Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spotted: Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

View of Tower Bridge from inside the Tower of London
January 15, 2010

Oh hai blog: where I been.

Hi there. Long time, no write. I've just come up for air after one of the longest weeks ever. I wrote a bit last year about how I was really flailing about professionally and that I wasn't sure what was in store for me. It was definitely true, and in some ways I still feel that way. It is hard sometimes to wake up every day and face an office when all you want to do is knit and blog and ride your bike around a fabulous city. But lately things have been better, despite the long hours I've been putting in recently. I have a new boss, who can never replace my fab old boss, but who is pushing me harder than I've ever been pushed professionally. I've always known that while a self-starter, I always work best when somebody is continually raising a bar for me. I am in some ways very lazy unless someone is constantly pushing me to be on my toes. New boss definitely does that, and when I stopped resisting it I found myself more and more engaged with my work on a daily basis. That's something I haven't felt in a while.

I've also been attacking some workplace demons that were born, in my mind, out of the innate differences between American and British business culture. I've had to learn a lot about humility, graciousness, hard work, compromise, and status - things that don't really seem to matter in the American workplace. Obviously you have to be a team player and treat people with respect in the US, but otherwise shameless self-promotion is the only way to the top. Here in the UK, at least at my company, there seems to be an intricate web of reputation, hierarchy, and playing to ones strengths in a humble nearly invisible way that drives promotion and seniority. A young brash American can't simply say, "I brought you £X worth of business, promote me" because it's all about how you did it, who saw it, and the impression you made on them while doing it. It's been a really bitter pill for me to swallow, but I'm starting, slowly, to get it. I'm hoping my dawning realization is in time for me to prove to the senior staff that I am committed to doing a good job in London and I'm not heading back to the new world any time soon.

Until then, though, it's looking like more early mornings and late nights... hopefully I can fit in the time to update BloodyBrill despite my epic workdays.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow update from London

No doubt you've seen this NASA photo of a completely snow-covered UK. Well let me point out the swirling cloud in the lower righthand corner - that would be the gigantic cloud that has been sitting over central London for the last week and NOT DELIVERING ANY SNOW. While there are feet of snow all over the outlying counties and London suburbs, Old Smoke hasn't got an inch on the ground. We've mostly had dustings that iced over on the sidewalks, but the roads are clear and there isn't much loveliness. Earlier in the week, it snowed all day but didn't stick until 3pm and then it stopped at 4pm. Hmph. I've been really wanting to be snowed in, "working from home" with a pot of coffee and my duvet, but since I walk to work there really is no excuse for me not to make it into the office. Lots of colleagues who live in the country have suffered being power outages, train lines disruptions, road salt shortages, and other winter worries; my biggest issue has been that it's been so bloody cold I haven't been able to start my half marathon training. Beyond the icy sidewalks, temperatures plunged below freezing right after New Years and haven't budged. I've been sporting a hat and fox-fur earmuffs simultaneously, much to the Irishman's embarrassed despair, and I've been wearing snowboots everywhere for at least a week. It's all getting a bit tired. I mean, why bother with all this if I'm not going to at least see a lovely blanket of white out my window when I wake up; I want to crunch through some snow while I lose sensation in my extremities!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Eggnog + Lattes

I wanted to share a learning with all of you, and that is about eggnog. Basically, they don't make it in England. Or Ireland. Or pretty much anywhere in the UK. I can't vouch for the rest of Western Europe, but it's a safe guess that they probably don't make it there either. Not only do they not make it, they don't know what it is and you certainly cannot get it in the store.

But! Starbucks is ubiquitous, and they pride themselves in the overall excellence and sameness of their coffee-based beverages, and therefore the company has innocently become the first importers to introduce eggnog to the UK via their Eggnog Lattes. My Irishman was hooked on the sweet sweet beverage this holiday season, and while we were in Dublin we had a severe hankering for them. Unfortunately Dublin is a tiny town and surprisingly non-commercial in the suburbs, and there were no Starbucks outlets to be found within driving distance of the Irishman's home save driving into the city center - odd, compared to London where you can't go five minutes anywhere in the city without tripping over three Starbucks shops.

So what does one do without Starbucks? Well, if one's family received a Nespresso machine for Christmas, one decides to make the eggnog, and the lattes, one's self! First we found a recipe - Alton Brown of the Food Network had a decently easy-looking recipe - and then off we went to the shop for whiskey and cream. Now. Here is the second learning: eggnog is American - not Irish, or British - and therefore an American should make it. The Irishman has a tendency to sometimes take over in the kitchen, due to his excitement and love of cooking, but I ask you - WHAT DOES HE KNOW ABOUT EGGNOG? He's never had it straight, only in coffee, and doesn't know what to expect from texture, taste, or flavor.

Needless to say, our first batch was a horrible disaster - mostly due to the fact that we did the heated version and ended up with more egg than nog. But the second round we did cold, and the key is to let it set in the fridge so that it all congeals the right way. Learning number 3 - you don't really need the extra egg whites. Ours were corrupted and didn't peak when we whipped them; I guess they would add a bit more thickness to the consistency, but not having them made it more drinkable and I think more authentic.

In the end, our eggnog lattes were a success; I made sure to google a recipe for the eggnog lattes just to be sure of what I was doing, and in doing so found a great new food blog to follow: Savory Sweet Life. Check it out! My new blogmate Alice gave me learning number 4, that eggnog lattes aren't made with straight eggnog. Starbucks waters it down with milk and if you're like me you can use skim or 2% to make yourself feel better about all of the eggs and cream you're about to ingest. I used 1 shot of espresso since I didn't want to use up the Irishman's father's new Nespresso pods, and just didn't fill the mugs. Everyone thought they were delicious, and even more sweet was my kitchen victory when the Irishman admitted they were just like Starbucks (and maybe even better).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Damn you, Ryanair!

So we've all heard about the devious, diabolical way that Ryanair treats customers like cattle, refusing refunds for anything and considering charging passengers to use the toilets on-board. But you can't deny that sometimes they are the cheapest way from point A to point B, and that their "FLY FOR £1" ads are pretty damn enticing. I've never flown Europe's love-to-hate budget airline, but yesterday I bought my first ticket with them and I can honestly say they are RIGHT BASTARDS.

The Irishman are headed back to Dublin at the end of February for a wedding (what, back so soon?) and hoped to find some dirt cheap flights due to the fact that the Irish rugby team and all of their fans would be in England for the Six Nations rugby match. But the major airlines never got that memo and all of the flights were upwards of £70 roundtrip. On a whim, I checked Ryanair and low and behold, flights on the dates we were looking to travel were all of £35 roundtrip including all of the ridiculous fees they tack on at checkout. So we decided to lower our standards just this once, and went ahead to book.

Well! The Irishman's payment was accepted just fine but when I pressed "Purchase" it took me to a screen saying my payment couldn't be processed and that I had entered my credit card information incorrectly. I freaked out, naturally, as Ryanair won't do anything nice for anyone and I didn't want to get charged twice; there would be no hope of a refund! So I pressed back to reenter my credit card info and correct the mistake, but the boxes for payment entry were greyed out. I checked my email, no confirmation email, and proceeded to start the whole process over. THAT was when I found out that the whole reason it didn't work the first time is because there were no seats left for that price! When I went to select my return flight the second time, the original price of £14.99 was no where to be seen and it was replaced with seats for £21.99! RUBBISH! This time of course my payment (which was 100% correct the first time) was processed just fine and my flight cost, roundtrip, £42 total.

Okay, I know it isn't exactly a big increase - a whopping £7 - but it's the principle of the thing. Not only was the price of my flight selection more money, but so were all of the other flights that day priced higher as well. Ryanair doesn't have to be so sneaky; I mean, luring people in and then switching the cost of a flight leg during the checkout process is wrong. I always knew they were ruthless, but frankly, Ryanair is just mean. Hmph. I'll remember this, O'Leary. Your Irish eyes are NOT smiling!

Spotted: Shooting Stars

Chapel Market, Islington
January 4, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year, New Me?

I'm sitting here with the last of my chocolate coins after finishing off last night's penne a la vodka (my own special recipe full of single cream and butter), before which I downed a large quantity of cheese with the Irishman to rid our larders of everything indulgent we allowed ourselves to purchase over the last six weeks. It is three days into 2010 and it's nearly time to start on those resolutions. So what will I resolve to do this year? Well, the wish I wrote on the lantern we sent flying at midnight on New Year's Eve was to find greater fulfillment in my life overall. I think that will be my overall goal, and I have little things in mind to help me get there.

Firstly, running. I'm getting back together with my old fling Hal Higdon to train for a half marathon. If any of you readers are aspiring runners like me, Hal is the man for a thorough, complete, and not-too-scary running training program. I've been with him before and left him for the comfort of my sofa, but this time I'm determined to really commit to him. The race I've got in mind to complete takes place the first May Bank Holiday weekend, which gives me four months to train. Easy peasy. The race sounds rad - it's called the Neolithic Marathon, and route takes you from an ancient stone circle called Avebury and ends at Stonehenge. I'll only do half, starting in the middle and ending at Stonehenge, but if I'm going to run 13 miles it might as well be with the goal of ending at something as awe-inspiring as Druid ruins.

Obviously one of the benefits of running is to look better in all of the clothes I bought when I went to the US, but a large part of running for me is to take control of my life. For a lot of 2009 I felt like other people were controlling me, who I was, what I was doing, and where I was going in my life, my career, and my overall being. I realized not too long ago that when I run, even if it is only 2 miles, I feel like I am more in charge, more balanced, and calmer than if I don't. So yes, I definitely want to shed the festive fat, but I also want to direct myself and my existence in a more positive manner.

In addition to running, I am making writing one of my goals as well. That includes this here blog, which I know I'm not 100% amazing at updating, and so I'm rededicating myself to it with a few links to other blogs I enjoy and with the goal of expanding readership. The Irishman and I let our food blog Eggplant & Aubergine die a slow and painful death, and I don't want that to happen here. Plus I have a few ideas up my sleeve for making writing more of a permanent fixture in my life fullstop, and writing here helps me focus my thoughts and provides me with a good exercise for improving skills. Kind of like my running. Ugh.

Finally, in a zen and feng shui kind of way, I'm really going to try in 2010 to stop comparing myself to everyone else. I'm at that point in my life where a lot of my friends are getting big promotions, buying houses, settling down - I've never knit so many baby gifts before in my entire life - and it is so easy for me to sit on the couch and whinge about why I'm not where they are (as I sit and type this at the shared computer in my shared house, owned by roommates younger than myself, gaaaaah). But I've also done a fair bit of awesomeness in my own time and I know that it's only up to me to achieve my goals. Sometimes the hardest bit is figuring out what those goals are; simply saying "I want to make more money" isn't exactly focussed or actionable. So I'm going to spend the majority of this year figuring out exactly what it is I want in this crazy world, and then set myself up for getting it. I have a feeling that it's probably completely different from what I thought I wanted when I first moved to England, but isn't that sort of the point? I certainly hope so, or else I'm in for a really big shock.

Good luck with all of your resolutions, friends, as I'm sure you all have them. Don't forget - the only person that matters in this whole silly ritual is you.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy 2010 everyone! I hope you all had exactly the kind of New Years you wished for; New Years isn't exactly my favorite holiday on earth, and most years I want to crawl under an afghan, exhausted, from weeks of eating and drinking to nurse my hangover and say good riddance to the year that was. After my horrid 2009 it was no different - I would have happily spent the holiday with Casablanca and a bottle of wine - but the Irishman and I had agreed to spend New Years Even in a cottage with five other couples in Exmoor National Park. So less than 24 hours after we returned to London from Dublin, we were in a hire car on our way to Lyncombe Farm in Somerset.

After a detour through Bristol, we drove through tiny adorable towns like the medieval village of Dunster Keep and headed farther into the depths of Exmoor. We were nearly at the house when a thick fog descended on us and what should have been a lovely drive into a valley became a crazy and confusing trek down dirt roads and country lanes. We finally arrived at our destination, a 500 year old farmhouse (give or take) with no central heating, only 1 bathroom (without a shower), and electricity powered by a generator in the barn. In short, it was lovely.

We spent New Years Eve on another "walk" - this time a hike across sheep meadows and up hills that seemed to be too perfect to be natural. It took us to a little town called Withypool where we had a table reserved for a hearty pub lunch, and sampled the fine local brew of Exmoor Gold. On the way back, we took a different route home and I'm here to tell you that walking straight up a hill for about 200m after drinking a pint and eating deep-fried brie is NOT a good idea. Ugh. But after the terrain levelled off, the rest of the return journey was amazing.

Once we recovered and defrosted, our hosts held a sound clash - a music competition where couples queued up three songs to be voted by the group - which the Irishman and I won with our combination of Beastie Boys "Sabotage," Sir Mix-a-lot "I Like Big Butts", and Aha "Take on Me". I suspect our interpretive dance routine for Sabotage might have been a big factor in our win; the Irishman entered the room by rolling on the ground. Too bad it was freezing stone! Then we moved on to a murder mystery game complete with fancy dress and some seriously good acting.

We were so busy with all of our fun and games that we nearly forgot to countdown to 2010. When it got close we found a radio and tried to tune into a countdown, but it didn't really work and we went by an amalgamation of watches to ring in midnight properly. After our toasts and cheers, we all wrote our hopes, dreams, and wishes on a paper lantern that we sent flying into the night. It was powered by a candle, and supposed to burn out in the atmosphere; I sincerely hope it did and that some thatched roof cottage in the park didn't have an unwelcome New Year surprise!

New Years Day was bright and cold, and it took us a few attempts and some pushing to get our hire car back up the lane and to get on our way back to civilization. I must admit, I had the blues a bit thinking about returning to the big city and the impending end of the holiday season. Being out in the country, walking with sheep and relaxing in the woods made me really think about why I'm trying to scrabble out my little existence in the big, fast, expensive city; seeing the English countryside in all of its glory, spending time with good people, makes a London lifestyle seem a bit overrated. So after we returned to Blighty, unpacked the car, and SHOWERED, I made a pact with myself that part of my New Years resolutions would be to really think about what makes me happy in life and to do more of those things. I'll be sharing my New Years plans with you all shortly, so until then... I hope your hangovers are mending nicely.