Monday, August 31, 2009

Vacation: Day 3: London: Even the police are confused

Initially, we'd planned to watch the changing of the guard with Tea's extended family, followed by the Notting Hill Festival in the afternoon. Once we got down to Buckingham Palace, however, we learned that it had been cancelled for the day, and decided to tour the estate rooms of the palace instead. Everything from the ticket – which looked more like an invitation to a fancy do – to the free audio tour was perfectly executed; we all thoroughly enjoyed it. The art collection alone was impressive; I recall a Rembrandt in particular – The Shipbuilder and His Wife – as simply breathtaking. There were a number of scenes of St. Mark's Square in Venice as well, and many portraits, of course.

Two other comments about the palace: the room off the music room – the Blue Room, I believe – had a secret passage behind a mirror to allow the Queen to receive guests without traipsing through all the various rooms; it was something right out of an Agatha Christie novel. And, finally, I got to see the gilded pucks that Rocket Richard and the Montreal Canadiens gave the Queen as a gift. Speaking of gifts, at the Gift Shop we learned that we could use our ticket stubs to sign up for free access to the estate rooms for a year, which is great 'cause I know we'll be back, probably with visitors in tow.

We had a quick snack in Green Park that was notable for the delicious beverage I had with it (see right); and then it was off to the Notting Hill Festival. We'd been told that Sunday was the better of the two days to attend, as things tended to get out of hand of the Monday, and it seemed like others took that advice; it took us a couple of tries to squeeze on a Central line train to the namesake station. (I have video of the crowds leaving the station – to say nothing of my festival footage – that I'll have to upload when I'm back on land.)

What can I say about the festival itself? It isn't to be believed, when it comes down to it. Truly, it's a marvel. I gather it's the second biggest street festival in the world, with crowds in excess of two million each year; I don't think this year was any exception either. One thing to note about my pictures: at no point did we double back; every shot of a crowd you see is made up of different folks. Mind boggling, really. As you can imagine, it wasn't easy getting out either. In fact, we were correcting information the bobbies gave us at one point. “Nobody knows what's goin' on!” one replied. But we survived, and had the time of our lives. And get this: the topper? Sunday carvery just around the corner from our hotel. Absolutely delicious.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vacation: Day 2: London

Our landlord had highly recommended the Portobello Market for our Saturday morning in London, so we headed to our closest tube station – Stratford – at a reasonable hour. The street signs indicating the sections for antiques, new goods, old goods, and food spoke to the market's long tradition. Upon looking down the choked road that faded to an indistinguishable mass, Stephen exclaimed, “This is a city!”

As with the term 'history', I had to adjust my definition of 'antiques' in very short order. The old, polished tankards and flasks caught my attention immediately, but it was at a book seller's stand that I was most sorely tempted: he had a beautiful edition of Through The Looking-Glass published in 1940. I was able to resist because: 1) I knew our luggage back in the hotel was stuffed as it was, 2) the money problems I've described previously mean that we actually need to hang on to the cash we have for the moment, 3) there were no prices on any of the prominently-displayed books, and, finally, 4) I'm sure Tea and I will be back at some point.

Tea and Stephen found a stand selling hot dogs (amongst other things – it was actually a money changer, oddly enough), and after all the lamenting Stephen had heard about the lack of them over here, he had one in his hand in a shot. Happily, all four of us agreed that it was pretty good, meaning that Tea might not have to rely so heavily on her military friends, and their access to Canadian and American 'exchanges'.

About halfway down Portobello Road we came upon The Duke of Wellington, and decided that some food and a pint would go down well. I got myself a Young's Bitter, Tea had a Pimm's and lemonade – which looked amazing – Nancy had an Americano and Stephen had a lemonade; luckily, the bar was twenty minutes from offering a large menu too. We hadn't been sitting long before the bartender who'd poured our drinks came by with menus and then took our food orders. (She was thoroughly amused by my new Cows T-shirt that Nancy and Stephen brought over for me, and by Stephen's vehemence regarding a dislike of “smushy peas.”) That's the first time we've had our food order taken at the table in a pub over here; maybe they're more used to dealing with tourists in London. Either way, she was fantastic; a lot of fun (at one point, teasing Nancy about the veggies she'd left on her plate and reminding us all of one of my favourite vacation photos of Nancy leaning way back as a waiter attempts to choo-choo some asparagus toward her, determined-parent-style).

Finally, there was this great moment when one of the ladies behind the bar asked an older gentleman where his dog was. Down he went in a crouch, and he hadn't made more than a few quick calls before a Jack Russell terrier (or some similar small breed) came running into the pub and jumped up on his shoulder in one fluid motion. Two seconds after the photo to the right was taken, he stuck his tongue out in comic fashion; I wish I'd been able to catch that one.

We'd agreed to meet two sets of Tea and Nancy's aunts and uncles at the London Eye in the late afternoon, and the gaggle of us convened without too much difficulty. Mick was more than a little skeptical about the whole enterprise -- being afraid of heights -- and Robbie took great pleasure in spouting off various morbid theories behind the missing capsule we all noticed as the line approached the Eye. Once up, we had a spectacular view of Thames, including the oddity of a dining table replete with guests, suspended well above the ground by a crane. Hope no one dropped a fork!

With two feet solidly planted again, it was off to find a pub. At one point, the conversation turned to what woeful tales Mick and Daph would bring to Tea's folks back home of how she was faring, and Tea, ever the good sport, was on the sidewalk in a flash, saying, “Take a picture for evidence of how you found me, passed out drunk!”

We eventually made it to a bit of a posh place close to the Eye for a few pints and a snack, and then it was off to The Wellington at Waterloo: a fantastic mix of sports bar and grandiose pub. I tried Marston's for the first time, and really enjoyed both the Pedigree and the Long Hop. After that, it was back to the two couples' hotel lobby for a nightcap, and, finally, a tube ride home (which I, apparently, fell sound asleep on).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Vacation: Day 1: London

The train ride to London went well. Tea heard a whining noise from the seats in front of us, and asked, “What's that?” with some alarm. I pointed to the cute Chocolate Labrador Retriever who was sticking his nose into the aisle. Again, I really like that; probably because all the dogs have been so well behaved so far.

There was an amazing collection of tents near the railway station at Reading, including a big top. Turns out it's the Reading Festival -- pronounced 'red'; books aren't the draw here :-) -- the world's oldest popular music festival that's still running, according to Wikipedia.

Paddington station was very impressive; I'm sure I had the dropped jaw that I seem to wear each time I emerge in this city. One oddity: when we went to get on the Hammersmith & City line, the train barely stopped before it was off again. Tea said, “It's like there was no one peeking out to make sure everyone was clear,” as we realized that a husband had been separated from his wife; that's how fast the doors closed. To make matters worse, the next train -- which we were on as well -- was delayed! At that point we immediately made a contingency plan that, should the same thing happen to one of us, the person(s) who got on the train should get off at the next stop and wait for the rest to catch up.

We got to the hotel with little difficulty, and then Stephen was down for a nap. Much heckling ensued, but he was much happier an hour later. While he was sleeping the rest of us started planning: back on the tube to Piccadilly line and the Original Tour on an open-top bus; we wanted to get a quick look at everything to help us prioritize the next three days in London. But before that it was off at Covent Gardens for a bite to eat: delicious pasties, as it turned out. We'll be back to that part of the city at some point, I'm sure.

Our Original Tour guide, John, was fantastic, sprinkling lots of trivia throughout, laced with a very dry wit. The weather was holding out until we hit London Bridge, when it turned in an instant. I'm not kidding; I was paralyzed for a good 20 seconds, thinking, “It can't be raining this hard; there's blue sky almost directly overhead.” Tea was long down on the ground level of the bus when I finally dragged my drenched butt below. Unfortunately (for them), Nancy and Stephen were behind me in the stampede down the stairs, and were similarly soaked. Luckily the Little Frankie's that we decided to eat in, after jumping off at Trafalgar Square, had a powerful hand-dryer in the washroom; we were almost dry by the time we look the tube -- along the swanky Jubilee line with a stop called Canada Water! -- back to the hotel.

I'll be adding to a new album throughout the London leg of the trip; check it out for the pictures we took on the tour.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The briefest glimpse of pauperism

On a day of utmost frustration -- what's that, dear reader? You figured those days were behind us? -- I'll begin with an amusement. An oddity landed on my group's desk today, requiring someone who could speak French, of all things. Immediately, all head's turned to the Canadian, forcing me to throw up my hands and admit that, no, not all Canadians can speak even passable French.

This, of course, reminded me of my "Newfie French" story, which, incidentally, has received more than a few laughs over here -- poor sods. (For those of you who're tired of it, the next paragraph may be of more interest to you.) I grew up in Newfoundland, taking French as a subject all the way through grade school -- not immersion, mind you; that was much rarer in my day. When the family moved to New Brunswick, I was about to go into my last year of high school, and that summer I went to my future guidance counselor for advice on the subjects I should take. When we got to French classes -- and I'll paraphrase here for effect -- he said that my Newfie French wouldn't cut it in Canada's only officially bilingual province; now there was no malice in it, but he was firm. Incidentally, two of the courses I did take, Typing and Computer Science, helped me immeasurably in the coming years, and it was the former much more so than the latter, if you can believe it. (Although, to this day, I can't hear "Use your time wisely" without thinking of my CS teacher; Mr. Fraser, was his name, I believe.)

One final tangent -- yes, this could really be classified as a series of tangents -- I did test in the 95th percentile -- and you're better off asking Wikipedia what that means; I was rubbish at Stats too (I love writing that so much more than "sucked" or "crap") despite taking it long after my French lessons were done -- for the aptitude to learn languages a few years ago. Shows ya what those tests are worth. ;-)

And now, on to the frustration of the day. You may recall that we were worried about ensuring that there were sufficient funds in the proper account when the rent came due. Turns out we forgot a key point in the many briefings we got: that's supposed to be taken care of by the liaison office here, with an appropriate amount (read: cost of living over here accounted for) deducted from my salary before we ever see it over here. I say "supposed to" very deliberately, because we found out today that the standing order surrounding that transfer was never processed by Barclays. (Note that this is separate from the standing order to transfer the funds from our account to the landlord's account, which is all ready to fire at the end of the month, and a big part of the reason for our subsequent panic.)

Anyway, by the end of the day, we received the good news that the second standing order had been processed, but there were a good many hours in between where we were frantically writing our banker back in Canada about increasing our daily withdrawal limit, envisioning many trips for cash in the hopes of having enough in the Barclays account by the end of the week. (Remember: our massive cheques are still in electronic limbo right now, out of our Canadian account and firmly mired in this God forsaken 'negotiation' process they have over here.) Combined with our hotel booking problems -- try to book a hotel in London with a Canadian credit card and you'll be asked to produce identity documents or have the reservation cancelled -- this week has left me feeling at best, unwanted, and at worst... Well, I won't use the 'T' word, but you know what I mean. We are still literally worth nothing in this country, and it's just so upsetting. Especially when we find out today that a wire transfer -- which takes a week to set-up, and so was of no use regarding our rent problem -- would've had the funds in our Barclays account in no time (according to someone who's just recently come over and has had that experience).

I need a vacation. Luckily, one's on the horizon, and I'm hoping to treat you all to some blog posts on location. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Telford trip

Tea at Cheltenham station
As you may have seen on Facebook, Tea and I went to a wedding in Telford last weekend; we basically spent a day or so unpacking, and then it was off to catch a train. (We're much farther along as I type this, of course; the guest room is still a bit of a mess, but the other rooms are coming together.)

That's Welsh along the bottom
Taking the train worked really well. I'll just take a moment to highlight parts of ride there and back:
  1. I hadn't really thought about how close we are to Wales 'til I saw the signs on the train (see right).
  2. On the first leg to Birmingham, we both commented on how roomy the seats were; turned out we were in the elderly seating, for lack of a better term -- we couldn't recall any dirty looks from passing seniors, thankfully -- and found ourselves in more typical seating for the final leg to Telford.
  3. Just before the train left Birmingham, two kids hopped on and started acting a bit strangely; almost like they wished they could melt into those last seats on the last car. Any time anyone in a uniform walked by, they pretended to be sleeping. Anyway, when it came time to present our tickets, I caught something out of the corner of my eye that Tea couldn't confirm: it looked like they couldn't produce any tickets, and that, as a result, the official had snatched the closer kid's backpack off his lap and left the car (presumably to stow it in the back of the train). I found myself wondering if it was now collateral or something. Either way, the kids seemed to cut their losses in Telford, leaving the train as fast as they could.
  4. To jump ahead a bit, on the ride back we saw someone buy their ticket on the train -- from the ticket-punching gentleman -- so, presumably, those two kids didn't have any money either.
  5. Finally, on that same train -- Telford to Birmingham this time -- we had to stand in that space outside the seating area of the car because it was so busy. We'd heard about the spotty train service on Sundays -- there's a legendary story about a train being cancelled because the wrong kind of leaves were on the track -- but their using a three-car train versus the typical four-car one was the only problem we encountered. Well, that and the prize-winning rabbit we were sharing that small space with. That's right: big flowery first-prize ribbon on the carrying case like I've only seen in the movies; some farm show or other. Anyway, suffice to say that I've confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'm extremely allergic to them now, as I was starting to have difficulty breathing as we pulled into Birmingham. Luckily we got seats on the final leg home -- next to a family with a dog, as good as could be under the little table between them; he was pretty big too. I love how animal friendly everything is over here.

Robbie's neighbourhood

Maggie, Ellie and Lola (up front)
Tea's two uncles -- one who was visiting from Newfoundland (Mick), and one who lives in Telford and was the father of the groom (Robbie) -- met us at the train station. It was a short walk to the hotel bar across the parking lot, where the men were awaiting the arrival of the ladies. A few rounds later, they arrived, and with barely a word, whisked Tea away for the rest of the evening. Then it was off to Robbie 'n' the boys' local (pub) for more rounds. I tried my darnedest to buy one, but it seemed like every new face that showed up: a) knew Robbie 'n' the gang, and b) knew what we were all drinking and had it expertly balanced in their hands. It was a fight to pay for the cab home, which was Robbie and Tea's aunt's home, incidentally; they put us and others up -- so many, in fact, that they actually moved next door for the two nights. Salt of the earth, these people; we had such a good time. (They also have two beautiful dogs, two cats and they were looking after the bride and groom's dog, Lola, as well as someone's snake -- it was a zoo!)

Ironbridge Power Station
We had a great time at the wedding as well. The ceremony and reception were both held at the beautiful Telford Golf and Spa Hotel. The grounds and the surrounding countryside were simply breathtaking; I found my eyes wandering out over it again and again as we first sat outside before the ceremony, and later went out for pictures.

I'll finish this up with a few somewhat random observations:
  • There seemed to be a lot more drinking than dancing going on at the reception, but I've since been told that that depends on the personalities involved (much like back home) as opposed to anything particularly British.
  • The music was nearly identical to what you'd hear at a similar occasion back home, with the exception of very few slow songs -- and, man, was it loud, which probably contributed to the crowd at the bar outside the hall (see my first point).
  • 'Hats' are such a big deal here! I put that in quotes because they're often simply a small collection of feathers sticking up on one side of the head or some similar arrangement that provides absolutely no protection from the elements or any other hat-like function, as I see it. (Tea was also shocked by the number of women in stilettos; Robbie said even his sister's slippers have a heel. :-) )
  • Finally, that golf ball to the right was the main prop in a game that apparently started on the stag: basically, if you find it in your pint, you have to down it in a go, but then you control the golf ball. Robbie got it so many times that he eventually had to retire it -- hence the 'prison' in the picture -- that, and many of his potential victims started buying bottled beer to avoid it -- but my favourite story about the golf ball involved Lee, a brother of the groom: he came into the hall with a couple of pints, and Steve, a good friend of Robbie's, plunked it in one of them before Lee knew what hit him. Being a good sport, Lee handed the clear pint to Steve and proceeded to slam back the other, and, in the blink of an eye, recovered and fired the ball into the pint Steve was holding... for him. :-D Steve said the look on Lee's face was priceless.
Oh, and there are lots more pictures of the weekend in a separate album, if you're interested.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The sea shipment arrives!

We got the notice earlier this week that our sea shipment would be arriving on Thursday (well ahead of schedule), so we booked some time off work and started scratching our heads as to just where all this stuff was going to go.

Thursday came, and quite a bit earlier than we were led to believe: expecting a 10 a.m. arrival, I had to run out of the shower -- not once, but twice -- because of a door bell ringing not much after 9 a.m. I have no idea who was there the first time -- I'd imagine I was way too late to catch them -- but luckily Tea was blow-drying her hair the second time, and she was able to catch the truck driver before he left -- although where he would've taken our sea container at that point is an interesting question.

This self-proclaimed "crazy" Welshman -- unfortunately I never caught his name in all the confusion (wait for it) -- was absolutely fantastic. One of his first questions was whether we had any movers. Keep in mind that there were a couple of guys with the truck when our air shipment arrived, so this question really threw us for a loop. But the Welshman wasn't fazed a bit by our hesitation, simply stating, "Well, I guess it's just us then!" with a big ole grin. :-) Oh, and he must've told us that the shipment was closer to four tons -- that's right, dear readers: four times what the movers back in Canada estimated, unless he was speaking colloquially -- by that point, because my back began mewling in despair at the thought. (The Welshman, by way of explaining his grin, said, "Oh, we normally do 40!" -- which, again, makes me think my calculations are off: what the heck does 80000 lbs look like?)

Luckily Tea was a touch more practical, and got on the phone with our moving contact on this side. He immediately assured her that the movers would be showing up -- in a separate truck -- at 10 a.m. on the nose. I was still outside at this point, however, watching the Welshman expertly guide his container-laden truck down our narrow lane, after knocking on many neighbourhood doors and politely asking that they move their cars for a short spell. All that accomplished in no time flat, he then asked me, "So, do you have a hacksaw?" Because, in addition to the lock that he had a key for, there was a great big bolt that we needed to get through to open the container.

Tea then emerged, saving us from what was bound to be the entertaining task of begging around for a hacksaw -- "It's ours, honest!" -- and so we put the kettle on and settled in for a bit of a wait. Good to their word, the movers showed up shortly after, cut through the bolt and then proceeded to take a crowbar to the wooden divider that separated our stuff in the container (see right).

I'm not sure how long the unloading took, but I barely had time to unpack the bikes, ask if I could borrow their toolbox, and put on the pedals and straighten the handlebars. Oh, and, crazy as it sounds, the garbage truck came by while they were taking up the lane; I had to run out and take a picture of that tight fit (see right).

Next post: the unpacking party! :-)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

St. Mary's Church and the Tesco Superstore

The view down our street
It was another beautiful day, but we got a bit of a late start, planning a trip to Bath around the end of the month. It will be the second trip since our arrival, as we're heading to Telford for a wedding shortly. Very exciting!

And it isn't like we have to leave Cheltenham to take in some amazing sites: we somehow managed to miss St. Mary's Church on our house-hunting trip. It's the only surviving medieval building in town, and has been in continuous use for 850 years, according to Wikipedia. We spent a lot of time wandering around it and reading the inscriptions on the stones.

Then it was off to get some groceries for the week at the Tesco Superstore. It's a lot closer than we thought, first of all: maybe five minutes from the Waitrose that we've been going to. And a much bigger shop cost about half of what we're used to spending. We've been told (many times) that the grocery stores here can be ranked for both price and quality, from lowest to highest, as: Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer. That said, at no point did either of us feel like we were shopping in a discount store such as Food Basics back home. Sure, it was a bit busier, but that won't matter if we're ordering from their Web site.

I look lots more pictures for you, Stephen, so have a peek at this month's album. And I'll take requests for pictures of other stuff, so long as you don't abuse it. :-)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What's wrong with a simple push mower?

So it was a beautiful Saturday morning here, dispelling any excuse I might've had for not taking the mower to our shaggy patch of grass out back. I'd heard James mention a lawn mower in one of his many disjointed spiels, and while I'd taken a peek in the shed -- seeing nothing that really qualified as a mower, mind (yes, wait for it) -- this was my first serious trip back there.

What can I say?
Tea was busy cleaning up our little gazebo as I came around the corner, confused expression on my face, and a bizarre orange contraption in my hands (see right). It reminds me of an enormous orange bowler hat with a handle shoved in the side of it. (Nerd moment: or those tanks from The Phantom Menace, on second thought. Have no fear, Gungans, this sucker may tousle your floppy ears at worst.) My furtive attempts at pushing it didn't result in much -- certainly no hovering, that's for sure, but I'm getting ahead of myself again -- except turning the lawn under it into what could only be described as a giant green cowlick. I didn't realize I'd actually said, "What's wrong with a simple push mower?" aloud until Tea busted out laughing, telling me that that absolutely had to be the title of this post.

In theory, and according to Flymo's site -- as in flying mower, presumably -- this thing is supposed to get enough air under it so that it simply hovers across the lawn, cutting as it goes. Tea found some pictures that implied our model was one-handed -- leaving the other free for your cocktail, no doubt -- but, as I said to her at the time, mark my words, this thing'll give me a hernia before we're ready to head home; it simply would not move! And if you did happen to get it moving forward -- a herculean effort involving both hands and a bent back -- any backward motion to catch a spot you missed resulted in the whole orange bit coming up. This happened three, maybe four, times before I heard a big crack -- I'm used to those now, of course, dear readers -- which was part of the blade flying off as it hit the ground (see right). Luckily, it just snapped back on.

Eventually I had the lawn in a somewhat-consistent state of overlapping circles, and started thinking about how I might trim the edges. Trim is the operative word, I reflected, as I realized that what I'd taken for tree shears of some sort -- "That's odd; they don't have any trees to prune." -- were actually large garden scissors for clipping the bits that our garden vacuum missed. Honestly, I don't think I could've felt more out of place there if you'd told me I was tending a Martian garden. But the grass wasn't going to cut itself, so back to the grind I went.

Here's some shots of our somewhat-cleaned-up patio area: