Saturday, May 30, 2009

Comedy, Camden and a Limo

Saturday, 7 February

Travelling back to just after the days of extreme cold, we went to the 99 Club in Leicester Square. The 99 Club is a comedy club and we managed to pick up cheap tickets from Laughs aplenty were had, although don't ask me to recall who we actually saw comedian wise - all we remember was that we had fun and relished the opportunity to laugh away the winter blues. One moment of hilarity was seeing a woman being told off and duly made fun of for talking through a performance (I think she had consumed most of the bar). By the time we got to the third comic she was escorted off the premises and it was made very clear she wasn't welcome back. It's fine to heckle - just don't talk!
We spotted her outside after the show was over and she was still moaning about losing her cellphone - maybe she drank it? Silly lady.

The following day we went to the Camden markets. I think I preferred these to the Portobello markets we had visited a week previously. With over 1000 stalls and shops spread out over multiple locations there was much to see and a pulsing, vibrant atmosphere pervaded.

Highlights included exploring the rabbit warren that were the stable markets, finding two old Doctor Who magazines from 1980 that I was missing, marvelling at a Doctor Who TARDIS tiny beer fridge, seeing the extensive range of food stalls from a billion different countries, sampling a chocolate filled doughnut (which wasn't that nice to be honest), eating yumo Cambodian food and doing a little bartering for a belt which we couldn't get in the size we wanted.
Camden sits across a lock which adds a lot to the overall feel and there is a multitude of pubs as well as places to get pierced or tattoed. It is also very popular with trendies, hipsters and goth types so a brilliant place for people watching and working out what the new fashions are going to be. I was told that when the lock was being constructed, there were four pubs built - one for each of the nationalities doing the construction work (English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish) and you only drank from 'your' pub - a big change to the mash of cultures it is today.

As it gets really busy in Camden during the weekends, the main tube station becomes 'one way' for certain times of the day and only allows people to get off and not get on. This means when you have had enough and are ready to leave, you need to walk 10 minutes up the road to another tube station or take a bus.

The throng

Looking down Camden High Street

Looking up

The Camden Market

One of many market areas

After an afternoon of market fun, we decided to head back home and took the bus to facilitate our movement. Paddington really has the transport thing going for it - the number of times we have been able to get a bus back home with very little fuss is simply fantastic and makes life a lot easier. While slower than the tube it does let you get a lie of the land and it's cheaper too.

A couple of days later, we spied this outside our window:

We seem to get a lot of limos stopping opposite us as there is a large parking space for them. We are pretty certain a limo driver lives a few houses down and the changing of the guard seems to occur. Despite a worldwide recession, there are definitely still people who have money to throw around! We've seen about five different limos over the past three months.

Edit: I should say that we have seen five different limos outside our place...there are plenty more cruising the streets of London. There are quite a few Hum-vee limos too - the ultimate in gas guzzling excess (so manly too, especially when they are bright pink).

Next post: We get freaky with wax and visit Madame Tussauds!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Snow Day!

Monday 2 February 2009

Sha: February was the start of getting into some regular routines. I would go to work, and Foo would look for work and have my pipe and slippers ready for me when I got home. ‘Regular’ was something still to be worked out, as witnessed in early February when I woke up very excited to see at least a foot of snow covering everything. I didn’t think this could be too irregular because the Christmas cards that Grandma sent from England always showed snow.

Come to think of it so did NZ’s before we started talking about becoming a republic and depicting Santa barbecuing and surfing to press home our points of difference. I can hear Murray Hewitt’s voice now “these new cards will sock it to the Poms Brett, you mark my words, the Prime Minister’s gonna love them”. It would be another ten years before Santa would be given beach shorts to surf in, instead of his full Santa suit. (Blog within a blog misdemeanour).

The only thought I had was whether my boots would mind walking to work in the snow, and if they did mind, what was it they would mind, followed by; dumb boots, you’ll do as I say (such was the excitement). So I set off in the dark at 6am and headed down the road and into Hyde Park.

A brief synopsis of my usual 40 turned 90 minute walk to work; I can’t see the path, get lost, get found, run into some swans asleep and frozen beside the pond, apologise out loud for their awful circumstances, immediately slip sideways narrowly missing the pond by inches, state out loud “you did that with your minds ya c~#%$”, (refuse to engage them for the next five days), make it out of the park, get snow balls thrown at me by the only other two people out and about, virtually crawl up Kensington High St on hands and knees, make it into my place of work and wait for my colleagues to turn up, and wait, and wait, and wait.

Unbeknownst to me, this was the worst snowfall to hit central London in 18 years with 98% of public transport suspended and other miscellaneous chaos. It really was fun though, and I walked to work the next three days as well when the snow was turning into a perilous icy soup.

Frozen swans in the dark

Foo: Argh, Snow Day. While Sha was out enjoying herself in the snow, I was without internet sheltering in our house trying to avoid succumbing to hypothermia. Being without TV or internet, I had to resort to listening to the radio (an old fashion device, which is kind of like listening to a podcast interspersed with adverts and music that you aren't really interested in). The station I was tuned to seemed only able to talk about the snow for the whole day and presented startling revelations such as:
  • Shock, horror “schools are being closed - why do THEY (kids and teachers) get a day off when we have to work? It wasn't like this in my day, grumble, grumble.”
  • “The tube is closed - it's not like this in the rest of Europe. When it snows in France, THEIR tube keeps running. Our infrastructure is terrible and has to be upgraded, grumble grumble.”
  • “Drivers really aren't used to the conditions when it snows. They really should drive slower and to the conditions. Drivers just can't handle the snow.”
  • “We're running out of grit to salt the roads with. Why don't we have more grit? Everywhere else in the world has more grit than London. It’s not fair.”
  • “We’re in the middle of the biggest financial crisis we have seen for decades and our city has come to a standstill. The planes can’t fly and we are haemorrhaging money at a rate of knots. We’re doomed” (and pretty soon we will all descend into cannibalism…I suggest starting with the bankers).
So, it seemed to be pretty standard things to moan about. Reminds me a lot of talkback radio back in NZ.

Incidentally, the thing about grit running out was true as councils simply did not have enough to deal with the ice on the roads for more than a couple of days. As per this story, one council even rang a gourmet food company to ask the price per ton to grit roads - Alison Lea-Wilson, co-owner of Halen Mon in Brynsiencyn, North Wales, said: "Normally we only sell in grams. It would have cost more than £12,000. They seemed a bit shocked - and hung up."

Despite all the exciting chatter on the radio, I did manage to get out and about and went for a wander in Hyde Park. I took a swag of photos and present the best below.

The strangest thing about this whole situation was the suddenness that the snow descended. The weekend before it snowed was very cold, but there wasn't really an indication that snow was about to hit so severely. I don’t recall any ‘severe weather warnings’ or internet chatter. Indeed, there was more talk about snow around Christmas time with everyone dreaming of a white Christmas. I guess the powder was taking the scenic route to get here - better late than never although it reminds me of a song about wanting something really badly and when you finally get it, you realise it wasn't want you wanted after all! People are funny like that.

On the Saturday, we had gone to Portabello Markets in Notting Hill with Perraine and Heather (no, we didn't see anyone famous out and about). In the evening we went to Tate Modern to see a Rothko exhibition. While the Rothko exhibition was intriguing, I think both Sha and I got more out of wandering around the exhibitions by other artists. For Sha, the Viennese actionists were fascinating and me, I loved Dali, Francis Bacon and some of the other surrealists. There were also some fantastic videos playing with some disturbing imagery which had me mesmerised. As Tate Modern is so huge, I think a return visit is definitely on the cards. I keep thinking of art lovers back in NZ who would simply LOVE to spend half a day wandering around here (Mum, Eugene & Sonia, Lizzy, Bernie & Maelyn).

Sunday was even colder and Sha and I went to a Farmer's Market near Baker street in Marylebone. We bought pigeon breast and pheasant - both surprisingly cheap. We were assured the pigeon WAS NOT the sort you see hanging around late at night outside dodgy tube stations. Always good to try new things.

Enough ramble...on with the snow!

Don't forget, you can click on a photo for a better view.

Out our window

The Italian Gardens in Hyde Park

Snowman #1

People enjoying Hyde Park

The Serpentine

Snowman #2

Not a soul to be seen (or is there?)

This might mean something to Regan?

Now that's a snowball!

The only working bus in London!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Eurovision 2009

Sha to 911: You’ve got to help me! 25 European countries just crashed into my lounge!

911 operator: It's OK madam, that’s just Eurovision 2009!!!

Most of us have heard of the Eurovision Song Contest, but how many of us in the Antipodes really understand the gravity of what it is?

Lucky for you I will tell you. Eurovision is a road crash, a 25 car pile up, except the cars are actually European countries that fought to be in the road crash. After the road crash, one half of the victims sing soothing songs to calm the other half who are maniacally jumping around dazed and demented (sometimes in their bloodied national costumes).

Every country airs the competition with a national celebrity providing voice commentary whilst the tragedy unfolds. For 30 years, Britain had Terry Wogan whose great last sentences before retiring included: “Eurovision is a triumph of appalling taste” and “I don't want to be presiding over yet another debacle”, and when asked what he will be doing this year stated "I will sit there and get drunk, the same as when I was commentating".

This year Graham Norton picked up the mantel, and I have it on good authority that Norton’s approach is fairly indicative of 38 years of Wogan’s, with one possible difference being that Norton appeared to remain sober.

The Brits will tell you with genuine surprise that they haven’t won Eurovision in years. I can probably offer some clues as to why, you see in recent years there is something called the Internet and live streaming, this means any country can watch Eurovision from another countries perspective, i.e. listen to your neighbouring countries commentary. Then there’s the unprecedented European migration into Britain by cell phone wielding maniacs texting their Grandparents in Armenia to relay the verbal atrocities being said about their national dances and costumes by the British Pig Dogs.

Britain’s commentary has one sole aim, and that is to mock every other participating country. Norton, and previously Wogan, launch an unrelenting - occasionally funny - tirade of denunciation and mockery towards their European neighbours. I personally found this oddly insulting to my intelligence, because Eurovision achieves this on its own, without the aid of a celebrity pointing out the obvious.

Anyway, what really counts is that the 24 other competing countries are freakishly serious about it! And then I became freakishly serious about it. So much so that I was moved to grab pen and paper to record my own scores, with my two judging categories being ‘Visuals’ and ‘Song’,

Time has now passed, my blood pressure has dropped, and I can barely remember what all the commotion was about. Except I still have my score sheet which I now review to reflect on the horror that was Eurovision, and the split second assessments I was forced to make between each performing country.

My piece of paper reveals quite succinctly what I thought, starting with the Norwegian song that would go on to win Eurovision 2009; Visuals; “Hate him”, Song; “Hate it”.

Israel induced a bit more commentary with its approach. Synopsis; enter Palestinian and Israeli female duo looking like sexy grim reapers singing over and over again ‘there must be another way’. I presume they weren’t talking about washing tips for getting blood out of children’s clothing. My succinct judgement at the time; Visuals; “misuse of a Palestinian”, Song; “Uck!”

I had to add an extra column headed ‘Extraordinary feats’ when the German entrant started tap dancing whilst Dita Von Teese, ex wife of Marilyn Manson, attempted to burlesque dance to a Ritalin drugged swing band about to blow its collective lolly in a bewildering crescendo of sound. And no matter how many times I re-watch the video, the moment German entrant guy's shirt comes undone to reveal his creepy man chest remains an apparent act of God.

My new ‘Extraordinary feats’ column would come in handy again later when the Ukraine offered their visual depiction of a Roman themed Fetish party. Judgement placed in my Song column....“No F-ing way”.

Needles to say, during the official vote counting, had it not been for the concrete walls of our flat, I would have been arrested for verbal ‘hate crimes’ against no less than 10 European countries.

So, for the same reasons I no longer watch International Rugby, I can never watch Eurovision again. It is too nerve wracking and stressful!!! Yet deep in my heart I know this is not true, because just like a road crash, next year I will feast my eyes on the gory sight all over again.

Roman Fetish Party - watch to the end if you dare

Bollywood pirates???

Soooo never going to Norway now...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Two new bears in Paddington

End of Jan 2009

Our Neighbourhood

Sha: We chose the place for its good vibe and proximity to bus, train, and tube services. With uncertainty about where we may end up working, we figured it had good access to most places. Furthermore, it was only a 3 minute walk to beautiful Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

For the first month or two we were still using the tube to be sure of getting to places, then with time we started walking more and more. Slowly, it began to dawn on us how close we were to everything that is quintessential London, though it should have been a clue when after walking to work through the park for two weeks I eventually noticed the drab brick building in the Gardens was actually Kensington Palace!

We can pretty much walk to anything located on two thirds of a monopoly board, but more about that later.

Sha with Paddington Bear

Foo: With Sha working, I spent a lot of time setting up the flat and on the phone to various utility companies. They tend to enjoy hanging up on you (accidentally or deliberately?) and for a country with cheaper power, gas, phone and internet than New Zealand, it does seem to take longer to get things done. A bigger population has both benefits and downsides I guess.

A couple of other differences – phone bills are billed every three months, although you can track your preliminary bill through their web site. One super call plan that British Telecom (BT) offer is unlimited calls to a host of overseas countries for only £5 a month. This means we can call landlines in New Zealand and Australia and talk as long as we want for next to nothing. If anyone wants a call - just let us know!

We signed up with power company nPower and still haven’t received a bill. I wonder if we are lost in the system? Wouldn’t surprise me…in fact, I bet we don’t receive a bill until just before we move out and are asked to pay our overdue account immediately. Hmmm, maybe I should chase them up on this.

Other exciting things…in the UK you have to pay a water bill each month as well as council tax. Council tax is similar to rates in NZ, however the person living in the house has to pay it, not the landlord. Paying for water and council tax are little things that you don't really consider when moving to the UK, but they do add to the cost of living a little.

We also had some hassles with getting our phone connected (BT messed up and we were connected to the wrong exchange). We then had the same problem with getting the internet set up leading to further delays (O2 messed up too and connected us to the same wrong exchange). To their credit, our broadband and cellphone provider O2 have been excellent with great customer service and their prices are very reasonable. Just don’t ask me how good their wireless router is :-(

Well, I think that is all for now on the 'set up house' front and after a visit or two to Ikea, we seem to be sorted furniture and homeware wise. Luckily the place was fully furnished, so we didn't have to spend too much £££.

My turn with the bear

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ikea, shopping and the hunting of the flat

Jan 2009

After New Year, Heather lovingly exposed us to hell of hells that is known as Ikea. This was a ‘character building’ exercise and one that I hoped never to repeat. Alas, we must confess that we have since visited various Ikea stores a total of four times.

For the uninitiated, Ikea is a GIANT Swedish homeware store, very similar to Briscoes with a dose of the Warehouse and a couple of furniture stores thrown in for good measure. It has mocked up living spaces to help you understand the immense value Ikea can bring to your lifestyle. With it being a monolithic store, you could spend days wandering around trying to find that piece of Swedish furniture that matches your current décor and then spend an equal amount of time trying to find the way out. Luckily, they have arrows on the floor, showing you the ‘correct’ way to proceed through the store and that you can find your way out (and to the tills).
It seems that others out there in blogland share my feelings as per this post. It also seems that cheap Ikea furniture can be useful for building insane Linux clusters as shown here.

Sha and Heather can barely contain their excitement

After recovering from our Ikea voyage, the following day Foo made the most of the end of the New Year’s sales and picked up a suit jacket and some new shoes.

Looking startled yet smart

Hmmm, not sure where my shoes went

The good die young, the bad get to work

Sha survived the plague just in time to commence a 3 month contract helping Her Royal Majesty out with some odd jobs. On my first day of work I learnt that the only correct piece of information that the Transport for London website would ever provide would be the time it takes to travel between Greenwich and Kensington, 1.5 hours to be exact. Ma’am had quite a bit that needed doing, in fact about 8 – 10 hours worth a day, sometimes more, so the reality of 3 hours travel on top of work wore thin quickly. As it happened, Perraine and Heather’s lease was due to come up in Feb so we all decided to look for a place in town.

Foo & Heather hunt for flats

While Sha was out earning a crust, I spent most of the time living it up. Ah, this is the life – the little lady out working while I relaxed with Heather, drinking tea and eating biscuits. Noooo, that is not completely true. I was also spending time researching a laptop to purchase, searching for an ideal flat to move into and even began the very first inkling of hunting for a job (although failed to get traction at that point in time, but more on that later!) Searching for a place seemed to take up most of my time and while Sha and Perraine were at their respective jobs, we hit to find something that suited our needs (location, transport, green, right size and right price). It was a slightly dispiriting affair; oddly enough rental prices seem to rise the closer into London you go and conversely property sizes seem to decrease. With Sha finding her nearly three hour commute hellish, we had to be closer to the action.

Heather and I popped out to a few places in Harrow Road in Ladbroke Grove which runs parallel to a canal (sounds really nice, but Harrow Road gets super busy traffic wise). Wow. The couple of places we looked at took me back to my flatting days circa 1997 – 2001 (actually, my flats in those days may have been a little better!). Threadbare carpet, huge deadbolts and a couple of well placed holes in the outside hallway, I started to have my doubts even if the price was right. Needless to say, we passed on that one! Another place a few doors down was similar, in better condition and even had a little outside area with BBQ. While better, the size was a little small and it definitely wouldn’t have worked for four of us. We were then taken to an incredibly tall building to look at a two bedroom flat situated on the 12th floor. This was a lot nicer, brilliant outlook and just the one small problem that sheer heights like this scare the hell out of me. It was also under offer so would only be available if that offer fell through. And on it went…

Next day, Heather, Sha and I took a look at a flat in Paddington (West London) and a second one near Regent’s Park (Central/North London). Paddington seemed okay (very close to Hyde Park and brilliant access to the tube) but wasn’t really suited to four people. Regent’s Park flat was bigger, but still didn’t do it for us and the price was higher.

Regent’s Park flat

Sha & Heather ponder, is it right for us?

Regent's Park statue

Sunday morning – a couple more places to see, this time in Shepherd’s Bush. Shepherd’s Bush has a reputation for having many Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans and we wondered if this was where we would gravitate towards?

We had a look at two places – one even had a garden out the back! But…it smelt like someone had been cultivating mushrooms and I prefer my fungi on a pizza, so this was out.

The second place fared a lot better, but once again size was an issue and the bathroom...well, take a look below and see.

Nice kitchen

Nice lounge (and TV!)

Bad naughty bathroom!

Apartment for rent, just round the corner from Princess Di’s old place

Finally, we got lucky with a real estate agent who had a property in Paddington that hadn’t been advertised yet. It belonged to a non-greedy landlord whose priority was getting good tenants and was willing to let the place go below the market rate to get them. When we were shown it on the Saturday, we had decided that it was a going to be a squeeze for four of us, but things did work out in the end.

To cut a long story short, Perraine and Heather decided to stay in Greenwich and we took the place on our own. We now take in short-term borders and have a nice balance between having the place to ourselves at times and making some additional income where possible.

The big move happened late Jan and we managed to get everything we had into one minicab (the driver didn't seem too happy though). Amazing how much extra stuff accumulates in the space of a month!

En route on Old Kent Road
I spied the Holy Ghost Christian Centre next door to the Love Lounge. What a juxtaposition!

Holy Ghost Christian Love Lounge Centre

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The New Year’s Eve that wasn’t

31 December 2009

All these trips involved various forms of London public transport used by 3 million Londoners every day. When you consider how we walked everywhere in Wellington, barely ever touching a public transport handrail, our immune systems must have been like untainted petri dishes seducing every known germ and virus. And that’s when it happened…

The Plan: Central London, 0 degrees, a fireworks display, and lashings of family friendly British pop!

The Reality:
A mystery illness with plague like symptoms, accompanied by a Thorazine shuffle, delusions of grandeur and the belief that a state funeral would soon follow, because I am the Queen of England.

We simply called it Tubebustrainitis, and the doctors agreed.

And so ended the week after Christmas when tourists do roam. After numerous visits to the doctor, being fed like a baby, taking antibiotics and finally steroids, I was fit enough to start work, yay!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Brighton Rock

30 December 2008

By now we had traipsed around quite a bit of London, and anyone who has been to London will know there is a lot of brick, and despite some amazing architecture in-between the brick, brick in winter can be very uncheerful and make you melancholic. And traditionally the British melancholic (and insane) are taken to the seaside for fresh air (or shock therapy).

It was one of those beautiful winter days where despite the cold air, the sun shone beautifully and the ocean glistened. Definitely just what the doctor ordered. The streets were wide, the buildings brighter, and only an hour on the train from London.

Nothing could ruin this magical day, not even slipping on ice and shattering my knee, not even trying jellied eels on Brighton pier, not even the seagull that swooped down and stole the jellied eel right out of my hand, not even the flu-like symptoms that were beginning to present.

We walked along the waterfront, played on the pier and visited the Royal Pavilion, a modest royal residence for the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV.

Side view of the Pavilion

Another view

Brighton Pier

Brighton has a lot going for it and despite the stony beach and cool air, it lends itself to a sense of calm that is lacking in central London. I can only imagine what it is like in the high season – no doubt completely packed out by all manor of transients.

The walk along the waterfront was spectacular – great stone cliffs had trapped the sun and heat was gently being released, allowing us to warm our weary bones. Despite Sha not feeling 100%, she soldiered on admirably and kept the pace strong and steady.

The start of our walk

The lovely warm cliffs

I never knew what a groynes was before!

Ah, lovely!

Spot the boat in the distance

An interesting stairway

Once we reached the end of the cliff walk, we had a couple of scones and cup of tea, although the establishment we frequented wasn’t the most hospitable. It is always a chore when you are viewed as an unwelcome guest, rather than a valued customer. If only the woman who served us could have smiled and perhaps had a tiny bit of customer focus, I’m sure it would have had us raving. I will however concede that the lemon curd was most spectacular.

To preserve Sha’s knee from further damage we took a quick bus trip back to the pier and explored some of the delights around and then on the pier.

Outside Sea Life Brighton

A fishy statue (or is it a dolphin?)

Looking onto the beach (from the pier)

With many thrilling rides available, some which appeared to plunge over the edge of the pier, I am sure there was something for everyone.

Sha with jellied eels (yuck!)

Ivor, Tarot Consultant

I note that Ivor's corporate clients include Cornhill Insurance, Deutsche Bank, GlaxoSmithKline and Guinness to name a few. Is this how they make serious business decisions!?

It makes me feel sick

Around and around it goes

There was even a ghost train

Fun for all the family

A final look back from the pier

Once sated with seeing the thrills on offer, we headed to the Royal Pavilion.

Wow! Simply amazing. As per most historical places like this, no photos are allowed inside, but with the magic of flickr, I was able to find some photos from 1987.

A bedroom

A dragon

Great set up for having a guest or two over

A piano

All the above photos were from Pip R Lagenta's 1987 visit to the UK. Please check out the photostream on flickr for even more photos.

Finally, here is a link to the Royal Pavilion's wikipedia page with the historical what not of who, what, why and when (boy, I must be feeling lazy today!)

After the Royal Pavilion, we headed to The George, a vegetarian pub for a slap up feed. I recall somehow everyone having their order messed up except for me…in fact, while I am a fan of meat, the food I got was great. Not too sure about the others. Actually, having done a little further research, it appears that The George used to be a fantastic vegetarian restaurant but it is now no longer as good as it used to be.

Notice on the men's bathroom door

Ah, so that is what they were talking about!

While trying to research Brighton, I did stumble upon a great blog, Brighton Daily Photo, which has some neat photos, such as this one.

Hmmm, what a busy day and I was left with only one regret - we didn't buy any Brighton Rock! I am sure we will return, so perhaps breaking teeth in Brighton is an experience to look forward to at a later date.

As we boarded our train and headed for home we had the dawning realisation that tomorrow was the final day of 2008. What delights would this bring and how would 2009 shape up? Tune in tomorrow to find out!