Thursday, 5 November 2009

Farewell London

It would seem the best way we currently have to sum up complex human emotions is to plot them on a four-directional plane - witness the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (INTJ, ESFP and all that) and Marston's DISC Model. Right! Onto the psychiatrist's couch, let's begin!


Will miss about London
  • ALWAYS something new to do
  • Crisp winters, chance of snow
  • Friends and colleagues
  • Europe on the doorstep
Will not miss about London
  • Crazy crowds
  • Expensive cost of living
  • I ♥ LONDON T-Shirts
  • Constant "celebrity" "news"
Looking forward to in Melbourne
  • Seeing old friends and family
  • Having our own place again
  • High coffee standards
  • NOT going anywhere for a while!
Not looking forward to in Melbourne
  • Hot sweaty weather
  • Pathetic public transport
  • Slow internet
  • Cars with loud farty exhausts


Will miss about London
  • Friends and colleagues
  • Inexhaustible theatre & concerts
  • Gorgeous green spaces
  • The range of accents you hear
Will not miss about London
  • Hordes of tourists
  • Jam-packed tube rides
  • 5-month-long winters
  • Weekend tube "improvements"
Looking forward to in Melbourne
  • Reconnecting with loved ones
  • "Proper" fish & chips
  • Getting back to real footy
  • Lots of sunshine
Not looking forward to in Melbourne
  • 40+ sweltering days
  • Having to drive everywhere
  • Australian Masterchef
  • Being so far away from Europe

We've had an amazing time in England, and Bec has fallen in love with the place just as much as "native" Johnny, so we know it must be a special place. We'll leave it to Will S (no, not "Men In Black" Will S, the other one) to sign off:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Want To Ride My Bicycle

Back in summer, with Johnny raving about how much fun he was having cycle-commuting to work, Bec decided she wanted in on some two-wheeled action. But being a cautious soul, she didn't want to dive in quite as completely as he did. Luckily a perfect easy-option existed in the (decidedly-upright) shape of a hired Dutch bike - readily available in London via t'Internet and delivered to your door with all the necessary accessories by a friendly Polish man. Yay Europe!

Our first London cycling adventure saw us head South-West along the Thames to Richmond Park - a bit of a cycling mecca with the added bonus of roaming wild deer to spot! With the help of the Transport for London cycle route planner, we breezed down to the park with Bec looking every bit the accomplished biker. With only one gear at her disposal, and her Gazelle weighing in more like a baby elephant, she exercised quite a few dormant leg-muscles but was able to make it to the top of the Park with only one "get off and push" - a sterling effort considering some people with 27-speed mountain bikes were pushing their steeds up the same hill!

The park rewarded our efforts with a couple of deer encounters. They really are quite lovely creatures - if a bit cheeky to waiting cars when they decide they want to cross the road!

All in all, our Richmond Park trip racked up about 35km. But Bec wasn't satisfied yet. Hence when our friends Clare and Dan invited us to join in the 50km London to Windsor bike ride, she didn't hesitate! Another call to the Polish man with the Dutch bike and we were all set. C & D are quite keen cyclists, both now riding to work several times a week, and they had all the gear. But despite her huge technology (and weight) handicaps, Bec kept up the pace the entire way, finishing in some style by the Thames in the shadow of Windsor Castle.

It's official - Bec has the bug. So when we get back to Melbourne, don't be surprised if you're passed by a strawberry-blonde blur on what appears to be a bicycle from 1953 - it'll just be Bec out on a training ride!

Monday, 2 November 2009

La Dernière Fois ...

Ah Paris. For our very last European excursion, a few days in Paris seemed exactly what the doctor ordered. Johnny had just finished a very brief but successful bit of contracting and Bec was in her final weeks at Star. Could there be a better way to celebrate than slipping onto the brilliant Eurostar, nipping down to ze city of lurve and tipping vast quantities of good stuff into our tummies? Seems unlikely.

Even better, our Dutch buddies Jen and Erwin had arranged to stay in Paris at the same time. And as Paris-veterans themselves, there was no need to tick off all the "must-dos" - we could just spend some quality Paris-time, soaking it all up and trying to be as French as possible. (The fact that we ended up standing in front of most of the "must-dos" was pure luck ... )

Unfortunately, J & E had made a rookie error: driving into Paris is never easy but on a Friday evening it's tantamount to suicide. Thus we had several hours to kill while they crawled towards our hotel, just around the corner from the Gare Du Nord, so we set off for the Place des Vosges, looking great in the evening light:

Some considerable time later, the exhausted motorists arrived, and we celebrated with a top-notch meal at a nearby internet-recommended restaurant (free WiFi to the rescue yet again).
The main aim of the following day was the flea-markets (or "puces") near the Porte de Clignancourt. Although mostly of dubious quality, selling fake American sportswear brands and shonky shoes, there were pockets of excellence - the antiques sections were brilliant, and Erwin was in 1950s Grand-Prix poster/model car/vintage pocket-watch heaven.

The logical choice after being at the north end of town was to ease our way back down south to our hotel via Montmartre and its obvious attractions, the Sacre Coeur, Place du Tertre (for another delicious meal) and the dodgy red-light area around Pigalle.

We headed out for one more loop, this time towards a certain metal tower that Bec is literally powerless to resist. However knowing that we already have literally hundreds of "regular" Eiffel Tower pictures to choose from, Johnny got a little "creative" - or as creative as you can be with a point-and-shoot camera:

Out last day together saw us heading for the Parc Vert Galant, also known as the pointy bit on the front of the Île de la Cité. Paris had turned on a stunning Sunday, evident from the moment we surfaced from Cité Metro station.

Soon after we had to say goodbye to Jenny and Erwin, as they had a long and undoubtedly-exhausting drive ahead of them. We still had another glorious Parisian evening, and all the photo-opportunities that entails. Ah Paris ...

Sunday, 1 November 2009

A Run In The Park

As some of you may know, Johnny has been running a couple of times a week for about 18 months now - this was brought on by returning from Turkey full of kebab and technically overweight* at 87 kilos for his 182cm.

Although not a natural runner, he's stuck at it, gradually increasing from a slow and out-of-breath 4km jog to a fairly comfortable and fast 8k loop of Hyde Park. Putting this together with riding to work whenever possible (and self-motivating by monitoring progress on has brought him back into the "normal" zone - now he hovers around 74kg.

After a chance encounter with a poster on the Tube (and some encouragement from Bec and his Dad who was also there at the time), Johnny decided to enter the Royal Parks Half Marathon, being held in Central London in mid-October. It would be a most fitting farewell to this great city, as the route takes in some great London icons: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and finishing with an extended tour of Hyde Park.

A few weeks later, Johnny's old mate James drunkenly agreed to sign up too; in one of the many strange parallels their lives have taken, James had also started running for fitness quite recently. And so the stage was set. Slightly-competitive distance training began, race plans were hatched, and James brought his entire family down to London to cheer us on.

The big day dawned dry, clear and cold - perfect for running, not good for our loyal spectators! Bec kept warm by whizzing around the course trying to catch action shots of the boys as they went around. Here they are, still looking cheerful at the 5-mile (8k) mark, on The Mall before turning at Buckingham Palace:

At the 6-mile (9.5k) mark Johnny had to unfortunately resort to Drugs In Sport. Yes, he took a paracetamol tablet. Afflicted by ITB Syndrome, (as is James, you are probably now unsurprised to hear) his knees tend to become more and more excruciatingly-painful as distance increases. Fortunately the second half of the run was within the confines of Hyde Park, giving plenty of opportunity to ease the pain by running on grass rather than asphalt paths.

A big cheer from the girls at the 10-mile marker gave them a big boost, and they (naturally) finished with identical times - 1:49:46 - well inside their target 2 hours! Here they are with their wooden medals, and James receiving the adulation of his littlest fan, daughter Millie:

Johnny was barely able to walk for the next week, so this might have to be his first and last long-distance event, but it was a great day and fantastic to see James and his family one last time.

(*) Yes, BMI calculations are fundamentally flawed because they can't tell (heavy) muscle from (light) fat. In this case though, there was a solid 5kg of muffin-top that most definitely wasn't muscle!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Italian Lakes 2: Molto Bella Varenna

We'd deliberately not booked a hotel for the second half of our holiday to give us maximum flexibility - we could stay put or move on to somewhere new - and after a couple of days in Bellagio we felt like a change of scenery. Not having a hire car had turned out to be a godsend; it would have cost us a fortune to park it in Bellagio and it massively shortened the list of places we could consider staying at - to be considered now, any hotel had to be straightforward to get to with public transport.

At times like these, hotels with free WiFi really do shine - out came the MacBook, and soon after we'd hit on a perfect solution. The small town of Varenna that we'd admired from afar had quite a lot to offer, including a railway station with regular trains back to Milan - quite rare on the lakes! We easily found a hotel that could accomodate us, a short walk from the ferry pier. Job done! A short ferry-chug later and we were checked in and ready to explore.

Varenna was almost impossibly lovely. Where Bellagio had bustle, an exclusive air and touristy shops cheek-by-jowl, Varenna kept it very simple. Walking along a path hewn into a rock face brought you to the "city centre", which consisted of 4 restaurants and one souvenir shop, all nestled around a tiny harbour where ducks and swans bobbed around seemingly soaking in the tranquil atmosphere.

After a two-hour-lunch we attempted to burn off some pizza with some more exploration, and Varenna just kept getting better and better. Firstly, amongst the steps and quiet passages we found two friendly cats, always a good sign to ailurophiles such as ourselves!

We found a "beach" of sorts that had a lovely aspect towards the setting sun. To the right was a crude pier which featured an actor, presumably hired by the Italian Tourist Board to pose as a fisherman each evening close to sunset. Their cunning plan worked and we snapped many megabytes-worth of this "simple Italian peasant catching his dinner". We're onto you ITB, we're onto you ...

The next day we checked out Varenna's stunning Monastery Gardens - well worth a visit even if you're staying elsewhere on the lakes:

Our wonderful stay in Varenna was capped off with our last evening meal, an unexpectedly-brilliant take on the local lake-fish and pasta specialties. We reluctantly left the next morning, but we will surely return. Or as Bec loves to say: Certo!

Friday, 30 October 2009

Italian Lakes 1: Bellisimo Bellagio

An experiment that you can try at home: Say to a friend that you're about to go to the Italian Lakes. I hereby predict the following reactions:

  • Jaw will drop
  • Mouth will form perfect round 'O'
  • Involuntary gasp/outlet of breath
  • "Can I come too?"
It just seems to be one of those places that can do no wrong, blending stunning natural beauty with charming architecture and of course the addictive "La Dolce Vita" luxurious Italian lifestyle. We hit the Lakes for 5 days in late September - our last major holiday in Europe!

After flying in to Milan we trundled in the inimitable Italian-railway style up to Como, where we switched to a small bus which jostled, beeped and wiggled along the treacherous lakeside road to Bellagio, one of the lakes' most well-known towns. Packed with hideously-expensive designer boutiques, Bellagio seemed particularly popular with wealthy older Americans. But as usual for Italy, the food was delicious, never overpriced, and the ambience was warm and friendly.

Like so many of our favourite places, Bellagio is virtually car-free; most of the "streets" are actually stepped alleyways leading up from the edge of Lake Como. It makes for lovely views, particularly as the sun sets.

We had no real agenda for our first few days in Bellagio, mainly the plan was to soak up as much relaxed Italian goodness as possible. This proved very easy to achieve! Here's the view across to the village of Varenna:

We had planned to pick up a hire car and use it to explore the area a bit more, but upon arrival at the car hire place we discovered our printed opening hours didn't actually match up with reality, and it being Saturday midday, we'd not be able to pick up the car for almost 48 hours! Although we had been looking forward to scooting our little Cinquecento around, we were not too dismayed - we'd be able to get a full refund due to the hire company's mistake, and our brief experience of the roads around the lakes had shown them to be hugely stressful, requiring the absolute attention of the driver. Hardly ideal for sightseeing. Instead we would rely on the frequent ferries that service all the towns - oh and Bec managed to find a Cinquecento in Bellagio anyway!

Thursday, 29 October 2009


Londoners, bless 'em, are very savvy about many things. Most, for example, know that bicycle-rickshaws, Harrods, and Madame Tussauds are London's biggest rip-offs and are to be avoided at all costs. But you could guess that. Some have the Central London Tube Map etched into their cerebrum, allowing instant journey planning and trouble-avoidance:

Not bad. Unfortunately though, very few Londoners would know a good cup of coffee from a bucket of tar. (This does put them ahead of most Americans though, whose drink of choice is a bucket of burnt tar).

As such, finding a really good coffee when you're away from your known-good haunts can be really tough. So Johnny, programmer-nerd, coffee-snob, and soon-to-be-ex-Londoner, has come up with a ready-reckoning system to give you the best possible chance of finding something passable. If any of the following conditions is TRUE, You Ain't Gonna Get A Good Coffee. Sorry. As a consolation, the further you get down the list, the better it will probably be:

  • The establishment lists "Coffee" on the same line as "Tea" on the menu
  • The particular style of coffee (e.g. Cappuccino) is spelt wrongly
  • After taking your order for your Cappuccino/Latte/Whatever, your server turns and punches a button on a machine, and turns back to you
  • You can't see the milk that's going into your coffee
  • The café does not have a big, chromey, Italian coffee machine sitting prominently on the front counter
  • The café does not have a freshly topped-up bean-grinder next to the big Italian coffee machine
  • You have to add your own sugar at the end of the process
  • The coffee machine does not have a human servant tending to its every whim and foible, meticulously wiping it down between shots, whispering sweet nothings in its openings, and generally treating it like the deity it is
  • Your coffee-preparer does not bash the living hell out of the groupheads between cups to make sure there's no old grounds left in there
  • Your coffee-preparer does not watch the milk as they froth it (despite having done it a million times before)

So there you have it. Good luck, intrepid coffee-connoisseurs, and May The Froth Be With You ...