Sunday, December 28, 2008

Belgium: Part 1

Xander: So where were you? Did you go to Belgium?
Buffy: Why would I go to Belgium?
Xander: I think the relevant question is: Why wouldn't you?

Why wouldn't you indeed? Belgium was great. What a great holiday. We went to Brugge, Leuven, and Brussels. There will be a jillion photos, so I'll break this into parts. Have your imaginary passport ready, here we go...

We caught the Eurostar train to Belgium. I'm trying to keep my footprint as low possible, which is pretty much the only reason that I'm not jetting off to a different European location each weekend. The Eurostar not only has the lower fuel usage of ground travel, but it's also carbon neutral. That's pretty cool. It was a good way to travel. A lot better than air travel. The part going through the Chunnel took 34 minutes, and the total from London to Brussels was about 2 hours. I'm really surprised that it's so quick.

I've changed the template to try and stop Blogger from truncating the photos. If you want, just follow the jump. There are also some pictures there that I haven't linked to on the blog:

The ticket to Brussels gives you free travel anywhere within Belgium, so we went straight to Brugge. We had dinner, stayed there for the night, and roamed around. Here's the meal we had. Mine was a fairly average pasta, but my brother had a fantastic scampi dish. We asked the chef and he said it was flavoured with the drink Ricard (it had an aniseed flavour). Note the frites to the left and Belgian beer to the right.

A Brugge square at night

A Brugge sweet shop

Another lit square

Gatehouse over the canal

One of the four windmills on the outer canal

House on the canal

Shop with lights

Organ grinder on the street (those liberal Europeans)

Horse carriage in the main square

Brugge from the belltower (I)

Brugge from above (II)

Brugge from above (III)

Brugge from above (IV)

Another of the windmills

A tower

Buildings on a canal

More houses on a canal

Locals walking among the old buildings

Christmas market

Decorations in the hotel garden

Mirror image in a canal

The reason that Brugge has remained so historic-looking is a little tricky to decern. Centuries ago, people left the city. Lonely Planet is woefully vague on the reason why. Wikipedia is little better, but seems to attribute it to silting of the river. Anyway, they've maintained the appearance in modern times. However, I guess they are still building too:

Cranes on the Brugge skyline

More to follow.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

King's Chapel

Okay, it turns out that wasn't my last post before we leave - that was a complete lie. Here are a few shots of King's Chapel in Cambridge from today's walk.

Most of them suffer from my usual problem with Blogger, that they don't fit on the screen correctly. Either click the wider ones, or to see them in a halfway decent size, jump to my Photoshare site at

Stained glass window

The vaulted ceiling

The wider chapel

The organ pipes

Patterns from the stained glass windows

An array of candles

Light flaring through old windows

King Edward's lectern

Candle jar in front of stained glass

Another shot of the wider chapel

BoldThe entrance to Queen's College

I can't remember if I've already posted a picture of this, and it's too late at night for me to go trawling back through old posts. Pretend it's new...
The entrance to the classical style Fitzwilliam Museum

Holiday holiday holiday!

A few things:

We've just watched the new episode of Flight of the Conchords. It's up on Funny or Die. If you're outside the US, you need to route it through a proxy server. It's so great to have them back. Interestingly, I can now hear the New Zealand accents.

My brother is just gettting prepped, and then we'll head out to explore Cambridge a bit. Should be a good day.

We leave for Belgium tomorrow. I see that today, the Belgian government has collapsed. My bad.

In addition, here's a graph of the value of the pound vs the Euro. See if you can spot the point at which I decided to visit Europe:

I would like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year, but I feel that, with my world-travelling experience and new insights, that would be superficial. I have a deeper appreciation of what's important now. So instead, let me just say "May all your toilets flush on the first attempt".

My job seems to be safe now. Catch you after Belgium.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

London Calling

Last Sunday I took the train down to London. I had some time to kill, so I roamed the south bank of the Thames. I feel that I've done quite a few of the more obvious attractions in London, so I've set myself the goal of finding a Banksy painting in the wild.

I expect you've heard the name before. Banksy is a graffiti artist. He's also renowned for sneaking his works into art galleries where they've sometimes hung for several days. I've read his latest book a couple of times and recommend it. I don't have a lot of respect for artists who just create a random mess and call it art: I reckon I create the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock every time I blow my nose. But despite being stylistically simple, Banksy's work is really pretty clever. One of the ones I was looking for is a stencil piece on the Thames wall across the river from Big Ben. It is one of the more photographed spots in London, and Banksy stencilled the wall with the phrase "This is not a photo opportunity".

The problem with finding his works is two-fold. Firstly, the London councils tend to take a dim view of all graffiti and paint over them. Secondly, now that he has achieved notoriety, his work is extremely valuable. When a new piece appears, the owners of the wall often cover it with boards to protect it and then sell the entire wall. On a recent visit to London, Christina Aguilera spent 25,000 pounds on his work.

There used to be quite a few pieces around the south bank, but I couldn't find any. Actually, I couldn't find any graffiti at all. Since it is pretty much "tourist central", the cleaning seems pretty comprehensive.

The reason I was in London is that my brother is over here at the moment. We went to the World Press Photography exhibit at the Southbank Centre and then had GBK for dinner. It was good to catch up.

I took Thursday off work and spent another day in London with him. We went to St Pauls, which was a good visit but very expensive. The quality of the acoustics in the Whispering Gallery was the high point. I then took my brother to Bride Lane, which supposedly had a surviving Banksy. Like fun it did. All the walls were clean, and you could see the patches where works had been cleaned off. Nuts. I'm going to have to go further afield. Stay tuned for more Banksy-based exploration.

We caught the DLR out to Greenwich. We went to see the Cutty Sark. It was seriously damaged by fire recently, and is now completely walled off for repairs. Still, we managed to find a crack in the wall and could see a small portion of the boat's framework. I'm going to tick that one off my list, because to a non-nautically interested person such as myself, that's about as interesting as the Cutty Sark is going to be.

We then went to the Royal Observatory, the Planetarium, the Queen's House, and the National Nautical Museum. The Nautical Museum was most impressive - they had Nelson's uniform from Trafalgar, including musket ball hole and blood stains. England: Once again the quality of your preserved relics has knocked my socks off. Speaking of which, they also had Nelson's bloodstained socks. Incidentally, can anyone answer this: I thought Nelson was missing an eye, an arm, and a leg, but my brother says only the eye and arm. Who's right?

So, that's the current state of play. It was brilliant hanging out with someone from home. Normally, I'm the only one on the Tube carriage who sniggers when the voice announces "This train terminates at Cockfosters". My brother's currently in Ireland, but he'll be back on Friday to be my first guest here in Cambridge, before we head to Belgium on the Eurostar train for Xmas. This will be my first proper trip since I got here. I can't wait. If we're lucky, we might even get some snow.

I'll try to post again before we go, but just in case I don't, I hope that those of you in NZ for Xmas also get snow. Lots of it.

More photos after Belgium, I promise.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Post Tripped

I want my weekend back.

Firstly, I'm not certain that Saturday even counts as a day. If it doesn't get light, that's not a day, it's just a 40 hour long night. When I first told people I was moving to England, they all gleefully told me about the long, dark Winters. I haven't really minded the dark so far. It doesn't matter when it gets dark, if I'm stuck in an office all day. It can get dark at lunch for all I care.

But this wasn't just a case of it getting dark at 3:30pm. It was freezing cold, with pea-soup fog all day. It never got light at all. Cars were driving around with their lights on at lunch. That's just wrong.

Whatever the conditions, I had a job to do. I donned my woolley hat, mittens, neck gator, Winter jacket, and boots, and - with my glasses rapidly misting - I strode forth. I finished my Xmas shopping, got back home, wrapped the presents, and headed back into town to the post office. The POs are closed on Sundays, so I had to get this finished by 5:30 on Saturday. Racing against the clock, I got to the shop, bought a parcel box, presents wouldn't fit, bought a larger box, bundled it up to the counter and asked for the postage cost. I was hoping to get some change from a 10 pound note.

54 pounds. 54 freakin' pounds. When the guy at the counter said "54 pounds", I actually made a BOOF sound, like I'd been punched in the guts. I'm sorry Mum and Dad. I love you, but...54 pounds? I'll take photos of your presents and emailed them to you. Remember, it's the thought that counts.

I flashed the guy my "go on, be a pal" smile, but I'd eaten a German hotdog for lunch at the market, and I probably had dessicated pork bits in my braces. It didn't convince him to lower the cost any.

{Mental note. Remember to phone my agent RE: possible new Bond villain - Wursttooth. A porcine-dentured malcontent driven insane by the English postal service and trychinosis.}

After my recent entry about the absence of school exercise books, my Mum kindly sent me one. Because I live in a row of terraced flats, we have a mail slot in the door. The postman folded the parcel in half and crammed it through the slot. English postal service: You all around totally suck.


Maybe I'm being melodramatic about the weather. I've just spotted a little grey squirrel running around in the garden. I thought all the squirrels had flown south for the Winter by now, but this one's out there, doing the hard yards, fighting the elements, and he just did a big power dive from the tree to the top of the fence. He's the Richie McCaw of the squirrel world.

Wasn't there a Beatrix Potter story where all the squirrels walled Squirrel Nutkin up in his hole to starve? How horrific. How come Richard III became a villain for doing that, but Beatrix Potter is a beloved children's author?

Speaking of rugby, I forgot the game. When I remembered, I only lasted for 1 minute before I got bored. I'm a bad, bad patriot.

No photos this week. Norwich is going to have to wait. With all the good will in the world, I'm not going out that door if the excursion has to be akin to Amundsen's. No one wants to read a blog post featuring the phrases "frostbiten stumps" and "frozen cadaver".

{Monday update: Split the package into 2 parcels and sent them. 24 pounds total. Not too bad. Smashed my previous Christmas preparedness record by 24 days.}

Sunday, November 23, 2008

And on...

This week's scheduled post will not be appearing.

On Friday at work, I asked about good places to go for cheap, and someone suggested Norwich. It seemed a decent idea, but on Sunday morning I got up to find snow lying on the ground in Cambridge. Rain quickly melted it away, but the BBC webcam showing the Norwich market was enough to put me off travelling there. They got covered in snow.

Instead, I reverted to my standard Sunday activity - skulking in my room until mid-afternoon, when I get so bored I grab my camera and roam the streets. Damn it was cold. Might do Norwich next weekend.

This week I'll be missing a wedding back home and a birthday party in Thailand. I feel like a bit of a heel, and a long way from home. I'm thinking of you three.

Okay, boring photo time:

Bridges on the Cam

One of the schools (why yes, I am too lazy to look it up)

Entrance to Corpus Christi

(At this point, I missed the greatest photo ever as a woman on an old bicycle rode past with a huge bunch of multi-coloured, helium filled balloons trailing behind her. I had just packed my camera away, and couldn't react quickly enough. The only way it could've been a better image was if the balloons had hoisted her into the air.)

King's Chapel Through a Gate

Skating on Parker's Piece (below too)

I thought this was interesting. You may know that Samuel Pepys was a 17th century administrator in England. He kept detailed diaries which have survived, and today these diaries provide a lot of info about daily life then. The diaries are now housed at the Pepys Library in Cambridge. But did you know he was also a hairdresser? His shop is still there:
(Shit that was a reach. I can't wait until Summer, when I can do more posts featuring Mediterranean beaches, and fewer featuring lame puns about Restoration civil servants).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Retail in England

My friend D reports that since the credit crunch has hit, you can now get good service in London. People in shops and restaurants are actually asking if they can help you. Remarkable.

One of the big issues in the media here is teen knife crime. It's hard to tell if it's actually any worse than normal, or if it's just the media's flavour of the month. Anyway, a lot of kids, especially in London, are getting stabbed. A clothing chain, T K Maxx, took advantage of the situation by selling a jacket that came with a built-in knife.

When I was in Clapham, I went to KFC. If you order a meal at KFC, they give you a pottle of baked beans. Baked beans? I hate them, so I asked if I could have the potato and gravy instead. I guess they don't do potato and gravy in England, because all I got was a pottle of gravy. How do you screw up KFC? Its genericness is its saving grace. In Thailand, they did it too. There you can get a corn icecream sundae.

On a whim, I bought some biscuits at Asda this weekend. They're called Jaffa Cakes. They're like a chocolate digestive with jam in the middle, and because they're Asda's home brand, they're only 27p per packet. That means I can eat nearly 4 packets per day, and still remain within my Savevember food budget (if I eat nothing else). Seriously, I don't know why no one has told me about these before: They're brilliant. I don't know why I spent yesterday evening writing about art and literature, when I could've been writing about Jaffa Cakes. They're considerably more interesting.

Okay, so this daft post is actually a cry for help. For some weeks I've wanted to get a couple of basic school exercise books. Nothing fancy, just those red stapled 1B5 or 1B8 books that cost 40 cents back home. I can't find them anywhere. I've been to WH Smith, Rymans, a stationery warehouse, Tescos, Asda: They all just have hard cover books with spiral bindings that cost several pounds. So what's the deal? Can you get cheap exercise books here, or do the kids all use those expensive versions? I can't work this one out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Booked Out

Okay, I haven't posted for a while. Here's a catchup:

No word on my job, and I'm down to my last choclate eclair sweet. It's still stressful.

Absolutely freezing tonight. I'm wearing 2 pairs of socks, and 2 jerseys, and I'm still so cold I think I'll just go to bed.

I've spent the last 2 Saturdays in London. One of the books that I brought with me from NZ was "Barnaby Rudge" by Charles Dickens. I wouldn't have believed it's possible to write a novel this boring about religious riots that burned swaths of London in the 18th century, but Dickens managed it. And to boot, it's just lazy. Every Catholic character is pure and industrious, while every Protestant is either evil or a moron. Awful book. But it did get me interested in the Tyburn Tree. The TT is the site where the gallows were located in London. 50,000 people were hanged there. That's FIFTY THOUSAND. I went to the site by the corner of Hyde Park - there's nothing there. Not even a plaque. It seems like it should be important to me.

While I was there, I walked through Marble Arch. Nothing happened, so I walked back through. Still nothing. It's against the law for the general public to pass under the Arch - only members of the royal family are allowed to. Anarchy in the UK, oi!

I generally read classic literature. (Pretentious, watashi?) But since I've been here I've read Barnaby Rudge (awful), Alice in Wonderland (worse), and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe (unimaginably bad - unfinishable). The classics weren't cutting it, so I decided to catch up on some more modern novels. I'm a pretty slow reader, but I read "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in a weekend. Fantastic. It got me interested in Vermeer (the artist it's about). He only painted a few works in his life (I don't want to boast, but I once painted a fence in a single afternoon), but one of them is at the National Gallery in London. So, after seeing the traffic island that is entirely un-gallowsy, I wandered through driving rain in Mayfair and Soho to the gallery. To be honest, in the end the Vermeer didn't blow me away, nor did the Carravagios, despite the fact that he inspired many of the Dutch masters. But the Canalettos were great and I found a Camille Pissarro of Montmatre Boulevard at night that is my new favourite Impressionist painting. Overall, it's just so great. It's a gallery that has so many paintings that you end up begging "Please, no more" long before you've seen everything. My only complaint is that last time I was there, I was most taken by the collection of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, but this time they were gone. I guess they're on tour.

Having not learned my lesson, I slipped next door to the National Portrait Gallery. Meh. It's just a novelty compared to the Nat Gal. The Chandos Shakespeare is interesting only for its historical significance, not its artistic merits.

This Saturday, I went back to London. This time I headed to the church St George's Bloomsbury. I think it's the only Nicholas Hawksmoor church that survived the Blitz. They've just cleaned it for the first time since 1730, and it's shining white. I think it's possible, even for an atheist, to appreciate the beauty created in God's name from a post-Darwinian humanist perspective. Beautiful place.

I then caught up with D, who I stayed with when I arrived in London. We had lunch in Chinatown, and then met some friends to see Spamalot in the West End. We then had a curry in Soho for tea and caught the end of the rugby at a pub. It was a really good day out. It was probably also a good idea to be away from the flat for the game. It seems that the Irish didn't find the Umaga spear tackle on O'Driscole as funny as we did.

I'm currently reading "White Teeth". I guess that means I'll be visiting Cricklewood next. I hear it's beautiful.

Due to the trips to London, "Savevember" has become "Spendvember". Oh well, at least the month still has a theme.

Okay, here's some pretty crappy photos from my street. I took a bunch at dusk on Sunday, but I can't do the extended time shots properly without a tripout - the camera shakes in my hand. My tripod is 20,000km away, and I can't remember if it's in the wardrobe or in the garage. Probably not worth me going and getting it. Anyway, I call these "Study in Bloody Cold (I)":

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Skanger and Bless

That's a Gershwin musical, isn't it?

I'm starting to feel that England is pretty much like NZ. At the risk of getting myself in trouble, the people are a bit dorkier, with everyone seeming to have a bizzare, obscure hobby. But basically, it's just like a cardigan-wearing, over-crowded NZ.

Lexicographically, I haven't noticed a lot of difference. The only 2 words that I've encountered that I don't quite get are "Skanger" and "Bless".

"Skanger" came up a few nights ago. We watched an advert on TV for a reality show following some English girl-band drop-out's plastic surgery, and while explaining who she was to me, my flatmate declared: "She's awful. An absolute skanger." I assume that it's a composite word. I think it's fantastic, and I plan to use it at some point.

The other one that I've heard is "Bless". It's just a single word expression. I think you use it in the context of "Bless them", when you hear about someone doing something selfless or cute. But I could be wrong on that. Suggestions are welcome.

Footnote: D from the blog's NZ office is more au fait with coarse language than I am. She points out that my definition of skanger is wrong: It is actually the Irish term for a "chav". The flatmate who used the term is indeed Irish. I'm disappointed, because I feel my definition was actually more fun.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Do the pious get punctures?

3 punctures in a single week. I'm considering ditching the atheism: It's causing me a lot of inconvenience. I just need to work out which takes more time, going to church or fixing my damn bike.

To date, the credit crunch has been fairly irrelevant. My shares have dropped in value, but it's only a paper loss as long as I don't sell. And it's provided some good comedy. On the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert questioned whether it's really so bad. After all, although the 1930's saw a depression, historians agree that it was "great". So yeah, no real problems.

But now my work has announed quite a lot of layoffs. We have to wait to get the list of names. Aw, crap.

I was going to do a post stating that this month will be "Save-vember". I've set myself quite a high target for the amount that I want to save in the next year, and since money has been trickling away quite freely so far, I thought I would try to live for November as cheaply as possible. But you know what, it's less cute now that I could be out of work again. Saving money becomes more of a requirement than a game.

The weather has gone freezing cold. This week, London had its first October snow since 1934. I put a couple of sweatshirts on the washing line and brought them inside wetter than when I hung them out.

For any Kiwis reading this, I went to a lot of trouble to vote from the far side of the world. It also cost me about $15. So, make sure you can be bothered walking around the corner to the polling station, okay? Unless you vote for a crud party.

This weekend I went to the Cambridge Photo Society exhibition (it was good, and free). It made me painfully aware of how crappy my picture are. Nevertheless, here are my latest from this weekend's roaming. One thing I did learn is that you can improve a very boring picture by converting it to black and white. Oooh, black and white. He's arty.

Row of Chimneys

Church spires

Church behind fence

Stone bier behind fence

Building front

Gate (to the Pepys Library?)

The punts, from Magdalene Street (looks very European to me)

I do like this next one. After posting last week about not knowing where the Mathematical Bridge or the Bridge of Sighs are, I went and found the B of S:

Punt by the Bridge of Sighs

It was Halloween a few nights ago. The amount that people spend on costumes has doubled in the last year, and in a related story, my contempt for humanity also doubled in the last year. When I was a student and I couldn't afford to buy sweets for trick-or-treaters, I sat in my flat with the lights off so they would think that no one was home. This time, I went to the shop and specially bought a bag on chocolate eclair sweets. None of the little buggers came to the door! Luckily, with the job stress, I'm plowing through the bag on my own.