Friday, December 23, 2011

Heading home for the holidays

And, we're off! Wrapping up a few loose ends this morning working from home and then we schlep to Heathrow on what is apparently one of the busiest air travel day of the year. Ugh. Of course, one of the "loose ends" is code for "packing." Luckily BA has a helpful guide for what you can and can't pack in your luggage: below is a screen grab of the essential information, which means I can go ahead and take those Christmas crackers home for the family – if I can fit them in the suitcase!

Good luck in traveling wherever you're going, and have an amazing holiday break with loved ones near and far.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Metal thieves

In a sad and depressing sign of the times, the UK's burgeoning trade in stolen metal has reached its nadir with a Barbara Hepworth statue stolen out from Dulwich Park a few days ago.

Apparently commodity prices for industrial metals like copper and iron are soaring, giving petty thieves an incentive to steal metal from railroads, plaques from statues - basically, anything solid metal has a decent resale value and they're going after it. The Hepworth piece is just the worst – and most high profile – example of the crime. Police are cracking down on the crime, as it is not only just sad to see art being stolen but it's contributing to commuter train disruption and costing the country millions.

At this festive time of the year full of goodwill and cheer, this epidemic is making me despondent. Obviously because public art should be safe through a commonly accepted code of decency in society, but also because the economy is still so bad that more and more people are being driven to crime to try to make ends meet (I'm a fan of believing people are inherently good, and that motives for stealing a beautiful sculpture aren't purely mercenary).

Anyway. Here's to hoping this is the first and last of such crimes in the world, and that the thieves find some Christmas spirit in their hearts to return the sculpture to be restored.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My week in Doha

So I'm back in the office, sitting at my desk, trying to get photos from 5 different places into one blog post. Apologies for the weird posting!

Anyway, here it is - a week in the Middle East, working, exploring, and trying to understand this fascinating region.

It started with a flight mid-day last Saturday, which I started with a glass of bubbly. Underneath the glass was a bottle holder for my water. I was served a 4 course meal and my seat had massage settings that I used for the majority of the flight in a state of semi-consciousness. Brilliant. Ryanair this was not, and I am now dreading my flight to America on Friday in row 7,000 of BA economy class. Bleurgh.

Part of my job in Qatar involved visiting museums, and this is by far one of the most amazing museums I've ever visited. Designed by I.M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art sits on reclaimed land in the middle of the bay. It is absolutely beautiful from the outside...

And seriously stunning on the inside. This view is looking up to the skylight in the middle of the building's roof.

We also visited the New Old Souk, or Souq Waqif. As with everything in Doha, it was rebuilt recently ("restored") so it is not the original structure. But you can still get spices, animals, and clothing in addition to touristy tat.

We also went to one of the ginormous malls in the city; we were invited to a very swank opening while we were there that was being attended by the Emir and his royal entourage so we had to spruce up the gladrags. It's a good thing that Zara was there, with a very similar pricing structure to that of the UK. But the mall was something straight out of Vegas - complete with a river and gondolier that would take you from one of the mall to the other.

So that was an experience.
But mostly I spent my days calling our driver, waiting for our driver, or being driven somewhere – usually to meetings or important sites that our client recommended we see. No one walks in Doha, so even if your destination is literally around the corner you wait for a driver to take you. Our driver was lovely, a man we called Mr. B, and we found out a little bit about him - a Nepalese immigrant working there for a few years to make some money. 
That's another hard realization: everyone there is an immigrant. Qatar is a small nation, with a relatively low population of native citizens. Everyone else is either a Western expat there to work, or an Asian immigrant there to work. And te servent culture in the Middle East is strong. So many times I wanted to say "that's okay, I don't need you to bow/call me m'am/explain the difference between the 9 steak knives you have for me to choose from" (seriously). But when you're a guest in someone's country, you have to live as they do to some extent and effusive service is the easiest to accept.
The team that I traveled with to Doha was an all-woman project team. That's not unusual in my industry, but before leaving we did have a few people raise their eyebrows about it with regards to the region. Qatar is part of the GCC and one of our clients explained to us that all member states of the GCC have adopted similar dress codes for their citizens including the white thobe for men and the black abaya for women. Apparently abayas used to be bright and colourful, kind of like saris, but now they are black and somber in a Iranian Shia tradition. Women wear these in public, with their face either exposed, half veiled, or fully veiled. It is difficult to be a Western woman, dressed conservatively, but still feeling exposed when sitting in a room with women half veiled. It's the most awkward and self-conscious feeling you could ever have.
Beyond these cultural differences, Doha is experiencing an extreme transformation. The entire city is under construction, and the skyline you see today wasn't there 15 years ago. Everywhere there is something being built, and the ambition and energy were palpable. I've never witnessed a city with such a drive towards progress; everyone there was there for the single reason of contributing to the future of Qatar. It was inspirational, to be honest, and made me think that the Gulf is someplace to watch in the future – sort of like India, it is a region where the youth are organising themselves into a new generation with a lot of things they want to achieve. Returning to London felt like going back in time to an older world that maybe hasn't quite kept up with the economic / political times. I think that we will hear more about the transformation in that region over the next decade, and it will be more positive and exciting than not.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hello from Doha

Masa El Khair! It is nearly 7pm and I'm about to dash off for dinner but I thought I'd say hi. I've been desperately wanting to post a few pictures but my iPhone is on the fritz and keeps continuously turning itself on and off – so the thought of me uploading some photographs is but a pipe dream.

Anyway, Doha is a) sandy, b) on a beautiful blue sea bay, c) under constant construction, d) fascinating, e) repeat all of the above. I'm overwhelmed by the cultural nuances that continuously emerge throughout the course of a day and two days in, I am curious as to what will come next. 

Hopefully I can share some photos soon and there will be a good long post about women coming up, both specifically in the Middle East and internationally in general, as well as just a fuller update. But until then, work calls so Ma'assalama!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

One more big push until Christmas

So it is Christmas and London is decorated, Angel is decorated, my office is decorated, but my house is not. Why? Because of course, as per usual, the marketing industry is trying to earn every last cent of revenue for the year and get as much done as possible before 2011 comes to a close. In my case, that means heading off to Qatar for a week on Saturday to kick off a project we've been waiting to do since June. WHERE you ask? I had the same question myself.

View Larger Map

Qatar is a tiny little kingdom near the UAE and alongside Saudi Arabia. My project there is confidential, but essentially we will be helping to define the nation's cultural legacy. No pressure then.

So I'm giving up my weekend and all of next week to immerse myself in Qatari culture and business. I'm already facing challenges as I begin to think about what to pack! Qatar, like most Gulf states, has a completely different attitude towards women and how they should dress, act, etc. As a Westerner entering their culture, it's on me to conform and not to challenge their societal norms (even if they are at odds with my own culture). I found this really helpful post on Lonely Planet, written by an Arab woman, outlining how to dress and act in business situations, but I still feel a bit anxious. I think that until I get there, see the lay of the land, it will all be very up in the air and slightly stressful. But that's okay - the whole reason for me moving abroad was for the challenge and excitement of doing new things, widening my experiences, and this is penultimate! Especially since I get to fly Business Class roundtrip - my first time ever!!! SO THRILLED.

I'll try to blog here and there while I'm in Doha and I get a minute spare, even if it's just some photos. I'm back next Friday evening and go straight to my Christmas party, after which I will just be SO READY for Christmas and going home to the US it won't even be funny.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Deck the Halls

Over the past few weeks, I've been loving Christmas in London. Here's a selection of my favorite shots from across the city.

Oxford Street

Liberty's Christmas Shop

Carnaby Street

Burlington Arcade

Fortnum & Mason

My office!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapel Down Winery

As you may have read, my parents visited me over the Thanksgiving weekend. One of their entertainment requests was a day out of London, and they've already hit many of the easy-to-reach tourist spots (Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Oxford, etc). I had a think and remembered a friend of mine had recently visited Chapel Down Winery with her husband and a few other friends, and highly recommended it as a day out. So I booked us a tour and lunch reservations at the restaurant on the site, and Saturday morning we met at Charing Cross station to board a train out to Kent. 

The closest train station to the winery is at the village of Headcorn. As we had over an hour before our tour time, we took the opportunity to explore the little town. That's my parents, above, in a lovely wooden bus shelter. It's a really cute town, with a high street decorated for Christmas and an ancient churchyard surrounded by Tudor homes.

There was also a Christmas craft fair in the town hall, which we naturally had to visit. My mother bought up a few souvenirs while The Irishman and I had some really nice homemade sausage rolls. Then we jumped in a cab for a 20 minute drive to Chapel Down. 

The tour is approximately an hour and 45 minutes long, including a tasting. We saw two of the different vineyards with two separate types of vines, and the guide explained the growing and harvesting processes. We then went into the barns to learn how they actually make the wine.

Because the best English wines are actually sparkling wines, the guide spent the most time explaining the techniques they use to for creating fizz. Chapel Down uses the traditional French technique << champagnoise >> that involves a long process of turning the bottles to ensure that the yeast in the wine fully aerates the liquid. It's a fascinating process that was once done by hand but now is mechanized – which is still pretty cool to see. Below are some bottles of sparkling rosé in the midst of the turning, with the yeast by-product in the neck. It's pink, because it's ros

And here are some bottles of sparkling rosé ready to be finished.

Of course the tour ended with a tasting; the whites, rosé, and sparkling wines are amazing while the reds still need some work. The soil and temperature of Southeast England just don't allow for the maturing of the grape that will get a really rich, bold, deep red wine; hopefully they can move to making a more Beaujolais-style wine that will take advantage of the lack of intensity. At any rate, we picked up a bottle of their Bacchus Reserve white wine to have with Vietnamese food on Kingsland Road. Score!

Lunch in the restaurant was delicious, accompanied by more Chapel Down wine. We left the vineyard sated and content, having enjoyed the brisk country air and some really wonderful local products. Our cab back to the train station took us through the nearby little town of Tenterden, and had we been more energetic it would have been nice to walk off the meal looking into the shop windows. But at that point, we were all nearly asleep anyway. Oh well – just another reason to go back for another visit.

If you go:
Trains run direct to Headcorn from Charing Cross station; journey time is approximately an hour and train fare is around £18 per person. National Express has a great deal where if four adults travel together on a same-day return train ticket, you only pay for 2 people's tickets – essentially, it's 50% off. Taxis from Headcorn to Chapel Down are around £25 each way, and there is a taxi office at Headcorn station. Vineyard tours are £8 per person, but the grounds are open to the public and you can go for walks around the park regardless of whether you take the tour or not. The restaurant has an a la carte menu as well as a set menu for lunch – 2 courses for £13.95 or 3 courses for £15.95 which is excellent value for some really great food. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

I lied.

I missed Thanksgiving yesterday.

Lunch was amazeballs, my parents are in fine fettle, and we had a lovely meal last night. But Facebook tortured me this morning with photo after photo after post of meals, families, smiles. Yes I had all of those, BUT IT WASN'T THE SAME.

So sue me: I wanted to slave over a bird in the oven. Now I know for next year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obligatory Expat Thanksgiving Post That's Really About Christmas

Photo courtesy of Flickr by Paparutzl 

This week is a holiday week in America. If I were still living there, today would probably be my last day of work. Or I might "work" tomorrow and scoot out after lunch to catch a train back to my parents.

But I don't live in America and I'm not going home to America this year, and I'm okay with all of this. I chose not to live there, and, while I miss my family and my friends, I don't really miss the food. I actually hate sweet potatoes and yams, so that's a win, and now that I can get Libby's canned pumpkin here (I worked out that I paid $2.25 per can for the pleasure of it, but hey, imports are expensive) I've gotten pretty good at replicating my Mom's pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.

I usually don't get worked up about missing holidays because I live far away, but this year I have an extra reason for being less than sad: my parents are arriving tomorrow evening for a long weekend of non-traditional Thanksgiving-ness.

My office has a restaurant headed up by a chef trained at The Wolseley, and he is cooking us all Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday. My parents will come for lunch in the midst of their museum-ing, and that evening we will go to the holiday shopping evening at my favorite local store Aria before dinner at Trullo. Friday we will see a show in the evening, and Saturday we will head down to Kent for a tour of Chapel Down Winery.

But the real focus of their visit will be to see London all dressed up for the holidays. Sunday will be devoted to visiting everything in London that screams Christmas: Fortnum & Masons, Regents Street, John Lewis, and of course Liberty. I'm gutted that the Christmas Past exhibit won't be open at the Geoffyre Museum while they're here - I'll just have to go to that myself. It's almost as if we as a family have decided to skip the Thanksgiving holiday and just run straight on to December.

I'm okay with that. As a kid, I never really liked Thanksgiving (no presents!) and as an expat I've been delighted to find myself obsessed with Christmas the way only a child can be. It's the way people here get excited for the holiday, the way it saturates the whole country (no multicultural/multireligious politically correctness here!), the way that there are Christmas cooking shows on TV, the way the country shuts down on the 23rd (except for the airports unless it snows/ices/squalls/etc), the way the Queen addresses the country and wishes everyone well. If Thanksgiving is a family holiday about love and thankfulness in America, Christmas is a holiday about love and unity in the UK - one big boozy knees up and bear hug to see out the end of the year.

So I'm glad to not be making a fuss about Thanksgiving this year; I am glad to be embracing the Christmas season early, kicking it off with a bang, with the people I love the most. Little Brother - can you join us last minute to make the weekend complete?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What else I've been up to

In the lead up to the marathon, I wasn't drinking and I was staying in most Friday nights and all work and no play made me a very dull girl. So I had to find something to occupy myself when I wasn't running, and I turned to my other favorite sport: knitting.

I found a pattern for a replica of The Dude's sweater from The Big Lebowski on Crafty Crafty, and jokingly sent it on to my little brother who simultaneously worships The Dude while trying to recreate his lifestyle. He also hates when I knit him stuff. So imagine my surprise when he responded saying "MAKE ME THIS FOR CHRISTMAS OR MY BIRTHDAY". 

Cut to me in the midst of knitting my first full-size human garment beyond a scarf, as well as my first fair-isle knitting piece. This is unchartered territory people. The image above (crappy, I know, sorry for the bad lighting) shows the back – I took it to show my mother and get her opinion on some pattern irregularities due to me knitting two colors of yarn together. I've since fixed them as she gave me a tip on avoiding this pesky hole that appears between 2 colors when you create straight line. Anyway.

At this point I've finished the back and half of one of the front panels. I am confident I can get the pieces done before Christmas and when I get home to the US can do the making it up and finishing details. But the nerd has to also supply me with a measurement of his arms as he has seriously the longest arms of any human I know so I need to knit accordingly. The Irishman is grumbling about being a knitting widow but frankly I think he's just jealous as he has also refused me knitting him apparel in the past – maybe this project will be the one that changes his mind.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Prague is one of those places in the world that I have a created for myself a wildly romantic notion about what it should be: cold, cloudy, atmospheric, full of cobbled streets and small dark bars with crackling fireplaces. A city where you spend time walking and thinking, growing colder with every step and revelation, then warming yourself up with mulled wine in a comfortable chair in a sparkling café.

What I found when I got there was not much different, as illustrated by my photo of Charles Bridge above, but was also much more complicated than my easy, self absorbed fantasy. I have a very long Polish surname with many consonants including 2 Z's, and the Czech immigration officer took one look at it and immediately demanded whether I was Polish, if my parents were Polish, just how Polish was I? And I thought "Shit. I have no idea what to say. Do the Czechs even LIKE the Poles? Is this an ISSUE?" I cleared immigration just fine, but from that moment I was acutely aware that this holiday was different from my previous ones; for the first time I was visiting a country and culture of which I had absolutely no prior knowledge or understanding.

But that didn't stop me from enjoying myself; I merely just went straight to our hotel in the Mala Strana neighborhood and read up on Czech history on Wikipedia. And then I went on to indulge myself in everything I dreamt Prague would be: beer, meat, dumplings, and cake. Oh, and beautiful architecture and design.

If you're really into architecture, Prague is the place for it. There is a beautiful and intriguing mix of ancient structures, Baroque monuments, and modern interventions that all come together to create a really fascinating cityscape. Highlights were the main square, with the astrological clock, and the Frank Gehry "Fred and Ginger" Dancing House building (above). We also took the subway out to the Zizkov TelevisionTower to see the panaroma of the city from what felt like a throwback to Soviet-era tourist attractions. It also reminded me of the old Tomorrow-Land at Disney World, the one that was made in the 1960s. Unfortunately the day we went a fog was settling over the city and we couldn't see very far, but I still thought it was amazing to go up the fast elevators and look out over Prague from up high.

Overall, Prague is definitely a city that has realized that tourism will lift it into the global economy. After our first full day, we actively sought to avoid the Old Town and stay on the left side of the river or in the New Town. I really found myself wanting know how native citizens lived, what they saw on a daily basis, and what Czech culture really was about beyond beer and castles.

But that doesn't mean we didn't do touristy things. This is me in an alcove on the stairway up to the castle.

In the cathedral within the castle walls, I saw this AMAZING stained glass window by Mucha.

And after the castle, we went to a brewery in a monastery overlooking the city.

That made us very happy.

We also ate quite a lot of meat, and drank quite a lot of beer. We also found a wine bar that served only Czech wines, which were surprisingly good. Below is our favorite beer hall, basically a hipster beer hall with very cool backlit carved walls, called Lokal.

And here is the Irishman in "our" wine bar, enjoying a nice glass of white.

On the day we left, the sun made an appearance and burnt off the haze. So we took what seemed like a rare opportunity to see the city in the sunshine.

But to be honest, we sort of preferred the overcast skies to the sun; clouds seemed to fit the character of the city and especially the cuisine. I seriously wonder whether people eat all of that meat and all of those dumplings at the height of summer – and if so, how do they manage it?!

Overall, we really enjoyed Prague; it is beautiful and the perfect city for low-key exploration. Four days was the perfect amount to get a feel for the city and find your favorite haunts without getting bored. It was also great for post-marathon recovery; with everything in short walkable distances, we were able to stretch our legs without overdoing it. We ended up, after all of the sightseeing and wandering, enjoying spending time together in cafés most; despite the omnipresent smoking in all establishments, we appreciated being able to relax, graze a bit, drink a bit, read a bit, and generally just hang out without being rushed. It was difficult to be in a country where I only knew how to say "Hello" and "Thank you", so The Irishman and I instituted a new rule: every time we go to a place where we don't know the language, we have to learn 10 useful phrases before we go. I guess that's our end sort of learning from Prague: there are vacations, and then there is going to a new place to learn about that place, and sometimes you have to accept that one is not the other. So for me, Prague was a vacation and a very lovely, restful, and atmospheric one at that.

If you go:
Flights are available on a few airlines; as we flew from Dublin, we took Aer Lingus there and used BA Airmiles on the return to Heathrow. In terms of hotels, we stayed at the hotel At The Three Storks in the Mala Strana district. It was nice – clean, affordable, helpful staff, great location – but frankly it was disappointing in the way that only design hotels that go wrong can. I'd say, if you want a basic hotel that's cheap and well located, this is your place but if you want more style or luxury, look elsewhere. The Czech Republic is in the EU but hasn't adopted the Euro; currently, the Czech crown exchanges at roughly 27kc = £1 and a cup of coffee is about 50kc, a beer was 75kc.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Marathon, one week on...

There was request for some bling... here you go!

I also have a link to some really hideous "official" marathon photos that I really didn't want to share as I look like a running oompa loompa, so please use your imagination. 

It's been over a week since the marathon and I've had a tough reentry to the working world. Two long days already at the office have precluded me from lacing up the runners again, but I did get to a yoga class this evening. It felt really good to stretch everything out, though I did find that I still have some latent soreness and stiffness deep down in my quads and hamstrings. I also think I'm going to lose the second toenail on each foot as well; they are both a purple and looking a bit wonky...

So how does it feel to be a marathon runner? Pretty awesome, to be honest. I got a round of applause at my office's weekly Monday morning meeting and that felt really great. I feel like I have more inner confidence and strength; I find myself straightening up a lot more, giving myself more pep talks, reminding myself that I achieved this incredible feat. 

And I have to keep reminding myself, because the other thing is that it feels like it never happened. Sometimes I mentally review each mile from the race so that I don't forget what it was like to complete a marathon. If I don't, all I remember is this glow of finishing – which isn't such a bad memory, but I am worried it might cloud my judgement if I decide to do another marathon!

Which is the final outcome: I am definitely going to run another marathon. Not tomorrow, not this year or next year. But I would love to run New York or London, and to improve my time. It is such an amazing confidence boost and surreal experience that I know I will have to relive it (once I've fully recovered).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dobre den!

The Irishman and I are in Prague for a long weekend to relax and recover from the marathon. We flew in yesterday and leave Sunday, so until then have a lovely weekend. More marathon highlights and a full Prague debrief next week when I return xx