Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bank Holiday/Memorial Day

You would think knowing that the family’s arrival is getting so close I’d be able to cope a little bit better but instead I’m falling apart. Here it was Monday, a bank holiday and also Memorial Day in the U.S. feeling hungover from my visit with my friends. Note there was no alcohol involved. I just felt bad all day and the weather was terrible. I checked what the temperature and found out it was 50 degrees and couldn’t believe it. It felt so much colder than that.

Knowing that IKEA runs a shuttle bus from the tube station to their store every half hour I thought I would give that a go and do some preliminary house shopping. I got to the tube station and stood out in the rain with my umbrella with about thirty other people for the shuttle that DOES NOT come every 30 minutes. The rain was basically horizontal due to the wind. After getting on the shuttle to be told to get off with about ten other people because the shuttle was too full, I called it a day and came back to my room, curled back up under the covers in my pajamas, and caught up on some American television via iTunes. I’m also halfway through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, determined to finish it before the family gets here.

I guess I’ll buy a tea kettle and some beds another day.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Yeah! My Friends are Here!

Even when I moved to St. Louis I still had the opportunity to see my Huntsville friends on a somewhat regular basis. I realized having my friends T and J here this week how much I miss seeing my Huntsville friends since that luxury is now gone. We had a really great couple of days before they headed off to Paris Sunday.

Knowing I have been very tense at work lately and knowing I had good friends visiting, a friend at work said to me on Friday, “I do hope that you will be laughing ridiculously the whole weekend”. Mission accomplished. We also had a fabulous lunch in Chinatown on Saturday and walked through St. James Park as well as past Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, etc. Since J is a musician, we also hit a lot of the music stores on Denmark Street looking at vintage and new guitars as well as some of the independent record stores in Soho. And yes, it seems to be a global trend that employees of music stores are snarky. We got to witness one “you idiot customer” moment and it gave us something to laugh about later in the day.

Selfishly for me, it was nice to be the person at the restaurant or on the tube who had someone to socialize with instead of my face buried in a book or lost in my iPod. I like my alone time but it’s been too long.

Beautiful for a Moment

I walked past the peony bush today and it's destroyed from the wind and the rain but last week as you can see it was stunning.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Georgian (?) Style

I believe these homes would be classified as Georgian, but what do I know? Anyway, here are some of the renovated homes and one that is not so renovated near Brick Lane.

Brick Lane

I think this picture really sums up Brick Lane. You have lots of ethnic variety walking down the street with the hipsters. Curry and interesting shops are plentiful.

Bagels on Brick Lane

The last few weeks of my pregnancy with A were filled with sleepless nights. I remember one particular morning when H was heading off to work I said to him, “By the way, I made homemade bagels last night so take some to work with you”. If you have ever made homemade bagels the traditional way, you know this is a time-consuming process probably best not started at midnight.

Last Sunday I decided to do the Soundmap Brick Lane audiowalk. Brick Lane is in the east end of London and has quite a history. It used to be the Jewish area of town. One of the signs of this is the bagel shops that have been there for years. I visited the Beigel Bake, which I am told is the oldest bagel shop in London and open 24 hours a day. I would have loved to take some pictures inside the shop because one of the bakers was taking huge baking sheets of bagels out of the boiling process. I picked up a bagel and cream cheese and it was delicious, very chewy and traditional as a bagel should be, and what a bargain! Here’s a picture of the door to the shop. You can’t tell this from the picture but the line of people buying bagels was out the door.

My friend E in Houston would have loved this place. Since she grew up in New York she was very particular about bagels and couldn’t stand that bagel shops were springing up all of the country that 1. didn’t boil their bagels and 2. sold sweet varieties like blueberry. I can still hear her now, “Bagels are a savory food item!”

I'm Not a Morning Person

The other night I was in my room when some B&B guests were checking in. L didn’t know I was in and they were staying in the room across from me. I heard her telling them, “This is J’s room. She is a lovely American woman who’s been staying with us”. Then of course inevitably I have to sit across the table from these people at breakfast and I’m really not in the mood for small talk. Those are the mornings when I eat quickly or just skip breakfast and move on. I don’t want the lovely American lady to be the reason they don’t have a return guest.

Thankfully, these particular guests were in town to go to a bon voyage party and were drunk the entire weekend. I can handle the amount of conversation that two people with hangovers are willing to engage in.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Braces Off!

In anticipation of the move A got her braces off last week. Here’s the before picture, which H labeled 1995 Model-A Grill.

Vanity Fair Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibit is in its last week at the National Portrait Gallery and has been sold out most days. I was able to get a ticket at 10 in the morning this past Sunday, which is the time that the museum opens. The exhibit was packed even then. Here is a description of the exhibition. I used to subscribe to Vanity Fair and always enjoyed the photography. I didn’t realize that Vanity Fair had been a publication in the 1920s and 1930s and then it was cancelled until it was brought back in the 80s. It was interesting to see that the second incarnation in the 80s really was bringing back the spirit of the original magazine with elaborate photo shoots and portraits of prominent people in the arts.

Funny one of the pictures in the exhibition was an Annie Leibovitz photograph called President Bush and his War Cabinet. I was looking at it when two people, who I believe were speaking Dutch walked up and pointed at the picture and started discussing it. I don’t speak Dutch but from the body language and the snicker, they weren’t fans of the subject.

My only disappointment was that the entire exhibition was housed in just one large room of the Gallery. I think they were trying to balance the old photographs with the new and this kept the exhibition kind of small. They could have included many more photographs from the new Vanity Fair.

I know Vanity Fair and Annie Leibovitz have been in the news recently with the whole Miley Cyrus “controversy”. I put that word in quotes because to me it was just a beautiful picture of a young girl and someone trying to drum up publicity.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Very Quiet on a Sunday Morning

I walked past Trafalgar Square about 9:30am on Sunday morning and realized I had never seen it so quiet. It is obvious that it’s a meeting space for tour groups later in the day. When I passed again about two hours later, there was a crowd of people as usual.

Need Some Work/Life Balance

When work takes such a high priority, sometimes it is easy to think that things that happen there are more important than they actually are. I can’t wait to be with H and be talking about everyday things instead of everything revolving around the move and the stress of the move. I left on time Monday and went for a walk with L and little B through the park. Then after little B went to bed, L and I had a nice dinner and she told me some of her hilarious stories. She has been such a good friend to me.

My good friends T and J from Alabama are visiting on Friday, staying at the B&B with me. I cannot wait to see them.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Perfect Marketing

Stopped by Blockbuster to rent a movie Friday night and to my surprise, when I took P.S. I Love You up to the counter, I was told I got a chocolate bar for renting it. Is that perfect marketing or what: a chick flick and chocolate. Unfortunately both of them were so so.

I would have preferred to watch Million Dollar Baby again sans chocolate.


Being in Southampton for a conference means I didn’t see anything of Southampton except the conference center. One of our opening speakers was from Australia and he shared with the mostly UK audience how his family left Southampton many generations ago to start a new life in Australia so it was touching to be there. Everyone found that quite endearing. It made me wonder why there’s a bit of contempt for the U.S., a former colony while Australia is looked at so lovingly. I guess it’s because we gave England the big F-you while the queen is still prominently displayed on the coins of Australia. (I can just imagine the comments I’m going to get for that statement!)

One of our evening events was a river cruise with our customers. The weather was perfect for this, with just one moment of rain. It was very nice and gave us all a break from the conference center.

Breakfast on the Train

This one goes out to my pal M in Georgia who loves Scottish Salmon. I had to go to Southampton for work this week and so I grabbed a sandwich and coffee in the train station for the ride. It was ten in the morning so I tried to pick a sandwich that slightly resembled breakfast. This one reminded me of a bagel and lox and it was delicious.

Here is the description on the Marks and Spencer packaging:

Oak Smoked Scottish Salmon with Creamy Soft Cheese, Lemon Juice, and Black Pepper on Oatmeal Bread

Friday, May 16, 2008

English Garden

I was house-sitting for a friend this week and as I was making some coffee I looked out the window to their backyard (known here as the back garden). Of course their's actually looks like a beautiful garden. If you come to visit me, don't expect this at my house.

"Well, that was a nice summer..."

After almost a week of stunning weather, I was back to work in a sweater and jacket and we’ve turned the heat back on in the house. P said this morning at breakfast, “well that was a nice summer wasn’t it?” Here are some pictures of the park in our village before it turned chilly once again.
I was at a conference this week with customers and many of them asked me how I was liking living in England. When I commented on the beautiful weather we were having they all said the same thing, "Don't get used to it".

House Hunting

Here are some housing terms that were quite different than the U.S., at least suburban U.S.

Flat – I think most people know this is what we would call an apartment. You have a common entrance with the other residents of the building.

Maisonette – This is also a flat but my understanding is that you have your own door.

Terraced housing – For the life of me I could not remember what this was everytime someone mentioned it. When I hear terrace I think of patio or balcony or something like that. It’s a house that shares walls with other houses like the one in the attached picture. End of terrace is quite popular since you are only sharing the walls with one neighbor instead of being sandwiched in between two.

Double glazed windows seem to be a big deal. I guess they cut down on the noise and also help with energy efficiency.

I was thinking that sharing a wall with a neighbor would be a new experience but then I remembered that we shared a wall and even had a connecting door with our neighbors when we were first married and lived on a military installation. It was just H and I at the time and we got to hear our neighbors fight and their two small children cry. One day the wife knocked on our common door and when I opened it, she asked me if I would watch the children while she took her husband to get a vasectomy. It sounded like the two small children were more than they could handle so I quickly agreed although I thought it was odd that she had never said more than “hey” to me in the short time that I had known her.

If all goes well with our rental paperwork we will be moving into a nice end of terrace home in the neighboring village. This process is taking longer than I expected.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wisteria in Bloom

I saw this in the neighboring village and had to take a pic. It made me think of my pals L & M and their Wisteria Room in Alabama.

Happy U.S. Mother's Day!

To all my favorite moms, a happy holiday to you. And to my favorite dad, H, who is pulling double-time with me gone.

Here’s the end result of mother/daughter bonding with A back in April in the States. This will have to be chopped off before the new school year begins.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Embracing the Warm Weather

The weather has really been beautiful hovering in the 60’s with an odd shower here and there. Last weekend I was surprised to hear that the local outdoor swimming pool opened. When I gave a shocked response to this news, I was told well it’s a heated pool. Unless it’s a hot tub, it’s still too cold in American terms. Most of the U.S. don’t open public pools until the end of May, around Memorial Day and anyone who goes to the pool that first week usually gets a puzzled look because it’s considered too cold still.

But I’ve noticed that everyone is now walking around in tank tops and I have seen one too many shirtless males. The B&B guest that sat across the table from me yesterday at breakfast was pushing the limits of her spaghetti-strapped blouse. There was a lot of breast happening and it wasn’t a good thing.

By the way, I learned that tank top has a different meaning here. A tank top here is what we would call a sweater vest.

Friday, May 9, 2008

King Lear at the Globe Theatre

Work has taken over my life so I’m behind in posting so let’s get to it. Last Saturday after looking at a very depressing rental home, I decided to call up the Globe and see if they had a ticket to the evening’s performance of King Lear. If I was going to go, I wanted to have the real experience, so I bought a groundling ticket which is £5 (around $10.00). Where can you see a live performance of anything for those prices? Don’t answer that.

The weather was perfect for it, which is something to consider since groundlings are subject to the open roof. The sky was perfectly clear. The performance was authentic, with no fancy stage production as you see in the West End, the only modern touch was some lighting. I really thought I liked King Lear until I had to stand for three and a half hours and it was not even over yet. Don’t get a groundling ticket! I’ll stand like that for my favorite band, but there’s usually the adrenaline rush of being at a concert. Not so when watching a tragedy!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bank Holiday Weekend

This past weekend was a three-day weekend. People were surprised to learn that there was not a three-day weekend in the States. The closest we get is going down to the local Mexican restaurant after work and having a margarita on Cinco de Mayo, right? I worked a good bit of the weekend. Sometimes if drowning at work, there is no point in trying to relax. It’s impossible. There were some nice moments though.

Friday night one of my work colleagues invited me out to dinner at the local pub. She lived in the States for a few years so it was nice to compare experiences. For some reason, we got on the topic of trash cans (bins here). She mentioned that the reason you never see bins at the tube stations is because they used to be used for IRA bombings. I told her that I have noticed a lack of trash bins everywhere in London, but this explained a lot.

I had my first appointment with an agent to look at a property to rent. It didn’t leave me with a good feeling. I’ll have to write more about the different types of properties here in a later post. I was standing outside the place waiting for the agent and out of the very close next door neighbor’s door came a very loud couple with a three year old and a big dog. Now our family can be loud, but I have a feeling we couldn’t be that loud.

Saturday was a stunning day so after visiting the property I took the train to London. In the middle of downtown London traffic there was a guy driving a mint condition early-70’s (I’m guessing) corvette convertible, complete with the steering wheel on the left. It felt like everyone stopped to watch it pass.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Local Pub

There’s a local pub that I pass every day that was established in 1617 and I never see anyone from work go into it. I have always wanted to take a look inside because of the age of the place, but wondered if there was a reason no one ate lunch there, so I asked. Turns out that no, people just tend to take it for granted. A group of us decided to go there for lunch on Friday, some for the food and some because they serve Newcastle Brown Ale. It is one of those places that even though you can no longer smoke in a pub in England, it feels like people should be smoking there. They also have a pub dog. He barks at me every morning as I pass. I had a fine bowl of chili and others had nice sandwiches.

As I passed the pub this morning, the dog was sitting in the doorway and I took this picture of him. I like the picture because the light makes him look like a ghost. He promptly started barking at me right after I took his picture.

Cultural Work Differences?

I have had the misfortune lately of several projects coming due at the same time. Therefore, I have worked evenings and weekends in order to quickly turn things around. It is important if you are working with both the Australian time zone and American time zone to be a bit flexible or you lose a lot of time. I don’t complain about it, I just do it and right now without the family here, it’s no big deal.

Someone at work said to me that they were trying to decide if I was a workaholic or not which made me laugh. I explained that I am not, because I don’t feel the need to work overtime all the time. I just know that if there is a due date for something, I will work late nights to meet it if I have to. To me that is not being a workaholic, that’s doing your job. They just looked at me with a most puzzled expression and walked away. There does seem to be some differences in work style and I will not comment on whether one is better than the other, just different.

Picking Out a Secondary School

Before I went to Australia L went with me to visit a secondary school. I was glad to have her along to provide the local perspective. Just to recap the school situation, we can’t afford to send A to what we would call a private school. We would be eating cat food if we did. So our options are one of the state schools in bordering counties. Buckinghamshire has the grammar school system, one of the last counties to have this system. So when children reach the age of 11, I believe they take this test and then the top percentage (not sure what percentage) is creamed off the top to go to the grammar schools. The rest go to a school, in their catchment area (school district to Americans). It sounds fairly simple but it gets more complicated. The school we visited is one of the non-grammar schools in Bucks, which has to be everything to all of the children attending from learning disabled to non-English speakers to the kids that just missed getting into the grammar school. When you look at the standardized test results for all the schools in the country it is no wonder that the grammar schools have near-perfect scores while the other schools fall lower on the list.

Because you hear from parents and others in the community that the grammar schools are where it is at, I had no expectations for this visit but I was pleasantly surprised. The administrator that showed us around explained that the children in England take two important tests, GCSEs when they are sixteen and A levels when they are eighteen/nineteen. If you want to know what those mean, do some research because I’m still confused! I just know that when I have reviewed resumes or what they call C.V.s here, people list out these tests even when they are in their 30s and 40s and have achieve advanced degrees. I was explaining to the administrator that is a cultural difference. We just want to know if someone graduated high school and then we focus on advanced degrees. She looked disturbed by this response. It seems like your past follows you in the UK more than it does in the States.

On the tour we talked to a particularly chatty teacher who explained GCSEs and A levels and also explained how by 2011 England is changing the system and going to a 14-19 curriculum where in that period students achieve certificates and diplomas before going on to university. What this means to A’s secondary experience is yet to be seen.

At the end of the tour, the administrator looked at me and said let me know when you know if your daughter will be applying for a place. I stopped her and said wait a minute since this is not a grammar school, if we live in the catchment area, she has a place right? She hesitated and said only if they had one. But she also added that lately due to a “general declining population” in the county they have always had a slot. I explained to her that the tentative response about where A would attend school is what has been so frustrating and made it difficult to decide where to live. She said to me that I have to understand that if a parent anywhere in the country files a lawsuit about their child being treated wrongly by admissions into a school, the whole country may have to react and change policy. So who gets in is 97% clear with 3% of the dark art thrown in just to confuse us all.

I have talked to a few parents in Bucks whose children attended the grammar schools and they really dislike the system. The other morning when L and I were on our way to the tour we had to first drop off little B at primary school and a teacher that lives up the street rode with us. We were talking about the system and he called it “diabolical” mostly because of what it does to the parents. Children are at an early age subject to tutors and all kinds of cramming in order to pass the grammar school test. He reminded us that only six of the top 100 self-made people in Britain attended university. We do plan to have A take the grammar school test if we reside in Bucks but she will be taking it without the preparation and pressure of the other kids.

Now that we have a move date and A will start school in England in September, I have started to call around to the other schools in Hertfordshire, the neighboring county, to expand our search. I am told that the good schools are all oversubscribed there so we will have to pick the best possible and then if it does not work out, move for the following year to another school district.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Pub Quiz - Part Two

Before going to Australia some of us at work decided to gather a group together on Thursday nights to dominate the local pub quiz. “Dominate” is my word. Funny my competitive side comes through only in trivia events. I went last night, the first time since I have been back from the J World Tour 2008. There were thirteen teams and the highest possible score was 55. We tied with another team at 48 to fight out for third and fourth place. The top two teams tied at 49. The tie-breaker question – How old was Florence Nightingale when she died (90 by the way!). We ended up in fourth place after guessing 41.

To tally scores for each round, you have to take your team’s sheet and swap with another team. After one of the rounds where we got nine out of ten, the older gentleman who was leading the team we swapped with smiled and said, “I’m glad to see you’re fallible. Bastards”. This made everyone in earshot laugh.