Tag: London

The Fresh Feeling of Autumn in London

Though I have been back from holiday in The Algarve, Portugal for more than a week now, I’m only beginning to feel grounded. What a lovely holiday. Do check out the pictures below:

Anyhow, with a busy schedule including working on the design of my upcoming book,The Seasons, which will be out in late October, and preparing for the launch of a new website to coincide with it, I have hardly had time to notice London, even it is as busy as ever.

I have been moving about rather purposefully, only doing the essentials—training, going to the hair salon, and shopping for groceries. And what a task the latter has been since discovering that I have more food intolerances that I can stomach. But that’s another story.

On top of all this, I lost my favourite aunt last weekend and continue to struggle with mourning from afar.  See my January 2011 blog on this very topic. Admittedly, I felt better re-reading it.

Still, I felt foggy and a bit out of sorts until yesterday.  Then I noticed something different in the atmosphere, something novel and perhaps light.

No longer was the heaviness of summer hanging over me as I made my way to the nearby park during my morning run, though I hadn’t run in a few days. And later that morning on a jaunt to Knightsbridge and Sloane Square, I felt a similar vigour.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that though not official according to astronomers, autumn has come to London. Even if day and night are not of equal length, I’m certain it is here, even if there are only a few berry coloured trees to behold and two or three rust coloured leaves around.

As autumn has always been my favourite seasons, I have long concluded that its arrival is not necessarily in the landscape, but in the air.  It’s an atmosphere, a feeling. And in London, this atmosphere takes off the intense edge.

What a sigh of relief to notice that:

1)   People here seem to approach autumn almost as if it is a New Year.  From launching new restaurants to opening flagship stores, merchants keep the capital fresh and relevant. Yesterday, I popped into the new Club Monaco store in Sloane Square. Not bad, not bad!

2)  The buzz around the new term – be it the school term, the work term, the ‘explore or improve your life’ course term – adds to the novelty. In any case it is all about new beginnings. No need to wait for January to set off to a crisp start.

3)  Londoners and tourists alike are friendlier. While I have always been one of those people with an ‘ask me’ stamp on my forehead, it seems to glow in the daylight in autumn.  Where is Sloane Street? Am I on the right road to Harrods? Is Parliament Square this way? Just a few of the questions I was asked recently. So glad I could help.

4)  More walkers and runners are taking to the paths. The pleasant weather is just right for walking and running and cycling, too. Never mind the occasional dark cloud and threat of rain.  It’s London, after all.

5)  People continue to sit outside, if only for a spell. In summer everyone goes out in droves for fear they won’t get the opportunity to do so the next day. But autumn days linger, making us all a bit more relaxed.

6)  It doesn’t hurt that there are few, if any gnats or midges to reckon with, although I did notice a bee kicking up a buzz among the crowds in Fulham over the weekend.

7)  And lo and behold drivers are far more courteous than they were in the summer. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the congestion can be taxing. But we are all in it together. Seriously!

Though I’m looking forward to those traditional days when the leaves will colour the landscape, for now I’m taking in the fresh atmosphere of autumn in the capital and basking in it. It’s in the air.

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Expat Caught in the Congestion Zone

Westminster…argh! Actually, I love the borough, lived in it for twelve of the nearly seventeen years I have been in London. But I hate driving there, with the exception of Belgravia and Knightsbridge. Hate it! And they must hate drivers like me coming there, too—not sure whether to zoom or potter. All we want is a parking space, just one.

Hence, the congestion zone – that ought to keep us out. I thought so too, but today I went inside the controlled zone, unintentionally, of course. Blinking Sat Nav. Someone has to accept the blame.

If only I had listened to my gut instinct, I would have parked in my old neighbourhood and walked to my destination. Oh no, I thought I could get right to the edge of the zone, sit the car down and walk merrily to Run and Become.

Not only did I end up blocks away from the store, but also when I at last got there, the shop was closed for staff holidays. If only I had listened to my gut instinct, I would have telephoned  in advance. But honestly, who has ever heard of such a shop closing in the height of running season?

Okay, it is the end of the summer but my current shoes are so out of date that it is no longer funny. As much as I run, I am told that I could do with a new pair of shoes every three months. Forget it, maybe every six months, but the truth is, I haven’t bought any since last June or July. No wonder my feet are not amused, my knees either.

Never mind, I still have to pay this charge of  £11.50 on top of the £2.00 that I paid to park. Ouch that’s more than $22. Not to mention the petro. And forget about all the time I planned to save by taking the car. I lost that driving around, looking for parking and then walking to the closed shop.

So what would a train fare have been? I dare not say.  But all is not lost, not really. I had a sightseeing tour around Westminster, finally saw where the St James Park tube station is, and passed by the New Scotland Yard. Also, I saw numerous trendy coffee shops. Under different circumstances, I might have tried out at least one.

But anxious to get out of dodge, I settled for stopping into Boots, the chemist, for some eye drops of all things. There, I can see clearly now. So I am told there is a great running shop in Kensington, nowhere near the congestion zone. Settled, out of it at last.

Gnats in London, Anything but Idealistic

In the Georgia countryside where I grew up in the US, gnats were part of the landscape and surely still are. As a child, I remember that they were prevalent in the summer time, causing great disruption to play and picnics.

Having moved to the city, I thought gnats were long behind me. Not a chance.

Since the weather has begun to warm up in London, I have experienced swarms of them on the Thames Path, although they go by the name of midges, here.

Midges, gnats, they are all the same, if you ask me or pretty close kin anyhow. The thing is, however, I don’t remember gnats biting and swarming in the forefront all the time. Surely they crashed barbecues and ballgames regularly but either bored fairly quickly or sensed that they would be penalised if they didn’t leave. Away they went.

I have this image of seeing them in the distance, a part of the landscape. How very idealistic.

Realistically though, midges stake out in the path of walkers and runners and fly right along, until the next best thing happens by. So if you happen to be the only thing, so to speak, on the path, you’re fair game.

Apparently, midges live near water, which explains why I’ve only started to notice them lately.

Short of staying away from rivers, streams, etc. what are walkers, cyclists and runners to do? We could go out in only cold, rainy weather, but that wouldn’t do our attitudes or our physical health any good, would it?

So here are some tips gathered from gnat and midge dodgers around the world.

1)   Wear sunglasses at all times.

2)   Pull on a hat, too.

3)   And cover arms and legs if you can; apparently midges don’t bite through clothing.

4)   But wear light clothing instead of dark.

5)   In any case, spray on a bit of insect repellent.

6)   And by all means keep moving.

7)   But if you do get bitten, don’t sweat it. The best thing to do is to soap it to avoid bacteria.

Very well, I’ll give the tips a go. Still, who would have ever thought it—gnats in the city? Actually, they are midges. Whatever! They are all the same rotten lot.  And if you ask me, they are best left in a hazy memory, far, far away in the distance. Now that’s idealistic.

Dust from Sahara blows into London

I went to the gym this morning. So what, right? Working out is the big thing nowadays. Beats lying in, that is if you wear a Nike Fuel Band like I do. That’s why I take to the Thames Path three times per week and spend one hour weekly training with an expert.

Of course, racking up fuel points is not the only reason for exercising, but it sure is a good motivator for it.

Admittedly though, after hearing on BBC Breakfast this morning that the UK air might not be the best place about now for anyone, let alone asthma sufferers, I stalled.

For the last several days, high winds have brought dust from the Sahara Dessert to England and Wales. A haze, for instance, hangs over Birmingham today. Yesterday, many Londoners found their cars lightly coated with red dust.

No wonder I couldn’t see the Thames for the smog yesterday and I was a stone’s throw away from it.

Umm… with low-grade asthma and sore muscles that hadn’t recovered from yesterday’s intense work out, I pulled on my kit, warmed up, and begrudgingly headed for the gym instead of the Thames Path.

Wrong answer, I thought as I laboured for thirty-minutes on the treadmill. As soon as I was done, I rushed outside to the nearest bench and went into an extensive stretching regime, using any breathing techniques I remotely knew of.

As I took in the seemingly fresh air, it got me thinking about the environment.

How is it that dust from the Sahara could settle in the UK? What, if anything, does this have to do with climate change? And is running in a haze of dust actually worst than toiling and sweating in a stuffy gym.

While I don’t have the answers to the former two questions, I have my opinion about the latter one. I’d much rather run outside any day than in a sweatbox, no matter how swish and roomy it is. But if the air is polluted, I have to be realistic, don’t I.

Fortunately for me, the air is expected to clear by Friday. Even so, environmental issues won’t flee.

While the Sahara’s dust will soon pass over the UK, it will sweep into another country and other issues will crop up or flow in here—something for us all to think about wherever we are. What does it all mean and what can we do about it? No soapbox or scare tactics here, just plain on realistic questions.

In the meantime, I am lagging in fuel points; I need to get going, perhaps for a short walk, even if it is hazy outside.

Seeking the Silence of Prague in London

In London, we are bombarded with sounds, as daily construction work progresses and life in general takes it course, horns honking, sirens screaming, people shouting and so on. Even when I am running, I hear the jingling of bicycle bells and the rustling noise the tires make on the boardwalk.

As I write this blog, the jack hammering fills my ears. I can’t escape it unless I leave my home. Where am I to go—to a coffee shop, for a walk along the Thames Path, to the library? Where can I get some respite from this noise?

Lucky for me, so I think, I know just the place. I head out the door and make my way to the boardwalk, which leads to Hotel Verta’s luxury spa and gym, where I will see my trainer for our weekly one-hour session.

But no sooner than I join the footpath, I see her heading my way. So much for a quiet walk but her company is welcome. A pleasant woman, she engages me in interesting chitchat along the way. Still, in the distance I hear the screaming of an ambulance, a police car, the buzzing of a helicopter, even if it is only in my head by association. Verta is where London’s heliport is located.

Never mind, I smile to myself knowing that in minutes I will be inside the sanctuary—peace and quiet at last, so I think. More on that later!

For now, speaking of silence, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, has a quiet quality about it that is unbeknownst to most cities. Last week in honour of Valentines Day, Paul whisked me away to this magically beautiful city, where we had only been once in 2001. Then neither of us noticed its stillness, perhaps so overwhelmed by the tragic hijackings of September that year.

Heaving with tourists, particularly in its hot spots such as the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, we found it quite possible to slip into stillness, admiring the historic buildings and imaginative sculptures positioned around the city.

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Were it not for the worry of pickpockets, as we were constantly reminded, and the consequences of globalisation—McDonalds, Starbucks and the occasional contemporary eyesore such as the Intercontinental, built in the 70s—we could have easily envisaged the city as it was centuries ago.

Also, while standing on a lesser-known bridge and overlooking a neatly manicured park, it was easy to imagine Prague as the perfect place for a clandestine rendezvous. Shush, not that, but rather a place where allies might have exchanged intelligence during the Cold War.

And maybe it was. As it happens we met a Dutchman, who told us of being in Prague as a little boy when the city was on the brink of Russian invasion.  He remembered people ushering his family in the right direction, so to speak, until they were out of the city. They had no idea what they might have come up against, until they returned to Holland.

What a remarkable story, as is Prague’s. For instance, the capital managed to escape any real damage to speak of during World War II.

According to a tour guide, folklore tells it that Prague was Hitler’s dream city, where he planned to live after the war.Whether this is fact or fiction, it’s a great hypothesis.

The city’s beauty is alluring, from the Old Town Square to Petrin Hill. My favourite place is Paris Avenue, where the couture designers are located, and not just for the shops but also for the stunning architecture. The city also boasts a magnificent skyline, viewed from several spots such as Petrin Hill and the top floor of the iconic Dancing Building, where we dined at Celeste, one of the city’s top French restaurants.

Fine dining… ah ha. That could be why I found this morning’s training session hard going and rather noisy. Forget what I said about a pleasant woman? On the contrary.

In the meantime, I did find peace and quiet right at my desk, if only for a spell. The construction workers, however, were up to their ears in rain. It, of course, has a way of putting a damper on things. In this instance, wouldn’t mind hearing it again, and soon.

Remembering the Sociability of Holiday

Having returned to London after a week in St. Lucia, I can’t help but notice the pull of gravity in the air, on the ground, all around me, whereas in St. Lucia, everyone and everything kind of floated through the days and nights.

At the risk of stereotyping the people of St. Lucia, I will say they have an easygoing air about them. From the children who rode beautiful horses wildly along the beach and often showed off their aquatic skills as well, to the older gentlemen with long white hair and sun baked skin who appeared to mentor the younger men, they were all rather refreshing.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the sea that casts a spell of fleeting sociability on the people, the birds, the insects, etc. One of the locals told me it had to do with living and making a living. But whatever it was, it rubbed off on the holidaymakers, who mingled not only with the locals but also with each other as if they had left their cool culture behind.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that Britons are anti-social at home – on the contrary, if mixed in a room together to do one thing or another. Even if begrudgingly so, they mingle. And plenty are willing to offer a helping hand on the streets if asked but few, if any, go out of their way to start a conversation with a complete stranger just because, unless they are on holiday.

As such, how refreshing it was to meet a man well into his fifties, who had learned to swim recently as part of the rigorous training he took on to sail across the Atlantic in his first boat expedition ever.  He made it and enjoyed it, too! There’s hope for this non-swimmer after all.

Then there was the mother of nine; yes you read correctly, nine, who still manages a successful business. Wow, is all I can say.  And how could I forget the no named, outgoing gentleman who entered the ladies dressing room in the hotel’s departure lounge to blow dry his wife’s hair. And he wasn’t a hairdresser either. Refreshing, right. On the contrary, but never mind. He was on holiday

Anyhow, that’s behaviour for the birds literally. The St. Lucia birds didn’t honour any etiquette to my mind, hanging out in the dinning room as and when they pleased and sneaking food off plates very eagerly. Also, they visited balconies and rooms if the opportunity presented itself.

On one of our outings we ran into an ornithologist of sorts who dispelled any concerns of a bird take over. He did, however, confirm that the birds, one called the bananaquit, had an affinity for sugar, a key ingredient in the local food and drink. Ah ha!

Perhaps that explains the mosquitoes too. I got more bites than I did when I was staying out in a remote village in the Philippines. Though I could have done without the insects in particular, they come with the lush vegetation of the island, gorgeous flora and fauna.  Nothing like seeing bird of paradise in its true habitat!

Still, I’ll take it anywhere I can get it and the sociability, too, of people that is. As for the overly zealous birds, which produced the sounds of wind chimes, quite often after the rain, and the illusive mosquitoes that struck in the night, I am happy to leave them on holiday, even if it does mean giving up the tropical climate.

Back to earth!

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Christmas Wrapped Calmly in London

The Monday before Christmas lived up to its nickname, panic Monday, with last minute shoppers crowding the streets, despite the inclement weather.

Though my day got off to a calm start with a drive to Knightsbridge in record time under a dry, though dreary, sky, it catapulted into chaos by lunchtime with a tedious queue at Marks & Spencer’s car park in the pouring rain, the howling wind beating against the windows.

By nightfall, I wanted to cancel our trip to the theatre but nudge as I might, Paul and the folks at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (South Bank Centre), didn’t agree, so off in the scowling weather we went to see Fascinating Aida, a favourite cabaret trio.

The show went on and I am so glad it did. It was an evening of brilliantly scripted yet wild comedy that veered on the serious side now and again.

Founder of Fascinating Aida, Dillie Keene teamed up with Adele Anderson and Liza Pulman for a captivating show, which will run in London until January 10. After a short break, the trio will move on to Derby in February.

One song, though witty, reveals Adele Anderson’s touching story of making a major life change. According to Dillie, it took ten years to write the song, so complex and personal was the subject. That’s commitment if you ask me and certainly skill and talent.

Having seen the group perform at least three times, we weren’t disappointed. If anything, we were uplifted and ready to get on with celebrating Christmas, which included a fantastic celebration with family on Christmas Eve and a spectacular lunch on Christmas Day at Monkey Island, a remote island near Bray on the Thames, which happens to be home of two stunning peacocks.

That’s it, Christmas wrapped. New Year’s is up next. On that note, wishing everyone not only a happy and safe New Year’s celebration but also a wonderful 2014. In any case, do proceed calmly.

Two countries divided by a thing or two

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language,” although some sources claim it was Oscar Wilde who coined the phrase and others Winston Churchill.

In any case, I’ve never felt the phrase to be more accurate than now, having recently returned from the US after a two-week visit with family and friends for Thanksgiving.

From the glitz and glamour of New York City to the warmth and hospitality of the Atlanta, rather Albany, Ga., I lived it up and managed to spend a few days in the nation’s capital somewhere in between.

However, with my experiences but a distance memory, I’ve come in for a hazy landing. No wonder I’m being teased about using such words as Jell-O for jelly, and cookie for biscuit. Honestly. And shop assistants are repeatedly asking where I’m from and struggling to understand me.

Let’s just say I’m feeling a tad bit alien. Nonetheless, I’ll stay put and reorient, since I’ve made London my home for nearly sixteen years.

Bridging the language gap, however, is only one aspect of re-entering the capital. There’s switching back to the English coins from the chunk of American change I managed to collect, and the mobile phone,  the credit cards and the chequebook, etc. Who still uses cheques? Never mind, you never know.

And then there is adjusting to the major drop in temperature. Dressed for late spring rather than early winter upon arrival at Heathrow Friday, I felt the chill coming on, not only in the air but also in the state of the airport, even it if is one of the busiest in the world.  Having been described as a zoo, certainly by me, Heathrow and those running it manage to maintain a quintessentially British equanimity, at the worst of times, making the rest of us bonkers.

Lucky for me this time, I arrived at the best of times and breezed right through. But the same time the next day, others weren’t so lucky, as Heathrow practically shut down because of a computer glitch.

Outside of the airport, the atmosphere felt bleak by comparison to the warmth of Atlanta, though the weather has turned frigid in many parts of the US, including NYC and Washington, DC. Anyhow, I soon accepted the bleakness as part of what makes London, London—formal and steely at times yet familiar and enchanting.

Speaking of formality, sometimes it comes with excessive complication. Never mind that the parking app on my phone assured me that I was paid to park today for a few hours, yet my credit card had apparently expired. Furthermore, the customer service people had no sympathy for me and robotically referred me to the automated machine repeatedly.

I know, I know, it happens everywhere. Sure it does but you have to experience it in London to conclude that shouting and pleading are futile. Futile!

As for driving, it comes second nature to me here, even more so than it does in the US. Strangely, my brain thinks driving on the left side of the road makes more sense than driving on the right side, even if it is outdated.

Now for some sleep. Hang on, hang on, at writing of this, it was not even close of business yet, even if it was pitch black outside. Worse yet, it was only around lunchtime EST. Umm, another divider, wouldn’t you know it—time, a significant part of re-entry, absolutely nothing alien about it.

In that case, I’ll catch up on my Bo Peep (rhyming Cockney) later, I mean shut-eye, or shall I say sleep, a word we can all understand. Righty ho.

Running in London, more than meets the eye

I’ve been running again. And though I haven’t signed up for the next road race, I’m up to 12 miles per week, even if a little old lady is faster.

Never mind her, the younger runners or the cyclists whizzing by, I’m in my own world and rarely come out for anything less important than crossing the road. That’s one of the things that I love about running; it’s just me.

On the rare occasion when I do come out of my thoughts, I catch some interesting sights. This week I saw a barefoot runner, life on a luxury houseboat and calm commuters making their way to the river bus.

Bear with; there’s more to this than meets the eye.

First things first, when I was a kid, I thought barefoot running was great. No better place for it than the Georgia countryside, vast plains if you will, and warm red clay underneath my feet. Never mind the odd thorn, bramble or rock.

But fast-forward forty something years and I wonder ‘why on earth’ or shall I say ‘why on concrete’ would anyone do it, especially on a frigid, damp day in London. No wonder the fellow in question was sprinting.

Still, he seemed to be having a blast. Maybe there was more to it than I could see. All the same, I’m not up for it. But I’ll tell you what I am up for—the river bus, but I’ll save that for last.

For now let me tell you about the luxury houseboats, which are moored between Battersea and Putney. According to one estate agent, the boats have two reception rooms and four bedrooms. Not your average narrow houseboat with a low ceiling, is it? Quite surreal to be honest, which is why I chalked them up as permanent exhibitions or river homes for the rich and famous.

This week, however, I caught a glimpse of a person on one of the floating luxury apartments. And suddenly, it dawned on me that this could be a regular person who had carved out an ideal lifestyle—idyllic views, fresh air and their own river bus. Yes, the river bus.

Just then, I heard it, tooting a rather composed horn. I looked up and watched it near the port. Meanwhile, very orderly commuters gathered and then made their way down the gangway.  What a vast difference to London’s train stations and bus stops during rush hour.

Breaking my run, I watched in amazement until the last passenger was on and seated. And then observed the bus move off into the Thames and cruise towards central London uninterrupted by traffic or signalling delays.

Though river buses are not as plentiful as trains or regular buses, there are several connections from Putney to Greenwich.

In the meantime, I re-set my running App and got back to the task at hand. Soon I shot past my building and headed towards the heliport, a helicopter coming in for a landing. With serenity in the distance, I remembered another thing that I love about running.

Soon it would be over and it would be coffee time, which is croissant time for me, just me. More than meets the eye? Interesting, indeed.

Sticking with my pen on London

Since my last post here, life has been a bit of a treadmill, sorting out our move and travelling to and from the US and doing a few other things here, there and in between.  I haven’t slowed down yet.

Only this week did we get home broadband service again and sadly it is spotty at best. Yet, I do have a wider perspective on London as predicted. From where I sit in my new office, I can see the Thames, England’s longest river. Quite contrary to the gentle rain falling is the roaring wind, causing the river to wave.

And though the first signs of night have come over London, it is a remarkable scene; even if it is framed by two tremendous buildings. Never mind the boxes surrounding me. Were it not for my aversion to frigid rain, frigid anything, I would walk onto the balcony.  Instead, however, I’ll mosey into my living room, where I can see Fulham stretching out before me in one direction and Wandsworth in another. The views are painting perfect.

Maybe one of these days I’ll take a brush to the scenery. But for now, I’m going to stick with my pen theoretically. In reality, my keyboard will have to do. And those who know my penmanship are saying thank goodness. In any case, I’m writing.

Needless to say, I’ve been lax yet again. And instead of grovelling and offering excuses, I’m going to chalk it up to a lax year at the risk of turning this into a New Year’s column.

With all the change that I’ve experienced this year, I am ready for resolve. But why wait for January 1 to start. I might as well start now by appreciating the brand new day.

So I am told the broadband problem will be fixed easily but until then, I’ll just have to turn to mobile devices such as my iPad and explore the area for Wi-Fi fitted coffee shops. Already, I’ve found one jewel–Cake Boy, Eric Lanlard’s creation.

Yesterday, I had a meeting there and wasn’t surprised to find it heaving with locals and others alike. My guest went on about how wonderful the place is. So it is; good thing there is a gym nearby.

This morning I returned and sat near a group of pregnant women and ignore them as I tried, I couldn’t. Not only were there bumps interesting but also there conversation was too, all about names.

Naming a child can be difficult, they all agreed, especially a first child. Not to mention the interfering from friends and relatives and the syncing first names with surnames. One woman said she loved the name Emma but her surname was something like Tremor.

Surely I heard wrong but you get the point anyhow.

Good material to include in a novel, a short story, a blog I thought, as I tuned out. Then suddenly it hit me I was writing again. I was changing my perspective. Ah ha!

I hurried back to my office and started this blog. And though I didn’t conclude until afternoon, it is refreshing to have a change of perspective.

More perspective next week!