Friday, December 28, 2007

Elections

Before I moved in January I never applied for an absentee ballot as I wasn't sure where I was going to be living at the time. Yesterday before leaving Boston I decided to stop by town hall to take care of this. In all the years I've been voting I have never registered with a party, this however posed a problem for the absentee ballot. It turns out that they do not print absentee ballots for people that are not enrolled with a party. This forced me to make a choice of party. I was leaning towards an obscure party but turns out I had to pick either Democrat or Republican. Since I had to pick a party I had a slightly inappropriate thought to register for a party just to screw with the primaries - I did manage to refrain from that. Of course during this process I did have friends reminding me that it doesn't matter what I do since the absentee ballots don't get counted anyways.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

Not much news to report on. Just wanted to wish you all Seasons Greetings, Happy Holiday,s Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel or whatever it is you may say.

Friday, December 14, 2007

St Lucia's Day

Yesterday in Milan I learned about a new holiday (well new to me that is) St Lucia's Day or St Lucy's Day. This is not celebrated throughout Italy only in certain areas. Instead of being visited by St Nicholas on the evening of the 24th, on the evening of December 12th children put out sweets for St Lucia who will come and visit during the evening delivering presents to all the good little girls and boys. The similarities between St Nick and St Lucy as outlined at wikipedia are quite striking, I haven't done enough research yet to determine the origins of these two holidays.

St Lucia's Day isn't marked by a day off from work or school it's a normal day like any other except before leaving for the day you get to open presents. I've heard that tearing kids away from the toys to go to school can be a difficult matter. To me the best part of Christmas was always spending the day playing with all my new toys afterwards.

And speaking of St Nick, there is a slight difference to the legend in the UK and possibly other parts of Europe but I can't speak for that. According to legend St Nick does not reside in the North Pole but instead he lives in Lapland. Personally I like the idea of him living in a real location that you can visit. Compare a visit to Lapland on Google Maps to that of the North Pole Do a search on Google for Lapland and you'll see the long list of holiday options and tours that exist.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Going Postal Again

Wow 2 days in a row I'm posting about mail - I need to get a life. I've never paid much attention to when I receive my magazines but this time I did notice. I receive Food & Wine and I just received a "new" issue today. The Thanksgiving issue. Back home I would have received this probably about the end of October in plenty of time to start preparing the Thanksgiving menu not 3 weeks afterwards. But I guess since Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England it's not too big of a deal.

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Your Mark, Get Set

Let the race begin. I mailed off my first batch of Christmas cards today. It'll be interesting to see if I get to Boston before they do.

In other random news

  • 4 more days before vacation.
  • By the end of this year I will have taken 68 flights.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Me and Mother Nature

It seems that no matter where I go forces of nature seems to follow. I was in Palm Springs in October when the wild fires were spreading. This week I was in Seattle when there was massive flooding and mudslides. It makes me wonder what is in store for me next week when I head home for Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Seattle Times

While I have frequently flown to Seattle this was my first experience arriving on an international flight. I wouldn't have thought it would be that different but that is where I was wrong. Nothing really special about immigration and passport control . I flew through there then spent 20 minutes waiting for my luggage. After picking up my suitcase I cleared customs and thought I was in the clear - not the case. They yelled at me as I tried to walk out that I couldn't take my suitcase with me, it had to be sent down for another screening process or something. They wouldn't quite tell me what was being done but I take it this is the normal process in Seattle. After sending my bag down the chute, I grabbed the train to the main terminal and had to stand around and wait again for my bag to arrive. This time it was only about 5 minutes, but after travelling for 10 hours and waiting once for my suitcase to have to wait again was a bit aggravating.

Monday, November 19, 2007

When in Rome

I did as the Romans do this weekend. I had to attend a conference in Rome Wednesday through Friday and as I frequently do, I took advantage of the opportunity and spent the weekend being a tourist. After spending the weekend in Rome, it has now knocked Madrid out of the number one position of my favorite European city. I definitely need to come back and spend more time here as 2 days definitely wasn't enough. One odd thing I noticed was that it seemed like everywhere where I went I was surrounded by Americans. Of course a co-worker who is Russian thought the same thing about Russians, maybe it's all one's perception.

I did the majority of the touristy things The Colosseum, The Vatican, Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon, and much more. The beauty of the city was amazing - seeing all the ruins of old Roman Empire buildings that have been incorporated into modern buildings was a sight to be seen. I also stumbled across some ancient Roman cats, within some of the ruins (Look closely there's a cat on the steps). There must have been 20 or so cats wandering around or sunbathing within the ruins. I was a little surprised that all of the cats didn't scare away the birds.


I queued for about an hour at The Vatican to get into the museum to see the Sistine Chapel. The museum is only allows entry from 8:45 until 12:30 so you have to get there early. The crowds in the museum were probably the largest I've ever seen. Part of the issue was that there are tours that are offered of the museum which allows people to jump the queue, of course then you're stuck with a pack of people wandering around hearing all sorts of things. I probably would have learned a thing or two about random pieces of art within the museum but I really was only interested in the Sistine Chapel. Don't get me wrong, I spent some time admiring paintings and statues on the 45 minute walk through the rooms en route to the Chapel. Once you get into the Sistine Chapel pictures are not allowed, they also try to enforce complete silence. It was definitely a breathtaking site, of course by the time I left a had a kink in my neck for spending so much time staring at the ceiling.

A couple of random things that struck me while in Rome was the following:

It is next to impossible to find an ATM/Cash Machine near the Spanish Steps or other tourist areas.


The Metro stops running at a very early hour - tried to catch a train at 9:30 and it was closed. I've never been in a city where public transportation ends that early.

There are vendors that will try to sell you all sorts of crap - I was having a cocktail in Navonna plaza with a friend and people kept walking through the patio trying to sell dancing chickens, fluorescent spinny toys, and CDs of their operatic works. It was a bit frustrating to be bothered every 5 or 10 minutes by somebody trying to sell something of little or no use. The most inventive salesperson I saw was a guy at Trevi Fountain selling mini tripods. I of course just used the ledge of the railing to take this picture.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Colloquialism

I learned a new phrase at work today "Gardening Leave." This is the practice of getting paid time off after serving notice that you are leaving for another job. There are mandatory notice periods or non-compete clauses in contracts that prevent you from working for a specified amount of time. Due to the circumstances of your departure many employers will have you leave immediately and take gardening leave rather than continue to work. This typically occurs when you are moving on to a competitor. Gardening leave is seen by many people as a bonus and they will strive to get it so they can take time off to travel and still be earning a salary.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Guy Fawkes Day

November 5th is Guy Fawkes Day, for those of you that don't know Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament in the 1600's and failed. This day is celebrated by fireworks displays and bonfires throughout the country. Last night I headed off to party and saw lots of people out celebrating. There are still fireworks going off in my neighborhood right now. I'm sure they will continue throughout the night.

It is much easier to purchase fireworks here than in the states. All grocery stores and a couple of news agents in town had large displays of fireworks for purchasing. Very different than in the states where purchasing and setting off fireworks is illegal in some states.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Trick or Treat

This week marked the occurrence of my first Halloween outside the US I wasn't sure what to expect, I didn't see the grocery stores stocking up on candy as they do in the states. I asked some co-workers and they said trick or treating has grown in popularity over the last 10 years or so here. Previously parents would only take their children to the homes of people they knew nowadays complete strangers are knocking on doors asking for candy. The overall feeling I got was people were not pleased by this. Luckily I didn't have any trick-or-treaters. I say luckily as I didn't buy any candy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Immigration Debate

Politicians in the UK really know how to make immigrants feel right at home and welcome. There have been debates and proposals being bandied about that target immigrants both from the EU and from outside. Most recently this week David Cameron told the BBC that the number of people moving to the UK to work should be reduced. Immigrants take jobs and resources away from nationals.

This follows up on a proposal a few weeks ago to implement a £25k flat tax for non-domiciled residents who earn income from non-UK sources. From what I understand this applies to people that have lived and worked in the UK for over 5 years but claim permanent residency in another country. This allows EU nationals to avoid a significant amount of taxes on finances earned overseas.

I guess America isn't the only country that is trying to crack down on immigrants.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

California Dreamin'

I just returned from a week in Palm Springs for our company's annual sales conference. I have to say it was nice to have a bit of warm weather and sun for a little while. The conference was good but a couple of notable things happened on the way to Palm Springs.

We flew into and cleared customs at LAX which means that you have to pick up your checked baggage and re-check it in. When I got my bag I noticed that my Hobart & William Smith key chain that was attached to the zipper was missing. I was a little irritated and decided to see if for some reason the airline had to take it off and it was put in my suitcase. I opened a zippered compartment and saw some items that weren't mine - 2 sleeves of medicine that I don't take. From what I can gather somebody picked up my bag thinking it was theirs took off the key chain put stuff in it then realized it wasn't theirs.

On the flight from LAX to Palm Springs we flew right over the area where the fires were. It was awe-inspiring to look out the window and see the patches of fires in the area. There were 3 or 4 different areas that were in flames. The conference location wasn't really impacted by the fires until the last few days there. The winds shifted and there was a haze as the smoke from the fires rolled into the area.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Italian Food

I am an adventurous person and like to try local cuisines when I travel which is why I find it rather funny that I have eaten Italian in many different countries. During business lunches or dinners on the road it seems like no matter what country I'm in my co-workers pick an Italian restaurant. To date I've had in Italian in:

  • Sweden - twice.
  • Switzerland
  • Spain
  • Germany

Of course when I'm in Italy next month I expect to eat lots of Italian.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Taste of Boston

Last night the Boston Celtics played the Minnesota Timberwolves at The O2 in London. I knew about the game for some time but with my schedule I never know if I'm going to be around, on Monday when I finally confirmed that I would be free on Wednesday night I bought a ticket. I know at The Garden additional tickets were always released a couple of days prior to the event and luckily that was the case here as well. I was able to get excellent seats even though a month ago they were saying the event was sold out. You can see the view from my seats in the shot below.




Prior to the game I decided to have a beer at the bar in the O2 as there was about 45 minutes until tip off. In addition to the standard beers they always serve on this special occassion they had Sam Adams! Unfortunately the Sam wasn't served inside the arena but I did enjoy one before the game.

While there were a lot of people in Celtics jerseys (or kit as they say here) there was representation from some other teams as well. Jerseys I saw included Nets, Knicks, Heat, & Pistons. Not to mention the few people that wore NFL jerseys - I guess they didn't have any other kit to wear. I myself proudly supported a Celtics t-shirt from the 2002 playoff game in Boston. As I was leaving a guy stopped me to ask if I was at that game - what was odd is that as I was leaving I had put a sweatshirt on. He must have seen me earlier in the game.

I found it entertaining that some people were more interested in the local sports celebrities that were at the game than the NBA players. On a similar note I picked up The Metro on my way to work today as I do every morning and was quite surprised that there was nothing in the sports section on the game. They had coverage the day before but nothing afterwards.

Celebrities in attendance included Chelsea footballer Didier Drogba and Formula 1 driver, Lewis Hamilton. In the picture above of the court Lewis is the third guy from the rightTowards the end of the game I witnessed some interesting interactions between the security staff at the arena, a group of women and a guy with the Lewis Hamilton party. I will tell you what I saw and let you draw your own conclusions. The security staff and the representative went over to the women helped them out of their seats and then they left the arena. A few minutes later the rep went over to Lewis whispered in his ear and they both left.



With all the hype about Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining the Celtics I was expecting a blow out game through most of the first half it was way too close and at some points the Timberwolves even had the leave. By the end of the first half they had about a 15 point lead. In the end they won and that is all that matters.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Strikes

I've never seen so many strikes or industrial action as I have in the last few months. About a month ago the tube drivers went on strike for about 2 days grinding all transportation into London to halt. A few key lines were in operation but it was mainly buses and trains that were in use.

This week the postal workers have gone on strike preventing the delivery of any mail for the foreseeable future. This poses a little bit of a problem for me as I have switched bank accounts and was expecting my new card day now and this may cause an issue. But more importantly I bought a camera case for my new camera and now that won't be coming in for a while.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Traditional Swedish Food

Was in Stockholm for a couple of days again this week. This is now my second trip there and I still haven't had much time to get out and explore, maybe the next time.

There seems to be a rather odd traditional Thursday lunch. I was told about this even before we got to the canteen. For as long as people can remember on Thursday you have pea soup and pancakes for lunch. The pancakes are not like a typical American pancake it is more like a crepe and you put strawberries or cherries and whipped cream on top. The soup was just a typical split pea soup, but for toppings they have oregano and mustard. Overall not a bad lunch. Nobody could tell me why this started they just said it has always been that way.

After the training class, they had a treat for me - Cinnamon Buns. I was told this is a dessert that is very near and dear to the Swedes. Just a little dusting of sugar on top not the glazing that exists on American cinnamon buns. A very nice way to end the day.

They have suggested on the next trip I try the fermented fish. There is one kind that comes in a can and is under so much pressure you have to open it in water.

All this talk of food is making me hungry so I'll sign off for now.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wine Tasting

A wine store up the road just changed ownership and had a wine tasting last night. I decided to check it out as I need to learn more about French wine as that seems to be the majority of what you find in the stores here. There were only 3 - myself and another couple - so we got very personalized attention and we ended the evening with champagne. Even better was they said we could take a bottle home with us when we left! Of course we all liked the same 2 bottles one of which was 30 pounds, since the other 2 were a couple I told them to take the Pomerol and I would take the other one. After about 2 minutes of me convincing them to take the bottle they thanked me and said it was his birthday today so they had a very nice bottle to celebrate with. I thoroughly enjoyed my leftover wine tonight even though it wasn't my favorite.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tourist at Home



My sister's visit resulted in me doing a number of tourist things in England. Yesterday we went on a tour of Stonehenge and Bath. I've never been a big fan of organized tours, and this wasn't really an exception. We didn't have nearly enough time at either Stonehenge or Bath, but without going on the tour we wouldn't have been able to do both. As I expected Stonehenge was awe-inspiring, to look at these massive stones and think about the work that went into constructing this thousands of years ago. The tour organizer commented when we arrived that some people feel that 10 minutes is more than enough time to see some big rocks in a field while others feel that 45 minutes isn't nearly enough time. We were definitely in the latter group.




After a quick visit at Stonehenge we headed cross country to Bath. We toured the Roman Baths, the Bath Abbey and just wandered around town for a couple of hours. Would definitely be up for a return visit to both places at some later date. On the return we encountered traffic in London as a result of a broken traffic light and were an hour late returning. Overall the day was deemed a success.

Today we headed into Waterloo to tour the South Bank. After a ride on the London Eye (check out my picture of the eye below) we took a boat tour down the river to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. We had the same guide on the way to and from the Tower and he told the same stories and jokes on both rides. I wonder how many times he tells the same joke in any given day. I shouldn't complain too much as I did learn a few random facts while on the boat ride:

  • St Paul's Cathedral is 365 ft tall one foot for every day of the year.
  • The London Eye is 450 ft tall.
  • The OXO tour was one companies creative way to get around advertising restrictions along the Thames. They wrote out their company name in a mosaic in the windows.
  • The replica of the Globe Theatre is the only building in London allowed to have a thatched roof after the London fire.

Tomorrow it is back to reality and work.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Day of Firsts


My sister arrived at Gatwick airport this morning, her first trip to come see me. After meeting her at the airport we took the train to Victoria station to drop her bags and wander around Westminster. First on the list was a stop at Buckingham Palace, when we arrived I realized that for one more week the state rooms were open for their annual summer viewing. This was an opportunity not to be missed so we queued for about 45 minutes to get tickets to see the inside of the palace. No photographs were allowed inside but I was able to take this shot from the rear gardens on the way out.



The photos in this posting are the first ones taken with my new camera. The actual first shot is below:



After Buckingham Palace we walked down to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. By this time we were getting hungry and decided to head back, as lunch was a complete disaster. We had about an hour after buying the tickets to view the state rooms before our timed entrance, this should have been plenty of time to grab a quick bite in a pub. Off to "The Bag 0 Nails" right around the corner. When the food arrived 30 minutes after we placed the order they had brought me a hamburger instead of the BBQ chicken I ordered. The waitress said they don't have BBQ chicken on the menu and so I had to point it out to her. She obviously was unaware of the specials. I said we had to be out of there in 20 minutes and could they bring me something else, I figured a sandwich or salad could quickly be made. Imagine my surprise when I was told the kitchen was busy all the food was made to order and there was no way they could get anything out in less than 20 minutes, they would get the manager and give me a refund.

When the manager came over I expressed my displeasure and surprise that they were not willing or able to provide me with food after screwing up my order, to which the waitress rudely sniped Burger King is around the corner. After leaving our table the manager was called to another table that had ordered before us and were still waiting for their food to arrive. Looks like this pub has shoddy service all over the place.

As a result of the lack of lunch we had an early dinner, it was a nice evening so we decided to eat on the patio. We were talking, drinking our beers and minding our own business when out of nowhere a bee flies into my hand a stings me. Given my track record with bugs you might be surprised to hear that this was my first bee sting. Of course I start worrying right away that I'm going to have a severe allergic reaction based on my experiences with spider bites, mosquito bites and poison ivy. Luckily I had some benadryl in my purse so I took that. While I am still in pain 4 hours later there does not seem to be any other reactions.

More firsts tomorrow when we head to Stonehenge and Bath.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Saga Comes to an End

I no longer have piles of dirty laundry all around my flat - no it was not really that bad. The new washer/dryer was installed yesterday. The property management company also let me know why they so quickly allowed access to the flat. Turns out that the contractors only work in certain areas on certain days and Monday they were in Richmond, if they didn't do the installation on Monday it might not have happened for another week.

The new unit is much quieter and has a larger capacity which is great, it's a shame I didn't break it sooner :)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dirty Laundry Update

It's amazing the speed with which things happen. I called the property manager on Monday for an update on when the washer was going to be replaced, I was then asked if somebody had been sent out to look at it. I was a little surprised that there were no notes that indicated they had sent somebody out and the recommendation was that it needed to be replaced. They said they would look into and get back to me. Two days later I've still heard nothing so I call back for another update, later that afternoon I am finally told they got approval to replace the unit and I would be contacted once it was in to arrange for installation.

Fast forward to Friday. I get out of my meeting 3 1/2 hour meeting and have 4 missed calls and 1 voice mail. The voice mail is from the contractor saying they've called the property managers and will pick up the keys to my flat and install the unit on Monday. I was a little peeved by this as I really don't like when people show up at my place and I'm not here, at this point it is too late to call the contractors back as it's 5:30 and they are gone for the weekend. So I decided to let it slide. Today I get a letter in the mail from the property manager which said:

"Despite several attempts to contact you our contractor has not had a response to deliver the new washing machine. I have instructed them to enter the property with the management keys. "

So let me get this straight, I call and leave numerous messages for updates over the span of 10 days and hear nothing back, they try to call me over the course of 2 hours don't leave me any voice mail so it is just decided that they can come to my house without my consent. Of course it is the weekend now so there is absolutely nothing that I can do about this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Washer/Dryer Problems

I spent an exciting weekend doing or laundry - or at least I tried to do laundry. Everything seemed to be going along smoothly until the spin cycle hit. It sounded as if there was something in the washer trying to get out. I didn't think I had left anything alive in my pants pockets so I figured this meant the machine had died. Of course this didn't constitute an emergency so I had to wait until Monday to call the property management and report this problem.

In typical fashion they couldn't send somebody out on Monday when I was working from home and I had to go to the office on Tuesday so I worked from home again today. The repair man showed up opened the washer door, looked in and said this isn't worth repairing it will be better to replace it. I had thought the same thing when I heard the lovely noises it was making. He then went on to say that when he got the work order he knew it needed to be replaced but he had to come and check it out himself. So now I'm playing the waiting game, the management company has been notified that the unit needs to be replaced and I just have to sit and wait for a response back. If they then decide to replace the unit I have to find more time when I can stay home to let the installers in - I doubt they'll do it on a Saturday.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Things I Miss

I'm frequently asked what it is that I miss back home. I find that's a rather difficult thing to answer so I've started preparing a list so I can answer the question the next time. In no particular order:
  • Sugar-free pudding
  • Polar Seltzers
  • Banks where I can cash a check - have to deposit the entire amount here and can't get any cash back
  • My bed, or any comfortable mattress for that matter
  • Daily crossword puzzles
  • A full size sofa
  • Airline frequent flyer programs that are easier to understand


Oh yeah and before I get yelled at my friends and family

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cars & Driving

I've found that no matter where you go the one constant is traffic - every city no matter the size is faced with traffic jams. When people try to avoid the traffic it usually takes them twice as long to get to their final destination.

People that rely on GPS are just as likely to miss a turn than those driving the old fashioned way. I've actually noticed more often than not drivers tuning out the GPS system and missing turns.

However driving in Germany, or at least being a passenger, is a completely life altering experience. I have written about this in previous postings but my last visit confirmed my beliefs. It is not uncommon for cars to drive over 200 KM/hour. It really changes your perspective on life as you quickly barrel down the road towards the back of a car. Most people are smart enough to quickly get out of that lane if they are not driving quickly but once in a while you get the odd person on their cell phone that just doesn't realize that people are driving much faster than you.

It's interesting to see the cars people drive - in the US Mercedes, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, and BMW are considered higher end cars that you don't see a lot of. However here it seems that I run into them much more frequently, maybe I'm just hanging with a higher class of people. I think it has more to do with the fact that they are manufactured in Europe than the people.

On my trip back to the states last week I rented a car in Boston. Even though I don't drive here I managed to pull out of Hertz and start driving on the left hand side, a split second later I realized what I had done, luckily there was nobody around.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Shopping Excursion

A while back I wrote about the new Whole Foods store that was opening in Kensington. Today I finally got around to checking it out. The store is massive - 3 stories. There are elevators so you can take your shopping carts downstairs and for those carrying hand baskets they come with wheels so you don't have to carry heavy baskets you can just pull them along behind you.

The main floor is the pre-made foods and salad bars for take aways. This section was much larger than any of the Whole Foods I've been to in Massachusetts, 5 different self serve and full serve counters one counter was devoted entirely to olives. The ground floor also housed the cheeses and wines. I managed to find a couple of South African wines I've been looking for since my trip there in April.

The lower level had all the produce, canned goods, meat, fish, etc. Some of the items and brands were very familiar however there are a lot of local brands and items as well. A couple of items I was looking for like their sodas, salsas and pasta sauces were not there. One of the plusses though is the produce section did not have pre-packaged/measured vegetables you are able to pick the amount you want or need. It was great instead of buying a large container of mushrooms I could just pick up 5 or 6 for my risotto tonight.

I did not go to the top floor, I'll save that for my next trip there. I believe it is just a dining section.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Back in Bavaria

I returned to Bavaria for a quick visit this week - less than 24 hours, but I did manage to experience a couple of firsts. I met up with some of my co-workers at a local McDonald's for a coffee. I have not been in a McDonald's for years and I wasn't planning on getting anything, much to my surprise there was a McCafe inside - essentially a gourmet coffee and pastry bar. I had just had breakfast so I didn't have any of the pastries but the coffees were all made fresh and the selection of was similar to what you find at Starbuck's. The best part was all of the coffees came with a little chocolate, yum.

On the way to the customer I was puzzled at some of the crops I saw growing. Before I had a chance to ask my co-worker asked if I knew what was growing. Turns out it was hops - I should have guessed being that Bavaria is famous for their beers. It was very similar to being in wine country with the acres and acres of vineyards. Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, so I wasn't able to take a picture (I know it was stupid of me not to bring it). I did manage to find this one on the Internet though.

Who knew that German keyboards were very different than a standard American keyboard? I know a lot of keyboards have a few differences on them such as a pound or Euro symbol instead of a dollar sign. I expected the German keyboard to have a few extra keys for the umlauts, what I didn't expect was for the "z" and "y" keys to have swapped places. It took me a couple of times typing the wrong letter for somebody to tell me that the "y" wasn't where I thought it should be.


OK show of hands who clicked on the link about hops thinking they were going to see hops growing in a field. I thought so. Here's a real picture.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What a Difference

Although the weekend brought sunshine rain on Saturday night has made a big difference in the height of the Thames in Richmond. Since the day was nice today I decided to take a stroll along the river - the stroll turned into a boat ride but I digress. It was interesting to see the difference in the water levels since Tuesday when I was last there.


Tuesday











Sunday









You can easily see from these shots that the stairs are now under water. If there is more rain which I am sure there will be then there will be a bit more flooding in Richmond.

On a humorous note when I was walking along the river I saw a couple of geese swimming nearby. I thought I could get a good picture so I went into my purse to get my camera. The geese saw me go into my bag and they are so used to being fed along the banks they immediately swam my way to get the food. No food but I think I got a good shot.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Searching for High Ground

First off I apologize for my lack of blogging over the last few days. Here are my excuses for why I haven't blogged lately you may pick the one that best suits you:

  1. I was kidnapped by pirates.
  2. The flooding in England knocked out my Internet connection.
  3. I've been feeling rather lazy lately.
  4. Things have been boring and I have nothing to say.
  5. I forgot the URL to access the blog.


For those of you have been concerned I am getting washed away by the rains in England don't worry Richmond is situated on a hill and there is no chance of me being washed out to sea. As today was actually nice I headed down to see what was happening, the Thames has risen quite a bit in Richmond and is flowing quite quickly (wee the picture to the left). OK so you can't necessarily tell how fast the river is flowing and how high it is but it isn't close to flooding in this area. For updates on the floods check out the BBC site, they also have better pictures of the flooding.

Monday, July 9, 2007

You Know You Travel Too Much When

  • The car service remembers picking you up at the airport the day before.
  • You give the hotel the wrong room number when checking out.
  • You start calling your hotel "home."
  • You have currency for 4 different countries in your wallet but none for the country you are currently in.
  • You've been in 4 different time zones over a 7 day period.
  • It's the first week of July and you've already been on 46 flights this year.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Wimbledon


Call me crazy but I went to Wimbledon today. I unintentionally woke up at 5:45 this morning and couldn't go back to sleep figured I might as well go and queue at Wimbledon. The process is very well run and given the inclement weather today the queue wasn't that long. At 7:30 when I arrived I received number 1341 . Many people camp out overnight in order to get tickets to the courts where the big names play - centre, 1 and 2. I knew I wasn't going to get tickets to that but grounds tickets would do just fine. With the grounds tickets you get access to courts 3-18 and standing room at court 2.

Once I got in they unfortunately delayed the start of the matches as a result of the rain. All the courts were covered to prevent the lawns from being ruined. While the matches were set to start at 11, they actually didn't start until almost 3, during this time I wandered around the grounds, spent some time in the gift shop, ate, drank and socialized with others in the rain. Some of the die hards who wanted to make sure they got a spot at a certain court took seats or spots in the standing room for court 2 at 11 and didn't leave. To me they are missing out on the atmosphere and experience of Wimbledon. Watching and talking to the different types of people there is just fascinating. There are people dressed in suits and dresses typically the VIPs or people with debentures and right along side are the people that have been camping there all week to be first in line to get tickets to either center court or court 1 each day.

Once play finally started I headed off to court 2 to see if I could find room in the standing room only section to see Venus Williams play and luckily I did. I managed to squeeze myself into a spot right at about center court for the hour or say that play occurred. When the rain came down again they were in the second set. Venus had won the first set and was losing the second set 4-1. When play stopped I decided that was a good time for me to make my departure as well. I would have loved to have seen more matches but that did not look good I did fully enjoy myself and may do it again next year.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Summons To Appear in Court

I got a lovely letter in the mail last week informing me that I was to appear in court for failure to pay my council tax. This came as a bit of a surprise to me as I had gone on-line the previous month and paid the amount for the year in full - or at least I thought I did. I checked my bank and saw that the funds were never withdrawn so I headed back to the council website to pay again. While going through the process a second time I realized why the payment didn't go through. After filling in all the information, confirming it and hitting submit the screen refreshed with a special offer from Visa to sign up for a free service called "Verified by Visa." It is supposed to protect on-line purchases, blah, blah, blah - I wasn't interested in the service so I didn't fill out the form. I noticed that there was no way to bypass the only option was to accept. Turns out that if you don't fill out the form then your payment is not processed, nowhere on the screen during the process does it say that this is mandatory. It just looks like one of those special offers for valued customers.

Completely frustrated I headed to the council offices yesterday morning to pay the bill and let them know of the problem. I was informed that the company that handles their on-line payments has told them that this will be required of all on-line retailers in the next 6 months. In the research I've done that doesn't quite seem to be accurate. Verified by Visa is actually a service that merchants can sign up for to help prevent on-line fraud, not sure if the merchant has to pay for this or not there is no cost to the consumer. A consumer can opt not to sign up for the service as I did 3 times, after the 4th time they refuse the service they will not be able to purchase items at any on-line retailers that offer the VbV service.

According to documentation found on the www.winwithvisa.com website "While the number of opt-outs given to cardholders may never be fewer than three, Visa recommends at this stage of market development that Issuers either stop sending the cardholder enrolment prompts after a few opt-outs (but let the cardholder continue with the transactions), or place no limit on the number of times the cardholder can exercise this opt-out. " Apparently Barclay's has decided that this "optional service" is actually a requirement. Meaning that buying things on-line has just become much more complex as I will need to enter a pass code each and every time I go to an authorized vendor. As of now this is offered as a free service I can just see them start charging for it in the future.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Weekend Events

I have decided I can't let the rain deter me from going out and enjoying London - I'll never leave my house if that's the case. On Friday night I went to Regent Park for Taste of London. Got to try food and drinks from a number of different restaurants and bars. While there were a lot of free samples from vendors the food at the restaurant and bar stalls had to be paid for. I did however manage to get a free beer. As the festival was ending I stopped by the Fuller's tent where they were sampling a number of different beers. The staff got upset that I was drinking a cider and tried to convince me to buy one of their beers. I was out of crowns (the currency of the festival) so they said they would take my half drunk cider and exchange it for one of their beers - how could I say no to an offer like that.

On Saturday I went to the West End to see some free theatre. West End Live was running over the weekend which had brief performances from a number of shows currently playing in the West End. I saw performances from Mama Mia, Chicago, Avenue Q and a couple of children groups. After seeing the scenes from Avenue Q, I think this is definitely something that I need to check out, it looked like a lot of fun.

Stay tuned as this coming weekend I may be doing something very silly. Wimbledon kicks off on Monday so I am currently toying with the idea of heading down and queuing to see if I can get day of tickets. Even if I don't get court tickets there are grounds tickets which will be a nice adventure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Still no Paella

Four days in Spain and I didn't have Paella once! I guess that means I'll have to go back another time.

On Tuesday night I went to see a basketball game. It was the semi-finals of the ACB this was game 5 in the series so whoever won moved onto the finals. We didn't have tickets just decided at the last minute to go the stadium and see if we could get some last minute tickets, the seats were great. The stadium was much smaller than in the NBA but the noise level was much higher, it was very similar to going to a rock concert. You couldn't hold a conversation and my ears were ringing. Every time the opposing team got the ball this siren went off and kept getting louder and louder while the shot clock rang down.

European basketball is a little different than the NBA the quarters are only 10 minutes long as opposed to 12 minutes. There did not seem to be much in the way of concessions, there was a stand but we didn't' get anything and most of the other people around us did not seem to be eating or drinking anything either. I did check out the prices at the stand on the way out and they were not heavily inflated as they are in NBA stadiums. I also noticed right away that there was no jumbo-tron available to see instant replays. If you missed what happened you were out of luck.

For a while it looked like Madrid was going to lose the game. When I asked if there was going to be a riot if they lost my co-workers laughed and said "no this isn't soccer." In the end Madrid managed to win the game.

Leaving the stadium I was expecting to see taxis lined up outside like they do at Fenway Park at the end of games but that was not the case. We aimlessly followed the crowd to the metro and took that back.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Viva Espana


Hola amigos y familia. Estoy en Madrid hasta miercoles.


OK enough of that, my Spanish isn't good enough to do an entire posting. That however is why I finally signed up for a Spanish course. From July until September every Monday evening I will be back in school trying to become somewhat fluent, we'll see how it goes.


The last time I was in Madrid I didn't have any time to see the city so I decided this time I would come in on Sunday morning and go see the city. My first stop was the Prado Museum on Sunday afternoon, spent most of the afternoon wandering about checking out all the pretty pictures on the wall. They had a lot of work from El Greco and Goya.


I am trying hard to adjust to the eating habits here, restaurants don't open until 8:30 or 9:00 for dinner. Late afternoon everybody has tapas and very late dinners. On the weekends that's fine but when I have to get up for work in the morning I don't want to be sitting down to eat at 10 PM.


Today for lunch is Paella if I can find a place that will make it for 1, you usually need at least 2 people.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Smoke-Free London

As of July 1st London, actually all of England, goes smoke-free. A large advertising campaign has recently launched promoting this new initiative, bill boards and newspaper advertisements are everywhere. I myself am quite looking forward to this as it will make going out to restaurants and bars much more enjoyable - I hate coming home and smelling like smoke.

Many people think if you can't smoke in public it will encourage people to quit smoking. Some pubs worried about losing customers have started offering stop smoking clinics for customers so they will continue patronizing the pub after July 1st.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Inspection

I received a letter in the mail from the property management company. Part of their services for landlords are to conduct routine inspections of flats. The letter stated that they had scheduled the inspection for Thursday, today, and I did not have to be present as they had keys and would just let themselves in. I was surprised by this and thought that was just the way things were here. I had already planned on working from home today so this wasn't a problem. As I started talking with others about this they all expressed surprised by the letter and said that they wouldn't want people letting themselves into their apartments when they weren't home.

The inspection itself was rather uneventful, they walked through all the rooms to make sure everything was in order. I put in a request again to have the sign from the front of the house and the bed removed. We'll see if it happens this time.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Grocery Shopping

You would think there couldn't be many differences between grocery shopping in the UK and grocery shopping in the US but you would be wrong. First of all there are 3 grocery stores within walking distance to my house, you wouldn't think 1 town would need 3 grocery stores but I guess it does. I'm still trying to figure out which one I like best, today I went to Sainsbury's. It's the furthest from my house but they have a recycling facility there and my plastic bottles were in need of being returned. I can't wait until they start picking them up curbside.

I started off in the fruits and vegetables section. Most of the vegetables are pre-packaged there are very few that are loose and you can just take what you need. This means I needed to buy 250 grams of green beans when I only needed a handful for dinner tonight. I'll either have beans for dinner every night this week or a lot will be thrown out. It's ironic that the food is all packaged this way as it creates more waste while there are all kinds of signs asking you to recycle and reduce what you throw away. The plastic trays that the vegetables come in is not recyclable so that must be thrown out along with the plastic wrappings. Some of the grocery stores provide a wider variety of loose vegetables such as the mushroom section at Waitrose and there's always the farmer's markets. Unfortunately the farmer's market doesn't always have what I'm looking for.

I have now gotten used to ordering meats and cheeses in grams and not ounces or pounds. Although the stores do show the price per pound and per kg. It usually takes me a little while to quickly do some conversions in my head to make sure I'm not ordering too much or too little.

The brands here are also completely different to what I'm used to and am still trying to figure out what's good and what's not. I did however stumble across a great find this weekend. I found a Whole Food's market in Kensington. I didn't stop in as I was afraid I would want to buy things and I was heading to watch The FA Cup , a return trip is definitely in store for next weekend.

Eggs are not stored in refrigerators, instead they are on the shelves just like any other boxed or canned item. The number of variety of eggs are astonishing - they are classified by the type of hen that laid them, the size, and whether they are free range. I haven't yet conducted a taste test to see what the differences between the different eggs are.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Advertising

There was an article in the Sunday Times today regarding the UK version of "The Apprentice" and the free advertising that companies are receiving. Product placements are apparently against BBC guidelines whether they are paid for or not. The BBC guidelines - "Never include a product or service in sound or vision in return for cash, services of any consideration in kind. This is product placement. It is illegal."

This explains why when US shows such as "American Idol" are aired here the coca-cola logos on the judges glasses are blurred out. Product placements in America are standard, most films and television shows wouldn't be made without a number of product placements, not to mention poking fun at them. Who could forget the clips from "Wayne's World" where they fit as many slogans and product placements into 30 seconds as possible and "State and Main" where they need to plug an Internet company in an old west film.

Many people here complain about watching US programs as you can see how many breaks they build into shows for commercial breaks. There are not half as many commercial breaks here so you just get odd black screens for a millisecond or so where the commercial should have come.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

My Christmas List

I'm always asked what I want for Christmas and luckily Virgin Money helped me out this year with an article on big spenders. From yesterday's Metro (please note all prices are in pounds):

  1. Island of Vatu Vara - Fiji 40 million
  2. 60 carat diamond earrings from Harry Winston - 4.6 million
  3. Chopard diamond and emerald necklace - 1.6 million
  4. The Piece Unique mobile phone encrusted with 2,000 diamonds - 670K
  5. Montblanc's limited edition pen, Solitaire Mountain Massif Skeleton made in 18 carat white gold - 90K
  6. La Modernista Diamond pen set with 5072 diamonds and 96 rubies - 144,612
  7. Hermes crocodile Birkin handbag with gold clasp and diamond studded padlock - 60K
  8. Jewel-encrusted Couture Swoarvoski Crystal J jeans - 5,814
  9. Essence by Creme de la Mere made from daffodil seeds and seaweed - 1,490

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Definite Change

I'll start off by saying that some of you may be offended by what I have to say here and I apologize.

The news is filled with stories of a 3 year old little girl that went missing while on holiday with her family in Portugal. It's quite sad and tragic and I feel for the family. Unfortunately what I cannot comprehend is the fact that her parents were out to dinner when she disappeared. They had left her alone along with their 2 year old twins while they went to a Tapas restaurant. According to news reports the parents were checking on the children regularly- every 30 minutes.

What I can't comprehend is the fact that nobody seems to be shocked or addressing the fact that 3 young children were left alone to sleep while their parents dined at a local restaurant. Instead reports are focusing on the security at the place the family was staying, the fact that other incidents were reported in recent weeks, etc. How can this behaviour be viewed as acceptable? I haven't yet had the courage to ask any co-workers if this is considered normal and acceptable.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Expensive Evening Entertainment

I decided to watch a movie and make a nice dinner for myself this weekend. Of course that required that I go out and buy a grill (or a barbecue as they're called here) , a home entertainment system, and a movie. The trick was to figure out how to get all the big items home since I don't own a car. In both instances the sales rep offered to bring the items home for me as I would get them quicker and it would be cheaper than if I used the delivery service the store offered. Very entrepreneurial of the sales staff to offer to deliver the items - they get cash, under the table and I get my products quickly.

I guess the offer of delivery makes up for the fact that they know absolutely nothing about the products they're selling. When buying the grill I was interested in the specs such as are the grills cast iron, how many btu's, pretty standard stuff. The first guy I talked to had absolutely no idea. He had to go and get the catalog which had a table comparing all the grills on offer. I was shocked that they couldn't answer what seemed like a simple question. What I found a little offensive was when I asked about the btu's they started explaining to me how to cook using a grill!

I had a similar experience when buying the home entertainment system. There were 3 sales guys standing around about 10 feet away from me while I looked at the 2 systems the store had to offer. I was leaning towards the Samsung but wanted to find out if had progressive scan and the option for wireless rear speakers. I had to go up to the sales reps and wait for them to finish their conversation (not work related) and asked for assistance. After I asked my first question the rep said he didn't know and would have to go check the manual. He ran off before I had a chance to say I had more questions. 5 minutes later he came back with the answer and I then asked my 2nd question. Didn't know the answer to that either 0- surprise, surprise. This time he came back with the manual in case I had more questions.

The next question I had was regarding the cables that were included for hooking up and whether it had the proper cables. I unfortunately did not look at the manual so I thought it used s-video the sales clerk said it didn't come with cables for hooking up. I bought the s-video cables and it turns out the Samsung dvd player does not have hook-ups for s-video. Of course I can't return the cables as I opened them prior to reading the directions and they were sealed in one of those vacuum packed plastic wrappings which get destroyed when you open them.

I guess it's normal here that the store sales clerks no nothing about the products they're selling and need to look at the product documentation for what is seemingly basic product questions. At least I got my merchandise delivered right to my front door I guess that counts for something.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Elections

This week local elections were held for parliament. My observances on the similarities and differences between the election processes.

Similarities
1) Since these were only local elections and no major general elections voter turnout was very low.
2) Voters expressed their disappointment in the Labour party and the state of affairs which resulted in the Tories winning 800 seats - giving the party the highest number of councillors since 1978.
3) Controversy over voting improprieties with mail-in votes and canvassers collecting and throwing out votes if they were for the "wrong" party.
4) Complaints of confusion in how to fill out the ballots and technical difficulties with machines.

Differences
1) Up to the minute results were not available.
2) No all night television coverage with updates.
3) No political ads on television - at least none that I've seen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Good to be home

While I had a good time on vacation and my trip to South Africa was productive it was very nice to spend a weekend at home. I spent the weekend running errands.

1) I had to go to the camera store to return a lens I had bought for my trip. I wanted a polarizing lens for the camera and went to Jessop's prior to leaving to purchase one. After I got home and the store was closed I realized 2 things - I was overcharged for the lens and it was not a polarizing lens. Frustrated there was nothing I could do until I returned I left the lens at home. I brought it back to the store and am now in possession of the correct lens.

2) A trip to the bank to look into getting a credit card. The debit card I have is charging me anywhere from 2-5% every time I use it overseas which is the majority of the time. In typical Barclay's fashion they tried to talk me into changing my bank account, selling me insurance and a number of other things. In the end they couldn't even give me the information I wanted on whether the credit card would charge commissions on foreign transactions as I did not have a utility bill to prove I was who I say I am.

3) A trip to the home improvement store to look at grills. It was interesting hearing the sales man talk to another couple about the grills - he wasn't too keen on Weber as those are made in America, the other brand is made in Canada. Luckily I didn't buy one as when I got home last night I had a coupon advertising a big sale on grills this weekend at the store. With the 3 day weekend coming up looks like I'll be barbecuing.

4) The phone company came to check out my phone as it stopped working before I left. I checked it when I got home on Friday morning to make sure it was still broken - it was no dial tone. The repairman came and plugged in a phone and went and traced the wires outside the house, unplugged them, tested them and plugged them back in. Said there were no problems on the line but wouldn't you know I then had a dial tone and could send and receive calls.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Some Final Thoughts on South Africa

I arrived back in the UK bright and early this morning. Although the trip was a success it is definitely good to be home.

Some additional tidbits of information:
  • Traffic lights are called robots in South Africa. I asked a couple of people how this term came about but nobody seemed to know.
  • There are 250,000 licensed mini-taxis in greater Johannesburg. Taxis are mini-vans that are primarily used in lieu of a public transportation system. As with most cities taxi drivers don't think they have to adhere to the rules of the road.
  • Under the previous government all citizens were issued identity cards which specified your race - black, white or coloured. Only whites were able to gain access to certain restaurants and hotels. As foreign diplomats started visiting it became apparent that they needed a new categories as the diplomats needed to be allowed to dine and stay at the finest places so a category of "honorary white" was created.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Random Thoughts of the Day

Random Thought #1:
Today on the way to my morning meeting we took the scenic route. For some reason my pick-up was arranged for 7AM and I didn't need to be there until 8:30. Even with the scenic route it only took us 30 minutes to get there. The scenic route took us passed the road that Mandela lives on. While all the houses have big concrete fences around them, the homes in this area have much higher fences so you can barely see the roofs of the houses. Every home also advertises which security system they are using. This strikes me as funny as once thieves figure out how to bypass one system all they have to do is drive around and find other houses that are advertising that security system.

Random Thought #2
The meeting this morning took me into the city center, this area is very different than anything else I have seen to date. No tin houses, no gates and fences around houses, most of the dwellings are high rise apartment buildings. While the city center used to be where all the financial companies were based a few years ago they started moving out to Sandton, while there are still a few big companies in downtown the majority have abandonded the area for "safer" regions. There of course is a debate whether or not the companies moved because it was safer or whether they moved because it reduced the commute for the senior management.

Random Thought #3
I went to dinner at "The Meat Co" this evening - I'm boycotting the hotel after being shafted on the glass of wine earlier this week. It was definitely worth it as I was only charged for 1 of the glasses of wine I ordered - that may be because the waitress was flirting with me. I was surprised when she asked me if I was South African, most people know within a few seconds of speaking with me that I'm American. A little later in the conversation she commented how beautiful I was, at this point I wasn't sure what to say. It's rare that somebody is that forward. I thanked her and ordered another glass of wine (which I wasn't charged for).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Back to Reality

After a couple of days in the jungle/bush/wilderness or whatever you want to call it I am planted firmly back in reality. I had to go to work today and got cheated in the hotel bar - almost like being back in America - however I don't think I would every pay $35 for a glass of wine. I had a glass of shiraz with dinner - only $9 a glass a little high but I was fine with that. A gentleman sitting next to me was drinking pinot and he commented how good it was so I decided for an after dinner drink that I would try a glass. I had no idea that they were charging 240 Rand a glass for it and neither did he!

The guy who originally ordered it wasn't that happy when I mentioned it to him. This is apparently a scam that the hotel puts on. They only offer 1 type of wine by the glass and it is crap! I unfortunately told the man not to order that as it wasn't very good - so they upsold him into this bottle. I guess the bottle was listed for about 600 rand so there was no way that we imagined that a single glass would cost 240 rand. Given that we drank the entire bottle - I had 1 glass and he had the rest. We probably would have been better off just being charged for the bottle rather than individual glasses but by that time they wouldn't change the bill to accommodate this. I will most likely not have drinks or dinner at the hotel bar as a result of this -last night wasn't that much but this was ridiculous.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Safari

On Friday I finished my training class and headed off to the Ivory Tree Lodge at Pilanesberg for a weekend of safaris. The 2 hour drive up passes through some “black heritage” areas. These are sections of land that were given to the various tribal chiefs during the apartheid era. The houses in these sections would most likely be described as “shanty towns.” The majority of the houses are made of tin some don’t even have any roofs. Also along this route are a number of mining villages – there are mines for platinum, copper, gold, and granite.

Luckily I arrived at the lodge just in time for the evening Safari which runs from 4:30 – 7:30. I ran to the room dropped off my bags, grabbed my camera and went to meet Mike, my ranger. I was in such a rush I forgot to grab my monopod out of my luggage so I was not able to take many shots as the sun went down.

Day 1 – Evening Safari
You are assigned the same ranger for the duration of your stay which makes it easy to get to know others. Dinner is eaten with the group and your ranger, for those traveling alone I liked this. My group consists of 2 South Africans, 3 Americans (including myself), 2 Brits and 1 Scotsman. Two of the members did not arrive until dinner so the first evening safari there were only 6 of us. I managed to grab one of the seats in the front which gives you an unobstructed view of everything in front and to both sides.

The trip was a huge success and we encountered a number of animals and some little tidbits of information:



Giraffe – The older they are the darker their spots become.
Zebras
Impala
White Rhinoceros- Most numerous of all animals in the park, the black rhinoceros is quite rare and we did not manage to see one.
Kudu – As we were watching the Kudu Mike informed us that during our snack break we would be trying some Kudu meat.
Helmeted Guineafowl
Francolin- AKA “Suicide” birds as they like to run out in front of cars you rarely see these birds flying.
Steenbok
Springbok
Impala
Warthog
Elephant – Males and females have different shaped heads.
Lion
Spotted Eagle Owl

The most memorable encounter for me were the lions. We were running late for our snack as we kept stopping so we didn’t end up getting to the rest area until dark. For me this was better as the stars and the moon were spectacular, it’s rare you get to someplace dark enough to see all the stars. There were no lights around so you could see the milky way and shooting stars. I also saw the Southern Cross for the first time. While eating our snack we could hear a lion nearby it sound like he was only a couple hundred feet away. Mike informed us that the calls he was making were basically a “hello” to other lions. They have different calls when they’re hunting and when they’re just talking. After finishing our snacks we started tracking the lion to try and find him. At night there is a spot light that you can shine to find the animals, we would drive for a little while and then we would stop cut the engine and lights and listen. After a few minutes we turned the lights on and the lion was standing right in front of us about to cross the road. He was huge, probably weighed around 220 kilos according to Mike and he looked to be all muscle. We watched as he strolled through the plains and when we lost sight of him we started driving down the road some more as Mike saw the direction he was heading and knew he would be crossing another road shortly.

As Mike was driving he handed the spotlight to those in the row behind him as we were up higher and could shine the light higher. As I was in the front row I periodically got to track for animals with the spotlight. There’s a lot of pressure with this job as you want to make sure that you don’t miss something good hiding in the bushes or trees (I actually was shining the light when we spotted the owl). We did see the lion a couple of more times and then began heading back to the lodge. While on the way back in the middle of the road we saw the female lion and 2 cubs playing. The cubs were about 5 months old and just playing away. As we followed them I was surprised that the lights didn’t bother them and they seemed to ignore us, other animals are definitely startled by the lights and the car engines.

We ended up getting back to the lodge at 8:15, about 45 minutes late but it was well worth it. I was the first to leave the dinner table at around 9:30 as we were getting a 5:30 wake up call to go out on the morning safari. Mike warned us that we might be disappointed in the morning as we had such a successful evening ride. I was optimistic that it would be just as good.

Day 2 – Morning Safari



As we started out Mike told us that there were reports of wild dogs right past the entrance and all the rangers were excited as they are very rare. We could see all the trucks lined up, after a few minutes waiting the dogs took off and we followed them down the road. Those suckers were fast – it was impossible to get a picture of them. Eventually the other jeeps turned around and left we waited for a little while longer and as we turned around saw the dogs running right back our way. The ran directly in front of our jeep and across the field. Mike got on the radio and informed the others what direction the dogs were headed. The rangers from all the parks and lodges are in constant communication over the radio to share rare and interesting sightings.

We got a call that a leopard was spotted and we were near the area so we headed off in that direction. There were about 5 other safari vehicles and 3 personal cars in the area trying to catch a glimpse of this rare animal. We waited patiently for it to stick its head up as it was lying in the grass and then all of a sudden a warthog started walking by and we thought we would be lucky enough to be treated to a hunt. At this point the leopard took interest and popped his head up and at the same time a guy in the car in front of us stood up out of his sun roof and completely blocked my view. Now he could have seen just fine from the car like everybody else but he wanted a better view. When I told him he was blocking the view of everybody behind him he turned around and said he wanted to see he stayed standing there until the leopard lost interest in the wart hog and lied down again. At this point a number of cars drove off but we stuck around for a little while and our luck paid off. The leopard decided to find a place to sleep in the shade so he stood up and walked off. At this point the other people in the car joked that we should go and find the guy that blocked our view and tell him what he missed – karma will get you every time.

After the leopard moved on we continued on the road as we had gotten a report of elephants playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them play, squiring water on each other, dunking one another under and swimming around. A few hundred feet behind the 6 playing in the water were about 20 more elephants having a bite to eat.

Since we had spent so much time waiting for the leopard and watching the elephants swim we did not have a chance to have a tea break and stretch our legs. You don’t realize how long you’ve been sitting until you try and stand up and walk down the steps of the jeep.

New animals sighted:
Wildebeest – This looks like a combination of a number of animals – it has the tail of a giraffe, the stripes of a zebra and the legs of a hyena.
Leopard
Water Monitor
Hippopotamus
Tsessebe
Jackal
Mongoose

Day 2 – Evening Safari

The evening safari started out normally enough we saw a little of this, a little of that. Nothing that we hadn’t seen before. We were headed up to the top of one of the mountains to try and catch the sunset from up there. Unfortunately we got a little side tracked and missed the sunset, Mike spent about 5 minutes at a termite mound explaining all about termites – I would have rather sent the sunset but others were very interested.



After a couple of drinks we headed back down the mountain along a very windy road. All of a sudden we made a turn and there was a male elephant standing in the middle of the road. He started approaching us forcing us to back up this narrow windy road. The number of feelings rushing through me at this time were numerous – shock, fear, amazement – the knot in my stomach was huge. I had never been this close to elephant before, it is definitely a humbling experience to view an animal like that up close as he’s chasing you – ok it wasn’t really chasing but if felt that way. Mike kept backing up as the elephant approached us trying to find a spot where we could pull over to one side and the elephant could pass us. He tried to assure us that this elephant was very calm and once we got off the road we would be able to get by, after going around 2 turns we were able to pull over and the elephant headed off the road and we were able to pass. Relief set in, unfortunately it was very short lived as we rounded the first corner another elephant was in the road, following the elder male.



As we started to back up we had to keep an eye on the elephant behind us to make sure he continued heading into the grass and did not turn around and head back into the road leaving us nowhere to go – he cooperated nicely and continued on into the woods. As we learned elephants follow one another so all we had to do was back up to the same spot and hope that elephant number 2 would indeed follow the older elephant up the hill – as luck would have it he followed and we were able to pass. As we continued down the road we wondered if we were going to encounter yet another elephant – there were 3 elephants hanging out when we headed up the hill for our snack break. The third elephant had either gone off on his own or was a little slow in following the others and we were able to make it down the mountain.

The rest of the drive home was very uneventful, no other significant sightings on the way back to the lodge which was good as it gave me time to relax after that unbelievable experience.

New Animals Sighted:
Eland
Jackal

Day 3 – Morning Safari
Woke up to a light sprinkle and a slight chill to the air, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be good or bad for the animals. Mike said that the cheetahs are more apt to come out in the rain and the large cats will be more active in the cooler weather. Everybody was in agreement that we wanted to see some big cats. I for one had enough of elephants the night before and didn’t care if we saw any today. There was word from other rangers that a pride of 7 had been spotted so we headed off in that direction. After about an hour of driving we gave up on that area and headed off to see what else we could find. There was word of a cheetah in the area so we tried to find that – again no luck. I was starting to get rather disappointed and realized how lucky I had been on the previous excursions and this is probably more typical as I had heard from others that it was rather hit or miss.

Continuing down the road we got word that the pride of lions had just been spotted and they were just up the road from us. Even better they were guarding a kill that they had made the night before. The lions were about 500 meters from the road so we couldn’t see much details however we were able to clearly see them – pictures are slightly fuzzy but you can tell that it’s a lion. We were satisfied that we had seen our big cats so we headed back to the lodge for breakfast.

New animals spotted:
Red Hartebeest
Lilac-breasted Roller

Overall the safaris were spectacular and an experience I will never forget. I probably saw close to 1000 animals, at least 26 different species - much more than this but we didn’t get the names of all the birds that we saw flying around. And don’t forget 1 very close encounter with some elephants.

Oh and on the way back from the resort I saw monkeys and an ostrich.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Last night for dinner I went to an African restaurant across the street from the hotel, Moyo. They had a large outdoor seating section and since the weather was slightly chilly there were large blankets on the back of the chairs to put over your legs or shoulders to keep warm. The ostrich fillet came highly recommended so I had to try it. The spices on the fillet were great, it was slightly undercooked for my liking but I enjoyed it nonetheless. While eating the starch all I could taste were peanuts so I asked what it was - turns out it was pumpkin mash with peanut butter.

While driving home from work yesterday I was surprised by the number of people approaching the cars trying to sell things everything from newspapers to umbrellas to plastic hangers to garbage bags. The funniest was the man selling umbrellas to the people in cars during the rain - they might have had more luck selling them to the people walking in the rain. The reason he was most likely targeting the cars is the people that own cars have more money than the people walking. There is a huge discrepency between the middle class and the lower class. While more people are buying cars there is still a huge unemployment rate. Please note these facts I'm about to give have not been checked for accuracy - I am taking the word of my driver. There is a 24% unemployment rate and that only includes the people that are actively looking for work. If you include those that are no longer looking for work. If you include those the unemployment rate goes up to 40%.

On the subject of cars and unemployment, I noticed that none of the gas stations had signs indicating the price of gas so of course I had to ask my driver about it this morning. Gas is 6 rand/litre and is controlled by the government. The first Wednesday of every month the government sets the price of gas. Stations can not offer any specials or promotions to attract more customers. None of the stations are self service they are all full service (helping to reduce unemployment or at least not increase it).

Tomorrow after work I take off for my safari - and don't worry I won't try to pet any of the little animals I encounter in the wild. Not sure if I'll have Internet access there but if I do I'll be sure to post.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another Continent Checked Off

I arrived safely in Jo-burg this morning after a quick 10.5 hour flight. Luckily the flight was fairly empty and I could stretch out and sleep. Of course they came around at 5 am, 2.5 hours before we were supposed to land to serve breakfast - I probably could have used a few more hours sleep but what can you do. I'll sleep well tonight.

My driver was quite informative this morning and I learned that:

  • When leaving the airport car park the guards come over to make sure there are keys in the ignition as car theft is high.
  • Johannesburg is 6000 ft above sea level.
  • There are no indigenous trees in Jo-burg everything is "man-made" and was transplanted from other countries.

I know the pound to dollar ratio just passed $2 this week. It's been flirting at the 1.9x range for a number of months but is now officially over 2, however don't feel bad the pound to rand rate is 14 to 1. My salad at lunch was only 22 rand which I found incredibly cheap. I'll keep you posted on the prices of other things.

So far on my list of things to bring back for people include:

  • A hat
  • Amarula
  • An elephant

Any other special requests let me know and I will try and accommodate your desires.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Vacation

Last week was a busy week while I was trying to get things finished beofre going on Vacation. The UK has a 4 day weekend with Easter so I figured I would take advantage of the time and jet on down to the Virgin Islands. 2 Taxis, 2 planes, a boat and 18 hours and I arrived on St John - actually the trip wasn't all that bad. The worst part was the waiting on Tortola for the ferry it was an hour late. It's horrible standing on the docks being able to see your final destination but having to stand around and wait.

I'm here for the week and then back to London for 2 days before I take off for South Africa. I'll be spending 10 days training partners and visiting customers with a visit to a game reserve for safaris over the weekend. I'm sure I'll have lots to blog about while I'm there.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sporting Events

I went to my first live sporting event with my father today. We went to the Fulham VS Portsmouth football game (that's soccer for you silly Americans). The stadium has capacity for about 25K people. It wasn't a sellout but it was fairly full.

There is an entire section designated strictly to the away team. Warning signs posted throughout the stadium that visitors caught in the home stadium seating would be removed from the stadium. Oddly enough they were more vocal than the home team was . Maybe the fact that they were winning for 87 minutes of the game had something to do with their vocal level.

Within a few minutes of the start of the game Portsmouth scored a goal. The goalie looked like he expected the goal to miss by a mile or at least be called back as a result of a foul. Neither of those occurred and the score was 1-0 for the majority of the game.

The game started promptly at 3 pm. No national anthem, no coin toss, no delays. It was great. The stands fill in about 5 minutes prior to the game start time as most fans are socializing outside the stands drinking as no alcoholic beverages or smoking is allowed within the stands. A few minutes prior to halftime the stands start emptying as the fans are going for a drink or a smoke. Right before the second half starts everybody is back in their seats.

My next sporting event may likely be the Boston Celtics game in October. The NBA is doing a European tour and the Celtics are playing the Minnesota Timberwolves at the beginning of October.

And now for the first posting by a guest blogger: " I am here, having fun and enjoying myself." Maybe the next guest will have something more exciting to say :)

Friday, March 30, 2007

Only in Holland

No, I'm not talking about the coffee shops. While on another visit to Holland the following caught my attention.



Ads for a romantic candlelight dinner cruise of the red light district. Don't worry if you don't have somebody to go on the cruise with you can pick up a date in the red light district (they didn't advertise that on the poster but one can only imagine).

Smoking rooms in office buildings. Every floor in the office building I was in had a small glass enclosed cubicle where you could smoke. I guess it saves the effort of having to walk outside for a smoke break.

One set of stop lights for cars, one for pedestrians and one for bikes.

Signs telling you where you're not. Periodically while driving there would be a sign with a city name on it with a big red slash through it. I wish I could have taken a picture of this but I was riding in a car with others and they would have thought me strange if I asked them to stop so I could take a picture of a street sign. I can only guess that these signs meant that you were leaving the city.


A man walking a truck down the street. OK he was actually just washing the streets but it looked like a truck on a leash.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Wonders of Technology

Yesterday I gave my Grandmother and Aunt a tour of my house with my webcam and Skype. It's great to see that even though there's an ocean that separates us they can be in the house with me.

While my 2 year old niece has grasped the concept of skype and blogging, she is still trying to grasp the concept of the webcam. She thinks because she can see me I can see her. She's always trying to show me things which I can't see. Luckily by the end of the week that problem will be solved because her loving aunt bought a webcam for her. How many 2 year olds do you know with a web camera? She already had a digital camera so I figured this was the next logical step.

Friday, March 23, 2007

In the News

A couple of articles in the news today may make it easier for me to travel between the UK and US. An "open skies" policy that just got approved will increase the number of flights between the US and Europe. More flights will be allowed to fly into Heathrow in additional to the 4 airlines that it is limited to currently. Additional airlines will be able to fly from the UK to the US potentially lowering the cost of fares between the two countries. The agreement does seem to favour the US slightly in the fact that US carriers can continue on a journey to another country after landing in Europe whereas European carriers cannot continue their journeys. Virgin Airlines may be the only carrier that benefits as they recently got approved to fly in the US as Virgin America.

In takeover news ABN Amro has received a buyout offer from Barclay's bank. Some believe that this may propel Bank of America to make an offer for Barclay's. Banking with a firm with branches in both the UK and US may make eliminate some of the charges incurred when travelling between countries. Of course I may just being a bit optimistic.


( My apologies for not including links to the relevant news stories however the last 2 times I tried posting the links I received error messages and my postings got erased).

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Accents and Languages

There was an interesting article on the BBC website yesterday regarding British accents and their appeal to Americans. I personally think that any accent that is different from your own can be appealing or fascinating, depending on the person. I've met a number of people that love my accent, or a French accent or an Italian accent.

There are a few people at the local pub who are always asking me questions about American politics or current events they're intrigued by anything American. I've even had conversations with a taxi driver about the travel habits of Americans. He was told that only 10% of Americans have passports and asked me if that was true. I think that may be kind of low but I know a lot of people that have only gotten passports recently, and some that still need to get their first one (you know who you are).

Accents can be exotic and lead one to dream of travels to faraway places, or remind you of home. I know every time I hear an American accent my ears perk up a little bit. Of course once it was a Canadian accent, but close enough.

Being in Holland this last week I have heard a number of different accents in the various trains, hotels and airports. Most interesting was a group of tourists from Mexico that were on the same train I was from the airport. They approached me and asked if I spoke English. They had gotten on the wrong train at the airport and were in need of help. During our conversation they switched back and forth between Spanish and English but I managed to understand it. That has just re-affirmed my desire to brush up on my Spanish.

It never fails I posted this last night and then on the plane an our later another event occurred on topic so I decided to amend the post. I thought I was becoming pretty good at identifying accents. The gentleman next to me sounded like he had an Irish accent, when I asked him how long he had lived in Holland he said "All my life." He says he gets that question all the time as it is not common to find a Dutchman that speaks English with an Irish accent.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Adventures in Amsterdam

I traveled out of Gatwick airport on Monday for what was supposed to be a quick trip to Holland and back. I'm still here and won't be leaving until Thursday but I digress. At the airport and on the plane I encountered examples of capitalism at work. There were vending machines in the airport that were selling books. This of course was in addition to the book stores in the waiting lounge, I didn't stop to see how much the markup on the books were.

My second encounter was capitalism masked as charity. The flight I was on was selling lottery tickets where all proceeds from the tickets went to charity. As they went on to explain if you won between 1 and 20 pounds that was redeemed on the food for sale or in the airmall store. Of course trying to buy something for the exact amount you won was probably going to be quite a challenge which most likely would result in spending more than your winnings. In case you're wondering I did not buy a lottery ticket.

As I mentioned earlier I was supposed to be in and out in a day but once I got here other items popped up which required me to stay for the week. The hotel around the corner from where I was working is booked for the week so I stayed in a "city hotel." It was a very basic accommodation no reception, no bar, just a bunch of rooms. The rooms were nice however the beds were 2 twin beds pushed together. Not very comfortable especially since there was a gap between the beds. Since I had a meeting in Amsterdam on Wednesday morning I decided to stay in the city tonight, I even managed to walk around for a little while. Across from the train station was a 3 storey parking garage for bicycles, thousands and thousands of bikes were racked. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera.

At lunch I generated a number of laughs at my strange eating habits. When they opened the cupboard to take out the bread and peanut butter I saw bags and bags of chips. I asked if I could have a few and they were stunned that I would want to eat chips with my sandwich. Chips are for eating with drinks from what I was told. Nobody would even try having chips with lunch, however I get talked into trying all kinds of different foods.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Mothering Sunday

Overall this was a busy weekend for people in the UK. Friday was "Red Nose Day" a fund raiser for Comic Relief. Saturday was St Patrick's Day and the final of the 6 nations tournament, and then today was Mothering Sunday. It's been interesting to see the commercials and gifts for Mum's and Nanna's. After doing a little research on wikipedia I found out that different countries celebrate Mother's Day on different days of the year. Father's Day however is celebrated on the same day in the UK as in the US.