Chicago on a Sunday night, because I had really wanted to get back to Sidetrack for Sunday showtunes. I especially wanted to enjoy a vodka slushy (single colour of course, as history has proven that the rainbow coloured ones are totally deadly). Sadly the calendar was against us, but LH came up with the alternative option to visit a showtunes bar in her neighbourhood. So after a delicious pasta dinner with LH and her cousin, we met up with our Sidetracks staple boyfriends at the proxy showtunes bar. It was great to see the guys again and catch up on old times. The only down side was that in addition to having show tunes that evening, the bar was also hosting a very amateur awards ceremony for very amateur local theatre. There were probably about 30 people in the bar in total, and I reckon we were the only people in the bar NOT associated with the awards. Lame. It was equally lame that we had to politely stop talking every time the music stopped and another award winner was announced (and made their inevitably lame acceptance speech in praise of their cast, crew, and God). Once I’d caught up with the boys, and enjoyed one watery Cosmopolitan, we were all ready to head home and the night came to a bit of an abrupt end and we went our separate ways, vowing to catch up again soon, though next time I will insist that we wait until Sidetracks Sunday when we can have a proper do-over.

Sleep came very easily that night and I remember getting up the next morning so relieved that the day’s social engagements did not start early. We headed to Ann Sather's in LH’s neighbourhood for a delicious brunch, including a takeaway order of the famous cinnamon rolls that I had been mysteriously craving for days. They did not disappoint.

In the afternoon we drove to the South Loop for a catch up and dinner with RG & LZ at their house. It was also the first time I got to meet their baby boy, who is now an utterly gorgeous 9-month old. I gave him some Harrods toys and a Chicago counting book, so that he knows his Aunty Gabs loves him. In return he devoured my cheeky with his gummy, slobbery mouth and it was the best thank you I’ve had in ages. Equally fabulous was the delicious pizza and red wine we enjoyed, and our shared stories about Christmas, old times in Chicago, and the new adventures that 2011 promised to bring.

Early the next morning it was time to farewell my sweet home Chicago. I said a hasty goodbye to Preston, all the while trying not to let on that I was leaving him again. LH drove me back to O’Hare and I hugged her goodbye before boarding my flight to New York.

But hey, that’s a story for another time. Or at least for Post #3.

Festive Fun

Bless me dear reader, for I have sinned. It has been far too long since my last posting. But we’re both here now and let me tell you, we have a lot of catching up to do.

I am not very good at telling stories in chronological order, I’ll admit. I start strongly but then I get bogged down in detail and take myself – and my audience – off on some ridiculous tangent that may (or may not) help enrich the original story. See, I’m doing it right now? ARGH.

The point of this particular divergence though is to explain how I’m going to approach our huge and essential catch up. In order to bring you up to speed on my life since we last met, I intend presenting my stories as a series of postings, prepared in the order in which the events happened. It will be a revelation for me, not least a rebellious departure from my usual style, but I reckon it will work. After all, I figure that if I wrote one bumper posting to wrap-up three weeks’ worth of activities, I risk leaving out fun and potentially important details from my anecdotes. As unintentional as those omissions might be, they would certainly irritate me – and nobody likes it when I’m irritated.

So let’s kick off this chronological story-telling exercise with a look back at the silly season; or as I prefer to think of it: Gab's First London Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas, snow had fallen quite solidly for a couple of days, leaving the city paralysed but beautiful. I battled through the slushy weather; gingerly at first, and with growing confidence as the thaw began. Work itself slowed down as more people started their Christmas holidays. I left a couple of projects on my new year ‘to do’ list and at around 4pm on 23 December, I shut down my computer for the last time in 2010, blissfully aware that I would be on holidays myself until 5 January.

Later that evening and very early the next day, I packed up most of my belongings in the bedroom I was subletting. I was alone in the house during this time; what with one room mate already back in Spain to spend the holidays with her family, and the other scampering about the city somewhere with his mates. The silence was actually helpful, because I was able to concentrate on what I was doing and not leave any stuff forgotten in random drawers or cupboards.

By the afternoon of Christmas Eve I was ready to relax and make the trip up to Marylebone to spend the following couple of days with Gus the Wonderdog and his parents. Laden with food, sleeping bag, and any clothes I would need to get by, I joined the throngs of people trying to criss-cross the city on the trains. Unfortunately I did not read the train station screen particularly well and ended up on a train to Woking instead of Waterloo. To those unfamiliar with English geography, this does not seem so bad – except for the fact that these two stations are in entirely opposite directions, and about 45 minutes apart. As the train left the station – obviously in an unintended direction – I realised my mistake immediately. As the guard read out our list of stops over the loudspeaker, I realised that I had also managed to catch an express train to Woking. Oh joy.

You’d be proud of me though, cause I didn’t cry or stress or anything. I just figured that when the train got to Woking, I’d get off, change platforms, and head back to Waterloo. What else could I do really? I’m becoming terribly practical in my old age, I think. Then of course to compound my embarrassment, the train conductor made his way through the train to check everyone’s ticket. Given that Woking is a regional destination, the ticket I used to get on the train was not actually valid for the journey. I confessed to the conductor – with a self-deprecating eyeball roll - that I had made a gross error and that I’d actually been headed for Waterloo, so I knew that my Oyster card was not good for the fare to Woking. He just shook his head and playfully said, “silly girl” – but he didn’t fine me or anything, presumably because it was Christmas and I was foreign and he was a nice man.

Once at Woking, my ticket card obviously wouldn’t let me back through the gates to the ticket machines. I appealed to the gatekeeper and again the spirit of Christmas prevailed. In no time at all, I had purchased a ticket and was on my way – on an express train no less – to London’s Waterloo station.

Fast forward to Marylebone (my favourite neighbourhood), and I had finally arrived at Gus’s house with no real desire to head out again into the grey and fading day. Fortunately the girls had the same inclination to hibernate and we had some drinks, I roasted a chicken to eat cold the next morning for breakfast, and we all had an early night. Now that I think about it, I reckon we were all hungover actually. The pantomime – or more accurately the sheer amount of red wine we drank before, during and after it – had totally wiped us all out.

Christmas morning was a late one for me. The girls let me sleep in and I felt a bit weird about that. You know what it’s like when you’re a guest at someone’s house and you feel like you should at least get up when they get up, even if realistically you could continue sleeping forever? Well that’s how I felt anyway. When I say I slept in, it was only until about 10am which is not criminal, but on Christmas morning it is a bit weird. When we were growing up, J and I weren’t allowed to get out of bed on Christmas morning until the digital clock on the microwave read “7 dot dot something”. Naturally from about 5am onwards we would take it in turns to creep out of bed to check the time. We would do this in two minute intervals and we’d heartily wish that time would speed up so we could open our presents. At 7 dot dot 01, we would burst into Mum & Dad’s room to wake them up, to share the news that Father Christmas had been and they needed to get up NOW so they could see the bounty for themselves.

This year, Father Christmas didn’t visit me, but Gus’s parents were his agents of generosity and they bestowed upon me the latest Dawn French book, a fantastic striped scarf (to replace the one I shrunk trying to clean up after the great Starbucks spill), and a very cute little coin purse. I was mortified that I hadn’t bought them anything, but I honestly believed that we’d agreed not to do presents. I know I should have ignored that. Ugh I still cringe when I think about that.

The chicken & champagne breakfast that I had organised went down so well and I was really pleased that I’d insisted on having it. The roast chicken was tender and moist (ugh I hate that word), and when sandwiched on the yummy bread with herby cream cheese, it made for a satisfying but light breakfast. Overnight I had chilled some Laurent Perrier brut champagne, which was a dry and delicious accompaniment to the informal chicken sandwiches.

The girls and I were full of bravado about walking to our lunch venue but once we hit the footpath (and face-first into the cold air) we quickly abandoned that option. We hailed a taxi on Oxford Street and within minutes we were in Soho and at the Dean Street Townhouse (check out the link to their Christmas menu), to honour our lunch reservation. I hoisted myself up on the tallest bar stool I think I’ve ever seen and bravely ordered a mint julep, in honour of my trip to Memphis a few years ago with K. What I received was rocket fuel in a glass, much stronger and much less minty than the Peabody Hotel’s version. The girls laughed at me, because I reckon the booze in my small beverage would have been enough to power a Smart car around the block. A couple of times. Yikes!

Taking my half-finished drink to the table with me, we exchanged our giant barstools for a low-slung dining table with large, equally-low plush armchairs. The table setting reminded me very much of the Mad Hatter’s tea party and the candlelight just added to the festive, cosy atmosphere. We enjoyed a set menu for our Christmas dinner. Ironically we all chose the same starter; the mixed mushrooms topped with a fried duck egg, then because I’m not a fan of roast turkey, for my main I chose the roast beef with all the trimmings. It was cooked perfectly and complemented the red wine we had ordered to accompany our meal. The whole menu was really delicious. I could not eat any of the cheese or chocolates that came next, but the peppermint tea I got helped to soothe my full but very satisfied belly.

Walking home from the restaurant was not an attractive option either really, as we were all lapsing into food comas. Once we got home, we all had a little sleep to help us recover from our gastronomic punishment and even though I woke up with a nasty headache (thanks I’m sure to the nasty mint julep & fabulous red wine combination), I headed back to bed around 10pm.

Come Boxing Day morning I was a bit more disciplined in terms of getting out of bed. I was aided in this endeavour by the fact that we were all expected at Putney before lunch time, to meet at my boss’s place and head to a nearby pub for his birthday. As our bus turned left from Baker Street onto Oxford Street, I couldn’t believe the crowds lined up around the block to get into the Boxing Day sale at Selfridge’s. You honestly couldn’t have paid me to go inside the store that day, much less work at it! Ugh it would have been horrendous.

After what I’d shoved into my body on Christmas Day, you’d think that eating would have been the last thing on my mind at the pub. Still I found room for yet more red wine and a pork belly roast (again with all the trimmings). Fortunately for my waistline, it was literally impossible for me to eat all of my meal. I just couldn’t fit it in. Ugh. Fast forward to more post-lunch red wines and then it was back to the bus to head home.