Monday, 2 November 2009

Food for thought

I had been warned it was difficult being a vegetarian when travelling. And yep Madrid sort of proved that.

Well technically I’m not a vegetarian; I do eat meat. But I have a phobia of chicken (I blame 5th form food technology), British beef is, well, not the same as New Zealand beef (insert “chewy” here), the price of lamb in London is a little too exorbitant for my monthly wage, and pork really doesn’t do it for me. On the plus side, I do eat seafood – as long as it’s not raw, isn’t slimy, and doesn’t come in a shell.

Yes some would say I’m a fussy eater (and mum I know what you’re thinking). But I will eat pretty much any vegetable. That’s got to balance it all out, surely. Plus vegetables are so versatile and when cooked properly they are anything but boring.

However, the Spanish capital Madrid is not what I would call a vegetarian Mecca.

Ok yes they do eat a lot of vegetables – but only when mixed into meat dishes. Madrid doesn’t really have a meat and three veg sort of cuisine, while salads are pretty much non-existent. And according to our tapas guide, if you’re a meat eater but don’t eat pork then you are considered a vegetarian in Spain, and in his words “you’re screwed” food-wise.

Great, so there I am starting out on the wrong foot in a country where eating is practically a national institution.

Not only am I not allowed to eat dinner before 9pm, I’m being forced to eat meat.

Actually the first two nights in Madrid weren’t too bad – aubergine and pasta dishes – and then we realised we were eating in an Italian restaurant. Go figure.

Of course I stayed away from paella – rice and meat (and some veggies) – but only because I was told Madrid is not a coastal city. Enough said.

But tapas, surely you can’t go wrong with tapas. Tasty bite-size morsels of food, which, funnily enough, you always think is good for a diet but then you end up eating more than you bargained for.

So, what have we got here? Pork, pork, chicken, cured ham, pork, anchovies, weird black-pudding-type salami, pungent-smelling God-knows-what. Right, so that tapas I had in Mayfair is a little different then to the traditional Spanish stuff. Diet anyone?

Actually that diet is looking pretty attractive when the one vegetarian tapas dish I find – grilled aubergine – turns out to be nine euros on closer inspection. Nine euros? For one slice of grilled aubergine? Is someone taking the mickey?

And lunch – I’m still not 100% sure what Spaniards eat for lunch. All I wanted was a sandwich shop. Though according to the travel books it is often a three course meal. Which makes sense when you think siesta.

Of course the food wasn’t all as bad as I’ve made it out to be. I can’t complain about the drinks. Sangria – now we’re talking…

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

In the blink of an eye

London is blessed with a plethora of museums and art galleries. From old operating equipment and pickled specimens to canal boats and giant cracks in the floor classed as “modern art”, it’s a paradise for anyone who is into antiquity, culture and the downright weird.

Now I don’t know about you, but I can only hack a museum or art gallery for a maximum of about two hours. After that my feet are sore, my posture goes and everything I’ve read is starting to evaporate into the ether. And this after only venturing into one corner of the museum – there’s still three floors to go.

So it comes down to a choice – do I give up and go home or do I rest my feet and partake in a cup of overpriced coffee?

Ah ha and there’s the catch. So much for a free outing in London. Those wily marketing managers have caught on to something here – let’s provide for our tired and thirsty punters who have completed a two-hour museum stint. Their eyesight is fuzzy from the exhibit’s small print and blood sugar levels are running low – oh gee wiz how convenient that the museum comes with its own cafeteria. And with a £5 price tag for a cup of coffee, this is the perfect scam (well I suppose someone has to pay the cleaner).

So how do you get around all this and avoid the pricey afternoon snack?

Simple answer – speed walk.

It comes highly recommended if you are a time-is-of-the-essence type person.

For myself, I can successfully say I have “done” the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum to those not familiar with London). Yep, two hours in and out – walked past practically every exhibit (the iron gatepost exhibit twice) and had time to queue for the ladies.

The trick is to speed walk – as in don’t stop walking. None of this dawdling, taking your time. I’m talking brisk striding here. You’ve come to the museum for a purpose and that is to walk every floor, every section, in as little time as possible.

Sure there is no time to contemplate the massive beauty of the Egyptian sculptures or read the fine print in the rug section, but seriously it would just go in one ear and out the other anyway.

And ok I admit, you might look like one of those fun-fair mechanical clown faces that rhythmically move their heads from side to side, but this is London. There is always too much to see and not enough time to do it in.

Speed walking, my friend, is the way of the future.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Classical torture

When I was 12 years old I went to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. I remember it as one of the most boring experiences of my life. As a 12-year-old it was like watching paint dry while sitting in an extremely uncomfortable chair and being forbidden to either a) move or b) talk. In other words, pure torture.

Back then, I was clearly lacking in sophistication and cultural understanding. But now days my mother would be proud, having finally found an appreciation of classical music – and actually, to be honest, I quite enjoy it.

Hence my recent outing to the proms.

The chairs are just as uncomfortable but the music is considerably better.

I was having a lovely time. I talked to a nice Egyptian lad who had extremely white teeth (I’m not sure why that was important but for some reason it stood out) and by the end of the first half I was thinking this was all jolly good.

Ah, but I spoke too soon.

Some little monster in the row in front was clearly finding the music and uncomfortable chair hard going and so had decided to play on his mobile phone. There was no sound other than the incessant tap, tap, tap of the keys, which was annoyingly not in time, and out of tune, with the music.


At first I just tried to ignore it. But after 15 minutes it was starting to do my head in. Were the people on either side of this chap – possibly his parents – not finding this equally annoying? Did they not want to tell him to behave himself? (Ok so he was possibly in his late teens/early 20s, but that’s beside the point).

Thankfully a few minutes in and he stops. I practically breathe an audible sigh of relief.

But that was short lived. He then starts fidgeting wildly and has a couple of whispered conversations with his companions. Meanwhile, if looks could kill he would have been dead ten times over by this stage.

I briefly wonder if this was what I was like when I was 12.

The thought soon passes when he goes back to the dratted mobile phone. I try sitting there with one finger in my ear as an attempt to block out the taps.

But with the finger in the ear routine not being particularly successful (damn the excellent acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall) I start to seriously considering leaning over and asking the little s***head if he could please stop being so bleep, bleep (insert rude words here) annoying. But how do you do that politely? How many swear words would be one too many? How can I ensure he doesn’t start up again just to spite me? Is it ethical to confiscate his phone? Or should I just hit him over the head and be done with it?

All this is going through my head (while I’m not concentrating on the lovely music in the background). And then I think, what if he has ADHD? If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be wrong to ask him to behave himself? It’s not like he can help having a low attention span (though I’m sure television advertisements have something to do with it). I mean, that is actually quite nice that his parents – assuming his companions are his parents – even brought him along to such a concert.

And actually the situation could be worse. He could have Tourette Syndrome and be screaming out obscenities every time the percussionist hit the timpani – and considering how often the current piece involved the timpani that would be pretty damn annoying.

So in the end I refrain from saying anything. Instead I just sit there fuming (and berating myself that a) I don’t have the courage to say anything, and b) for actually imagining hitting the guy on the head).

An hour goes by. The piece ends. I can’t believe I spent more time focussing on the mobile tapper than the concert. Maybe better luck next time.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Getting under the skin

London is the place if you want to see the weird and wonderful. And the Body Worlds exhibition is no exception – expect giggling teenagers and voyeurs.

The exhibition, held at the O2 Bubble, has a number of models on show, which are all real human bodies donated at death for medical science. They have been preserved using a technique called plastination and are displayed in various poses, skin removed and cut open to show the anatomy of the human body – all in the name of education.

It’s sort of gruesome and probably not recommended when hung-over.

They don’t smell, which is a plus, but some of the exhibits do look like their sweating. And viewing them, other than the desire not to get too close, is the overwhelming thought of beef jerky.

But it was the eyelashes that did it for me. Here were these models stripped of their skin, eyeballs staring unseeing from their sockets and still complete with a set of bleached eyelashes. One word – creepy.

In fact the hair in general wasn’t particularly pleasant. One model whose skin had been removed and modelled next to the body, like a piece of clothing, included all the body hairs – if you get my drift. To top it off the soles of his feet were dirty.

With gentle music playing in the background there was a hushed silence as people viewed the models and had quiet discussions about various parts of the anatomy. The quiet was often punctuated by the giggles of a teenager who thought some body part was worth a laugh.

The R16 room was considerably more, shall we say, lively where a man and woman model were in the midst of a passionate sexual act (well as passionate as you can be when you’re dead and your skin has been removed). The abdomen of the woman had been cut away so as to view the erect member in place. It’s not like this was anything new – I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen the images in sex-ed class – yet everyone crowded around staring intently and whispering furiously behind their hands.

What I couldn’t understand was the point of an R16 room when the room next door, albeit not so graphic, was still along the same lines with various organs on show.

Besides the plasticised models there were exhibits of diseased lungs from smoking, haemorrhages in the brain, and a cross section of an obese person.

But top on the list was a plasticised giraffe. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Detesting the dentist

Ok so call me weird, but I actually quite like going to the dentist. It’s sort of therapeutic having my mouth yanked in various directions as the tartar is chipped off my teeth. Maybe I see it as absolving my sins so to speak, some puritanical flagellation to make up for any bad things I’ve done.

Of course, I’m not stupid and I avoid seeing a dentist for as long as possible. However, I clearly pissed off a lot of people since I last went almost three years ago because my latest trip went from mere flagellation to outright torture.

All I wanted was a check up and a clean. It wasn’t like I was asking for a root canal or a full on extraction.

It all started on arrival where I was forced to wait half an hour because they were running late – how at 10am you’re running late I’m not sure, but anyway. But there were no magazines to read – unless you could understand Portuguese. So all I could do was admire the way the paint had dried on the walls and get increasingly worried about whether I might need a filling. Now I wasn’t freaking out, but any sane person who has a fear of dentists might have found the wait uncomfortable to say the least.

So finally I get through and hand over my patient survey. Am I taking any medications? No. Do I have a history of heart disease? No. Am I allergic to penicillin? No. How many units of alcohol do I drink a week? I veer on the side of conservatism – um 10 units.

I’m not quite sure of the relevancy of some of the questions. Really, how is arthritis going to affect my dental health?

But once the latex gloves are snapped on and four different items of torture are thrust into my mouth I think they have made a bit of a mistake with the patient survey. They really should have asked: Do you have a phobia of dentists? Where do you rate your pain threshold on a scale of 1 to 10? Do you produce excessive amounts of saliva?

It was a half hour of agony.

Clearly technology has advanced since I last visited the dentist. There was none of this chipping off the tartar with a pick. No, instead it was blasted off with some high-speed supersonic evil device that ended up devouring half my gums at the same time. This was one sadistic dentist. He even had that manic look.

And then, stupid me, agrees to upgrade to a whitening as well, which involved hundreds of sand-like particles being gunned onto my teeth at more supersonic speeds while giving an effective facial dermabrasion at the same time as the particles ricocheted out of my mouth. And all the while I’m trying not to gag on my saliva – those vacuum things really are a great invention but only when used properly.

To top it off, I can’t even notice the colouration difference and all this for some £77. Frickin NHS my arse.

I’ve decided to reassess my views of dentists. After spitting blood for several hours I’ve categorically come to the conclusion that dentists are evil and I am endeavouring to brush my teeth at least twice a day plus flossing to avoid going through that again in the foreseeable future. Oh and from now on I’m going to be good.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Getting stoned

“Got any drugs man?” the scrawny teenager with bad hair asks. One can only assume his eyes are bloodshot, but it’s hard to tell in the 2am darkness.

After the third stumbling random approaches out little group, my friend gets the balls to ask if we look like drug-dealers.

For all intents and purposes we are an unlikely crew – a nurse, another healthcare professional, a teacher, a lawyer and a journalist. Maybe it was the striped purple blanket my lawyer friend was wearing to keep warm that gave the wrong impression – I had dubbed him Joseph and the technicolor dreamcoat.

Indeed, old Joseph seemed to fit in quite well with our surroundings – an eclectic mix of some 35,000 people, druids and hippies, and a mass of rocks plonked in the middle of an English field known simply as Stonehenge.

It was the summer solstice – the shortest night of the year. A big date on the druid, hippy and new age reveller’s calendar.

Every year they come in droves to Stonehenge to pay tribute to the rising sun at the ungodly hour of before 5am.

While the real reason for the existence for the massive stone circle is unclear with much disagreement over its mystical and ritualistic significance, there is the distinct fact that the stones are perfectly aligned along the sun’s axis on rising in midsummer and setting in midwinter.

And for years, people have taken up the opportunity to “camp out” all night to await the first rays of light while seemingly getting away with sampling herbal and synthetic substances despite a strong police presence.

The teenagers asking for drugs are the least interesting of the sun-worshippers. It’s the others that are so alluring – it’s a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” environment.

They wear cloaks, with flowers in their hair and wizened staffs in their hands. Some are in need of a finding a hairdresser, others a shower. Many need to revisit their toilet manners and potty training (in my mind, long grass is not classed as a human toilet).

There are drums of all types, tin whistles and even a guitar played with a bank card. And all the time a lingering pong permeates through the air.

The hard part isn’t really trying to stay awake until the 4.45am sunrise; it is trying to stay warm. Our massive tarpaulin soon becomes a plastic blanket around a group hug. I have to admit the cold is good for one thing – it keeps the nudists at bay.

But if it was warm you were wanting, being crammed in the middle of the stones with several hundred other people dancing to the beat of bongo drums and tin whistles is a pretty good way to go. It is also the place for an inside picture of the summer solstice frequenters – a guy with a shrunken head on the end of a staff, another with a musical instrument a cross between a horn and a didgeridoo. Between foot-stamping and chanting the revellers irregularly whoop and cheer loudly as if calling on the gods. It's a frenzy to say the least.

As sunrise approaches we all stand around waiting with anticipation, almost expecting some giant cavern to open in the centre of the stones and for Armageddon to be upon us.

But it is an anti-climax. Should have guessed the awesome British weather would get in the way. Sun? Ha, there is no sun. And after 15 minutes of waiting, just to check there are no sacrifices of interest, we follow the masses back towards civilisation, a strong coffee and a warm bed.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Shop till you drop

I can see why men can hate clothes shopping. It’s not just the waiting; it’s the people.

Trying to walk down Oxford Street in London is bad enough, but trying to move from rack to rack in Primark is beyond a joke.

First, there is the not-so-subconscious competition between women trying to imitate the £10,000 look of the currently in-vogue celeb.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but when it comes to clothes shopping I prefer my comfy clothes rather than my butt-wedged skinny jeans and monstrous heels – it’s about practicality. But it does mean I’m not on the fashion radar. While this is clearly an advantage for my fellow competitors – because, as they see it, they have right of way – it, however, does little for fighting my corner.

Next, there is actually getting to the clothes.

With several hundred beautified women all swarming around the racks there really isn’t such a word as browsing when it comes to clothes shopping. It’s more swoop and grab; like some sort of evolutionary survival behaviour.

But it also comes down to luck – once having elbowed your way to the rack, finding your size is at times almost impossible. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if there is a vendetta against women who are below the “average size” – no size 10; ha-ha try again. I have been trumped more than once.

Yet, against the survival odds you come out with a pile of clothes to try on only to find a line, worthy of queues for Madonna tickets, snaking its way around the store. Do you give up? Bugger that – not after the torment of hunting.

Now, if you’re shopping savvy you do what every other shopper does – bypass the changing rooms and try the clothes on right there on the shop floor. Sure a coat or jacket; but seriously a pair of trousers?!

Ok so you’re my way inclined and prefer not to bare all to your competitors on the shop floor, so it’s a matter of patience and then finally, halleluiah, you get to the front of the queue only to be told it’s a maximum of six items for each changing room.

Now you have to shuttle back and forth from the changing cubicle replenishing your stock of clothes to try on and all the while envying those girls who were brave enough to drop their drawers out in public, who are probably right now enjoying a fat-free muffin and soy-latte.

The funny thing is, you go through all this for what? No one actually cares what you wear in London. You could probably get away with wearing a garbage bag and not be looked at twice. The truth is, everyone is just too worried about what they look like themselves to worry about the looks of anyone else. Now, where are my stirrup trousers?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Getting back to basics

When I think of camping I have a rather romantic notion in my head – sitting round a camp fire, toasting marshmallows, telling ghost stories or singing songs as someone strums a guitar. And all the while, stars twinkle overhead in a clear black sky.

Well, everyone can dream can’t they?

Thankfully, I am somewhat aware that this vision in my head is only that, a vision; so I thought I was pretty on the ball when it came to my latest adventure.

Our destination was the Isle of Wight. Camping. Not that scary really considering we were in a holiday camp not on some remote outcrop in the middle of nowhere with only a can opener for company. I mean our camping ground even had a pub on site – how cushy is that?

So it’s not like anything could really go wrong, could it?

Well let me tell you, people sometimes forget to mention the finer things when it comes to camping, like it’s a good idea to travel by car not by foot.

Being in a recession and all, it seemed like a pretty intelligent idea to skip the car and choose the cheap option of public transport and foot.

Yeah, intelligent, until we took into account the fact we had to carry a tent, mattress, and a sleeping bag along with our backpack and clothes. And having once been a Girl Guide I also packed toilet paper, bottled water, various bug-fighting sprays and gels, and even an umbrella – just about everything bar the kitchen sink (and wellies, based on some misguided hope that it wouldn’t rain).

It wasn’t like I was travelling light.

First stage of the journey was getting from the house to the tube station. 10 minutes of walking with an extra 10kgs on your back. Not exactly my idea of optimum fun. Then overland train to Southampton, which clearly does not cater for people with backpacks. Then onto a shuttle bus and finally onto the ferry to our destination. But it didn’t end there; we still had to get to the camp ground – only a further delightful 10 minute walk that included an uphill trek.

By the time we finally arrived, some three hours later, my shoulders were bruised, I was permanently bent over at the waist, and a fetid smell was beginning to issue from my armpits.

But really I shouldn’t be complaining; it’s all part of the adventure.

Thankfully the tent went up in one piece and relatively easily, though a mallet for hammering in the pegs would have been a helpful addition (probably in place of the toilet paper, for as it turned out the on-site toilets were fully catered – there was even a hair dryer).

However, as Murphy’s Law would have it my tent decided to break on the second night. Flimsy el-cheapo piece of crap. Some stupid little do-whatsit that held one of those pole thingimies decided to go their separate ways leading to a rather dilapidated tent. Amazingly, I happened to be carrying some safety pins, which went some way to keeping the tent upright, in a collapsed sort of way, for the night. A few gusts of wind though and I would have probably either been a goner or suffocated to death.

Meanwhile, another Murphy’s Law is that it will more than likely rain at some point during the camp adventure. Low and behold, day three, I wake up to the sound of rain on the tent. A little bit more than spitting but not an outright downpour. I was pleased to see that even in its collapsed state my tent still withstood the rain. My friend’s tent, however, was showing minor signs of leakage. It was time to pack up.

So what were the take home messages?

1) While a circle or semi-circle arrangement of tents is great, not so great on a slope, especially if your air mattress angles side on with the slope as every time you turn over you roll off the mattress (this is of course if you even remember to bring a mattress!)

2) Three pairs of socks, winter PJs, thermals, a hoodie and a second hoodie wrapped around the feet is sufficient to keep me warm inside my sleeping bag at night. In the morning with the sun, this set up is very very hot.

3) Always remember to take a torch with you when going in search of the toilet block at 2 o’clock in the morning – sometimes the lights in the toilets don’t go on.

4) If showering, always carry everything in a plastic bag or you are likely to drop some of your clothes on the ground and not realise it until it is too late.

5) While proper chairs and a table might be nice, as long as you remember a bottle opener, cork screw and a pack of cards then it’s happy days.


Sunday, 17 May 2009

Strike a pose

What is with the gym and beautiful people?

I’m not talking about bulging biceps or buns of steel. No. I’m talking about styled hair, mascara and lipstick. Why do people have to look so God damn glamorous when they’re at the gym?

It’s a difficult concept to get my head around. You wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning and think “I know, I’ll go to the gym”. You grab your gym gear and water bottle, but before heading out the door you decide a bit of makeup wouldn’t go amiss.

Um, why?

Let’s think about this. Gym equals exercise. Exercise equals hot and sweaty. Hot and sweaty equals tomato look-a-like, equals unglamorous.

Well this is how it works for me.

Within five minutes of befriending the stepping machine I’m panting like a heifer, thighs wobbling, wishing I hadn’t consumed that second piece of chocolate cake. My face is now turning an unpleasant shade of red, a sticky dampness is forming on the back of my neck and I have the distinct feeling my underarms might be starting to smell.

Some foundation and mascara is not going to help that.

Indeed, if I was wearing makeup, I believe my face might resemble a tan-coloured oil slick, with smudged eyeliner and a drink bottle sporting a pink hue where I’ve been sipping.

But who cares about that – it’s all about the exercise.

And if my exercising neighbours are lucky I might just push myself hard enough where a grunt escapes my mouth or strain my facial muscles in such a way my face is contorted into what some perverts have dubbed “the sex-face”.

Hmmm attractive. Not!

So am I the only one that works hard enough to bring up a sweat?

Oh ok, so maybe that is the trick. Just don’t do any exercise.

But we have a problem folks. I suspect these makeup-wearing, sex-oozing Aphrodites are frauds. There is no way she could have biceps like that without some elbow grease, and that washboard stomach wasn’t purchased over the internet (even if the boobs were).

My theory is she has a bit on the side – aka a personal trainer. It is the only way to explain how she can afford to waste an hour batting her lashes at the hunk pumping iron by the mirror.

So the question is, are you fit to be seen or seen to be fit?

Alternatively, I could just invest in some waterproof foundation.


Saturday, 9 May 2009

An untapped market

Boys, boys, boys. Where are you? You’re missing out on an untapped market.

Now I know when you break up with someone the last thing you want to hear is “don’t worry dear, there’s plenty more fish in the sea”. Not only is this the most stupid saying – and whoever invented it should be shot – but it’s only fine and dandy if you know where to fish.

After living in London for two and a-half years, I’m starting to think that there is either: a) a serious man drought; b) some form of insidious pollution killing off eligible bachelors; or c) something seriously wrong with the bait on offer.

Now the thing is I know it’s not just me thinking this. I have several single female friends in the same empty fishing boat.

And I know there are more – because I’ve found a readily available source of them.

That’s right boys; no more complaining you can’t find a good woman. The secret is to go on tour.

I recently returned from a chartered tour of the Lake District, home of William Wordsworth, with about 40 fellow travellers. About 12 were in couples, the rest were girls – the majority single at that. And keen to meet a likeminded intrepid traveller of the male sex.

If there had been a single guy on our tour he would have had a smorgasbord of female morsels to choose from – girls from at least three different nationalities, big, small, blonde, brunette, relaxed, high maintenance. It was all there ripe for the picking.

And everyone knows what happens on “tours” – a heady mixture of confined bus quarters, shared enthusiasm for travelling, party atmosphere and an often never-ending imbibing of alcohol. What better place for some bloke to try out his new pick-up line.

But sadly there were no pick-up lines on this tour and no eye candy.

I can understand why guys shy away from chartered tours – they’re blokes, they do man stuff, drive their own cars, party all night, sleep till noon, seek more adventure, and of course prefer to “sample” the “local” goods.

Yes, I can see why Wordsworth and poetry wouldn’t really do it for the average guy.

So while, from a single-girl point of view, tours are about as useful relationship-potential-wise as going to a gay bar, they are undeniably an untapped market for men; no beer goggles needed.

Forget internet or speed dating – tour surfing, like wedding crashing, is the way to meet a woman.

And what goes on tour stays on tour.

An untapped market

Boys, boys, boys. Where are you? You’re missing out on an untapped market.

Now I know when you break up with someone the last thing you want to hear is “don’t worry dear, there’s plenty more fish in the sea”. Not only is this the most stupid saying – and whoever invented it should be shot – but it’s only fine and dandy if you know where to fish.

After living in London for two and a-half years, I’m starting to think that there is either: a) a serious man drought; b) some form of insidious pollution killing off eligible bachelors; or c) something seriously wrong with the bait on offer.

Now the thing is I know it’s not just me thinking this. I have several single female friends in the same empty fishing boat.

And I know there are more – because I’ve found a readily available source of them.

That’s right boys; no more complaining you can’t find a good woman. The secret is to go on tour.

I recently returned from a chartered tour of the Lake District, home of William Wordsworth, with about 40 fellow travellers. About 12 were in couples, the rest were girls – the majority single at that. And keen to meet a likeminded intrepid traveller of the male sex.

If there had been a single guy on our tour he would have had a smorgasbord of female morsels to choose from – girls from at least three different nationalities, big, small, blonde, brunette, relaxed, high maintenance. It was all there ripe for the picking.

And everyone knows what happens on “tours” – a heady mixture of confined bus quarters, shared enthusiasm for travelling, party atmosphere and an often never-ending imbibing of alcohol. What better place for some bloke to try out his new pick-up line.

But sadly there were no pick-up lines on this tour and no eye candy.

I can understand why guys shy away from chartered tours – they’re blokes, they do man stuff, drive their own cars, party all night, sleep till noon, seek more adventure, and of course prefer to “sample” the “local” goods.

Yes, I can see why Wordsworth and poetry wouldn’t really do it for the average guy.

So while, from a single-girl point of view, tours are about as useful relationship-potential-wise as going to a gay bar, they are undeniably an untapped market for men; no beer goggles needed.

Forget internet or speed dating – tour surfing, like wedding crashing, is the way to meet a woman.

And what goes on tour stays on tour.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The sheep hills

I should have guessed when I saw the creamy white ice cream with golden gooey chunks, aptly named honeycomb, that it just wasn’t going to be the same as New Zealand Hokey Pokey. It might have been home grown in the chocolate box region of the British Cotswolds but it just didn’t tick the creamy, sweet, or addictively good boxes.

Disappointing yes, but it’s not like the Cotswolds are really known for their milk or cows – it’s sheep all the way. During the 13th to 15th Centuries the region was famous for its wool. And indeed, its sheep is where the region, about the size of greater Tokyo, got its name – cots means sheep, wolds means hills.

And the hills are plentiful. Green and rolling; the first signs of spring showing with bright yellow daffodils. And in the stone-walled paddocks, little lambs bounce around like energizer bunnies.

It’s just a pity about the people. The Cotswolds are notoriously popular and as a British tourist attraction, the region rates high.

It’s understandable, what with the quaintness of English villages, meandering rivers and relaxed pace of life, but the Cotswolds are not for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of London.

Trying to cross the road in Burford not only took considerable skill but bountiful patience as fancy sports car after fancy sports car zoomed past.

In Bourton-on-the-Water, you were lucky to get a spot by the riverside as families flocked to see the rubber ducky race. While the queue for the unimpressive ice cream was more than 10 people long.

But one thing the Cotswolds do know how to do well is an English cream tea.

And where better to try mouth-watering scones topped with strawberry jam and clotted cream than the Lower Slaughter Manor Restaurant and Hotel.

A 17th Century country house, the manor has all the trimmings of English aristocracy and lavishness – log fires, gleaming silver and crystal and the impeccably manicured lawn of zebra stripes.

It’s a world away from slumming it in London. But I remember my manners and use the butter/cream knife and jam spoon as they were intended – serving the relishes to the side of my plate and then using my own knife to heap the jam and cream atop the scone. Mum would be proud.

And I wasn’t “slaughtered” in the process of consuming my cream tea. Despite the name of this little Cotswold village, there is no macabre history. Slaughter either comes from the Norman Knight, Philip de Sloitre – whose name proved too much for peasant pronunciation, or it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon meaning for muddy.

Whatever its meaning, this was one place in the Cotswolds that wasn’t swamped with people and provided a glimpse into the English heritage.

In a word, divine – just like the scones and jam.

The sheep hills

I should have guessed when I saw the creamy white ice cream with golden gooey chunks, aptly named honeycomb, that it just wasn’t going to be the same as New Zealand Hokey Pokey. It might have been home grown in the chocolate box region of the British Cotswolds but it just didn’t tick the creamy, sweet, or addictively good boxes.

Disappointing yes, but it’s not like the Cotswolds are really known for their milk or cows – it’s sheep all the way. During the 13th to 15th Centuries the region was famous for its wool. And indeed, its sheep is where the region, about the size of greater Tokyo, got its name – cots means sheep, wolds means hills.

And the hills are plentiful. Green and rolling; the first signs of spring showing with bright yellow daffodils. And in the stone-walled paddocks, little lambs bounce around like energizer bunnies.

It’s just a pity about the people. The Cotswolds are notoriously popular and as a British tourist attraction, the region rates high.

It’s understandable, what with the quaintness of English villages, meandering rivers and relaxed pace of life, but the Cotswolds are not for those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of London.

Trying to cross the road in Burford not only took considerable skill but bountiful patience as fancy sports car after fancy sports car zoomed past.

In Bourton-on-the-Water, you were lucky to get a spot by the riverside as families flocked to see the rubber ducky race. While the queue for the unimpressive ice cream was more than 10 people long.

But one thing the Cotswolds do know how to do well is an English cream tea.

And where better to try mouth-watering scones topped with strawberry jam and clotted cream than the Lower Slaughter Manor Restaurant and Hotel.

A 17th Century country house, the manor has all the trimmings of English aristocracy and lavishness – log fires, gleaming silver and crystal and the impeccably manicured lawn of zebra stripes.

It’s a world away from slumming it in London. But I remember my manners and use the butter/cream knife and jam spoon as they were intended – serving the relishes to the side of my plate and then using my own knife to heap the jam and cream atop the scone. Mum would be proud.

And I wasn’t “slaughtered” in the process of consuming my cream tea. Despite the name of this little Cotswold village, there is no macabre history. Slaughter either comes from the Norman Knight, Philip de Sloitre – whose name proved too much for peasant pronunciation, or it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon meaning for muddy.

Whatever its meaning, this was one place in the Cotswolds that wasn’t swamped with people and provided a glimpse into the English heritage.

In a word, divine – just like the scones and jam.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Romancing the Rhine

“Stuff picking grapes off those hills,” the scrawny Australian beside me says as we cruise down the River Rhine in the depths of German Rhine Valley. He’s not wrong – ragged mountains tower over the river with vineyards plotted on the impossibly steep hillsides dotted among old-world German villages.

But I have to smile, because we are more than happy to scoff back the wine made from the grapes diligently handpicked from off those steep hills. And it is not bad wine too, I might add.

Several hours later in a dimly lit grotto, a wood fire burning in the corner, we taste the wares of the German people. I quickly decide I quite like German wine tasting; none of this swirling the wine and taking elaborate sniffs; none of this spitting the wine out – something I’ve always considered to be a waste. No, instead, we are encouraged to down the whole, rather large, shot glass of tepid yellow liquor.

For a country that is generally better known for its beer – think Oktoberfest – Germany has an incredibly bustling wine industry. And no more so than in the Rhine Valley where the microclimatic conditions and geography are perfect for growing grapes.

In the small town Rudesheim, where we taste our wine and discuss its properties, we step back in time at the Adolf Störzel Winery. The Störzel family name dates back to the 1600s with a history of wine making and the family owns 15 acres of vineyards scattered around the hills of Rudesheim. Were the vineyards on flat grounds, a machine could pick the grapes within two hours. But the steep slopes prove too much for a machine, so the grapes are gruellingly picked by hand – with eight people roped in to help, it takes three days.

But the hard work is well worth it. The 2006 Rudesheimer Bischofsberg RieslingHalbtrocken with 12 per cent alcohol goes down a treat on this wintry afternoon. The shot glass of warming fluid is quickly followed by the 2006 Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese with 11 per cent alcohol. Again, another good drop.

But of course the best is left to last – the schnapps.

Eager to try the distilled alcoholic beverage I brace myself for the punch. Yes, punch would be one word to describe it. My reaction is an immense grimace, a word sounding somewhat like “yuck”, and much coughing and splattering. With eyes watering, a burning throat and a foul taste in my mouth, I admit I prefer the wine.

But not five minutes later, the world takes on a hazy glow and the cold outside is no longer nipping through my clothes. I have to admit, while the schnapps did not taste like apples (more like vodka gone wrong), it still hit the spot and set me up for the rest of the afternoon.

A ride in a gondola up the slopes to the Niederwald Monument, which commemorates the founding of the German empire in 1871, sets out a spectacular scene below – acres on acres of vineyards, with the steel-grey Rhine snaking its way through a backdrop of ragged hills and fairytale castles. It’s easy to understand how the river and the surrounding environment inspired poets like Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. Even Mozart lived for some time on the banks of the river.

But creative inspiration aside, the Rhine has also played an important role as a main trading route, with many of today’s river civilisations dating back to Roman times. The 1,320 km course runs from Switzerland, up through Germany and into the North Sea. Most of the castles perched atop the mountains were in fact built by gangs of wealthy robbers who blocked the passage of the merchant ships and charged exorbitant tolls. Today, the River Rhine boasts the largest number of castles along its banks than any other river.

The Brömserburg castle in Rudesheim used to be a castle of the archbishops of Mainz and then the Knights of Rudesheim. Now it is a wine museum. Makes sense.

What also makes sense is enjoying the sights of the Rhine from a boat; a glass of wine in one hand, a bratwurst in the other. Stuff climbing those hills to pick grapes!

Katrina travelled to the Rhine Valley with Anderson Tours.

Romancing the Rhine

“Stuff picking grapes off those hills,” the scrawny Australian beside me says as we cruise down the River Rhine in the depths of German Rhine Valley. He’s not wrong – ragged mountains tower over the river with vineyards plotted on the impossibly steep hillsides dotted among old-world German villages.

But I have to smile, because we are more than happy to scoff back the wine made from the grapes diligently handpicked from off those steep hills. And it is not bad wine too, I might add.

Several hours later in a dimly lit grotto, a wood fire burning in the corner, we taste the wares of the German people. I quickly decide I quite like German wine tasting; none of this swirling the wine and taking elaborate sniffs; none of this spitting the wine out – something I’ve always considered to be a waste. No, instead, we are encouraged to down the whole, rather large, shot glass of tepid yellow liquor.

For a country that is generally better known for its beer – think Oktoberfest – Germany has an incredibly bustling wine industry. And no more so than in the Rhine Valley where the microclimatic conditions and geography are perfect for growing grapes.

In the small town Rudesheim, where we taste our wine and discuss its properties, we step back in time at the Adolf Störzel Winery. The Störzel family name dates back to the 1600s with a history of wine making and the family owns 15 acres of vineyards scattered around the hills of Rudesheim. Were the vineyards on flat grounds, a machine could pick the grapes within two hours. But the steep slopes prove too much for a machine, so the grapes are gruellingly picked by hand – with eight people roped in to help, it takes three days.

But the hard work is well worth it. The 2006 Rudesheimer Bischofsberg RieslingHalbtrocken with 12 per cent alcohol goes down a treat on this wintry afternoon. The shot glass of warming fluid is quickly followed by the 2006 Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese with 11 per cent alcohol. Again, another good drop.

But of course the best is left to last – the schnapps.

Eager to try the distilled alcoholic beverage I brace myself for the punch. Yes, punch would be one word to describe it. My reaction is an immense grimace, a word sounding somewhat like “yuck”, and much coughing and splattering. With eyes watering, a burning throat and a foul taste in my mouth, I admit I prefer the wine.

But not five minutes later, the world takes on a hazy glow and the cold outside is no longer nipping through my clothes. I have to admit, while the schnapps did not taste like apples (more like vodka gone wrong), it still hit the spot and set me up for the rest of the afternoon.

A ride in a gondola up the slopes to the Niederwald Monument, which commemorates the founding of the German empire in 1871, sets out a spectacular scene below – acres on acres of vineyards, with the steel-grey Rhine snaking its way through a backdrop of ragged hills and fairytale castles. It’s easy to understand how the river and the surrounding environment inspired poets like Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. Even Mozart lived for some time on the banks of the river.

But creative inspiration aside, the Rhine has also played an important role as a main trading route, with many of today’s river civilisations dating back to Roman times. The 1,320 km course runs from Switzerland, up through Germany and into the North Sea. Most of the castles perched atop the mountains were in fact built by gangs of wealthy robbers who blocked the passage of the merchant ships and charged exorbitant tolls. Today, the River Rhine boasts the largest number of castles along its banks than any other river.

The Brömserburg castle in Rudesheim used to be a castle of the archbishops of Mainz and then the Knights of Rudesheim. Now it is a wine museum. Makes sense.

What also makes sense is enjoying the sights of the Rhine from a boat; a glass of wine in one hand, a bratwurst in the other. Stuff climbing those hills to pick grapes!

Katrina travelled to the Rhine Valley with Anderson Tours.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Putting foot to ball

It’s easy to see how you can get caught up in a game of football (aka soccer) when you’re watching it live, the atmosphere electric and some old codger in a fishing hat shouts obscenities.

I wasn’t just rubbing my hands together in anticipation – I was cold. Which explains why I was also wearing a white jacket; shamefully the colours of the opposing team. Despite the away team segregated to another stand, I still got a couple of dirty looks so of course I had to make up for my lack of team uniform with vigorous shouting and arm waving - and several rude words.

It was Barnsley versus Preston. A Barnsley home game and I was officially a new supporter. It was my first live game and boy was it frustrating.

I mean I’m no sportsperson, in fact my ball skills can only be described as dismal, but is it really that hard to kick a ball into the net? Throughout the whole game I felt an intense desire, like an unrelenting itch, to just walk onto the ground and show them all how it should be done.

It seemed to me, as a newbie to the game, that these highly paid men, who were lucky to be endowed with a couple of good genes, really just pranced around the field, some hardly breaking a sweat and god forbid if a lock of celebrity-styled hair fell out of place.

Well, it’s not rugby.

I’m just not seeing the attraction of soccer – sorry, football. For starters, the uniform leaves much to be desired. Long baggy shorts and an androgynous ill-fitting shirt. I mean, it’s not exactly top of the range sexy is it. Needless to say, it’s not like a rugby uniform, which is tight in all the right places and shows off the wearer’s assets perfectly. No, football uniforms are about as appealing as a garbage bag.

Furthermore, I can’t even see how the uniform even aids the game – it’s certainly not streamlined.

I have to admit, I was very disappointed – the game was not turning out to be a smorgasbord of talent in any respect.

At least I was able to laugh when, in a lilting chant from around the stadium, the referee was informed he was a wanker. But it still didn’t help the scoreboard.

Putting foot to ball

It’s easy to see how you can get caught up in a game of football (aka soccer) when you’re watching it live, the atmosphere electric and some old codger in a fishing hat shouts obscenities.

I wasn’t just rubbing my hands together in anticipation – I was cold. Which explains why I was also wearing a white jacket; shamefully the colours of the opposing team. Despite the away team segregated to another stand, I still got a couple of dirty looks so of course I had to make up for my lack of team uniform with vigorous shouting and arm waving - and several rude words.

It was Barnsley versus Preston. A Barnsley home game and I was officially a new supporter. It was my first live game and boy was it frustrating.

I mean I’m no sportsperson, in fact my ball skills can only be described as dismal, but is it really that hard to kick a ball into the net? Throughout the whole game I felt an intense desire, like an unrelenting itch, to just walk onto the ground and show them all how it should be done.

It seemed to me, as a newbie to the game, that these highly paid men, who were lucky to be endowed with a couple of good genes, really just pranced around the field, some hardly breaking a sweat and god forbid if a lock of celebrity-styled hair fell out of place.

Well, it’s not rugby.

I’m just not seeing the attraction of soccer – sorry, football. For starters, the uniform leaves much to be desired. Long baggy shorts and an androgynous ill-fitting shirt. I mean, it’s not exactly top of the range sexy is it. Needless to say, it’s not like a rugby uniform, which is tight in all the right places and shows off the wearer’s assets perfectly. No, football uniforms are about as appealing as a garbage bag.

Furthermore, I can’t even see how the uniform even aids the game – it’s certainly not streamlined.

I have to admit, I was very disappointed – the game was not turning out to be a smorgasbord of talent in any respect.

At least I was able to laugh when, in a lilting chant from around the stadium, the referee was informed he was a wanker. But it still didn’t help the scoreboard.

Friday, 27 March 2009

People should be seen and not heard

Everyone has a pet peeve.

Mine? Well, call me intolerant, but there is nothing more annoying than having to listen to some person’s inane conversation during the morning rush hour.

I really don’t care what you had for breakfast, what you’ve got scheduled at work, or what you’ll wear at the drinks do this evening. Just shut up and let me read my newspaper.

Ok so I’m only slightly sounding like I’ve got grumpy-old-man syndrome. I admit it. But seriously this is an invasion of my quiet zone and at 7.30 in the morning I’m rather protective of it. Sorry but that’s just how it is.

I just can’t quite understand why people have to talk so damn loudly in the confined space of public transport. Do they actually want other people to hear the intimate details of their lives?

I mean, it’s rather hypocritical isn’t it? This week there was the announcement about Facebook being able to store all wall posts so the British government could keep an eye out for criminals and terrorists. Well, the uproar over that was impressive – you know invasion of privacy and all. And yet, you can get the same information, only verbally, if you’re conveniently located on public transport.

Because the thing is you actually can’t help but listen in. Part of it is human nature – the perverted curiosity of what other people get up to. And the other part is, well, it is being publicly broadcast.

I for one have great difficulty not eavesdropping. Yes I feel a bit dirty but clearly it can’t be helped.

Though you do get to hear some interesting things. Like the time I overheard a guy trying to organise some weekend recreational drugs. His code words weren’t exactly genius – “leafy things”; use your imagination.

I suppose if people are going to talk so loud it’s not really my problem. But for some reason at morning rush hour it really grates – though that could just be coffee withdrawal.

But when someone imitates the barking of a Jack Russell Terrier, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to strangle the bejesus out of him.

Ok, so I’m a culprit myself. But only sometimes and I try not to be. I try to respect people’s quiet zones. Why can people not respect mine? Is it really that difficult to turn the volume down?

And before some wise arse points it out – yes I know, the solution is investing in an ipod.

People should be seen and not heard

Everyone has a pet peeve.

Mine? Well, call me intolerant, but there is nothing more annoying than having to listen to some person’s inane conversation during the morning rush hour.

I really don’t care what you had for breakfast, what you’ve got scheduled at work, or what you’ll wear at the drinks do this evening. Just shut up and let me read my newspaper.

Ok so I’m only slightly sounding like I’ve got grumpy-old-man syndrome. I admit it. But seriously this is an invasion of my quiet zone and at 7.30 in the morning I’m rather protective of it. Sorry but that’s just how it is.

I just can’t quite understand why people have to talk so damn loudly in the confined space of public transport. Do they actually want other people to hear the intimate details of their lives?

I mean, it’s rather hypocritical isn’t it? This week there was the announcement about Facebook being able to store all wall posts so the British government could keep an eye out for criminals and terrorists. Well, the uproar over that was impressive – you know invasion of privacy and all. And yet, you can get the same information, only verbally, if you’re conveniently located on public transport.

Because the thing is you actually can’t help but listen in. Part of it is human nature – the perverted curiosity of what other people get up to. And the other part is, well, it is being publicly broadcast.

I for one have great difficulty not eavesdropping. Yes I feel a bit dirty but clearly it can’t be helped.

Though you do get to hear some interesting things. Like the time I overheard a guy trying to organise some weekend recreational drugs. His code words weren’t exactly genius – “leafy things”; use your imagination.

I suppose if people are going to talk so loud it’s not really my problem. But for some reason at morning rush hour it really grates – though that could just be coffee withdrawal.

But when someone imitates the barking of a Jack Russell Terrier, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to strangle the bejesus out of him.

Ok, so I’m a culprit myself. But only sometimes and I try not to be. I try to respect people’s quiet zones. Why can people not respect mine? Is it really that difficult to turn the volume down?

And before some wise arse points it out – yes I know, the solution is investing in an ipod.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The art of a bad joke

The beauty of London is there is always the unexpected.

There is no run of the mill in this big city – prepare for the unpredictable, the bizarre and downright unimaginable.

Like last weekend when I went to a comedy show.

Ok, so when you think comedy, you think guy standing in front of a microphone trying to be funny. You, sitting in the audience, feel compelled to laugh. And if you’re lucky it’s not the wine giving you the giggles.

But at no point do you expect the comedian to suddenly drop his trousers, stuff his hand into his pearly white Y-fronts and proceed to… well, you know.

Ah ha, yep. I’m not lying. Three minutes.

Three minutes where this camp American comedian is standing there, trousers down at his ankles, skinny white chicken legs on show and a hand in his pants.

And I’m thinking, wow that is an interesting spot on the back wall. Is it a fly? No, couldn’t possible be a fly, it’s far too big for a fly. Maybe a squirt of ketchup…

This was unconventional comedy for sure – I mean who else has a comedy routine where two fingers have sex? (Sound effects included and a microphone practically swallowed).

Now I had not walked into an erotica show by accident; this really was stand-up comedy, only it had an 18+ sticker attached to it (that I’d somehow missed) and clearly small print saying small minds should not proceed. Fortunately I’m rather open-minded yet a large dose of courage was still required.

So there I am trying not to laugh – because I am a person of good moral character – praying he won’t pick on me – think sheep shagging jokes more than likely. And all the time that spot is getting more interesting. But how does ketchup get on a wall…

At least, the girls from Sheffield enjoyed it.

The art of a bad joke

The beauty of London is there is always the unexpected.

There is no run of the mill in this big city – prepare for the unpredictable, the bizarre and downright unimaginable.

Like last weekend when I went to a comedy show.

Ok, so when you think comedy, you think guy standing in front of a microphone trying to be funny. You, sitting in the audience, feel compelled to laugh. And if you’re lucky it’s not the wine giving you the giggles.

But at no point do you expect the comedian to suddenly drop his trousers, stuff his hand into his pearly white Y-fronts and proceed to… well, you know.

Ah ha, yep. I’m not lying. Three minutes.

Three minutes where this camp American comedian is standing there, trousers down at his ankles, skinny white chicken legs on show and a hand in his pants.

And I’m thinking, wow that is an interesting spot on the back wall. Is it a fly? No, couldn’t possible be a fly, it’s far too big for a fly. Maybe a squirt of ketchup…

This was unconventional comedy for sure – I mean who else has a comedy routine where two fingers have sex? (Sound effects included and a microphone practically swallowed).

Now I had not walked into an erotica show by accident; this really was stand-up comedy, only it had an 18+ sticker attached to it (that I’d somehow missed) and clearly small print saying small minds should not proceed. Fortunately I’m rather open-minded yet a large dose of courage was still required.

So there I am trying not to laugh – because I am a person of good moral character – praying he won’t pick on me – think sheep shagging jokes more than likely. And all the time that spot is getting more interesting. But how does ketchup get on a wall…

At least, the girls from Sheffield enjoyed it.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Winter blues and the gas bill

A sure-fire way to have a heart attack in your 20s is to get your winter gas bill.

The nice people at British Gas sent ours last week - £319.13

That’s three-hundred and nineteen pounds and thirteen pence. For me, that’s a lot.

It’s not an estimate. There’s no computer glitch, no mistake with the decimal point. It’s so exact I can’t even complain they’ve added an extra zero by accident.

Yes I feel hard done by. The winter was particularly cold. London had its best snow (or worst, depending how you look at it) in 18 years. I even tried my best at reducing energy consumption by wearing five layers and hugging a hot water bottle. I have a right to be warm, don’t I? I feel I should get brownie points and pay less for finding alternative means to keep warm, like alcohol imbibing (quite effective that).

Now I’m sure some of you received bills much bigger than mine and I’m genuinely sorry for you, but for me £319.13 (which, when divided between three flatmates equates to £106.38 each) is just downright exorbitant. I feel exploited and ripped off. I mean here we are in a middle of a recession, and I’m forking out this money as if it grows on trees, only to have it go towards some executive’s nice fat juicy bonus – albeit £319.13 won’t get him that far, but you get what I mean.

The news last month was that profits at British Gas dropped 34% to £379 million – a result of wholesale gas price hikes and despite already raising the British consumers’ gas price by 35%.

But hello – the company still made a whopping profit. A big £379 million. Unless I’m mistaken, that seems an awful lot of money.

You know, I suppose I should be grateful the company has now cut its prices by 10%. Only, if you do the maths, you would see that prices are still 25% higher.

So then my last gripe is that not only do I have to pay this ridiculously expensive bill but the nice people at British Gas expect me to be able to pay this within a week of receiving the bill. Are they trying to take the piss?

It becomes dire when the thought of pimping yourself out is a viable option to pay the bill.

Well, the nice people at British Gas should be happy; I paid the bill in full and on time – and by legitimate means. All I can say now is bring on summer.

Winter blues and the gas bill

A sure-fire way to have a heart attack in your 20s is to get your winter gas bill.

The nice people at British Gas sent ours last week - £319.13

That’s three-hundred and nineteen pounds and thirteen pence. For me, that’s a lot.

It’s not an estimate. There’s no computer glitch, no mistake with the decimal point. It’s so exact I can’t even complain they’ve added an extra zero by accident.

Yes I feel hard done by. The winter was particularly cold. London had its best snow (or worst, depending how you look at it) in 18 years. I even tried my best at reducing energy consumption by wearing five layers and hugging a hot water bottle. I have a right to be warm, don’t I? I feel I should get brownie points and pay less for finding alternative means to keep warm, like alcohol imbibing (quite effective that).

Now I’m sure some of you received bills much bigger than mine and I’m genuinely sorry for you, but for me £319.13 (which, when divided between three flatmates equates to £106.38 each) is just downright exorbitant. I feel exploited and ripped off. I mean here we are in a middle of a recession, and I’m forking out this money as if it grows on trees, only to have it go towards some executive’s nice fat juicy bonus – albeit £319.13 won’t get him that far, but you get what I mean.

The news last month was that profits at British Gas dropped 34% to £379 million – a result of wholesale gas price hikes and despite already raising the British consumers’ gas price by 35%.

But hello – the company still made a whopping profit. A big £379 million. Unless I’m mistaken, that seems an awful lot of money.

You know, I suppose I should be grateful the company has now cut its prices by 10%. Only, if you do the maths, you would see that prices are still 25% higher.

So then my last gripe is that not only do I have to pay this ridiculously expensive bill but the nice people at British Gas expect me to be able to pay this within a week of receiving the bill. Are they trying to take the piss?

It becomes dire when the thought of pimping yourself out is a viable option to pay the bill.

Well, the nice people at British Gas should be happy; I paid the bill in full and on time – and by legitimate means. All I can say now is bring on summer.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The adventure that is public transport

I got asked to take my clothes off on the tube last weekend.

Well, theoretically the whole carriage got asked – by a rather drunk man with a particularly bad five-o’clock shadow, who decided to bless me by sitting in the seat adjacent. After asking the woman opposite where he needed to get off, he then informed those in the immediate vicinity, and then the wider carriage, that we should all take our clothes off and have a bit of fun. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

You could tell he was drunk – other than the slurring – as in his mind he thought it was clearly possible to coerce a carriage full of people to take their clothes off and have an orgy between the stops of Elephant & Castle and Kennington – a journey of three minutes.

Of course, he got a lack lustre response; a few weird looks, others who imagined a giant black hole had swallowed him up.

Me? Well, I busied myself in my book, taking on that aloof air of someone far too engrossed to be interrupted. (Take home message for visiting London – always carry a book if travelling on the underground, especially late on a Saturday night. Also helps with take home message no. 2 – avoid making eye contact with other people).

Yeah, well, clearly reading a book does not act as a deterrent in the eyes of a drunk as he lent over and said, “Good book? Do you want to get naked?” I attempted to ignore him but the invasion of personal space got too much, so I looked at him incredulously and, as politely as possible, said, "that's alright, I'm more interested in the book thank you". Two-seconds later and crest-fallen he got off at his stop.

But this was not the only weird encounter I had that weekend.

While on an overground train, I caught sight of a rather nice looking chap sitting just down from me. Typically I checked him out – as you do. He didn’t notice me as he was completely immersed in a book – probably a classic; he did carry an old-school leather satchel and wore a scarf – you know, the “cultured type”.

But then, as if to entertain me, he started to pick his nose. And I’m not talking about a little flick to stop a tickle, nor a quick surreptitious in-out job. I mean, this was right up there; excavation-to-the-centre-of-the-earth type pick. And he was damned determined to get that booger too.

My estimation of him quickly changed. So much for cultured.

Not once did he look up from his book; not once did he think people might be watching. He was in his own little world enjoying some author’s literary achievements while investigating the inner depths of his nostril.

After foraging for – seriously – about a minute, he gave up. Whether he was bored or had achieved success, I don’t know (didn’t want to know).

And then, he licked his fingers. Now I know kids do this all the time after picking their nose. I remember doing it myself. But childhood snot is a little different to travelling-on-public-transport-in-London snot. For starters the latter is no longer green when you get off your ride. And quite frankly consuming that, even if we are in a recession, is just not cricket.

So, I wonder what little gems will greet me this weekend.

The adventure that is public transport

I got asked to take my clothes off on the tube last weekend.

Well, theoretically the whole carriage got asked – by a rather drunk man with a particularly bad five-o’clock shadow, who decided to bless me by sitting in the seat adjacent. After asking the woman opposite where he needed to get off, he then informed those in the immediate vicinity, and then the wider carriage, that we should all take our clothes off and have a bit of fun. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

You could tell he was drunk – other than the slurring – as in his mind he thought it was clearly possible to coerce a carriage full of people to take their clothes off and have an orgy between the stops of Elephant & Castle and Kennington – a journey of three minutes.

Of course, he got a lack lustre response; a few weird looks, others who imagined a giant black hole had swallowed him up.

Me? Well, I busied myself in my book, taking on that aloof air of someone far too engrossed to be interrupted. (Take home message for visiting London – always carry a book if travelling on the underground, especially late on a Saturday night. Also helps with take home message no. 2 – avoid making eye contact with other people).

Yeah, well, clearly reading a book does not act as a deterrent in the eyes of a drunk as he lent over and said, “Good book? Do you want to get naked?” I attempted to ignore him but the invasion of personal space got too much, so I looked at him incredulously and, as politely as possible, said, "that's alright, I'm more interested in the book thank you". Two-seconds later and crest-fallen he got off at his stop.

But this was not the only weird encounter I had that weekend.

While on an overground train, I caught sight of a rather nice looking chap sitting just down from me. Typically I checked him out – as you do. He didn’t notice me as he was completely immersed in a book – probably a classic; he did carry an old-school leather satchel and wore a scarf – you know, the “cultured type”.

But then, as if to entertain me, he started to pick his nose. And I’m not talking about a little flick to stop a tickle, nor a quick surreptitious in-out job. I mean, this was right up there; excavation-to-the-centre-of-the-earth type pick. And he was damned determined to get that booger too.

My estimation of him quickly changed. So much for cultured.

Not once did he look up from his book; not once did he think people might be watching. He was in his own little world enjoying some author’s literary achievements while investigating the inner depths of his nostril.

After foraging for – seriously – about a minute, he gave up. Whether he was bored or had achieved success, I don’t know (didn’t want to know).

And then, he licked his fingers. Now I know kids do this all the time after picking their nose. I remember doing it myself. But childhood snot is a little different to travelling-on-public-transport-in-London snot. For starters the latter is no longer green when you get off your ride. And quite frankly consuming that, even if we are in a recession, is just not cricket.

So, I wonder what little gems will greet me this weekend.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Going to the church on Sunday

I should have guessed we were into a real treat when I saw (well, couldn’t miss) the well proportioned middle-aged woman who was in bad need of a decent haircut, some style sense and a better bra. “Sand dunes”, my friend said.

I mean really, you shouldn’t expect anything but when you go to “The Church”.

And I’m not talking about the good Christian church. No. This church is the devil incarnate.

Set up 30 years ago for the alcohol-loving British, The Church has now amassed an antipodean following as the Sunday binge drinking place of choice.

Originally located in an old church, where it got its name, the venue has now moved to an old theatre in Kentish Town and the rules are simple:

Entry – 12 noon.

Preferred dress – the clothes worn the night before or some form of costume; Oompa-Loompas are popular.

The goal – to consume as much alcohol as possible in three and a-half hours.

It’s rather dinky how they do it actually. You buy a drink ticket from a bouncer with possible steroid-induced muscles, which entitles the bearer to three cans or bottles of alcohol. For convenience reasons, the alcohol is put in a plastic bag, which you then tie to one of your belt loops. It’s all class.

With plastic bags swinging, the dance floor soon becomes a sea of heaving bodies and alcohol-tinged sweat. Inhibitions are put to one side – this is no longer the place to “be”, this is the place to be “seen” – if you get my drift.

And then the surgically enhanced, old-enough-to-be-my-mother stripper arrives. It proceeded somewhat like this – “wow, didn’t know you could do that”, “Wow, didn’t know they could do that”, and “WOW, didn’t know that was even possible”. This was an upgrade from university course human anatomy 101 – I believe my knowledge of the female body may now be complete.

In comparison, I was slightly disappointed with the male version – not quite as much wow-factor other than an in-depth discussion with my friends afterwards as to whether it was “real” or not. Furthermore, could he have at least taken off the workman’s boots and socks before prancing about the stage in his hot little Calvin Klein jocks!

We could all look down our noses at what might seem a seedy underground scene in London, but really it’s no different from any other pub or club, other than it’s on a Sunday, there is probably less material worn and the stripper is guaranteed. This is British drinking culture without the shame attached and the denial there is a problem. What you see is what you get.

Alternatively, as the American tourists behind us said – stuff seeing Big Ben on a Sunday when you’ve been recommended to come to The Church. Yeah, I see their point. Big Ben just isn’t the same.

Going to the church on Sunday

I should have guessed we were into a real treat when I saw (well, couldn’t miss) the well proportioned middle-aged woman who was in bad need of a decent haircut, some style sense and a better bra. “Sand dunes”, my friend said.

I mean really, you shouldn’t expect anything but when you go to “The Church”.

And I’m not talking about the good Christian church. No. This church is the devil incarnate.

Set up 30 years ago for the alcohol-loving British, The Church has now amassed an antipodean following as the Sunday binge drinking place of choice.

Originally located in an old church, where it got its name, the venue has now moved to an old theatre in Kentish Town and the rules are simple:

Entry – 12 noon.

Preferred dress – the clothes worn the night before or some form of costume; Oompa-Loompas are popular.

The goal – to consume as much alcohol as possible in three and a-half hours.

It’s rather dinky how they do it actually. You buy a drink ticket from a bouncer with possible steroid-induced muscles, which entitles the bearer to three cans or bottles of alcohol. For convenience reasons, the alcohol is put in a plastic bag, which you then tie to one of your belt loops. It’s all class.

With plastic bags swinging, the dance floor soon becomes a sea of heaving bodies and alcohol-tinged sweat. Inhibitions are put to one side – this is no longer the place to “be”, this is the place to be “seen” – if you get my drift.

And then the surgically enhanced, old-enough-to-be-my-mother stripper arrives. It proceeded somewhat like this – “wow, didn’t know you could do that”, “Wow, didn’t know they could do that”, and “WOW, didn’t know that was even possible”. This was an upgrade from university course human anatomy 101 – I believe my knowledge of the female body may now be complete.

In comparison, I was slightly disappointed with the male version – not quite as much wow-factor other than an in-depth discussion with my friends afterwards as to whether it was “real” or not. Furthermore, could he have at least taken off the workman’s boots and socks before prancing about the stage in his hot little Calvin Klein jocks!

We could all look down our noses at what might seem a seedy underground scene in London, but really it’s no different from any other pub or club, other than it’s on a Sunday, there is probably less material worn and the stripper is guaranteed. This is British drinking culture without the shame attached and the denial there is a problem. What you see is what you get.

Alternatively, as the American tourists behind us said – stuff seeing Big Ben on a Sunday when you’ve been recommended to come to The Church. Yeah, I see their point. Big Ben just isn’t the same.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The anti-Valentine’s Day

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was when I was about seven – I got two Valentine’s cards from the same boy, complete with “love from” and little kisses.

One was pink with flowers. The other was a bit more risqué – a half naked Tarzan and Jane entwined in an embrace flying through the jungle on a vine. As a seven-year old, this didn’t mean much – it just looked like a pretty cartoon. But I think my mother was slightly horrified at the somewhat erotic nature of the card (as I found out years later). However, I do believe that at the tender age of seven I didn’t know what the word erotic meant.

Fast forward more than 20 years to 2009. I didn’t get one Valentine’s Day card – let alone two. (Well, ok, technically that’s a lie - my female flatmate took pity on me and gave me chocolates and a card. But that doesn’t count!)

So, with no flowers or secret admirers in sight, it was time to take the “day of love” into my own hands – the anti-Valentine’s Day.

Basically what this consisted of was eating pizza and ogling buff men in short shorts and tight tops – aka England versus Wales Six-Nations rugby – where the better looking team won.

My female friend and I then joined her friend in town (you’re safer if you’re in threes on V-day; there’s no room for misinterpreting the situation). Sticking with the anti-romance theme, we went for the cheapest wine – out of a tap!

I took some time to peruse the pub and spot the singles and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot (clearly everyone else had had the same idea as us). Though there was one gentleman who had a rather unsightly butt crack on show – which either explains why he was probably single or it was his way of attracting female attention (you know, sort of like a peacock). Whatever it was, it was not good.

After our drinks we proceeded to the cinema to see award winning Slumdog Millionaire. Clearly, I hadn’t read the reviews. There I was thinking the movie was about some guy who went on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and wins. No. It turned out to be a romance (sorry if I’ve ruined that for anybody). Thankfully not too soppy.

At first, I was also thankful we were sitting in the front row away from all the back-row shenanigans. But boy was I wrong. As we were leaving there was a couple in the front row, just down from us, playing tonsil hockey.

Ah the joys of Valentine’s Day – the only day when saying “get a room” is redundant.

The anti-Valentine’s Day

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was when I was about seven – I got two Valentine’s cards from the same boy, complete with “love from” and little kisses.

One was pink with flowers. The other was a bit more risqué – a half naked Tarzan and Jane entwined in an embrace flying through the jungle on a vine. As a seven-year old, this didn’t mean much – it just looked like a pretty cartoon. But I think my mother was slightly horrified at the somewhat erotic nature of the card (as I found out years later). However, I do believe that at the tender age of seven I didn’t know what the word erotic meant.

Fast forward more than 20 years to 2009. I didn’t get one Valentine’s Day card – let alone two. (Well, ok, technically that’s a lie - my female flatmate took pity on me and gave me chocolates and a card. But that doesn’t count!)

So, with no flowers or secret admirers in sight, it was time to take the “day of love” into my own hands – the anti-Valentine’s Day.

Basically what this consisted of was eating pizza and ogling buff men in short shorts and tight tops – aka England versus Wales Six-Nations rugby – where the better looking team won.

My female friend and I then joined her friend in town (you’re safer if you’re in threes on V-day; there’s no room for misinterpreting the situation). Sticking with the anti-romance theme, we went for the cheapest wine – out of a tap!

I took some time to peruse the pub and spot the singles and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot (clearly everyone else had had the same idea as us). Though there was one gentleman who had a rather unsightly butt crack on show – which either explains why he was probably single or it was his way of attracting female attention (you know, sort of like a peacock). Whatever it was, it was not good.

After our drinks we proceeded to the cinema to see award winning Slumdog Millionaire. Clearly, I hadn’t read the reviews. There I was thinking the movie was about some guy who went on Who Wants to be a Millionaire and wins. No. It turned out to be a romance (sorry if I’ve ruined that for anybody). Thankfully not too soppy.

At first, I was also thankful we were sitting in the front row away from all the back-row shenanigans. But boy was I wrong. As we were leaving there was a couple in the front row, just down from us, playing tonsil hockey.

Ah the joys of Valentine’s Day – the only day when saying “get a room” is redundant.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Wedding with a hitch

Weddings are great – aren’t they? Free food, free booze, get to dress up in a pretty frock, and ogle the best men.

Ah yes, but nothing could prepare me from my little brother’s wedding.

The operative word being “little” – as in younger.

Having lived in London for almost two and a-half years, and not been home at all – and not pulling in tow a hot billionaire – it was of the utmost importance to arrive back on NZ soil and attend the wedding with some degree of dignity and sanity. Sure in the old days it was frowned upon if the oldest child didn’t marry first, but we are in the 21st Century; nobody cares about that, right?

Regardless, it was my mission to come across as an independent, non-man-needing woman with worldly knowledge, English dress sense and a size 8 to fit. None of this desperado Bridgette Jones type stuff. No. The last thing I wanted was some extended great relative taking pity on me. Or worse, for everyone to whisper behind my back, “that’s the older sister – she’s got ‘problems’!”

So:

Fake tan? – check

Bright fuchsia pink, (almost) micro-mini strapless dress? – check

Push-up bra with gel pads? – check

Anti-wrinkle cream plus concealer for the five-year younger look? - check

And we were set to go – the look was touchable, yet untouchable. Perfect.

Well I think I can successfully say I had the brightest coloured dress (the bridesmaids were in black), so if my aim was to not look like a wallflower, 10 marks my way.

And not a word from relatives or family friends as to the whereabouts of the left-hand, fourth-finger bling.

However, I may have been a little too successful with the independent, non-man-needing woman bit. Fate was clearly not looking at me in a kind light.

Firstly, thin-pickings on eligible bachelors at the wedding (what is this with 24-year-olds suddenly wanting to settle down?).

Secondly, the supposedly hot and single barman turned out (to my horror) to be a rather butch woman – the supposedly hot and single barman was seemingly not rostered on to work that night.

Thirdly, I was too busy persuading an unmarried aunt to join me in the bouquet toss that I actually missed the bouquet toss.

Not to worry, there’s always Valentine’s Day. (Oh crap that’s this week).

Wedding with a hitch

Weddings are great – aren’t they? Free food, free booze, get to dress up in a pretty frock, and ogle the best men.

Ah yes, but nothing could prepare me from my little brother’s wedding.

The operative word being “little” – as in younger.

Having lived in London for almost two and a-half years, and not been home at all – and not pulling in tow a hot billionaire – it was of the utmost importance to arrive back on NZ soil and attend the wedding with some degree of dignity and sanity. Sure in the old days it was frowned upon if the oldest child didn’t marry first, but we are in the 21st Century; nobody cares about that, right?

Regardless, it was my mission to come across as an independent, non-man-needing woman with worldly knowledge, English dress sense and a size 8 to fit. None of this desperado Bridgette Jones type stuff. No. The last thing I wanted was some extended great relative taking pity on me. Or worse, for everyone to whisper behind my back, “that’s the older sister – she’s got ‘problems’!”

So:

Fake tan? – check

Bright fuchsia pink, (almost) micro-mini strapless dress? – check

Push-up bra with gel pads? – check

Anti-wrinkle cream plus concealer for the five-year younger look? - check

And we were set to go – the look was touchable, yet untouchable. Perfect.

Well I think I can successfully say I had the brightest coloured dress (the bridesmaids were in black), so if my aim was to not look like a wallflower, 10 marks my way.

And not a word from relatives or family friends as to the whereabouts of the left-hand, fourth-finger bling.

However, I may have been a little too successful with the independent, non-man-needing woman bit. Fate was clearly not looking at me in a kind light.

Firstly, thin-pickings on eligible bachelors at the wedding (what is this with 24-year-olds suddenly wanting to settle down?).

Secondly, the supposedly hot and single barman turned out (to my horror) to be a rather butch woman – the supposedly hot and single barman was seemingly not rostered on to work that night.

Thirdly, I was too busy persuading an unmarried aunt to join me in the bouquet toss that I actually missed the bouquet toss.

Not to worry, there’s always Valentine’s Day. (Oh crap that’s this week).

Friday, 9 January 2009

The elusive successful New Year’s resolution

I went to the gym yesterday. Holy cow, it was like there had been an invasion. Practically every machine was being used by sweat-glistened bodies in straining Lycra. And then I remembered – New Year’s resolutions.

January is seriously the worst time to go to the gym as all the newbies set out to move the newly developed Christmas dinner fat rolls. While it’s funny watching these people trying to figure out how to work the machines, it is, at the same time, very annoying having to queue for those machines – especially as everyone knows that come March, for the vast majority, that ill fitting Lycra will be shoved in the back of the wardrobe gathering dust until 31 December 2009.

I briefly toyed with the idea of a New Year’s resolution this year – eat healthier. Hmmm, so that’s going well – it lasted all of less than a week. It was press week, I needed a sugar rush and we were working late so it was only logical to get pizza delivered, and part of the deal was a free box of chocolate covered doughnuts. Needless to say, I’ve given up on the idea of a resolution for this year.

The thing is, they are such a scam. Firstly, in very rare cases do they actually succeed, so what’s the point? Secondly, it’s developed into a money making venture. Google “New Year’s resolution” and you get links to goal setting and life coaching websites, lists of the top 10 resolutions, and, most importantly, numerous sites suggesting the secret of success to keeping your resolutions – but only if you hand over your hard earned cash.

But think about it, you are set up to fail right from the outset. It’s winter, it’s cold, you probably already have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and that comfort food and couch is looking so much more inviting than a gym where you would have to bare your wobbly bits. It’s a no-brainer. Or, it’s a new year, there’s a credit crunch, job security is no longer guaranteed, budget is limited, work load has increased – where are those fags?

So, how do we fight this? Maybe we need to be focussing on smaller more easily achievable goals. Or maybe we should look at incremental improvement’s in our lives which will benefit others, like spend less time in the shower, clean the toilet more, clean up after myself, be nicer to others, be less selfish, get in touch with my friends more often, smile more, use less plastic bags. Of course, it’s always easier said than done. The only way you are going to change is to really want to change.

Or you could just do what one of my intelligent friends has done. His New Year’s resolution was to stop smoking – only he doesn’t smoke and has never smoked in his life. His theory? By default, he has already won the New Year’s resolution game.

The elusive successful New Year’s resolution

I went to the gym yesterday. Holy cow, it was like there had been an invasion. Practically every machine was being used by sweat-glistened bodies in straining Lycra. And then I remembered – New Year’s resolutions.

January is seriously the worst time to go to the gym as all the newbies set out to move the newly developed Christmas dinner fat rolls. While it’s funny watching these people trying to figure out how to work the machines, it is, at the same time, very annoying having to queue for those machines – especially as everyone knows that come March, for the vast majority, that ill fitting Lycra will be shoved in the back of the wardrobe gathering dust until 31 December 2009.

I briefly toyed with the idea of a New Year’s resolution this year – eat healthier. Hmmm, so that’s going well – it lasted all of less than a week. It was press week, I needed a sugar rush and we were working late so it was only logical to get pizza delivered, and part of the deal was a free box of chocolate covered doughnuts. Needless to say, I’ve given up on the idea of a resolution for this year.

The thing is, they are such a scam. Firstly, in very rare cases do they actually succeed, so what’s the point? Secondly, it’s developed into a money making venture. Google “New Year’s resolution” and you get links to goal setting and life coaching websites, lists of the top 10 resolutions, and, most importantly, numerous sites suggesting the secret of success to keeping your resolutions – but only if you hand over your hard earned cash.

But think about it, you are set up to fail right from the outset. It’s winter, it’s cold, you probably already have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and that comfort food and couch is looking so much more inviting than a gym where you would have to bare your wobbly bits. It’s a no-brainer. Or, it’s a new year, there’s a credit crunch, job security is no longer guaranteed, budget is limited, work load has increased – where are those fags?

So, how do we fight this? Maybe we need to be focussing on smaller more easily achievable goals. Or maybe we should look at incremental improvement’s in our lives which will benefit others, like spend less time in the shower, clean the toilet more, clean up after myself, be nicer to others, be less selfish, get in touch with my friends more often, smile more, use less plastic bags. Of course, it’s always easier said than done. The only way you are going to change is to really want to change.

Or you could just do what one of my intelligent friends has done. His New Year’s resolution was to stop smoking – only he doesn’t smoke and has never smoked in his life. His theory? By default, he has already won the New Year’s resolution game.