Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This charmed life

When I talk to friends at home in the US, sometimes I have to pinch myself a bit; complaining about work or traffic or whatever sometimes sounds a bit rich when it's in the context of living in London. I sometimes have to bite my tongue when moaning to Americans about how little vacation time I have (25 days per year, for the record, completely allocated through the end of 2011), or how rainy an English summer can be, or how annoying it is when the Tube workers or French air traffic controllers go on strike. Even though it's crap in context, it just sounds glamorous.

So when my boss called me into a meeting room last week to tell me I'd been selected to go to a super-exclusive training conference in Athens for three days starting this Thursday, my first thought was "man, I have to give up my weekend plans." But of course, I'm excited - as my friend Kat said "most people get sent to Scranton for training... you're going to Greece!". I've never been to Greece, and I'm pumped because the average temperature is meant to be around 30°C this weekend. Woot! Who cares if I've already packed my summer clothes away!

And that is one of the most amazing things about living abroad: all of a sudden, the world is smaller, more accessible, not just at your fingertips but in the palm of your hand. Weekends away can be in the lovely rolling English countryside, or in world capitals like Paris and Rome, or in places you might not considered visiting before like Zagreb or Malmo. London is in some ways the center of the universe - not in the way that the UK thought of themselves during the height of the Empire of the Rising Sun - it is perfectly located straddling continents, regions, and time zones to reach pretty much everywhere.

Thus, everytime something really seems crap - like when I have to get up at 5:30am tomorrow for the taxi to take me to the airport to fly to Athens - I have to remind myself that, oh, it could be so much worse. The life of an expat might not be glamorous at all, but definitely has its perks.

Monday, September 27, 2010

English Outlet Shopping

On Saturday, The Irishman and I ventured out of London in our favorite Streetcar Polo and headed towards Oxford to visit Bicester Village. It's sort of local legend here in London, being nearly 1.5 hours away by both car and train - a mecca of shopping where bewildering deals can be had if you're brave enough to face hoards of Asian tourists and girls from up North.

I've known about Bicester Village for a while now and really haven't ever had the desire to go. It was actually The Irishman who wanted to go - he has a new job now that requires him to wear more suits, and all of his dress shirts look a mite raggedy - and I think he figured that if we went there and he was forced to shop in a confined area, it might not be that bad.

And... it wasn't really, but it also wasn't pleasant. I haven't been outlet shopping in a long time, but I never particularly liked it. I'm a pretty average size in clothes and shoes, so anything good that's a good price is rarely available in my size. Yes, it was crowded - for some shops you had to wait in line just to get in! But on the upside, there were some seriously good labels there: Diane von Furstenberg, Vivienne Westwood, Bally, theory. Which brings me to my biggest turnoff: clothing in the UK is expensive, full stop. I am often turned off from buying anything really expensive here from the high street or a designer because I'm convinced I can get it 20-30% in the US with the exchange rate. Sure there are exceptions, but a silk DKNY dress for £65 at the outlet is no bargain; I can probably go to Macy's with some coupons and get it for $40. The prices at the outlet weren't that great on most things, and obviously most of the fashion was last season. So towards the end of the day, I was pretty much over it.

So verdict? The Irishman got a lot of stuff, exactly what he was looking for: suits, shirts, ties, a pair of shoes. Me? I got some baby and birthday gifts. Was it worth the trip? If I had a really fancy event to go to, I might consider it to splurge on a Matthew Williamson floor length gown (RRP £1,000, sold for £555) or maybe to get an Aquascutum raincoat (I tried on a few lovely raincoats, but nothing was in my size, of course). Would I go again? Maybe, in like 2 years, or as part as a weekend away in the country - it's near enough to Oxford, Cheltenham, and the Cotswolds that you could definitely fit it in if you have a car. But like any discount center, you have to be crafty and shrewd to sniff out the best deals - otherwise it's just a big mall.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A la mode

So! This past week was London Fashion Week, ending today, running simultaneously alongside the London Design Festival - basically meaning the entire city (well, at least East London) has been overrun with people wearing fantastic outfits in chic locations looking at beautiful things. I'll be attending a few London Design Festival events, including Tent London and the AppLounge and Hel Yes!, a Finnish pop-up restaurant. I've also already dragged The Irishman down to Trafalgar Square to check out the Outrace robots painting with light. Here's a photo I snapped over the weekend of the robots arms:

As for fashion, well - I'm not on trend (OT) enough to go to the shows but let me tell you it is fall and therefore the shops are all crammed chockablocka with A/W collections. Capes, sweaters, trousers, boots ... I'm totally overwhelmed with excitement and am lusting after quite a lot of items. I recently was awarded a small bonus from work and have some cash with which to treat myself, and I'm tempted nearly daily to blow it on the high street in Uniqlo or French Connection (just look at this cape!). But instead I've decided to invest in something wonderful, and I've found an out-of-season bag from Vivienne Westwood in a classic shape that I have been dreaming about for a week now.


In other fashion news though, I've been spotting a totally retro 90s fashion icon making a big return here in London: the Doc Marten 8-hole boot.

On my bike ride in, I noticed no less than four girls wearing them. Thing is, they're like fashion now - we're not talking about grunge girls, more fashionistas. Seeing these ladies wearing them confidently as a fashion statement made me really wish I still had my trusty old 8-holes, though I'd had them for so long and wore them so far down that they were actually a health hazard in any sort of inclement weather. I remember sliding around the streets of NYC in them and nearly biting the pavement far too many times - and THAT is why I don't even try to go to any sort of Fashion Week events.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mail - e and real

One of the cool things about living in London as an American is that when you go to bed, the US has their whole evening ahead of them - which means that when you wake up, there are oftentimes fun treats in your email inbox from your American friends. Yippee!

Or, there can slightly uncomfortable emails in your inbox like the one I got today from my dad saying my he read my real mail and my US bank account balance was overdrawn. I have a student loan that I pay on monthly direct debits from my US account, and periodically send myself some cash - when I remember. So I'm not sure which is worse - my dad reading my mail, or my dad finding out I'm slightly disorganized in life enough that I forget to send myself money on a regular basis. Sigh.

Blogger Kristina wrote an apt post about how being an expat involves 2x as much paperwork as just being a "normal" citizen, and sometimes I think I got a bad roll of the dice to have lived in the two most paperwork-intensive countries in the world. Although Jon might remind me that I'm lucky to not have to deal with French redtape, it is weird to realize that I actually maintain 6 bank accounts. SIX. For one girl. Sheesh.

And wherever you live, it's really easy to get caught up in day-to-day life and forget about paperwork - bills, renewals, forms, etc etc etc - that's why there are wonderful things like direct debits and automatic payments. But multiply all of that by 2... and combine the fact that my job is pretty much all admin... I'm suffering from admin overload!

And of course there is that pesky "permanent address" issue that I'm sure all expats face - where does all of that American mail GO? I'm lucky that my parents are kind enough to collect my mail and stack it up in a pile for me. Every so often they'll package it up and send it over, or if they are visiting they will bring it along. They didn't used to read it all, but after an incident when Citibank started changing all of their terms, and not telling anyone except by letter, they are doing what any good parent would do - read my mail. I suppose I'm okay with it; I suppose I have to be okay with it. They're gracious enough to take on some of my bloody admin, for which I am grateful. But it is weird - that's MY mail, and MY bank account, even if it only has $15 in it!

So I guess it is a good thing I have my dad opening my mail - now I just need to get over the embarrassment, and lack of privacy - of him finding out my innermost financial secrets. And I guess also grow up and get organized, stat, so I can stay on top of all of bank accounts and debits and various other annoying life necessities.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A recap of the first week of fall

Monday: I bought new tights at M&S - 3 for £8, not bad. I started the habit of throwing my tights out every spring when the weather is firmly warm, so that when it is time to re-embrace covered legs I'm not dredging up holey, pilled, and stretched out hosiery. The plus side is that the feeling of new tights is glorious.

Tuesday: I wore a wool jacket and scarf. Enough said.

Wednesday: It was so dark when my yoga class ended that I needed to put my bike lights on for the ride home.

Thursday: It was so cold that night that I wished for the heavier duvet.

Friday: It is officially no longer rosé season, and I opted for red wine at the pub.

Saturday: I went to Liberty to find that the Christmas shop is now open on the top floor, but the Irishman deemed it too early for us to visit.

Sunday: I switched my wardrobe over, putting summer clothes in storage and welcoming my winter dresses back into rotatio

Thursday, September 16, 2010

To volunteer or not to volunteer

So, for a while now, I've been considering becoming a volunteer for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The Olympics are big news here in London, and it feels like they have been forever. Ever since London won the bid to host the 2012 summer games, there is a story on every newscast and in every day's paper about the preparation, the construction, the budget, the drama, the controversy - it just escalates the closer and closer we get. The mascots were launched a few months ago, and publicity is just tremendous about every facet of the event.

Personally, I'm not really a fan of the Olympics; I thought they were cool when they came around every 4 years and it was an "Olympic year" and everyone got really excited - now it seems like there is always another bloody Olympics happening. I mean, didn't something just take place in Vancouver? I've seriously thought,if I'm still here in 2012, of leaving the city during the games to avoid all of the chaos it will cause.

But I can't help but think, if I am here in London in 2012, it may be my only chance in my lifetime to experience an Olympics up close. And you can't get much closer than volunteering. But apparently there are strict rules - you have to be over 18 (check), English speaking (check), have right to work (check), be available for 10 days (err...), and take whatever job you are given - which can range from giving water to athletes (cool!) to directing traffic in parking lots (uh, have you seen my driving?).

So the jury is out. What about you guys? Any readers here ever volunteered for an Olympic Games? Good stories? Horror stories? Thoughts? I wanna know!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oh, Beeeeeb

So, I just got home from yoga (my first class in a while, ouch) and the Irishman is out with workmates for a leaving do. I don't really expect him home any time soon which means the TV IS MINE. Helpfully, the BBC is on my side and one of my favorite girly flicks is on - Serendipity. The movie takes me back to snuggling under blankets with my ladies from college, sighing over Lloyd Dobbler-I mean, John Cusack- and his adorable nerdiness, and the-actor-who-plays-Aidan-in-Sex-and-the-City as a ridiculous new age musician. Of course, being set in New York it reminds me of being a single lady looking for love in the big city and some of the best years of my life. And so, with the BBC announcer's admonishment to "get yourself a glass of something, get yourself some chocos, and get ready for a movie you're going to love - a movie about love", I'm armed with Dairy Milk and red wine and I'm going to get stuck into one of my favorite things: a cheezy romcom. Irishman, don't hurry home xx

Monday, September 13, 2010

Embracing autumn

This past weekend was the start of the new season for me, and I welcomed it with open arms. It was squash and root vegetables at the Farmers Market, crisp mornings and sun-baked afternoons, a shift from rosé to red wine, and a lot of layers. It means hibernation, warming soups, and crackling fires. I made chicken stock, we ate a stew, I bought some sunflowers, and the Irishman and I were naughty and bailed on an out-of-town obligation in favor of curling up in front of some of the DVR'd tv shows we'd missed while on holiday. < eeps! >

As I sit here typing this at 5:30pm, the sky is already closing in and in the mornings it is noticeably darker longer. Though it's colder and the sun won't shine as much as in the summer, I do love the fall and I am really excited for some brisk walks through crackling leaves and settling into the pub for an afternoon. I have a few days out planned to various areas of town for lovely strolls that I'm looking forward to, and I am craving this delicious red lentil soup that I might make this week.

It is slightly frightening, though, that the year has gone so fast. Only this time last year was I getting back from my holiday in Croatia and Italy, and planning for my visit home to the US. It's nuts that I haven't been back since last November, so I'm also really looking forward to seeing the family and my friends and just being American for a while. I am starting to feel like autumn, while usually a season of twilight, a time for endings and closure and preparation for the stark death of winter, may actually be my time for reestablishing myself and my identity and my person by returning to my homeland and reconnecting with everyone I love. I am kind of excited about reclaiming the season as one of renewal, rather than one of ending. It's already the season of the Jewish New Year (shana tova, peeps!) and that of the harvest, so I think I'll start really celebrating the bounty in my life - of my friends, family, health, and happiness. I'm sure it will do me good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The ubiquity of the summer house

Last post about my holiday, I promise (can you tell I loved it?).

One thing I didn't mention in my previous posts was our "small world" encounter in Biot: the Irishman's aunt and uncle, who we met in Villefranche for dinner, were actually on the Cote d'Azur to spend a week with friends who own a house in Biot and several other couples who have known the Irishman since he was a lad. Though we were intending for our holiday to be more of a romantic getaway than family reunion, when faced with four sets of Irish parent-types inviting us to a big communal dinner we couldn't really say no. We ended up having an amazing meal at Chez Odile - Odile herself admonished all of the men (including my Irishman) to eat their vegetables. Adorable.

But I couldn't help but be struck at how similar the whole situation was, running into families one has grown up with in a beach resort area miles from home, to how the Jersey Shore and similar places work in America. While at first I was really impressed that this Irish family spent all of their time off in Biot, going swimming in the sea and finding little local restaurants to frequent, I realized that it's no different to all of those friends I knew (and still know) whose families own a shore house, or rent a splace "down the shore" , and use any excuse of a long weekend, public holiday, etc, to flee to the sea. The only difference here is, well, Ireland doesn't exactly get hot, and doesn't really have guaranteed sun. So it's understandable that families who crave a real summer would seek it abroad. And with a 2 hour flight the only thing separating Britain and Ireland from the Cote d'Azur, it's really not much different than driving to a British or Irish coast.

It's easy to forget, as an American, that comparatively speaking, Europe isn't actually that big; when you live in the US, you know there is this magical world across the ocean that holds so much history and culture and wonder but you don't really comprehend its geography. When you become an expat, and avail yourself of Ryanair and Easyjet and Eurostar, you start to realize that France - while linguistically and culturally still a million miles away - is actually a similar distance from the UK as New York is from Boston. The close proximity of European states makes all of the differences in food, lifestyle, fashion, everything!, so much more fascinating and intriguing - and easy to enjoy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

And the other shoe has... dropped.

Well! I must have been on a holiday high or something yesterday because I breezed through the (somewhat) sunny day in a lovely summery outfit, showing off my tan, rising above the stress of thousands of commuters freaking out about the tube strike and smiling the whole time. Today, however, I woke up to cloudy skies and cold weather and I was just plain exhausted. I was distinctly not with it for most of the morning, stooping to the level of blanking out on the number 19 bus and nearly missing my stop. I wore flip-flops for the commute, and had that weird feeling when your toes are so cold they can't grip the soles, and I noticed that all of the girls I passed had their boots on already. It's only 8 September but I guess it's properly autumn now - Waitrose is selling pumpkins, for goodness sakes! - and therefore my summer holiday is officially over. Yet at the same time, even though I'm wearing layered shirts, cardigans, and scarves (and I changed into heels in the office so, you know, my toes are covered), I feel really zen. Like I really absorbed all of that French sun, and it's powering me from the inside out. It's a lovely feeling, even if I can't quite get moving in the mornings, and I'm hoping I can keep it going for a while. In that spirit, here are a few choice pix from the holiday to inspire me (and you).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

J'ai retourné

Allo! I'm back, everyone!

The Irishman and I flew in last night from the amazingly beautiful and sunny Cote d'Azur and were greeted properly by a torrential downpour and a Tube strike. Of course. But despite the chilly weather and reception, I'm properly maintaining my holiday glow; reactions by my colleagues all centered around me looking "calm, rested, and relaxed" with some tan in there as well. Which is excellent because my holiday definitely was all of those things. We spent the first week in Antibes, a historic little town on the edge of the Mediterranean with a small beach, cobbled streets, and excellent markets. We rented a small studio apartment and had a routine that went something like this: wake up, pop down to the boulangerie for pain au chocolat and baguettes, eat breakfast on our balcony, wander up to the market for olives and veg and browsing, then mosey back for lunch, then I'd go to the beach while the Irishman pottered, and then he'd meet me at the beach for an hour or so before we went for a pre-dinner beer at "our" cafe overlooking the square. Then we'd shower and go for dinner and repeat. It was glorious.

We broke the routine on our last full day in Antibes to get on the train and head to Monaco. Train travel in France is ridiculously easy, though notoriously unreliable, but we were lucky and everything ran smoothly. For €12, you can get a day pass that lets you go anywhere on the Cote d'Azur line, from Cannes to Italy. We went to Monaco, and then stopped in Eze on the way to Villefranche where we met the Irishman's aunt and uncle for dinner. We found out after we booked our trip that they were also meant to be on the Cote d'Azur at the same time we were, so we decided we would all belatedly celebrate the Irishman's birthday.

The break in routine signaled an end to our beach holiday and the beginning of touring the hills of Provence. We picked up a rental car and drove up to the little village of Biot, known for a tradition of glass-blowing and crafts. We stayed at the most delightful little B&B, absolutely amazing room and delicious breakfasts and really welcoming and charming hosts. We used the B&B as a base to explore the hill country, stopping at towns like Vence, St Paul de Vence, Valbonne... it was beautiful, steep cliffside hill towns that seem to just appear on the sides of mountains. The foliage was beautiful and the flowers and the olives and vineyards and orchards... the whole place smelled delicious and looked just as nice.

Our last day, yesterday, we drove all the way to the Italian border and up into the hills to the tiny tiny medieval village of Sainte-Agnès. The ascent is windy and, frankly, terrifying, but the payoff is a magnificent view all the way out to Corsica, a decommissioned pre-WWII army fort, and a lovely restaurant that served food that wasn't quite French, wasn't quite Italian, but was definitely amazing. After stuffing ourselves, we climbed like mountain goats up to the very top of the summit where there are ruins of a castle being lovingly restored by a volunteer society. I was absolutely amazed that people chose to build something so complex at such a great height. It was mindblowing.

And then, as they all do, our holiday came to an end. We returned our rental car at Nice Airport and boarded our flight back to London and now here I am, back at my desk, trying to figure out how such sun-drenched and relaxed place can exist just a short plane ride away from Big Smoke. Even though the sky outside my window is currently blue, it doesn't compare at all to the deep sea blue of the Cote d'Azur. I will definitely be going back. Soon.