Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Dirty Little Secret

It's nothing too scandalous, really. But it is something I sometimes feel compelled to keep hidden away, out of sight from the prying eyes of food purists.

Here it is: I like McDonald's food.

Yes, you read that correctly. Of course, it's not something I would want to eat every day -- or even every month, for that matter -- but sometimes I feel the urge for a Big Mac and those salty, soggy fries. And with The Man out of town on a business trip, my time has come. I shall wait for the cover of darkness and slink up to Notting Hill Gate where my love will be consummated (or consumed).

Like any North American child, my love affair began when I was a child. McDonald's was an after-church treat sometimes, something to salivate over during the sermon. When I turned sixteen, I even got a summer job at a branch in my hometown. I hated working there, but there was one big perk -- we could eat for free. Yup, even my summer scoffing everything from McLobster's (a lobster roll, available only in the Maritimes) to McChicken's didn't turn me off the food. Nor did the rats in the garbage-composting room.

Notting Hill Gate.

London McDonald's make me laugh with their up-scale attempts. My local at Notting Hill Gate has fresh flowers on the tables, sofas in the window and Wi-Fi access. The restaurant at Edgware Road has a funkier interior design than many of the restaurant surrounding it. And Princess Diana's former McDonald's on High Street Kensington is one of the poshest ones I've ever seen.

Edgware Road

But I don't need the added accessories. My love for the Big Mac is, and shall remain, pure and unsullied.

Holborn, Central London.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One Century, Two Minutes

I must be going soft in my (relatively) old age, but I find myself getting more and more drawn into adverts like the recent one for Hovis bread. It follows a young boy through the past hundred years of British history as he picks up a loaf of bread for his mother. Simple concept, but very effective.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rejection, Rejection, Rejection

I'm getting ready to send out queries to agents for my second novel. I've been slaving away on the query letter and synopsis for the past few weeks, all while obsessively working on polishing the final draft. And what shall I face after all that hard work? Fingers crossed, some (one! just give me one!) positive responses. One thing I know for sure: I will be rejected.

Benjamin Franklin said: 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.' For a writer, I'd like to add rejection to that list. It's a occupational hazard.

I read a lot of agent blogs, and I know they get no joy from sending hundreds of rejection letters each week. I also know that a lot of what they receive is ill-conceived and poorly written, and deserves to be rejected. And there is a myriad of other reasons why what you send may not be right for them. Still, it is hard to be on the receiving end of generic rejections.

With my first novel, I only pitched agents in the UK. It cost an absolute fortune, as most agents only accept snail mail and you need to include your cover letter, synopsis, first three chapters and a self-addressed envelope so they can return the whole thing back to you. In total, I sent out about twenty such packages, which means I paid around £70 for the honour of being rejected. A few even returned my package back to me with a slip of paper that they weren't taking on any new clients (and yes, I had checked their website before sending in my submission).

One rejection I received included some promotional material on books the agency was publishing. One such book was on how to write (I can't recall the exact title right now and I'm not in the mood to leaf through my rejection letters to find it!). I realise the agency was likely only trying to help, but it was like a slap in the face. No, we won't publish your book - but hey! Look at these other authors who did manage to get published! And here's one to help you write! Grr.

I know rejection is a necessary part of the process, something that 'will only make me stronger.' But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Stay tuned as the rejections trickle in over the next few months...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Last Time, I Swear!

This is the third and final time I will mention this -- I got fired for blogging.

Since then, others have posted their tales of woe, too. And just yesterday, George Snell wrote about my firing on his website from a social-media perspective.

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on the issue! I promise never to mention it again. For now.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Two People, One Office: A Psychological Assessment

The setting: Two adults -- one male, one female, each working from home -- share a small office for ten hours a day. The male, hunched over four loud, heat-generating computers, only stirs once every few hours to stretch his dodgy knee. The female, distracted by the noise of the street and the Internet, ventures periodically into the kitchen for sustenance -- most often of the chocolate variety.

The conflict: Several factors appear to cause strife between the two. One such factor appears to be when the female collects more than five mugs on her desk, leading the male to abandon his work to fulfil his compulsion to wash said mugs. Another factor is observable when the female leaves her desk, returns with food and proceeds to eat without providing for the male. It cannot be said, however, that the male is without blame. He frequently interrupts the female's work with exclamations and interjections, and often takes long conference calls within the female's vicinity.

The resolution: As the couple reside in Central London, moving to a larger flat is not an option. It is predicted that after a period of initial irritation, both will become immune to the minor conflicts and a lengthy period of calm will descend. Alternatively, the female will crush the male's computers with force, banishing him elsewhere.

It cannot be foretold which outcome is more likely to occur.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Own Little Piece of Heaven

I honestly couldn't think of a better place to live. Kensington Church Street is known for antiques; it even has its own Antique Dealers' Association. I've often wondered how such shops survive, and in the past few years I've seen quite a few close down as more mainstream shops take over their premises. I always feel sad when that happens, as if a little piece of our utopia has been overtaken by capitalism (which it has, I guess). But surprisingly, most seem to hang in there despite the quirkiness of their goods for sale: elaborate chandeliers; Japanese war armour; and mammoth bed frames, to name a few.

Typical antique shop on our street.

In its 1-km long stretch from Notting Hill Gate to High Street Kensington, there are three shops dedicated solely to wine; three nail bars; at least six estate agents (although there may be fewer now); and four hairdressers. Gives you a good indication of what the residents of the area are interested in -- alcohol; property and appearance. I started to feel a wee bit jaded about our neighbourhood.

But last March some of my faith in the future of the street was restored with the opening of a brand new bookshop, Persephone Books. And recently, Chegworth Valley opened their first store just beside Waterstone's bookstore.

And of course, it's hard to miss Churchill Arms, famous for its Thai food (oddly enough). In the summer with our windows open, the smell of frying garlic wafts through and it's all I can do to hold myself back from ordering a steaming plate of Pad Thai.

Churchill Arms.

Our street is on the bus route for the Big Bus Company, a tour operator whose open-top buses roar by every fifteen minutes or so. One summer, The Man and I were out on our balcony, enjoying our dewy glasses of kir on a warm evening. As the tour bus went by, several tourists raised their pretend glasses to us in a silent 'Cheers!'. As we lifted our glasses in response, contentment washed over me. For some, our street was just one more stop in the tourist merry-go-round. For us, it was home.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Fall of Fashion, The Rise of Slippers

In my previous corporate jobs (reporting; PR-ing; recruiting, etc.), one of my biggest pleasures was deciding what to wear. Sounds shallow? Well, that's a good indication of why I didn't last too long in the corporate world. If that was the most enjoyment I got out of going to work, it was a pretty clear sign that the workplace wasn't for me.

I live a five-minute walk from one of the best shopping areas in London: High Street Kensington. Zara, TopShop, FCUK, Urban Outfitters all beckon, and each weekend it became a regular occurrence to go out and buy something new. Retail therapy -- literally. The excitement of donning my new shiny shoes or funky new dress gave me a reason to go to the boring, beige office world. I loved to join the well-heeled commuters at Notting Hill Gate Tube as we began the challenge of another day... at 6:40 a.m. No matter, I had on a new scarf! How invigorating!

When I left the corporate world, I was only too happy to pack up all my suits, dresses and high heels. After a year of living in slippers, old ripped jeans salvaged from God-knows-where, and tattered tops from my high school days (yes, it WAS a long time ago), a curious thing happened: I lost my will to shop.

When I had my part-time job, I still had a reason to buy clothes. We didn't have a uniform -- we only had to wear black. As the job justified my buying, I quickly had a few black items too many. But recently, I don't have any reason to buy clothes. I don't even want to buy clothes. Even the January sales can't tempt me.

I'd much rather have grubby slippers and be happy than wear trendy high-heels and feel empty. Too bad it's taken until now to realise it!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The South Bank: A Source of Inspiration

Whenever I'm in need of inspiration, I head to the South Bank. It's not just the Royal Festival Hall or the Tate Modern that prod my creativity, it's the awesome view from the Thames. Looking out from the Promenade, you can see Big Ben and the London Eye in one direction, and St Paul's, the Oxo Tower and the Millennium Bridge in the other. You really feel like you're at the heart of a major metropolis, and the history of the city never ceases to thrill me. All that, and it's where The Man and I first met almost five years ago.

Crossing the Millennium Bridge to St Paul's.

The back of the Royal Festival Hall with the London Eye.

The South Bank has always been 'our place'. On hot summer days, we go there for a dewy glass of wine at The Founder's Arms, relishing the breeze off the river. In the winter months, the Tate Modern is our refuge. We've seen great exhibits there, from Rachel Whiteread's white boxes to Frida Kahlo. And my all-time favourite: The Four Seasons, by Rothko.

Looking down on Rachel Whiteread's white boxes.

Nights on the South Bank, you almost don't feel like you're in London at all. Far from the grimy, bustling streets and hooting horns, the trees on the Promenade glow with soft blue lights and couples amble by the river. As the Royal Festival Hall fills up, you can sense the anticipation in the air. The Man and I have seen The Soweto Gospel Choir almost lift the roof there, along with the more subdued London Symphony Orchestra.

South Bank at night.

One of my favourite memories of the South Bank is the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall in June 2007, dubbed The Overture. The Hall had been shut since 2005 for much-needed refurbishment, and a whole weekend of events had been planned to celebrate its return. Amazingly enough, every concert, event and exhibit was free -- you just needed to ring a number to book the tickets. Incredulous and giddy with excitement, we rung up and secured seats to Billy Bragg; Paco Pena; and the Antony Gormley exhibit at the Hayward Gallery. Planning to spend the whole weekend on the river, we crossed our fingers and hoped for good weather. Or at the very least, no rain (that summer was the wettest in England since records began).

We were in luck. Friday dawned bright and sunny, and that evening we made our way to the South Bank for the most memorable event of the whole weekend -- a candle-lit barge would make its way down the river with 800 singers. It would stop in front of the Royal Festival Hall, and join with a chorus on the terrace to sing a choral work composed especially for the occasion. The whole thing sounded magical, and it didn't disappoint. We hunkered on the steps leading down to the river, drinking our off-license wine and listening as the far-off voices got closer. The crowd stilled as the barge neared. Finally it was in front of us, and we were caught in the middle of a glorious symphony of sound.

The barge floats downwards towards the Hall.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Split Personality: The Boss versus Herself

I've just finished my second week in my new job: full-time writer. Since non-voluntarily retiring from my part-time job, I decided to give up the wonderful world of the service industry to focus only on my writing. I'm in a very privileged position, I realise, to have both the encouragement from The Man and the financial means to rely on one income so that I can pursue my dream.

Still, can I just say that writing from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday (and sometimes on the weekend) is really, REALLY hard? And that sometimes I would give anything to sit in an office and chat with my colleagues? Sure, rolling out of bed and into the next room sounds great. But part of me actually misses the ritual of getting dressed in my gear and joining the legions as they march to work.

When you're employed by a corporation, you don't feel that guilty slacking off sometimes. But when you're employed by you, the constant tug of war between making excuses and chastising yourself can drive you mad. Even now as I'm writing this, I'm thinking about the chapter I should be editing.

It's great to have uninterrupted flow, but I have to admit I am starting to feel a bit stir-crazy! Twitter is great, but an evil you also need to guard against. Can someone tell me: How can I stay sane working from home, yet on-task at the same time?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'So What Do You Do?'

I dread when people ask me what I do for a living. It's everyone's favourite cocktail party question, enabling the 'asker' to correctly place the 'askee' into the pigeon-hole of choice.

I used to answer with no problem. 'I'm a teacher,' I'd say, kicking off a whole debate about the dangers of teaching in UK secondary schools. It was a guaranteed conversation-starter. Now, though, it's a different scenario.

'I'm a writer,' I mumble, always feeling fraudulent. Hey, I've written three novels, I say to myself to prop up my self-esteem. But the next question always brings me back to reality.

'Oh!' The 'asker' perks up, looking at me with renewed interest. 'What have you published? Anything I might have read?'

'Nope and I've been rejected by about twenty agents and counting.' I always give it to them in one go, then take a sip of the (alcoholic) drink in my hand to allow them time to formulate their response.

It can go either one of two ways:

1. The sympathic/ patronising response. 'Oh, don't worry, it'll happen. Just keep trying. It's so great you're going for your dream!' All of this will be accompanied by a pitying look in the eye that reads: Poor, naive dreamer. You'll be sitting on your arse in ten years time still slogging away.

Maybe I will. But at least I'll be enjoying it!

2. The 'I write, too!' response. I never realised so many people want to write a novel of their own. It's like confessing my own writing ambitions has opened the floodgates. It's nice to hear that my postman wants to write a book. But I have to admit, I cringe at being put into the 'general public' basket of writers. Is that wrong? After all, I'm not published either. But I am serious about my writing, unlike those who consider composing a text message taxing but still want to write a book.

I don't know how long it will take before I can proudly say 'I'm a writer.' Hopefully sooner rather than later. Until then, I'll continue to dread the deadly 'What do you do?' question.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bye Bush! Bye Anti-Americanism?

Listening to George Galloway rubbish Bush on Channel 4 last night, I wondered whether attitudes would change across Europe now that the president everyone loved to hate has left the world stage.

For the past eight years, Europeans have revelled in their hated (OK, dislike) of Americans. Or North Americans. By virtue of our accent, Canadians are in the same basket until we can present our get-out-of-jail-free card: 'I'm not American! I'm Canadian!' How many times have I counted the seconds until I could clarify my nationality, watching relief wash over the face of my interrogator.

I am exaggerating, of course. Most Brits would likely say they have nothing against individuals, that it's only the nation in general that irks them. But I will never forget the time when The Man and I attended a theatre performance in Regent's Park. Some of his work colleagues whom I'd never met were there, and he introduced me to them as we settled into our seats.

One eyed me with suspicion. 'You're American?' she asked loudly.

'No, Canadian.' I'd only been in the country for a few months at this point and thus didn't feel my usual fear that I'd be lynched.

'Oh,' she said even louder. 'That's MUCH better!'

The couple in front of us, clearly Americans, both turned and gave us all the look of death. I flushed at our rudeness and felt sorry for them, but I still felt grateful I wasn't a pariah.

Now that Americans have a president to be proud of, I hope that the Brits will retract some of their anti-Americanism, not tar everyone with the same brush. Americans have been through enough in the past eight years. Let them detox with the full support of the nations of the world.

**Disclaimer: Canadians really have nothing to be proud of, either. Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper rivals Bush for his policy reversals and blathering remarks.**

I've probably annoyed the British, the Americans and the Canadians by this point. If you feel like having the pot stirred even more -- and you can stand to watch self-satisfied people talk a load of nonsense -- take a look:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Six Happy Things

A few days ago, Sarah tagged me on her blog to list six things that make me happy. I had to think about it for awhile. Here they are, in no particular order (that would take way too much self-examination):

1. A good sleep. I have always been a bad sleeper. I have problems falling asleep and staying asleep -- during the night. During the day, sometimes I can barely keep my eyes open. Thus, whenever I wake up feeling truly refreshed, I am very, very happy.

2. Hot bubble baths. I've blogged before about my aversion to cold. Sometimes, easing my shivering body into a hot bath is the only way to get warm. Add bubbles, and it's even better.

3. An engaging read. I don't care what it is, as long as it keeps me turning the pages. There's nothing more satisfying than being oblivious to everything except the world that's been created in your mind.

4. Perceiving something to do with sight or sound (i.e., art, music, film). I may have cheated by rolling this into one item, but I absolutely love the feeling of awakening when you understand; feel art somewhere deep inside.

5. Travelling somewhere new. The most exciting parts of my life have been lived out in foreign countries. Trying to understand different cultures; languages; find your place in that society is frustrating yet very invigorating.

6. Food. How to elaborate? I L-O-V-E food! Sometimes it's the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning: What yummy thing can I eat today?

And those are six things (among many) that make me happy!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Day the Protest Came to My Doorstep

Recently, I blogged about the minor disruptions at the Israeli embassy. Despite the police helicopters overhead, I hadn't even known there was a protest until I saw it on the news. It was fairly easy to forget that less than 400 metres away, protesters were clashing with police.

Today, though, it was impossible to ignore. Walking back from a heavily barricaded High Street Kensington, I figured something had to be in the works. Our usually noisy street was eerily quiet -- police had closed it to traffic and were blocking off all the side streets. Wondering what on earth was happening, I checked the Internet. Just as I discovered that our street was on the proposed route, we heard the drums and shouts of approaching protesters.

Two hours went by as we watched protesters march down our street towards the embassy. There were thousands of people of every age and nationality. Even people in wheelchairs! Peacefully, they sang, shouted slogans and waved their flags as they swarmed by our window.

You either have to be truly apathetic or completely anti-humanitarian to ignore a protest that's happening, quite literally, on your doorstep. Although I'm not an expert on the issue of Gaza and Israel, I can't help but sympathise with the humanitarian plight of the Gazans. The Man and I put on our warmest clothes and headed out, slipping into the crowd. We filed down our street, past hundreds of policemen, and onto High Street Kensington where the march halted.

Although it wasn't much, walking the 400 metres down our street had never felt so important.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Separated by a Common Language

'England and America are two countries separated by a common language.'
- George Bernard Shaw

As a Canadian writer in the UK, I'm confronted every day with different spellings to words I thought I'd known how to spell. Sometimes, though, the longer you stare at a word the more unsure you become. Words like 'judgment' -- or 'judgement' as it's spelled in the UK -- plague me for hours, days sometimes (I can be a bit obsessive).

Another one that threw me for a loop was 'artefact'. Or as we North Americans know it, 'artifact'. When I first saw it on a sign, I guffawed, thinking some nitwit had spelled it wrong. But my British companion gave me a look and said archly: 'That's how we spell it here, you silly North American.' (She didn't add the last bit in but I could practically hear it in her tone.)

And of course, it's not just the spelling. One word can have two completely different meanings, depending on where you are. Take, for example, the word 'rubber'. In Canada, it's an old-school word for 'condom'. But in the UK, it just means 'eraser'.

I started out my UK life as a teacher. Straight off the plane, I was supply teaching the next day in London's classrooms. The opportunities for misunderstandings were endless.

One day, a nine-year-old brought over a piece of art-work to show me. He was so proud of what he'd done. I cooed over it for awhile and then said: 'Put it in the bin.'

For me, a 'bin' meant the plastic tray sitting beside me. For him, though, it meant the rubbish. I watched as his big eyes filled with tears, he crumpled his drawing, and put it in -- the bin. That was a lesson I learned quickly.

It's not just the meaning of the words, it's also how we say them. Words like inevitable (in-ev-it-a-ble, in the UK); and the ever-so-strange aluminum (a-lu-min-i-um). As an English teacher at a state secondary school, I was actually prevented from giving my students spelling tests for fear my accent would throw them off. I had to sit at my desk while a British teacher read off the words for them!

I thought by moving to England, I wouldn't encounter any language issues. How wrong I was.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

When the Sky's Not Grey, It's... Orange?

Strange orange in London sky. Both photos taken at 3:15 p.m.

Woody Allen, who's shot a few films in London ('Match Point', Cassandra's Dream'), professes to love London's grey skies more than anything else about the city. London's grey is unlike any other I've ever experienced. I didn't think a sky could feel heavier than a mid-winter grey in Poland, but London beats it hands-down.

Today, though, the sky wasn't grey. It was a strange shade of orange -- the sun filtering through a mid-level layer of clouds. I've tried unsuccessfully to capture the colour, but you still get an idea of the odd light. The only other time I've seen light like that was in 1992, when the smoke from massive forest fires in Quebec blew across Nova Scotia.

I think I prefer grey.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Power of Words: How My Blog Got Me Fired

I started writing this post several times, but I always stopped before finishing it. I still felt too paranoid about the events of the past month. But they say writing is cathartic, so I'll give it a go now!

Before carrying on, I want to add a disclaimer that this post is in no way meant to offend, slander or libel anyone. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

There. Now that we got that out of the way, I can continue.

About a year ago, I quit my full-time corporate job to focus on my writing. I wasn't ready to give up the working world completely, though. I decided to get a job that wouldn't involve too much mental energy, but would still let me interact with people and earn a little bit of money to help out with my household expenses (i.e., shopping and haircuts). I came across an advert for a part-time receptionist at a health spa. Everything about it seemed perfect, so I applied and got the job.

It was a good job, I have to say. The environment was relaxing, my coworkers and managers were nice and all was great -- except for one thing. The clients. Botox-starved, rail thin, neurotic... I can think of a thousand cliched adjectives to describe them. Throughout my time there, I was called stupid. I was told to shut up. I was even described as 'a clever girl' because I managed to spell a surname correctly. That surname was 'W-H-I-T-E.' I kid you not.

After nine months of this and countless hours telling tales to my friends and family, I decided to start blogging about my experiences, mainly as an outlet for my frustration at being treated like a peon by women who probably hadn't even finished their A Levels. The blog would be completely anonymous, a way for me to get my own back.

I never thought anyone connected with the spa would ever stumble across it, let alone connect it to me. But unfortunately, that's just what happened. One morning, my manager asked me to come to her office. I left the reception desk and trotted over, wondering what was up. As I entered, I saw my blog up on her computer screen. And her business partner was there as well, likely to provide back-up in case I flared up. (They had nothing to worry about - I'd never 'flared up' in my life.)

That's me done, I thought as my heart pounded in my chest. Quickly I scanned through in my mind everything I'd written. Thank God I'd never mentioned her or any of my co-workers. The blog was anonymous, so I guess I could have denied it. But as time went on, I had revealed a few too many details about myself and it was pretty obvious it was me.

After informing me that my blog was 'silly', she fired me. In retrospect, I don't blame her. Although I never thought of it that way, by bad-mouthing the clients, I was jeopardizing her business. She was a good manager, and I do feel bad at causing her upset. In my defense, however, I'd never mentioned the name of the spa; any of our clients' names; or anyone who worked there.

I'm not sure how I feel about what happened next. Before I left, they told me I had to delete my blog. In front of them, right that instant. I felt so bad about my manager's reaction to my blog, I didn't even protest. Under their gaze, my fingers were shaking so much it took several attempts to even log in to my account, prolonging the agony. Finally, I hit 'Delete' and my blog vanished from the blogosphere. I was gutted. I had what I thought were some pretty good pieces of writing on there. And now they were gone.

At home, after a few drinks and some reflection, I was angry. I'd never blogged at work or even thought about using their computers (they were antiquated, anyway). Did they even have the right to practically force me to delete my blog? What would -- could -- they have done if I said no? They'd already fired me, after all.

I could have put up a fight; resurrected the blog; but it's just not worth it for me. Freedom of speech and all that, sure, but I don't need any added complications or paranoia.

The chapter was fully closed when a week after my firing I got a letter from the spa. Nervously I opened it, skimming the contents with disbelief. I'd been banned from the premises, like a common criminal!

If ever I needed confirmation of the power of words, here it was.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sure, It's Cold, But...

That's snow! Cars buried in Montreal, December 2005

I am the first to complain about the cold. I complain in the summer; I complain in the winter. I religiously close windows The Man has opened. In short: I have cryophobia. (Not really, but bordering on!).

The irony of this is that I am Canadian, something The Man incredulously reminds me of when I complain. Further irony is added by the fact that he is Egyptian. Average maximum temperature in Ottawa in January: -5 C. Average maximum temperature in Cairo in January: 18 C.

Still, even I was surprised by the sheer chaos any cold and/or snowy weather causes in the UK. It's like a national disaster. Batton down the hatches, there's a snow flurry on the way! Two to three centimetres of snow closes schools and causes countless accidents.

There's been a cold snap here in London over the past few days and true to measure, the papers have been all over it like white on snow.

From The Times:

Even during the day, temperatures are unlikely to stay above freezing in many places. To add to the misery, a belt of sleet and snow showers running down through East Anglia and the South East could leave 1cm (0.4in) of snow on the ground this morning. It could also wash away the grit spread by councils during the night and leave widespread ice on roads and pavements during the morning rush hour.

And the Evening Standard:

Minus 10 - it’s colder than the Antarctic

Snow! Ice! In the winter! What is this world coming to? I will never forget one day a few years ago when no more than 5 cm of snow stopped most the Tube lines, stranding me on the Northern Line in Golders Green on the way to work. Surely the Tube would be able to cope with a little bit of moisture, I thought -- before remembering that this very same antiquated transport system was often delayed in the autumn due to 'leaves on the track'.

I thought I would leave you with Ottawa's weekly forecast for a little bit of juxtaposition:

Tue-6°C -9°C
Wed-6°C -8°C
Thu-7°C -16°C
Fri-13°C -25°C

Now THAT is cold!

Monday, January 5, 2009

The George Bush of London Town

Back to routine today, and in the lull after the season's festivities I am casting about for blog topics. So, I've settled for writing about an iconic character on the London scene: our esteemed mayor, Boris Johnson.

I have a lot of faith in the intelligence and discernment of Londoners. We are a diverse population, from all corners of the globe, and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. My belief was shaken, however, when Boris Johnson was voted in as Mayor of London. (I'm not saying Ken Livingstone was much better -- but still!)

You only have to read a few sentences of his blog to think how bizarre it is that this blond-haired fop is the mayor of such an influential city. Here's a sample:

OK, folks, it’s Christmas Eve eve, and the question is whether I can get away with it. There they are on the top of the fridge, a great glistening phalanx of glass pots. Inside those pots is a gibbering radioactive brown mulch, and you know what I intend to do with that nameless gunk?

Do we care, Boris? You're the Mayor of London. How about doing something about the economic depression hitting our streets?

Maybe I'm being a bit unfair here. To be honest, I don't follow mayoral politics all that closely, so he might be doing something very important. But it's hard to believe he is capable of strategic moves when he's uttered such nonsense in the past. Here are some gems:

From his New Year's 2009 Speech:

"I want to quote Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now when he says 'Someday captain, this war is going to end', and someday, this recession is going to end.

Other generic quotes:
'To rely on a train in Blair’s Britain is to engage in a crapshoot with the devil.'

'My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.'

'My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters. '

'It is just flipping unbelievable. He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.'

'What’s my view on drugs? I’ve forgotten my view on drugs.'

On Jamie Oliver's School Dinners Initiative:
'I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn't they push pies through the railings?'

Boris, Boris, Boris. At the very least, please comb your hair.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Our Neighbours, The Israeli Embassy

The Israeli embassy, only a five-minute walk from our flat on the way to Kensington Gardens, has always made its presence known. Concrete barriers block any access to its entrance, and it's surrounded on all sides by ominous looking policemen complete with automatic rifles (a rarity, since police in London amazingly aren't armed). Any picture taking is strictly forbidden. Jogging by it almost every day on my way to the park, I had become somewhat accustomed to the heavily guarded fortress.

But never have we been more aware of its presence than in the past week. Ever since Israel's incursion into Gaza began, there have been daily protests in and around the embassy. One night, trying to drive down High Street Kensington towards central London, we came face to face with the protesters as they marched past the embassy gates, waving signs and chanting slogans. For the most part, they seemed a calm, orderly group and while somewhat intimidating in their numbers, we didn't feel threatened.

Tonight, though, as helicopters circled overhead and sirens whined on and off for over three hours, it almost felt like our neighbourhood was under siege. Until I switched on BBC News, and the situation became somewhat laughable. A reporter from High Street Kensington, where the protest was taking place, did her best to make the demonstration seem dramatic. While there were plenty of people about, most were simply ambling about on the street -- some even sitting and resting on the curb. Small children cantered down the centre of the road. The scene seemed more in keeping with a street party than the violent protest I'd been imagining based on the sirens and helicopters.

I'm not saying the police presence wasn't necessary. I wasn't there, and I'm sure there were a few threatening moments. But for every protester, it looked like there were at least two to three policemen. And really, a police helicopter? For hours on end?

If good fences make good neighbours, the Israeli embassy need to pile up some more of those concrete barriers. I'd be happy to help.

Woman Gives Birth at London Underground

What a way to start your life: on a platform for the London Tube. In my four years as a commuter on the underground, I've seen people vomiting; peeing; snogging; spitting; screaming; fainting and even proposing marriage on the platform -- but I've never seen someone give birth!

From The Guardian:

A woman gave birth on the London underground's Jubilee line after her waters broke unexpectedly. Julia Kowalska got off the train at Kingsbury station but went into labour on the platform.

When paramedics arrived they decided there was not enough time to get her to hospital so moved her to a station supervisor's office where they delivered a healthy baby girl 35 minutes after she raised the alarm on 19 December.

The only other recorded birth on the tube was in 1924, when Marie Cordery was born at Elephant & Castle, according to Transport for London.

Read more here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Eve London-Style

With The Man's teenage daughter down to visit,we decided to make a whole day of our New Year's Eve. We got up late and walked down Portobello Road, buzzing with tourists drifting through the market stalls, and over to The Electric, one of our favourite brunch places. Despite it officially being a working day, the restaurant was packed with locals -- some already drinking in preparation for the night ahead. Warming our hands on much-needed coffees, we ordered bacon and eggs, French toast and Eggs Benedict; ate quickly; and headed back to the flat to get ready for our next event: a matinee in the West End.

We'd booked tickets for Well, a comedy at The Apollo Theatre, a few days before, crossing our fingers that it'd be suitable for a teenager. We needn't have worried -- she loved it, as did we. It was great theatre and worth a great deal more than the £15 per ticket that we paid. We moved on to an early dinner at Balans on Old Compton Street in the heart of Soho, watching the place fill up as our gay waiters grooved to the tunes.

Not sure who the couple were, but they wouldn't get out of the way!

The Tubes were packed when we headed home. Just enough time for a quick nap (for me -- a few glasses of red does that to me), we changed yet again and headed out into the cold night to the Natural History Museum for ice skating at the rink that's set up each year in front of the terracotta building. With lights strung up on every tree and spotlights outlining the museum's facade, it was a fairytale setting. We grabbed our grungy, wet-smelling skates and headed out onto the ice.

The rink at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road

Here, the fairytale ended. The Man is not a skater; his daughter is marginally better. How to explain to someone the mechanics of ice skating? My wrist is still sore from holding him up! I did manage to take a few spins on my own around the rink, dodging about 90% of Londoners who clearly have never had the advantage of growing up in a country of ice and snow.

Skaters flashing by as I keep my companions from falling.

Off the ice and back in the car, we made the critical error of trying to drive to the river and watch the fireworks. Just like about a thousand other cars, also making their way through the clogged roads towards the Embankment. We watched the time tick by towards the midnight hour as the car inched slowly forward. Finally, it was 11:55 p.m. and where were we? Yup, stuck in traffic! Resigned to our fate, we cut the engine and rolled down the windows. The chimes of Big Ben rang, car horns hooted, and The Man leaned over and gave me a giant kiss -- across the gearshift. Thus, another year in London began! Happy 2009!