Day 6 – Covent garden market + British Museum

I love walking through Covent Garden market. Not for the buskers, and definitely not for the piles of tourists with their maps, but for the carless streets, cobblestone and good shops.

Also while i was there i got to check out the giant new Apple store – the biggest in the world now:

Its in a gorgeous old restored building – beautifully done.

Then a walk through the back shopping streets (plus coffee from Manmouth Coffee):

And finally a stop at the British Museum on my walk home. I think i’ll miss the British Museum most of all:

Day 7 – Harrods, Knightsbridge and Belgravia

Today a trip to Harrods to pick up a gift. I wouldn’t call Harrods a favourite of mine. I find it dark, hard to get around inside and way too full of tourists! But, its a London institution.

After my stop there I took a walk down Sloane Street and into Belgravia. I haven’t been here in ages! 3 years ago i worked in this area, and i spent many a lunch hour wandering the streets. Belgravia is one of the nicest looking neighbourhoods, but the emptiest. Hardly anyone actually seems to LIVE there. Oh, and its always under construction. Someone is always renovating a wing, or gutting one of the huge homes.

Like the Rolls parked out front?

Day 9 – soho

Working so close to Soho has given me plenty of time to explore the area and really love it. Sure its a bit seedy in some parts but overall its a compact little area full of interesting restaurants bars and cafes.

Some of my best memories of London are from here. Trying to salsa dance at La Floridita with Jason, my brother and Rachel. Endless cups of coffees at the 3 of the best coffee shops in London (f&w, flat white and milk bar). Karaoke with coworkers and actually far too many after work pints with coworkers too.

Today i just a nice wander through the neighbourhood, a bit of shopping and of course stopped for a coffee.

10 days part 2: Sunday Roast

Definitely one of our favourites! The tradition of a Sunday lunch/dinner at the pub is one we’ll definitely miss. Even though its a heavy meal (i find the vegetarian nut roast much lighter), its just so delicious with a fresh pint of ale and on a day like today even nicer to sit outside in the sun.


As enjoyed at the Harrison at Kings Cross

What’s Wrong With the Cost of Tea?

This analysis by Which? speaks to something that has bothered me for years but even more so in the UK: why do we have to pay so much for a lousy cup of tea?

I’m not much of a coffee drinker, so if I’d like a warm drink it’s usually going to be tea for me. Yet somehow tea is ludicrously overpriced. Which? found prices that ranged from 89p (McDonald’s) to £1.65 (Costa Coffee) for poor-quality industrially processed tea in an off the shelf teabag. I can understand the mark-up to cover the cost of a high-street shop but this is ridiculous.

A recent Guardian Article about the same Which? analysis has the following from a Costa Coffee rep:

A spokeswoman for Costa said the chain was committed to “extremely high standards on the quality of our products, the environment in which they are served and the level of training we provide our in-store baristas”.

This bothers me even more. Sylvia has become a bit of a coffee snob since working for an Australian company so we routinely frequent places that put a lot of emphasis on the best coffee (no Costa Coffee by the way – they’re one of the worst chains around). Yet very often these places still do the same thing: give you tea bag that costs 3p at the grocery store and charge you up to £2 for the pleasure.

And this is what I don’t understand: why is it that there are hundreds of “gourmet” coffee shops around, shops with highly trained “baristas” using freshly imported mountain-grown beans, hand picked by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of… wherever … and yet their tea comes from a PG Tips or Twinnings tea bag? I don’t see these places offering Nescafé instant coffee or Maxwell House grounds but it’s the equivalent level of quality.

The worst part about all this is that there is a proper way to have a good, quality cup of tea, and it doesn’t involve a tea bag. Like coffee, there can be a huge difference in the quality of the end product based on the way it is picked, processed, and prepared. The best tea leaves come from the top of the bush and are best hand-picked, as opposed to cutting off a chuck of the top by machine, like is the source for tea bags. This is a labour intensive process of course, but that’s exactly where you can start to pay for a better quality product.

Tea that is hand-picked can be dried with the whole stem and leaves intact. Here is an example of traditional Chinese Pu’erh tea (普洱茶):

When it comes to preparing, tea can be very complicated (just like your barista’s coffee). At one end of the spectrum are the traditional tea ceremonies in Asia, but while these are possibly the best way to enjoy a good cup of tea, there are simpler ways that are conducive to take-out shops. To start with, different tea requires different temperatures of water and sorry America – lukewarm water with a teabag on the side is not one of the options. The other major thing to remember is that tea is steeped for a given amount of time and then the tea is removed from the water. There’s nothing worse than bitter over-steeped tea, yet this tends to be the standard product at most chain shops.

Fortunately in a city the size of London there are some places that serve tea properly. Here are a few that we frequent:

  • Yauatcha (http://www.yauatcha.com/) 15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0D
    A dimsum restaurant with an extensive tea menu from Taiwan and China
  • Yumchaa (http://www.yumchaa.co.uk/) 45 Berwick Street, W1F 8SF
    A quality tea shop with dozens of different kinds of loose-leaf tea prepared properly.
  • Tapped & Packed (http://www.tappedandpacked.co.uk/) 26 Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, W1T 1JD
    One of those aforementioned coffee snob shops except this one applies the same snobbery to their tea, going so far as to use a thermometer through the process.

Know of any others? Please let me know in the comments!

Trans Mongolian – Day 4

We had set an alarm so that we’d wake up and get to see Irktusk – the most famous and touristed stop along the whole siberian express. at 5:30am there was not much going on. A huge station, a very pretty terminal, but we were unfortunately 4 platforms away from the terminal and couldn’t even go have a look. Nothing was being sold, it was a very quiet town. Disappointing, I expected a lot more.
near lake baikal

We decided to have a quick nap, it would be another 70km before we reached lake Baikal, but it turns out we overslept and missed the first 50km of the 200km lake side stretch. I can imagine in summer this lake would be gorgeous to look at. But at this time or year, completely frozen over, it had a much different concept of beauty. it’s hard to get a sense of how big it is, when you just see white blending into white.
lakebaikal

(this one with a person walking on it)
lake baikal 2

By mid afternoon we stopped at Ullan-Ude. This station was quite busy, and had a surprising collection of high rises in a 1970;s Las Vegas style. Here we picked up some more bread, sausage (which turned out to be incredibly greasy), 2 boxes of juice and some water. We’d hoped to pick up more but the selection from the ladies was limited. While we were stopped a Russain commuter train pulled up beside us and unloaded over a hundred passengers – this station actually had some life!
commuter traffic

What was also nice was for the first time, passengers actually joined our train! Our cabin has a new person, a Mongolian lady in the most pimped out fur coat.

Back on our way, our Trans Mongolian train took a sharp turn south finally shaking the shadow of train 2 the Rossiya – the more popular trans siberian express. As soon as we headed south the scenery instantly changed. trees disappeared, livestock appeared, even the snow faded away to reveal brown harsh hilly landscape. Exactly what i expected Siberia and Mongolia to look like.

DSC_0439
It was a slow journey to the border, giving Jason and I plenty of time to nap.

The Russian border was a spectacle in extreme slowness. First round of officials came to take our passports. An hour or so later they came back with them, freshly stamped. Another hour passed and they came to get our customs declaration forms. 30 minutes later officials with dogs came through. 30 minutes after that they came to search our cabins, including the ceiling panels! And this was all ahead of schedule! Couldn’t imagine what it would be like during high season with a full train.

Next up the Mongolian side of border control. Passports were immediately collected. After an hour the train jerked a bit and then we reversed – passports still no where to be seen. After 10 minutes we stopped for a few minutes, then moved ahead for another 2 or 3 minutes. Stopped, and reversed. This back and forth lasted about half an hour, until we finally returned back to our original place at the platform allowing us to stare out the window at the closed up duty free shops. Finally, passports were returned, and then customs check came on board and searched the cabins. After that, it was just a sit and wait for them to decide that they’ve inspected under the train sufficiently, which took about another hour. But finally, we pulled away. Compared to what we’d read on the internet, this was an amazingly speedy crossing. We’d read about horror stories of 11 hour crossings.

Interesting day, tomorrow we will wake up in Ulaan Baatar – the capital, where hopefully we can change some money.

Trans Mongolian – Day 3

Today, the disorientation of following Moscow time really kicks in. At sunrise we awake in Bogotol. I blink at my mobile phone which is still set to Moscow time. 3:30 am. Local time its 7:30. Sometime last night we crossed another time zone moving us to Moscow + 4. Its odd to have the train schedule posted in our cabin in Moscow time. Tomorrow we’re scheduled to arrive at Lake Baikal at midnight moscow time, which will actually be 5am local time. Must be even more unusual for the train stations that post their clocks in Moscow time. I can’t imagine working on Vladivostock station, looking up at the clock that will say 3am but the real time is 10am.

Today I experience a luxurious APC shower and (what’s probably mostly psychological) I actually feel clean.
Scenery is similar to yesterday, just a bit hillier. I also notice that the train has a distinct smell. A mixture of the coal being burnt in the carriage furnace, and our cabin attendant’s Chinese cooking. Yesterday in his little compartment he was chopping up raw cabbage, garlic and prawn to make some sort of soup. I’m thinking its possible his cooking maybe better than the dining car.

Krasnoyarsk is our first stop of the morning. The station is huge and the most high tech we’ve seen. The platforms even have electronic signs. We find a kiosk and the lady seemed overjoyed to be helping us. We picked up a fresh loaf of bread, a link of thick sausage, two containers of juice and 2 instant soup/dinner bowls (we’d learn the next day that we actually bought 2 bowls of instant mashed potato). Our biggest haul yet. Too often we stop at a platform far away from the main terminal to go far, so we’re at the mercy of what ever happens to be on our platform.

Back on the train we dig into our meal, deciding today will be a day that we skip the dining car.
It’s hard to describe what life is like on the train. You read, you eat a little, make some tea, stare out the window for a while, have a nap, chat, do some financial planning, read some more. The time just goes, and it’s very relaxing. This particular train is not overly social though, it’s running at very low capacity. I suppose it is the low season in between Chinese New Year and Easter, so expected. Our first class carriage has 8 cabins for 2, so 16 people capacity. There are only 6 of us on though. We’ve met a few people from the other cabins, but this doesn’t appear to be the season for the Vodka express.

Scenery is still a snowy wooded wilderness interspersed with vast open expanse of snow. Well, until you get close to a town, then it turns into an absolute industrial wasteland. Coal mines, industrial processing factories, timber yards. In between the towns you do get a feeling of extreme isolation though.

Siberiantown

Sibera - empty isolation[/caption]

Our last stop during daylight is at Illansky. Absolute jackpot for food. These Russian ladies had our first class carriage pegged and by the time our door opened they had their bags of food neatly on display in a long row not more than 3 steps from our door. Meat, eggs, bread, potatos, fruit some vegetables, juices and beer – it was the best selection yet. And they priced themselves accordingly. Sadly we weren’t overly hungry, but we did pick up 4 giant meat dumplings to add to our soup.

Dumpling in Soup

Trans Mongolian – Day 1

I awake around 4:30 am. We’ve made a very harsh stop at some small station, and i’m now wide awake. We quickly come to the conclusion that sleeping on this trip will have to be a series of naps.

Jason goes back to sleep – he was up for hours after me, unpacking and settling into his surrounding – excited like small child. I instead went straight to sleep, so now rested, I wake up and watch the sunrise from my window and snap some first photos.
sunrise

A few hours later Jason is up, we make our instant oatmeal breakfast. a few more hours still and we are at another stop. We both get off, but as this is our first venture outside the train we’re paranoid. Trains do leave without people, it has happened many times (although people have survived to blog about it). Determined not to be one of the unfortunate ones, we only make a tiny 5 meter radius from the door.

day1station

Back on the train after a few hours of reading we decide to head to the diner car for some lunch. We find it empty, save for the 3 Russian staff members who are huddled around one table chain smoking and watching TV from the 70’s. Actually the whole train seems quite empty.

russainrestaurantcar

I attempted to decode the menu, but quickly realise that my Cyrillic and Russain vocabulary are just not up to scratch. I can only recognise the odd word: potato, dessert, tea.

decodingmenu

We give up and play Russian roulette with the menu choosing 2 random dishes. We got incredibly lucky. I ended up with a hearty cabbage and sausage soup and Jason with some fried beef patty and really delicious home made french fries. We decided that next time might not be so lucky, so we photograph each page of the menu. My next 3 hours were spent translating.

By the next stop, Jason has worked up more courage and ventures a bit further to a few local ladies to buy some food.
shoppingrussia

On a Styrofoam tray under tightly wrapped plastic wrap sit fried potato covered in dill, and two round brown pucks, which I assume are just meat patties. In another bag he has 3 giant home made pickles and in a final plastic container is some sort of salad dish with a layer of chopped beats on top. Poor score for presentation. I reassure myself that since it’s so cold outside that the chill acts as some sort of refrigeration and surely that will alleviate some of my food safety concerns. Hours later we’d find the pickles delicious, the meat and potatos also delicious (and reminiscent of food my Polish grandmother would make), but the salad… I wouldn’t touch it as fresh mayonaise is on my pregnancy restricted food list. Jason gingerly bites in to find that under the layer of beats are pieces of herring chopped in with potato. His gag reflex kicks in, and he chugs his bottle of beer to clear the taste. I’m thinking tomorrow he will be more cautious with his food purchases.
SunsetRussia

Spring is (almost) in the air

Its still a bit cold, but you can feel spring just around the corner. This weekend has been a nice change from the grey bleak English winter. Blue skies and sunshine. Its always a bit surprising when the sun comes out. Its like its brighter than back home. I end up squinting like a 10 year old child going outside for the first time in days after playing video games for hours on end.

this place in Exmouth market, you can see the sun streaming in through the windows. I actually saw a few people switch tables to avoid the sunshine!

Exmouth Sent from my BlackBerry wireless device

Increadible Crowds for Holiday Shopping

The streets of London – particularly Central London – get ridiculously busy in December as people buy their gifts for Saturnalia. Oxford Street and Regent Street were both closed this weekend to accommodate the crowds.

Here are two pictures taken at Oxford Circus. One facing one direction:

Oxford Circus Holiday Crowds

And one facing the other direction:

Oxford Circus Holiday Crowds

Carnaby Street was busy as usual, and had some new decorations up for the holidays:

Carnaby Street Decorations

We did most of our shopping online this year, but it’s great to go out and see the crowds! I love this city.

Three Years!

Three Years in the UK

Today is my three year anniversary of coming to the UK!

It’s been a great three years, and Sylvia and I are still loving it (sorry: no plans to move back to Canada).

During this time I’ve learned to love British pub culture and in particular (warm) English ales. Beer anywhere else in the world just doesn’t cut it any more: there’s nothing better than a warm pub & pint on a cold English day. There’s so much going on in London – great food, great events, and lots of friends coming through – that we’re never in search of something to do! Decent public transit is a nice change as well, and it’s fantastic to be able to take a fast train to Paris or Brussels with St. Pancras right around the corner! We also (obviously) love the ability to travel easily (while cheap flights are still around!). I miss good peanut butter though …

In these past three years we’ve travelled to the Cook Islands & Fiji, Hong Kong, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Finland, Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Ireland, Estonia, France, New Zealand (& a bit of Australia), Germany, Egypt, Sweden, Croatia, Montenegro, Belgium – not to mention numerous trips back to Canada (bloody weddings!). I’ve also been shipped off for work to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and various parts of Europe more times than I’d care to count (though I have to count for tax reasons). After all that travel my passport (a 48 page one!) is full! Of course, my UK Ancestry visa is still valid and the UK government doesn’t want to re-issue it so I guess I’ll be carrying two passports for a while … and don’t get me started on trying to get a new Canadian passport while living abroad …

We’ve spent a lot of time out of the country, so we’re starting to think we should try seeing a bit more of the UK (and London). Plus, working in Cambridge doesn’t allow me to get out in London nearly enough for my liking. Speaking of which, I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I’ve spent on the train between London and Cambridge on my way to & from work. This year I finally cracked and started working from home one day a week, which has allowed Sylvia and I to start taking Chinese lessons together (我们会说一点汉语).

I’m definitely heading to the pub today. Here’s to another great year in the UK!

You call this a loyalty program?

We signed up for Tesco’s “ClubCard.” Basically a loyalty program card like every big chain has these days. After several months of “collecting” I decided to see how many “points” we had worked up. Huh. Only 360? Doesn’t seem like much. Then I find out how this ridiculous program works.

First of all, you need to start collecting points, and then log into the Internet or call Tesco’s to request how you want to get your points. Why do you need to do this? I don’t know, but any points you collect before this point are null and void. Then, Tesco’s will send you a newsletter each month with your “coupons.” No, it’s not like a useful loyalty program – you know, like when you go to Shoppers Drug Mart and the cashier every so often says “Would you like $10 off of this purchase?” Oh no, you have to register, collect points, then wait a month or two for your “coupons” to come in the post.

So the damned thing finally came in the post today. Here’s what was in the envelope:

Tesco's ClubCard Garbage

Here’s the part I actually care about:

One stupid coupon for £3.50

Yeah, that’s right kids! I get a whopping £3.50 off of my next purchase!! That’ll just about cover one coffee for Sylvia at Fernandez & Wells. Remind me why I go through all this crap for £3.50? And of course if I forget to use this coupon I lose the £3.50 and the points are useless. Thanks Tesco’s!

Incidentally, I’m curious to see what they do with this data so I registered the ClubCard in my cat’s name. So every newsletter comes addressed to “The Lady Rib.” I’m sure Tinrib enjoys getting new mail in the post. Maybe I can use the excess crap Tesco’s sends her every month to line her litterbox.

Ultimate in London

Played my first game of Ultimate today since I moved here.  I found a pick up team that meets every Sunday in Green Park.  I lasted 2 hours, it was very hot today.  Well, London hot.  Also, it’s quite amusing that right behind me is Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard.  We must be amusing to watch too, we pulled quite the tourist crowd.  Although we don’t wear the fancy hats the palace guards do.

 

Green Park pickup

Another Bike Lock Incident

I got to Cambridge this morning (after landing into Heathrow at 6:30AM) only to find that yet again some idiot had locked his bicycle to mine. Unlike the first time this happened this guy had locked right around my inner frame so there was no way I was going to be able to get free.

Some idiot locked his bike to mine

I figured if I couldn’t get my bike free, the only other option would be to try to open the lock. Here’s what it looked like:

Close up of the Lock

It looked pretty straightforward – four numbers on a dial. I figured there were probably “teeth” inside and the correct numbers would have a gap under them that allowed the teeth through. I was reminded of 1996 when I read the (in)famous MIT Guide To Lock Picking while procrastinating at University. Could this lock really be that simple? Surely it had to be more complicated than this?

So I gave the following a try:

  1. I pulled the cable very tight, putting stress on the lock.
  2. While pulling the lock I rotated each number one-by-one. Each wheel was very hard to move (due to binding friction of pulling on the lock) but when I hit the “right” number the wheel eased up significantly.
  3. I did the same with each of the four wheels and the lock pulled open.

The above took me less than 20 seconds, and I’ve never picked a lock in my life. Here’s the end result:

Lock Opened

My bike was free! The whole ordeal, from noticing my bike was locked and including cursing, looking for a way to unravel it, kicking the guy’s tyres, texting Sylvia to bitch about it, figuring out the lock was probably easy to pick, and picking the lock was about 3 minutes in total. It’s not surprising that so many bikes get stolen at Cambridge Station.

And to the guy who’s lock this was:

  1. In the future, watch what you’re locking your damned bike to and,
  2. Buy a new lock immediately.

Tube Strike

London’s been a complete mess in the past couple of days while the tube workers have been on strike. There are lots of people above ground who should really be below ground. So, just for the occasion, here is the Amateur Transplants “London Underground Song” for your enjoyment:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgwoPG63B3Y]

Soft-Sell Telemarketers?

The evil telemarketer hunts for his next victimI was home sick today, so I had the joy of answering mid-day phone calls (who do they expect to be around to pick these in most homes?). One call was from BT (British Telecom) and it went as follows:

“Hello, is this Mr. Slaughter?”
“Yes.”
“Oh Hello Mr. Slaughter. This is just a courtesy call from BT. Do you have Internet access in your home?”
“Yes I do.”
“Is it broadband?”
“Yes it is.”
“Would you consider switching your broadband to BT if we were to offer you a special deal?”
“Probably not, no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m pretty happy with my current provider.”

.. all in all pretty normal, except for his response:

“Oh, OK. Well have a nice day then. {click}”

What the hell? In Canada I would have been arguing with the sonofabitch telemarketer all afternoon! Is that all it takes around here to get rid of a telemarketer? Amateurs! :)

Can I really relate to people who have no clue who Mr. Rogers is?

still haven’t gotten around to writing my 2 year post.  sure, i’ve been busy during the week.  But this weekend is a slow weekend and i just can’t seem to get past the procrastination.

With Jason on a business trip i had the opportunity for a long quiet day with the city. Coffee, long walks, a trip to the Tate.  I also met up with 2 Canadian friends today, one for coffee and another for pints.  There is definetely a feeling of mass exodious of expats.  Layoffs, new visa rules… people are starting to head home.  It made me remember a conversation i had with a Canadian at my old company’s chrsitmas party. He’d been living here for almost 10 years, and after telling him that we had just moved over 8 months earlier his advice was:  make friends with locals.  Expats come and go, and if you rely on our Canadian network the day will come when they’ve all gone home.

There are still quite a few Canadian friends, but i see the trend forming.

anyway, read this very amusing article about moving to the UK by a writer at the Guardian.

re number 38, i did a quick poll, british, Aussie, Kiwi, Welsh…. all have no clue who Mr. Rogers is.  I was gobsmacked for a week.

Severe Weather Warning? Suck it up

As Jason has shown, we’ve had snow.  But it’s also been a bit cold.  The other night it got down to minus 10 and the BBC issued a severe weather warning.  And all on the breakfast show it’s all about how to deal with the extreme cold weather.  I know it’s a relative thing, but I can’t help but wonder if Canadian cities issued a weather warning everytime the temperature dipped below minus 10.  I think ottawa would be under severe weather watch for about 5 months of the year.

It’s Cold in Canada

We just got back from Canada this week, after having Christmas with the Gajewski family. I took this photo the day we were leaving:

Ten Below

Yeah, I don’t miss that.

It was a quick visit, but it was great to see friends, do some Karaoke, and have Christmas with the Gajewskis. I think we did a pretty good job of decorating the reception living room:

Christmas at the Gajewski's

My New Eyes – Part 2

It’s been about two and a half weeks since my first surgery and almost a week since my second. All is well! I had an eye test on my right eye and I can see better than 20/20 – so better than I was ever able to see using contact lenses! It’s still amazing to me that this kind of surgery is even possible.

Here is what my right eye looks like. In the right light (like in this picture!) you can see the Artiflex intraocular lens that’s permanently attached to my iris, beneath my cornea:

My eye with the Artiflex lens visible

Amazing.

I’m still taking eye drops for the next month or so (antibiotics and steriods), but by about the time of the yearly Saturnalia holidays I should be in the clear.

Fun fact, the steroids that I’m taking (dexamethasone) is the same drug that resulted in Polish cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk being disqualifed from the Under 23 (U23) OPA (Alpine nations) Intercontinential Competition in Germany. Too bad: I was planning on participating in competitive cross-country skiing this winter after my convincing run last year in Finland.

My New Eyes – Part One

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with epithelial keratitis, which resulted in severe photophobia one morning in June. I learned that 17 years of soft contact lens wear had eventually taken its toll on my eye and, while they would likely recover, it would be difficult for me to wear soft contact lenses regularly for a long time. My high-myopia prescription (-10 & -9) is too strong for LASIK to be totally reliable and there’s no way I was wearing glasses for the next few years (I have no peripheral vision and I’m likely to get hit by a bus).

So, today I am going for my first of my two eye surgeries (like most people, I have two eyes, and sadly, they don’t do both at once). I will be getting an Artiflex Intraocular lens (IOL) implanted into the anterior chamber of my eye. Something like this:

Artiflex Lens Diagram

Basically a bit of perspex inside my eye. I can’t believe they can actually do these things and, apparently it’s quite routine. My doctor is Dr. Chad Rostron, who’s be doing surgery similar to this for many years.

I know, you’re so excited you can hardly contain yourself, so here it is … video of similar procedure to what I’m getting today:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP1jaxcA-aI]

Wish me luck!!