Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A far cry from Rabbit Hutch Towers

In our own personal tribute to the way Whitney lived her life, TLOML and I have moved into a crack house.
Original architectural features

Who needs furniture?

Until about a year ago, this place was occupied by an elderly lady who last decorated during the Thatcher era. Since then it has remained empty, a rambling and fusty palace for dust and spiders to gather. It isn't actually a crack house, to be clear. But you can see how if the wrong squatters moved in, it could work as one.

In about a year's time it will be a gorgeous, spacious, high-spec, family home. We are lucky enough to know the outstanding family who will be moving in: a brilliant couple and three particularly bright and entertaining daughters (the youngest is only 9 months but already displays her older sisters' fine sense of humour).

But until the builders move in, rip everything out and make it all shiny and new, it's our little crack house. We have our home comforts: a day bed, a kettle and a couple of mugs, and the windowsill for a fridge. Since the photo above was taken we've fashioned a stand-in wardrobe from the hooks on the walls. We have about 5 times the floor space of the Rabbit Hutch - even if you discount the creepy lower ground floor with spooky abandoned dolls and a hissing, crackling light fitting - although admittedly there is no doorman. We're moments from Parliament Hill Fields, and spitting distance from a pub with free wifi and a decent curry house.

If our generous hosts, the Outstanding Family, aren't careful we could get quite comfortable...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Slim pickings

Apologies to regular readers for the extended absence. Big Corp UK welcomed me back to the country with open arms, a number of face-to-face meetings, and a lot of time consuming urgent pieces of work. It was not quite the soft landing I was hoping for. Dentist appointments were cancelled, alarm clocks were set for rude o'clock, and my plans to spend my days mooching around North London looking at flats - and my evenings writing jolly posts about it - were shattered.

TLOML and I did at least make a bit of a start on our flat hunt. We started with the estate agents in Kentish Town, who cover Dartmouth Park, where I most want to live. The red dots on this map show our route, from one end of the high street to the other:

We visited 8 estate agents, with our very reasonable set of requirements (2-3 bedrooms, outside space) and what we have been told is a good budget. There are, apparently, only two flats in all of Kentish Town that meet our spec. Just two. Imagine if I'd told them about TLOML's dreams of two bathrooms and a wine cellar: we'd have been laughed out of town.

Apparently 'when people move into this area, they never leave'. As a long standing fan of NW5 I can understand that inclination. But at the same time, it just can't actually be true, surely? Literally, no one ever moves? No young family ever decides to stop renting 3 bedrooms in NW5 and buy 4 bedrooms in N19? No old lady decides to give up her period garden flat for a new build with a balcony? No one ever dies? (Not that I'm wishing anyone dead. But give it time... I could go there).

Welcome to the neighbourhood where no-one ever moves. Which rather begs the question: if no-one ever moves how come there are so many estate agents?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

7am, Heathrow
 TLOML got there before me, and after a quick hello I insisted on posing for this photo. Which I know is odd. But I had this great idea about how cute it would be to there waiting with my little sign: I at least wanted a photo of my (poorly executed) idea.

He's here! Let the next chapter begin! Flathunting in NW5 tomorrow...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent.

In Rio they call it Carnival, and go about like this:
In New Orleans they call it Mardi Gras and this happens:

In London we call it Pancake Day and this is how we roll:

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Which - without giving away too much of TLOML's identity - is brilliant. Because it is the day he arrives in London to start our new life. Despite my Christian upbringing, I'll be celebrating Ash Wednesday with a joyful exuberance this year.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A return to the rut

This post is dedicated to two special groups of readers:
1. Those people (pity them!) who have never spent time on Hampstead Heath and wonder why I have such a bee in my bonnet about living close by.
2. Those New Yorkers (thumb your teeth at them!) who think London's weather is relentlessly awful.

Today I renewed my commitment to a longstanding tradition. As per the NW5 tradition/ routine, I took a constitutional yomp across Hampstead Heath, with 3 friends and traditional 'what did you do last night' chat. It was a gorgeous, crisp, chilly, sunny day.
See? We do get blue skies here (I shouldn't mention yesterday's wall-to-wall drizzle..)
We headed, without discussion, up Parliament Hill, the natural starting point for any Heath yomp. It was the first time I've walked up there for at least a year. The view which was so familiar - from the many years when I walked up Parliament Hill at least once a week - has changed significantly. 'The Shard' is really shockingly tall! Anyway, that's not news to anyone who lives in London and I was roundly mocked for commenting, so I won't comment further.
It isn't just me who thinks The Shard is ridiculously tall. It's just that everyone else got over it months ago.

Then we struck out, north across the Heath, to the Pergola, which is something of a hidden gem. The pergola is an elevated walkway, essentially an Edwardian folly, in the grounds of Leverhulme House (the Hampstead pile of soap baron, Mr Lever, of Unilever fame, now converted into fancy flats). Even at this time of year, with bare branches and barely a bud in sight, it's a lovely place to walk.
Someone else's pic of the pergola, in summer. I think you get the picture though.

Our meander took us South via the Vale of Health, a cluster of cottages where poor people used to live when Hampstead was a fashionable spa town. And back, along the avenue which cuts East-West across the Heath, to the Dartmouth Park side. Where the tennis courts and good places to eat and drink are.

As often happens when I mooch around NW5 with friends, we bumped into some other friends doing much the same meander. Hot chocolate at Kalendar as the final light faded was the perfect end to the afternoon.
On the home straits, as the sun sets over Hampstead
And that pleasant, and rather pedestrian ('scuse the pun) afternoon, is just one of the many reasons I'm so happy to be home. The NW5 comfort bubble is as comfortable and enjoyable as ever.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Reflections on Rio

I'm about to head to the airport, 8 hours before my flight is due to leave. Apparently during carnival it takes 3 hours to cover what is normally a 30 minute drive. The more I hear about this carnival the less I like the sound of it.
FYI Big Corp is just on the coast, just to the left of Christ the Redeemer's head. So I did get pretty close at least.
As I plan to head out, I note with some regret that I never did make it up to that big Jesus statue. Three times I tried, and three times I was foiled by slowness and shifting schedules. By slowness I mean the 25 minutes it takes to FedEx something (how hard can it be to hand someone an envelope?). By shifting schedules I mean meetings which were due to be over by 5pm, not even beginning till 6.30pm.

I'm afraid I have not been able to explode any regional stereotypes this week. Think Cariocas sit around in budgie smugglers munching on cheesy balls, saying 'ta bom' as their obligations slide away? Well, it's not a million miles from the truth.

For what it's worth I've turned a little Carioca myself. I spent most of my days in the office eating cheesy balls and dreaming of  hitting the beach. Which is odd - and a little frustrating - since I came here in a big hurry for some super urgent and important meetings (which have achieved mythical status in my mind: what would we have talked about? did they ever really exist? will they ever happen?).

But I cannot grumble. For I did get to hit the beach, for a run or a stroll at the very least, most days. While it was a shame not to be in London, since TLOML wasn't there either, I feel okay about putting the flat hunt on hold. And I did get those amazing toucan flips flops.

As I write this, I heard the news that we finally got the visa approved. So it is with a skip in my step that I will, um, sit in 3 hours of traffic... Just a few more days and the real business of settling into London life can begin in earnest.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cheesy balls

Last time I was in Brazil I think the experience that had the biggest impact on me was the constant munching on pao de queijo. Or, as I named them, little cheesy balls. On that last trip I was in a meeting room solidly from 8am till 7pm and the guy that wheeled in a hostess trolley with a plate of hot cheesy balls, every couple of hours, was a welcome sight. I missed him when I left.

This time I'm all about the bolinhos de bacalhau. Or, as I call them, little fishy balls. When in Rome / Rio, I guess. Not a day has passed without me eating some of these little fried, salty treats. And with just two days left of my trip, I aim to maintain that record.

I haven't abandoned the pao de queijo, though. Only this time I am roaming free in Big Corp, with hardly any meetings, which means no meals-on-wheels. Instead I have to order for myself like a grown up. The girls at the coffee shop in the office don't even attempt to stifle their smirk as I attempt 'pao de queijo'. There's an invisible 'sh' in there that I never quite place at the right point. How I wish I could effect a decent Carioca accent, with all those sshs and qush and hshsh sounds. Or at least, that the girls in the coffee shop spoke sufficient English for me to order 'little cheesy balls' instead.

Undeterred, I have managed to scarf a fair number of these little cheesy balls. Today I had a working lunch and this is how it worked:

Of course, like all enjoyable food experiences, I find myself wondering if I can recreate it at home. There as a many recipes for pao de queijo online as the number of cheesy and fish balls I have eaten this week. That is to say, a lot. Some require overcooked potatoes as a base, others boiling milk and olive oil, and the easiest one looks a bit like a Yorkshire pudding recipe, only with tapioca and cheese instead of flour.

Sadly I think it will be a little while before I get a kitchen of my own to play in. But when I do... well, I'm adding 'making cheesy balls' to my daydream future life, back in the NW5 comfort bubble.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On ruts and routines

The same ex who accused me of 'living in an NW5 comfort bubble' also repeatedly told me I was 'in a rut'. He was right on both counts - and I was proud to concede so.

Why be ashamed of my lovely comfortable rut? A walk on the Heath every Sunday afternoon, followed by tea and Antiques Roadshow, or a pint. Saturday afternoons rifling through stock in 'The Shop' (so named because the Wonder Twin and I went there so frequently it needed no name). A regular grocery shopping run through the gourmet delights of Kentish Town (B&M Seafood, Phoenicia for baba ganoush and humous, and Earth for all the essentials). A twice weekly walk up to the Ladies Pond in the summer. A monthly pedicure at Tips and Toes. Poker nights, petanque on the Heath, and the occasional cricket match. And so on. This very pleasant, well established rhythm wove its way through a wonderful group of friends and some favourite pubs, parks and cafes, and yes, it was all very cosy.

When TLOML uprooted me to LA it did not take long to establish a new comfortable rut. Our regular run out to Nobu, followed by an ice cream from Malibu Yoghurt. Monday lunches at Coogies, to get out of the maids' hair. A sunset stroll on the beach, and my almost daily forays out on my bike, Doris (for so the Euro has christened her). Gin rummy and whisky on the deck. Pizza nights. Bouillabaisse nights. Our couples workout at the Pepperdine track.

In some ways we never really settled in New York, with our hearts stretched as they were between Malibu and London. But we did manage to get into a lovely comfortable rut there too, fairly quickly. Our regular walk down to Chelsea Market, sprees in the Lobster Place, cocktails at the Tipsy Parson, and coffee at Joe. Detours past Stella or Artichoke on the way home. My new running routine along the river. Nights in with Battlestar Galactica. And, of course, the ritual of bouillabaisse.

Living as I am in limbo, I am without routine. And yet, my ability to create a routine will not be constrained. 10 days in Rio is plenty of time to form a nice comfy rut. I quickly established the same breakfast every day - fruit, cereal and yoghurt, and I don't even look at the 'sausage pie' or the pastry baskets - and a gentle 3 mile jog along the sea front. I've managed to catch E! news every night, and BBC World News 'Hard Talk' every morning, which is a very edifying TV routine. And a highlight of my routine is my expresso duplo in the office, which always comes with a tiny little biscuit on it. The treat for me is guessing what the little biscuit will be.



Above all, it's just nice to feel at home. Guessing what today's little biscuit will be is a small way of feeling at home.

Still, I am not at home. And I'm dying to get there and get back in my rut. Since I last lived in London some of the parameters have moved: pubs have changed hands, people have had babies and even, gasp!,moved to the country. Still, the foundations of dear friends and excellent pubs remain.

I remain convinced our visa, and therefore TLOML's arrival in London, is imminent. Even though we'll be a little bit nomadic at first, I know it won't take long to establish a new routine. Hopefully one that involves as much as possible of my old routine - expanded and enhanced by TLOML's presence.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rio bucket list

Most people who know Rio recommend the following bucket list:
  1. Chillaxin' on the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon
  2. A trip to Christ the Redeemer statue
  3. The cable car ride to, and views from, Sugarloaf Mountain
  4. A favela tour
Other items, like the Ipanema 'hippie market', visiting Lapa to admire the Santa Teresa aquaduct, and a walk along the shores of the saltwater lagoon which lies at the foot of the mountains behind Ipanema. Oh, and grilled cheese on Ipanema beach.

I'm afraid I didn't do very well.

I tried, really I did. On Friday, I escaped the office early just as the clouds that had hung about all day started to clear. I resolved to go to the Christ the Redeemer statue forthwith. It was 5pm, and all I had to do was drop my FedEx package off at the concierge. So I had plenty of time for the 30 minute cab ride to the station - to catch the last train to the statue, at 6pm.

Dropping the FedEx package required 2 forms, 4 phone calls, and literally took twenty five minutes. But as I hopped into a cab at 5.30pm, I was confident I would still have time to make that last train.

By 5.50pm I had been sitting in traffic, stationery for 15 minutes, watching clouds gather again and rain start to spit. I decided to skip it. The good news is that I'd spent most of my cab ride alongside that lagoon I'd been recommended to visit, so at least I could cross that off my list.
My trip to Christ the Redemer. He's up there on that hill, and this is as close as I got.
Instead of visiting that legendary landmark, I wandered along Ipanema's beach and had a nice early dinner at a lovely restaurant The Euro recommended.

On Saturday I decided it was too cloudy to bother with going up tall places for views. I also decided against the favela tour, having read that the only way to do it without being exploitative is to do a proper one, where the tour company contributes significantly to community projects. But the proper ones take a whole day, and I only have two of those days to burn. Plus I read a few reviews saying things like 'it's fascinating to see how theses slums have working electricity and running water' and decided that just wasn't fascinating enough. I've seen City of God, will that do? I'm making my contribution by relentlessly overtipping anyone who looks like they might live in a favela.

Instead of visiting statues and slums, I slept till 11am, went for a run, and took a cab up to Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is a sweet, old, hillside neighbourhood where I ate shrimp pasties. I walked down to Lapa, which I had imagined was the Kentish Town of Rio: secretly hip, full of interesting, old, independent shops and places to eat. In fact it was just quite dirty. Still, I bought some cheap fruit and strode towards 'Centro' (downtown) to check out this cool 1970s cathedral:

Twenty minutes of circling this monster, down deserted, graffiti-covered streets, and I gave up. I hopped into the first cab back to Copacabana. There was still plenty of time left in the day for some lying in the (patchy) sunshine.

On Sunday I decided to cut out the middle man: all that 'trying to see stuff' bit. I headed straight for the beach. I took a long walk along Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches. I wandered into Ipanema and vaguely 'looked' for that hippie market, but when it didn't appear on the couple of blocks I tried, I quickly headed back to the beach.
My Rio sightseeing highlight

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I have been a very bad and lazy tourist. I have ticked Item #1 off that bucket list several times over, and that is all. It's been very nice though. My only regret? I wish I'd managed to find that grilled cheese seller on Ipanema beach.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hopefully, the final chapter of the comic saga that is our visa application

The mountain of paperwork relating to our visa application grows, as the comedy of errors continues. I say it's a comedy because I assume it will have a happy ending. The calm tone of the nice visa official who told me 'You're just missing a couple of documents now' suggested that the end is, at least, in sight.

But first, we need to provide those documents. The 140pp of evidence was not enough. We omitted to provide a copy of the deeds to my parents' home (our official UK residence), and a notarized copy of my passport. Silly us.

I said to the nice visa official, 'I'm sorry we missed those out. To be honest we have struggled to find guidance on the evidence required'. With a sniff, he told me there is ample guidance on the Border Agency website. I looked again. There really isn't. They direct you to the application form, which is apparently packed full of very clear advice on what to provide. Hmm. Unless I'm missing something, this visa form is pretty devoid of guidance on the required evidence. When this is all over I might just write a strongly worded letter to someone in authority about this form.

Meanwhile, we need to get those documents in the post to the nice visa official in NYC. My dad got on the case of the deeds pretty quickly*, and I just had the small matter of providing a notarized copy of my passport.

The thing is, I'm in Rio, and I don't speak the language. Unless broken Spanish and the odd 'obrigada' count. Fortunately I have some very helpful colleagues with a little bit of time on their hands. They made several, inexplicably long phone calls, with much laughter and words like 'Inglesa'  being bandied about. Not sure what was so funny or why it took so long but I'm very grateful for their patience and good humour. We're actually here to work, not take care of my personal admin, you see.

Instead of spending our Friday morning 'shaping our thinking' in front of a whiteboard, we spent it securing the services of a notary. First, we had to get a 'sworn translation' of my passport. The Brazilian notary won't authenticate something not written in Portugese. Even if it is words like 'NAME/ NOM' and 'SEX/ SEXE'. Rules is rules I suppose.

A lovely rotund man named Riccardo translated my passport overnight, for £20, and threw in two calendars. He also provided a curbside service, coming out in his flipflops, shorts and wifebeater to hand me the translation as we waited in our cab. What's more, I got a free a language lesson: when I said 'Molto obrigada', he scolded me, 'Molto is Italian, here in Brazil we say 'moito'. Now that's good value.

Language lesson over, we headed to the notary office, where trade was pretty slow: three notary dudes stood waiting, dot matrix printers and carbon copy pads at the ready. Five minutes and £10 later I had a fuzzy black and white copy of my passport, notarized in Portugese.
New additions to the paper mountain: several pages of my panicky scrawl, the notes from my colleagues' many phone calls to find me a notary, a free calendar, and oh, yes, a couple of pages of bureaucratic necessities.
I think we are nearly there. Crossing everything that this works...

*Would have been quicker if I'd got the address right. I told him to post it to 84 Third Ave, NY NY, not 845. It's a small detail but that's exactly the kind of muppetry that has extended this process. Fortunately I'm too busy being cross with the Border Agency website to kick myself for minor errors.

Friday, February 10, 2012


I keep seeing women in the Big Corp office wearing halternecks and strappy sundresses. Today I commented, not without a sniff of judgement, that 'Some of these women look as if they're going to the beach'. (For reference, I was wearing a cute faux-Chanel jacket with bracelet sleeves, and a pleated skirt.)

My Brazilian colleague agreed. 'Yes - the beach, or a party,' he laughed, nodding appreciatively. I suppose he didn't mind all that bare tanned skin on show. Funny that.

On reflection, I decided, they probably were. Going to the beach or a party, that is. Or better still, both: a beach party. This is Rio after all.

Living by the beach turns everyone a little scruffy. I rarely got out of soft jersey and battered denim back in Malibu. And that beachy style is not just superficial. Something about the sound of surf, the smell of salt air, and a prospect involving sand and a watery horizon, just forces you to unwind. Being by the sea is just simply, purely, happy-making.

Maybe I'm a bit skewed, because my childhood was spent in a house on a cliff, and even when we moved inland, we were just 4 miles away from the beach. And then, TLOML and I had the happiest of times, living in bliss in our little surf shack in Malibu. For me, by the seaside is my happy place.

So I was trying to develop a theory about how people are happier if they live by the sea. I haven't got far on the mental health benefits, despite rigourous research much Googling. One of the top five 'happiest countries in the world' doesn't even have a coastline (Switzerland, if you're interested).

There's plenty of gubbins about the physical health benefits, though. Fresh air and the outdoor lifestyle that a beach beckons you into, are good for your heart, weight, and so on. That's clearly true - but I'm thinking not of my waistline but of that skip the seaside puts in my step.
What is that haze that lies over Rio? I think it's just the dust caused by the friction of many goodlooking people living by the sea. Happiness dust, I'd call it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Travel essentials

I'm trying to rein in my spending at the moment. What with all that boring grown up 'saving for the wedding' stuff, it is not a good time to go around whazzing money up the wall on fripperies.

And yet... Rio has forced me to do just that.

It's not poor planning. I packed the two suitcases I have to live out of till our shipment arrives (some time in March) very carefully. It's hard enough for me to select clothes for a weekend, never mind 6 weeks. I covered all my bases - work, play, snow, spring, exercise - and I even managed to select an outfit for a wedding that was a month away. I would normally select that outfit from a choice of several, the day of the wedding. So it was quite a challenge for my ability to make advance wardrobe decisions and I met it. Accessories and all.

But, clearly, I did not plan to end up in Rio, in the middle of the Brazilian summer.

I did my best to resist the temptation to buy a new holiday wardrobe. I borrowed some basics - shorts, a summery vest, and a skirt - from my Wondertwin. I thought that would suffice.

And yet... and yet... I really, truly, could not spend even one more minute in Copacabana without owning a pair of flipflops with pictures of toucans on them. Obviously.
I wonder if I can claim them on my travel insurance, as an emergency purchase.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Location, location, location

It's not just the title of a brilliant British TV show I really missed in the States. (Selling New York did soften the blow). It's also an important topic of discussion as we plan our hunt for a nest.

Now, I should admit that I have been accused of being a little closed-minded in the past, when it comes to London neighbourhoods. It's all about North London for me. By which I mean, the area around Hampstead Heath. And I say 'the area around Hampstead Heath' but really I mean, quite specifically, Dartmouth Park, which before Ed Miliband moved in was a hidden gem of a neighbourhood. It's close to the Heath, has a couple of excellent gastro pubs, and is leafy and quiet.

I like West London, and East London perfectly fine. I know there are good people, pubs, and parks there too. I even go there sometimes. But I lived so long and was so happy in what one ex called my 'NW5 comfort bubble' that I can't really imagine living anywhere else.

TLOML is far more open-minded (though even he wouldn't seriously entertain living south of the river, thank goodness). Occasionally, to fend off pangs of conscience I look at rental ads in London Fields, or St John's Wood, just to see what's out there. But I quickly scuttle back to the NW5 / NW3 / N6 listings.

A few weeks ago I helpfully printed out and marked up some maps of the area around Hampstead Heath for TLOML. Just so he could apply the same filters as I do to the London landscape. Green are the twenty streets I would most like to live on. Yellow I could, reluctantly, deal with. If the flat was a palace. Red is a no-no. And if it's off the map? Well, it's off the map.
Hmm. Perhaps those accusers have a point. I guess I am pretty narrow-minded.

In my defence, moving to London isn't about going on an exciting voyage of discovery. It's about going home. And home is, well, somewhere up near Hampstead Heath.

I'm not ruling anywhere out yet. As I stayed at the Gambler's pad last week, in the heart of the Eastern yellow zone (that's not an official Ordnance Survey term, but just refers to my map above), I opened my mind to the charms of Kentish Town proper. But it's almost a ten minute walk from the Heath, and I know that sounds silly, but when you're used to being just across the road from it, a ten minute walk sounds awfully far. So my fingers remain tightly crossed we can find a suitable nest somewhere in the green zone.

Meanwhile, TLOML's visa application is safely in the hands of the good people at the UK Border Agency, and he, marooned without passport, is kipping on our favourite New Yorker's sofa. I am in a hotel on Copacabana beach, gazing past Rio's palm trees, daydreaming of grey-skied Kentish Town.

Admittedly my situation is more fun than his, but still, we're both in limbo. And I'm trying to be patient, but oh! I can't wait for the flat hunt to begin.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My return to London, in numbers

You know, like those annoying, those lazy newspaper articles. I see now why they do it. It's an easy way to summarise some loosely linked thoughts in a, well, yes, lazy way.

So here it is:
  • 6 nights at Number 25, the Gambler's flat. A very stylish, comfortable bachelor pad, with a great big telly and some lovely mid-century furniture.
  • Three solid hours with each of my London goddaughters. If I had a competition for which of them was the brightest, sweetest and funniest, they would tie.
  • 3 favourite bus routes. 134, C2, 46, getting me from NW5 to wherever I need to be. I love London buses. Disproportionately so.
  • 30 hours, at least, of BBC News 24 ...and about the same of of Radio 4. I'm now fully up to speed with the Archers, the cricket, and all that boring-yet-fascinating background information you don't know you're picking up but will quote in a conversation sometime very soon.
  • 8 to 10 cups of tea, and 2 glasses of wine, with each of my Handmaidens-of-Honour (the HoHs). Deep, deep joy at the long, langourous chats that can happen when they aren't being squinched between two Transatlantic flights, or conducted via Skype.
  • £1.50 for a perfect Americano from the Wine Cellar, Kentish Town's long-standing Portugese deli. And I didn't crack and throw in a pastel de nata, those delicious little custard tarts they sell.

By my standards, that's a pretty good week in Kentish Town. And only about 2000 'I miss you' texts sent to TLOML.

And now... I'm off for 10 days in Rio.

Annoyingly I am leaving Rio the day the carnival - that massive, world famous, street party - starts. (It's the price of a visa to stay another night - I just can't do it). So I imagine the number of passenger on my flight home will not be much higher than 1.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Small changes

Schlepping around London catching up with friends, shopping, and just generally living London life, I find it much improved, since I last lived here in 2009. Back then I already thought it was practically perfect in every way, so these small tweaks and minor enhancements are lovely cherries on the top of my London cake.

The most obvious improvements are probably pretty well documented. Like the Boris bikes, and all the new wheelchair access points to the Tube. Also much better is the Overland - for decades a bit of secret between those North of the river who need to cut across East to West. I have always used it to get from Gospel Oak to see friends in Islington, Hackney and Chiswick. Instead of those dirty, old, sardine tin-style carriages, the trains are now big, frequent, and all shiny and clean.

The wider pavement at Oxford Circus, which used to be a horrible pinch point, is brilliant. And it looks like that horrible busy, jostling narrow stretch of pavement outside the old Astoria will be much improved when it is revealed as a gorgeous new 'plaza'. Though I suppose it's a shame the Astoria had to go, but I assume GAY has moved on somewhere bigger and better. I saw Madder Rose there when I was about 19 and can still remember the smell of stale vomit and those black stick carpets.
I probably should be sad it's gone. But I'm not really.

And I'm sure the service is better than it used to be. I was worried I'd miss American-style service in shops. I'm thinking of that classic British shop girl welcome, where they glance up as you enter the shop and then immediately resume texting or playing Angry Birds. But on the Chiswick High Road, and on Oxford Street, I have been greeted with eye contact, hellos and offers of help.

Of all the improvements I've noticed so far, my favourite is the least noticeable.

It's the dropping of the stupid highlighted 'ON' on all those Mayor of London-sponsored communications with LONDON on them. All the tube maps seem now to have restored the name LONDON to its natural state. I think this is a very good thing. (For more on London's logos, read this fascinating blog.)

Aaah, that's better

It's the little things that make the difference, I guess.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Unprecedented snowfall. Unless you count last year.

The roofdeck at my friend The Gambler's fabulous flat, where I am staying. I think I'll eat breakfast inside tomorrow.

It's snowing in London: thick, and deep and lovely. Big fluffy snowflakes are still coming down, and even scruffy old Kentish Town looks pristine, all covered in a blanket of white. Victorian railings look even more Victorian when they are dusted with snow. And the mismatched paving slabs are better hidden too. Just when I thought I couldn't love London any more, it went and got a new white coat.
Prince of Wales Road, from The Gambler's window. Trust me, it doesn't always look this pretty.
Snowfall is rare in London. Snow that settles is even rarer. In fact, you only see snow like this every twenty years.

Which is funny, because in the winter of 2010/11 there was a crazy amount of snow, the likes of which you only see every twenty years. And remember that violent cold snap with all that heavy snow in the winter of 2009/10? That too was the kind of snow you only see every twenty years.
Last year's unprecedented snow

Hmmm. Either we've used up the next sixty years of snow... or there might be something in all this talk of climate chaos after all.

Which is a bummer, partly because it discredits me. I've been vehemently insisting - to all those New Yorkers who disparage the English climate - that 'the weather in New York is SO much more extreme' and 'we NEVER get snow or temperatures below freezing'.

Clearly I am wrong. It used to be true but it isn't any more. And yet, I'm not the only Londoner who hasn't caught up with reality yet. Londoners really don't handle this weather well at all. Tonight on my short walk through Kentish Town I saw a man wearing a blazer over a shirt, with no scarf or gloves on. Another man in canvas plimsolls. And a girl in jazz shoes, bare ankles and leggings.

People, it's below freezing, and it's been snowing for five hours! You'd be laughed off the island of Manhattan in that get up.

2009's unprecedented snow. Note the woman without clothes and all the flimsy shoes. Not a pair of boots among them!
I never thought I'd say this, but it is time to succumb to the appeal of the duvet coat. Make like New Yorkers and wrap up for goodness sake!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The continuing tales of Isadora Watts

A couple of kind readers have asked whether I plan to continue my blog. After all, I suppose it was about my life in America, and all the funny things those Americans say and do. And that chapter has now closed.

But my life is still pretty transatlantic. I am noticing all sorts of things about London that I had previously taken for granted. Like how nice the tube smells. I'm not kidding, I really do like it. And how freeing it is to be able to 'jaywalk', as Americans put it. And how they ask you how many bags you want at M&S - which I much prefer to the Gristedes approach of giving you 2 bags for a pint of milk even though you have repeatedly said 'no bag thanks' (must be my accent).

Plus, the whole 'Eastbound' thread is not over yet. We have some adventures ahead, starting, I hope, with TLOML's successful visa application. The process should only take a couple of weeks but given the length of our evidence submission, they may need more time...
The 140 pages of evidence attached to our visa application
When TLOML arrives we will embark on our hunt for a flat with American style amenities: 1 bathroom per person, a waste disposal, draught-free windows, etc. They're not impossible dreams but still rather hard to find in the converted 19th century townhouses of North London.

And then there'll be all the fun of watching TLOML assimilate. Hearing him grumble about the length of swimming pools and the reluctance of waiters to provide tapwater will be entertaining, as will the novelty of him being a foreigner and saying daft things like 'sidewalk' and 'fanny pack'.

Okay, so I haven't really sold it very well. I will be blogging about bureacracy, flat hunting and well-worn language difference cliches. But I will try to make it entertaining. So please, do stick with me...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Moving home

I'm home. Back in my old 'hood, staying at a much-loved friend's much-loved flat in the heart of dear old Kentish Town.

Actually, since home is where the heart is, technically I am not really home. My heart remains in New York. TLOML is still there, sorting out his visa.

We may have been a little overconfident when we made our initial visa application. We were so sure of the outcome that we didn't investigate the process particularly closely. So when the application form stated 'You will be required to provide evidence of your relationship history and plans to marry', we just blithely assumed that we would be asked for that evidence further down the line. A week later the application came back, rejected, because we had not provided any evidence. Very frustrating, and a very expensive mistake.

We won't make the same omission second time around. In a frenzied day, between considering a Vegas wedding, running over the precise meaning of the phrase 'you will be...' time and time again, and of course doing all our leaving NY errands, we managed to amass over 140 pages of evidence of our relationship. TLOML organised and indexed it with lawyerly precision.

It's a watertight application, now we know what we're actually doing. Still, while it's in process, TLOML has to stay in New York.
The new visa application. Solid.

Meanwhile I had to return to London, and start work. I felt strangely bereft when I left Manhattan yesterday. I wasn't sure if it was sadness at waving goodbye to homeless, visa-less TLOML, or a poignant moment as the US chapter of my life has closed. Whatever it was, leaving New York on my one way flight was not the purely positive experience one might expect, given how long I've looked forward to moving home. Yes, I definitely felt a bit wobbly.

And then... and then I landed. I haven't been here since last summer, which is the longest I've ever been away.  (Shamefully, I returned to London 4 times in my first 3 months of living in LA.). London is just wonderful. Maybe it's the pre-Olympic clean up operation. Maybe it was the early morning sunshine, before the inevitable grey skies gathered. Maybe it's just wish fulfilment. But I have never seen London look so lovely, all at once friendly, elegant, and welcoming.

Now all I need is TLOML.