Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Brave New World

So, the weather in London is like this:

Cloudy 11°C
SE (11 mph)
Relative Humidity (%)
: 82,
Pressure (mB): 1004, Falling
(wtih thanks to the BBC).

Which is to say it is FREEZING, making it about the 8th return of winter for the year by my count. But, because it is about to be June, and June is summer, the heating has been switched off by the estate management. I love a culture that applies the inexorable logic of "it is not cold in May" regardless of weather conditions.

So, we have a pretty cold flat, and a whole bunch of useless bank heaters. Fortunately the hot water tank is so poorly insulated that it spills out a decent amount of toasty goodness anyway; UNFORTUNATELY the central boiler (serving at least 6 blocks of flats) is on the blink and the hot water is not, in fact, hot.

We had this problem over the weekend, too, and when I tried to report it as an emergency repair I was told by the estate management that "hot water is not an emergency." This is intriguing to me, because in civilised places such as New South Wales, it's one of the things you can get fixed and force the landlord to pay for regardless of their consent to repair. Given that estate management doesn't supply electricity or gas, and that the water supply itself is presumably handled by the five thousand deregulated water companies, I am a tad confused over what else might in fact be an emergency repair for which the estate is responsible. Godzilla attack? "Oh, no, we're only responsible for Mothra attacks, sorry."

On the plus side, since the hot water problem has now occurred conveniently within office hours, they are apparently trying to fix it as we speak. And in the meantime I have an excuse not to do the washing up. HURRAY.

And now to put on a padded jacket and do the grocery shopping.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Orange People, Day 5: work

I'll actually start from the evening of Day 4...

Met up with work colleagues at Schipol airport - conveniently they caught the plane in that Loz was catching out, so it worked well. From there we headed to the hotel close to the customer meeting, just outside Hicksville, Netherlands (town actually called Zoeterwoude - wow, they have 8000 people living there...) The hotel was a glamourous Holiday Inn (I'm never quite sure what to do with that second bed), which in fact was not too bad. Especially the indoor-tropical theme they had going on:

We headed to the bar, meeting up with the other out-of-towners from the customer and Colt. From there we went on a GPS navigation adventure (including going the wrong way down one-way streets, and being directed through dead-end roads) to sample some of the fine Indonesian cusine. Aparently before the Dutch abandoned their colonies in Indonesia, they did manage to bring back some locals. The food was good if a little strange - I'm guessing the dutch can be blamed for the hard boiled eggs in the satay?

Day 5 proper saw my work colleagues surface a little shady (my hardy Australian composition meant I was fine though) and we headed to the meeting after a generic hotel breakfast.

Note I have not mentioned who the customer is... after the rigmoral of getting through building security (how many companies do you know that have their own luggage x-ray machines and perform a quick background check on visitors?) I presume they are now monitoring my every move, and probably already know the first three boy/girl-friends of everyone that has posted a comment on this site... however, I digress.

We had a tour of their facillities which were all very impressive - it's amazing what a not-for-profit company is capable of... it helps to skim a percentage off every interbank transaction the world over though. Seemingly, the only thing that would stop the place running would be a nuclear blast directly overhead - and even that would only be after the month of diesel runs out and no one wants to deliver more into the fallout zone.

For lunch we were given some of the wonderful dutch "food" - which was just about all my colleagues could bear, so we made a beeline for the airport. A hair-of-the-dog or three later at the airport bar took us to departure time, and as Priority Boarders, we got to wait with other half of the plane that were also Priority Boarders... I tell you, it's just not as exclusive as it used to be!

And that is Holland, only without the redlight district or "cafes"... but we'll leave that to the youngsters!


Orange People, Day 4: Amsterdam and airports

Multi-storey bike park, Amsterdam. The Dutch like to complain about bike theft, apparently, but they also like to leave their bikes around with no or minimal chaining compared to the big U-clamps common in Sydney and London. Statistical correlation or coincidence? You decide.

This will be a shorty, as Tuesday was my last day in the Netherlands and Grant's last day with Rohan and Narelle, as his work required him to get drunk with some Dutch customers on Tuesday night, and he had a meeting with them on Wednesday.

So, Rohan went to work like a good soldier, and Narelle and Grant and I headed to Amsterdam for a look at the outside of things, since we only had 3 hours or so to work with before we had to head for Schipol airport for my flight home/Grant's meeting with his workmates ahead of the pissup. Pictures here and following, bearing in mind that (a) the bridge opening is in Den Bosch and (b) there are no pictures of the pleasant half hour nap we had in the park next to the guys discussing the thriving market in 'shrooms.

We really didn't have enough time to experience the joys or otherwise of Amsterdam but it was good to see what we saw. Maybe next time we'll get a better crack at it. Until then, fave Netherlands places in order of faveness: the Hague, Utrecht, Den Bosch, Amsterdam.

After that, I had a relatively uneventful flight home to Gatwick and a train trip home that took longer than the flight from the Netherlands. Go Thameslink and the tube!

Steps on holiday: a million, so I promptly ceased walking altogether on our return home.
Thesis words: none in two weeks, and now I'm scared to touch the thing, a slight problem as it's officially due in a month. However, I think I'm only about 2-3000 words from the finish line so a little more procrastination will just help make things more exciting. Right?

Orange People, Day 3: Utrecht

For Vron, who is apparently unsatisfied with castle images: me, with world's largest and oddest vegetarian salad. Nothing quite like ordering from a Dutch menu when your only Dutch consists of "thank you, vegetarian, chicken."

On Monday we went on an adventure with Ro and Narelle from Den Bosch to Utrecht, which is only about a 40 minute train trip. As you will see from the educational and informative link, Utrecht is the Netherlands' fourth largest city, with a population of a whopping almost three hundred thousand. Are these Europeans kidding, or what? That's not even a "city" in Australian parlance. TRY COUNTRY TOWN.

Utrecht was actually quite a suprise for me. In addition to the usual canals, of exceptional prettiness in this case, it is quite an old town, viz:

The pointy thing is the tallest clock tower in the Netherlands, or so we were told by the enterprising ladies at the tourist info shop. It has 400+ steps, which unless I am being evacuated from a skyscraper (unfortunately not that rare an occurence) I tend to avoid. I have a good excuse: I'm LAZY. Also, we got to Utrecht a little late and because Hungry Loz had by then taken over, we missed the tower's opening hours in favour of feeding me. A sensible choice on everyone's part might I add, and also one leading to the salad above. Theoretically, if we had gone up said tower we would have enjoyed panoramic views of the flatness as far as the eye can see. Next time? Perhaps after they install a lift?

We took advantage of the terribly pretty canals with a canal ride. We were disappointed at first that the boat had a roof (albeit clear), but then it started pissing down, so good forethought on the part of the canal tourism enterprise. Grant got some pictures of his favourite birds of all time. And a billion other photos of canal-related things, which start around here. Really, I have seen lots of canals at this point, and these were up there.

Then, on the way home, I had a strawberry flavoured milk drink IN A CAN, and later Rohan and Narelle fed us our first meal in several days that wasn't solely comprised of fish and/or accompanied by chips. Very tasty. It was, in short, a good day.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Orange People, Day 2

After a good night's sleep at Sarah's amazingly appointed apartment (we're so jealous!), we surfaced late and went for a quick walk down to the local forest. The light through the foliage was truly amazing - I would love to go back there for a more extensive walk.

After that, Sarah joined us on the trip to Den Bosch to meet up with Rohan and Narelle. Catching the train was a good way to see the countries exceptional flatness. Also note they use mini-canals instead of fences...

After a quick and comfortable jounry, we arrived in Den Bosch and were greeted by all its majesty:

Between the gothic churches, picturesque canals (complete with brand new ducklings!), cute alleyways, and weird-ass sculptures, Den Bosch really is a very pretty little town.
We finished off the evening with dinner in one of the many restaurants... mmmm, chips with mayo!

The Orange People, The photos

So, I finally got the camera back (see day 5) and have uploaded the photos.

Pics are available here.

Loz also forgot to mention a couple of things, like the exceptionally cool sand sculptures, such as this one:

and some weird stretchy guys:


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Orange People, Day 1

This past weekend (and Monday and Tuesday) we were in the Netherlands, home of the colour orange, and a country so awesome it has a princess called Maxima, to visit Sarah, Rohan and Narelle. We got up at stupid o'clock or 4:30am on Saturday to get to Stansted in time for check-in for the 7:45 Rotterdam flight with Transavia. Hugely recommend them by the way; they are a low-cost subsidiary of KLM but don't appear to know that low cost is supposed to mean crap service and no accountability. Also, they are cheaper than Easyjet (or were for that route), give all announcements in Dutch first, which is a nice touch, and they only have one check-in counter at Stansted because they have barely anyone catching their flights. SHORT QUEUES. Very much appreciated.

I forgot to get lollies for the pressure change but as it turns out, flying to the Netherlands involves an ascent of maybe 6 feet 3 inches so it was OK. The total flight time to Rotterdam was under 40 minutes. Seems hardly worth the bother! Rotterdam airport is a dinky pine construction seconds away from the town, so getting there after the flight was very easy and cheap (cf: Stansted, a 45 minute fast train from London at the princely sum of 15 quid each, which was almost the price of the airfare). Sarah met us at the train station which, like every train station in the country, was having BIGTIME SERIOUS RENOVATION - EARTHMOVING - TEMPORARY FENCING craziness going on. They must be coming to the end of their fiscal year or something. We then went on a tour of Rotterdam which, given that it was bucketing down rain, hugely windy, and mostly being dug up was something of a non-event. Does havea cool bridge that looks like the Anzac Bridge as well as lots of folks selling the seasonal delicacy, raw baby herring. Sarah assured us the stuff was very tasty or at least edible. Maybe next time.

Inclement weather forced a retreat by train to Sarah's stomping ground, Den Haag/The Hague, seat of European governance/lawmaking and all round cool spot. We had a weird lunch of fried things on the part of Sarah and Grant and vegetable soup on my part. With meatballs in it. The waitress, who had excellent English like every other Dutch person (they switch from Dutch to English when it becomes obvious you are a helpless tourist) was nevertheless operating under a cultural imperative and had no idea why I was suggesting that if you said a soup was vegetable and it had meatballs in it, you should say that too. Her point was basically that it DID have vegetables. Never mind. Den Haag is a beautiful, beautiful city with glorious old palaces and glorious new skyscrapers and generally seemed a cool place.

Sarah has the World's Largest Apartment just out of town, near forests and sand dunes and the North Sea and so on. Lovely place. We were feeling a wee bit tired so I lay down on a couch and woke up two hours later. I am a very exciting visitor.

In the evening, with gale force winds continuing unabated but the skies moderately clear, we walked the 40 mins or so to Scheveningen, Holland's answer to Brighton, on the North Sea, complete with dodgy but very sturdy pier. My usual practice is to run shrieking towards bodies of water and get my hands in them, but given that the beach was basically a sandstorm, it seemed a bad idea. It was also covered with chunks of what looked like styrofoam but later proved to be bits of sea foam dried and hurled by the wind. This was either cool or icky. In any case, I have still not touched the North Sea. This makes me sad.

We had a nice dinner at one of the beach huts they put up in Spring/Summer and then went back to Sarah's to watch EUROVISION 2007. GO SERBIA! Pretty ladies touching each other inappropriately will always win out in my book, especially when coupled with the block voting power of the Balkans and former Soviet satellite states. The UK, with its ambitiously double-entendre laden pop, was soundly thrashed, having no states to vote for it en bloc. That said, Scooch was no Brotherhood of Man.

And then we passed out, ending a 30,000-step, 20-hour day, which also happened to be Grant's 31st birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

More on the rest of our trip later.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Loveliest Castle In the World (TM)

Ooh look, yet another castle! 90% of Leeds Castle. Forgive lack of panoramic lens.

During last week, Narelle and I went to Leeds Castle with very few expectations of what would actually be there. Leeds Castle bills itself as "The Loveliest Castle in the World" which is really a very big call. While I will grant that it has a moat which looks like a glamorous water feature, and while it is otherwise very handsome indeed, I think they may be overstating their case a little. I will get back to you when I have seen the several thousand other castles in the world. I will however acknowledge that their library is fairly swish.

Plus, unlike Kenwood House, the books are real

The castle is on giant grounds, mostly parkland/minor gardens and scads of water features, as the previous owner, Lady Baillie, who was something of a style maven, had a bit of a bird fetish going on. She was in fact the first person to import black swans from Australia, and I got to make squeeing noises when I saw them. THE SWANS OF MY HOMELAND! Sure, they are a little crossbred and have white patches under their wings, and one we saw was definitely seducing a white swan, but still. Proper swans!

Lady Baillie was the granddaughter of one of the richest American industrialists of the day; so rich, in fact, that his grandchildren were still buying fixer-upper castles with the proceeds decades later (don't you just hate it when the previous owners don't do any maintenance work for several centuries?) and then spending squillions on repairing them, as well as on importing exotic birdlife for no apparent reason. And that's squillions of pounds.

Apart from the swans, the other plus side of the bird fetish was falconry. Again, we had no real idea what a falconry display would involve, but I sort of thought it would be along the lines of "this is a falcon, isn't it pretty?"

But actually it was more like this:

This is Bailey, some kind of owl or other, performing tricks for food. He later swooped to command over some schoolchildren. Very funny, and a very beautiful animal. There was also a peregrine falcon showing off mad skillz including catching a lure in midair, and some kind of hawk which was supposed to drop onto a lure "rabbit" being pulled along the grass, but he misjudged the drop and ended up landing behind it and waddling after it on his chickeny legs. FUNNY! Possibly on purpose.

And there were peacocks. And then we had dinner at our new favourite Mexican place. Behold the Rare Sirloin Taco of Grant:

And that is all for Tuesday.

On Friday Narelle and I went to the Spitalfields market, and really I think it's best left for Sundays as there wasn't a lot there. Some interesting things though. Brick Lane was quite dead but I did get enough Indian street food for lunch for just over a quid. BARGAIN!

My study group on Friday afternoon went really well. Everyone seems quite enthusiastic and most had done some preparation work, some quite a lot. I think it will work out for everyone.

Narelle and Rohan left at the weekend and so we had a very quiet one for the first time in ages. It has been really great to have friends around but it didn't suck to just laze about, either! Only now we've tragically run out of bad American telly to watch.

Thesis words added: 1500, all on bits I didn't *want* to add. Beginning to feel like the character from Chabon's "Wonder Boys" - "I can't stop."
Steps: 85,000.
Housework loathed: I haven't cleaned the floors or the bath/sink for TWO WEEKS. The shame.

Yet. Another. Palace.

Oh look, another castle! Well, OK, it's a palace, or rather it was formerly Greenwich Palace until it was demolished and replaced with this swank complex, currently in use as a Maritime Museum and College of Music. Note Canary Wharf in background.

OK, so a quick one to catch up on the random other Londony things that have been going on lately.

The weekend before last involved:
  1. very English playing of frisbee in Kensington Palace Gardens. That is actually quite an exhausting way to spend an hour or so, particularly when you have a substandard Woolworths 99p frisbee and have to spend most of the time chasing it. I had a snooze halfway through. Grant pulled a frisbee muscle. Many people slept half-naked in the sun, as you do.
  2. Dim sum! Oh, how I miss trolley yum cha. I may have to go to Marigold quite a bit when we eventually get home.
  3. many many hours of Civilisation III for Grant and Rohan, followed by many hours of beer at the pub watching the Australia v Sri Lanka cricket match (I abstained in favour of a quiet evening home alone for a change, which everyone should be grateful for as nothing happens on the cricket if I am there to see it).
  4. a ferry ride to Greenwich, a tourist must-do that we have been putting off, which basically involves a who's who of London architecture, as narrated by a ferry driver, eg. "the building to the left was designed by an out of work window cleaner". Greenwich itself is just beautiful, plus you can get noodles for under 4 quid, an otherwise unbeatable price. All hail Noodle Time! Greenwich observatory, which is ACTUALLY UP A HILL of all things, has the original clocks designed to solve the longitude problem that had people unexpectedly crashing into coastlines for much of nautical history. It also had a bit of info on Captain Cook which is quite funny; we think of him as being the guy who "discovered" the East Coast of Australia but he was also in the thick of longitude research and was in the neighbourhood to take measurements of the transit of Venus around Tahiti with a view to determining its distance from the sun. An interesting point about Greenwich is that when they say a ceiling is painted, they mean it is bloody well painted.
Comprehensively painted ceiling in Naval Museum, Rohan and I are off on the left.

More shortly!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

By Command of My Husband, the weekend before the robbery

Being a surrendered wife, I obey my husband's every whim. Now a brief pause while I wipe away my tears of laughter.

Anyway, Grant made an excellent point over the weekend, which was that I had not pointed out all the lovely things that happened the weekend before last, prior to the point where we, you know, got robbed. And then he suggested that I should perhaps do so. And there were many, actually, so I shall do so. Apologies in advance as this is an image-heavy post, but you should all have broadband by now.

On Friday, Rohan and Narelle arrived! Grant went out to the airport to meet them, whereas I sensibly slept in. We had a grossly overpriced breakfast in Westbourne Grove complete with fluorescent eggs, followed by a stroll through the Portobello Road markets, and then headed up to Kensington Palace Gardens for a picnic lunch. Unfortunately this was the only day for sort of months that it wasn't bright and sunshiny, but as you can see we were all happy anyway.

Note my chipmunk expression, Rohan being too cool for school, and Narelle indicating that perhaps enough photos had already been taken (hear, hear). At this point we had lapped Ladbroke Grove/Bayswater twice on top of their long-haul flight the day and night before, so we don't exactly get points for navigation or for being merciful to the tired. They did however immediately start smashing previous pedometer records! Such is life in London.

I can't remember what we did after this. I suppose we must have eaten dinner somewhere? Can anyone remind me?

On Saturday we went for a stroll through the divinely beautiful springtime Holland Park, viz:

They had colour-co-ordinated tulips and those weird fluffy little flowers. Awfully swish. To show the difference, this is a shot of the same spot in February, albeit from a slightly different angle:

God, I love this country.

Following Holland Park, we did a nice hike along Kensington High Street to South Kensington (swank; cf North Kensington where we live), past the V&A to our favourite noodle joint for lunch. Actually after last weekend's Noodle Time in Greenwich, to be reported later, it has been demoted to second favourite, but it is still good and awfully cheap and way closer than Greenwich which may earn it handicap points. Ummm, after that we went to Harrods so that Ro and Narelle could pick up an appropriate Harrods giftie for their brand new niece. I also bought a very nice Harrods apron which was subsequently stolen with the rest of the contents of our bag, but let us not harp on such things! Then, we strolled into Green Park for a bit of a snooze in the sun, followed by Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, and the back end of SoHo up to Covent Garden. Where we found out that it was St George's Day, with amazing street performers celebrating in style. The star was this gentleman on a ten-foot unicycle on cobblestones:

He subsequently juggled an apple, a machete and a bowling pin while on said unicycle. I continue to be in awe of his prowess.

On Saturday evening we had a quick tapas in SoHo, and then went to a comedy club for a line-up on a German, and English and an Australian comic, as well as a compere who made fun of Grant's name (they can't understand it here unless he says his name is "Grahnt"). The German guy was hysterical, starting his act with a stopwatch around his neck and insisting German people could be funny before saying "OK, let's begin" (click stopwatch). The English guy was a mimic, and a good one, but not so great if you didn't recognise half of the subjects, and the Australian guy was a funny guy with ISSUES. I can only hope he finds peace. Good show all up.

However, it left us wiped out enough that our planned river trip to Greenwich on Sunday got cancelled in favour of a wander to the Natural History Museum. Because who can resist the lure of dinosaurs? It has been approximately 20 years since I last saw a big scary dinosaur skeleton so I was happy - a pleasant way to relive childhood. Afterwards, we had a nice little carb overload experience with lunch, tea and scones at the Orangery in Kensington Palace Gardens, followed by a pub dinner in Bayswater and a robbery.

All in all it was a fun weekend. It's been great to have the band back together, plus the step count topped 100,000 for the first time in months!

Thesis count this week: it's topped 25,000. I figure I'm going to go out in style. 30,000 or bust!
Steps: week before last 104,000 (more than 60km), last week 101,000 (ditto). It's like we have poor Rohan and Narelle on some kind of forced march. They're being troopers about it, though.
Cycling: zip for more than a month. My bad. I'm not riding to uni today, either.