Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Diagnosing my travel bug

I've returned from spending the Bank Holiday in San Sebastian, Spain. A nice long post extolling the virtues of this Basque beach city with excellent food will be following shortly, but before that I have to talk to you about traveling. And the specific ways traveling never fails to affect me.

I guess I just never want to come home. But once I get home, I'm happy to be in my cocoon.

I was thinking about it when I was standing on the tarmac at Biarritz airport in the blazing sun; the thermometers on the green light-up pharmacy signs were saying rational numbers like 23, 24°C, but it felt like at least 30°C under it's full stare. As we boarded the plane and taxied out to the runway, I looked out over the farmlands surrounding the airport and thought to myself "why do I punish myself, living in a place that is so damp and cold when there are warm and sunny places in the world"? And I thought about it again while I was in a cab from Liverpool Street station when the rain started in earnest.

But then I saw rows of Georgian townhouses with variegated colored front doors, nestled up against each other around a gracious square, and remembered how England at least can make the rain cozy.

And then I watched some very intellectual television, which made me remember how nice it is to have entertainment that isn't trash (all of the time).

While I was away, I was laughing at myself and my inability to speak foreign languages. Flying to France with an ultimate destination in Spain, but one with a strong ethnic dialect that I've never heard (let alone seen written) was a complete and utter mind f**k. I couldn't help but laugh at myself as I struggled to remember how to count to 10 in Spanish, and how to even say please and thank you. I was even more amused at how relieved I was to get back to Biarritz, because I could finally understand what people were saying to me - even if I couldn't respond 100%.

It's just so fascinating to me how the human mind seeks out ways of communicating. I studied French for five years in high school; I can speak it okay but I can read it quite well and understand most of what is being said to me if I'm really concentrating. But I'm not a very confident speaker, and will often default to just asking if they speak English when confronted with a potentially complicated conversation. Take me to a country where I don't know the language at all, though – The Netherlands, Spain, Italy (even though I know the most basic bits of Italian thanks to my study abroad) – and my French comes flooding out. I've given Dutch taxi drivers directions in French, Spanish waiters my order in French, and in Italy an odd mix of Fritalian comes streaming out in all directions.

And then I get back to English-speaking places and I'm still thinking en fran├žais and I'm just exhausted.

Finally, the weirdest thing about traveling is encountering other Americans.

I'm really shy when I travel, which means that when I'm abroad I disappear into my own little bubble of wonderment, floating through cities and countryside taking in all of the new and constructing my own understanding of what I'm experiencing. I don't particularly like to socialize with other tourists, be them American or Australian or British; I'm not on vacation to make new friends. Sometimes I even wish I were on my own without The Irishman, and when we first started dating I had to introduce him to the concept of traveling alone (for the record, he still doesn't get it but is pretty supportive if I ever want to run off on my own). So when I am in a foreign country, immersed in trying to figure out what to say to a waiter, and I hear an American accent (for instance), it's like someone popping my bubble. It's weird to be sucked out of the dreamstate and back into reality where you can listen in on other people's conversations and know where they are from just from a few words they say. My first reaction is not to say hi, it's to run away.

This is much different from The Irishman. Anywhere he goes, if he runs into another Irish person they exchange a knowing nod. When he was living in Australia, he amassed a huge crew of Irish people around him and is still friends with them. But I don't know. I still feel, maybe naively, that travel is about exploring and discovering the unknown... and making friends from "home" while traveling feels... odd. I don't know. I'm still trying to work that one out.

But for now I'm back, back at home and recovering from my travel bug – and I'm hoping I come down with it again soon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On discipline.

I've just finished reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. I've never read any of his books, but The Irishman has quite a few on the shelf and often mentioned this particular book. Then my friend Alice handed her copy to me about a year and a half ago, declaring that I MUST read it. So I did. Last week.

Alice is one of those lovely friends who is super sporty. She is an avid (and violent, I hear) hockey player, is constantly entering half marathons, and in a few weekends will do her first triathlon. She's someone who I would term "naturally athletic", and thus a different species from myself who had to cultivate an interest in sports. So when I talk to Alice and she's telling me about her British Military Fitness classes meeting in Wimbledon at 6am, I shudder and think to myself "She's mad!" as I recall hitting the snooze button about 4 times each morning.

But reading Murakami's book made me feel guilty because Murakami is like me. He's a guy who realized he was putting on weight and had to do something about it so he started running. And then he started to like it so he entered races. And in order to get better in his races, he set up a regime of running every day, gradually increasing his distances, refining his technique, improving his pace. He writes about it like it is his own version of zen meditation. Reading his book made me realize that I'm quite literally punking out on my running.

Lately I've been sleeping in, dashing off to work, feeling lethargic all day, and then reluctantly lacing up my kicks at 7pm for a run - which means that once I've done my 3 or 4 miles, stretched, and showered, it's now around 8pm and my evening is relegated to TV on the sofa. I was locking myself into a pattern of resenting running because it kept me from enjoying social activities; I was making choosing to run a sacrifice instead of an intention.

So this week I decided that I needed to stop this pattern and start running before work. I'm privileged enough to live so close to my office that I don't need to leave the house until 9am each morning. Which means I don't have to get up much earlier than at 7am to get a properly good run in. I've avoided morning exercise for so long now because I so enjoy sleeping in, but really, that's just a weakness. Murakami's discipline in his training routine opened my eyes to the fact that I need to make myself do things that may be uncomfortable to get the results I want. 

So far this week I've run my entire usual route before work on both Monday and Tuesday, and today I ran half and went to the gym. Tomorrow and Friday I will do the same. I'm going away this weekend for the Bank Holiday, but typical weekends will include a long run of 10k or more on Saturdays and a rest on Sunday. This is new schedule for a new me.

Apparently it takes doing something up to 30 times to make it a habit. I'm not sure I can do it. But each morning this week, when the alarm rang at 7am, I've thought about how nice it is to just go and do the run, wake up mid-stride, and feel really awake once I'm work – with the added bonus of having my entire evening free for all of the things my new job has allowed me the time to rediscover. Though I struggle, and I moan, and frankly I am not a happy nor nice person during the beginning stages, I feel like I have a new lease on life. 

Watch this space to see whether this new disciplined phase becomes a habit, or whether I slip into my former (lazy) ways.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Super spotted: sunny Southeast England weekend*

Saturday 21 May 2011

I heard about it on Radio 6... and then I ran into it. Lots of cool kids buying, selling, and trading records. Just like the old days.

Site of a soon-to-be Forever 21 
Oxford Street
Saturday 21 May 2011

Another piece of America invading Britain this summer...

Paul Rothe & Son Delicatessen and Tea Room
Marylebone Lane
Saturday 21 May 2011

But never fear, some quintessential British establishments will never die.

Southover Grange
East Sussex
Sunday 22 May 2011

Life lessons from Her Majesty
East Sussex
Sunday 22 May 2011

*Apologies for the delay in posting, but Blogger has decided not to work with Google Chrome. I'm seriously considering the switch to WordPress. Anyone have any advice?!

Friday, May 20, 2011


The lovely Tea for Joy is hosting a blognic!

Bloggers and bloggerfans, sign up and see you there – hopefully with as much sun as there is today! It's glorious outside, isn't it?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The big save

Photo courtesy of Georgivar

I don't know this guy, but these pictures make me laugh because they remind me of how I probably look when I start thinking about money. My mother always said I don't have a poker face.

I think everyone who knows me would agree that I'm not great with money. I'm not ashamed to admit that my budgeting/money management skills aren't exactly keen. Which is hilarious since a large amount of my job is about managing budgets - those of my clients; for some reason, since it's someone else's money, I can handle that but my own is like water running through my hands.

When I lived in New York I was pretty good about saving, though; I dutifully put the max into a Roth IRA every year, and enough into my 401(k) to get the employer match. When my grandmother passed away, I invested the money she left me in the market (of course, 18 months before the crash) in a mix of growth and retirement funds. So for longterm money, I'm your woman; it's just the day-to-day and monthly cash expenditures that I cannot - or refuse to - deal with.

When I got to the UK, my salary and budget were way out of line with each other and it took me nearly a year to settle on my feet in terms of monthly expenses versus spending money and making ends meet. Now, living with The Irishman and having a new job with a new salary, I am ready and able to return to saving more than just £50 per month. In fact, I'm going to be putting a lot more than that away every month from now on, because The Irishman and I are going START SAVING FOR A HOUSE.

Grandma, calm down. We're not sure whether this house is going to be in London, in England, in the USA, or even in the UAE. We're also not sure whether it will be a flat, a townhouse, a house or a farm. But we both want more than one room to share, and we'd like to be able to grow vegetables, and we want to have the space to potter. It's not going to happen without us buckling down and putting the money away, which is going to be a tough exercise for me. No more shoes, sales, or treats on a whim; last weekend, we wrote out a budget for us to both based on combined income and it was SCARY. And hard! It starts in June after we both get paid next, and it will be a big test whether we can continue our lifestyle as we now enjoy it within the confines of our new allowance.

Not only is it scary to think of curtailed spending, but it's pretty scary to think of joint saving. If this isn't commitment, I'm not sure what is. Lately it's been slightly freaking me out a bit, and The Irishman has been shaking his head at my footstamping about wanting to go out and do CRAZY THINGS to prove we're still young and hip rather than the truth: old souls who wish for a bigger living room of their own to curl up in on Saturday nights. But that doesn't mean I won't make him go out and shake his booty this weekend – I hear there is a 2-for-1 special down at the local pub. Cheap date!

Monday, May 16, 2011

I hate my hair.

No, really. I know everyone says this, at some point or another. But I think I have a real argument for at least exasperation if not full-on anger. Let me explain.

When I was young, I had pin-straight hair.

I know. I was pretty cute too. See those cheeks? I still have them. Meh.

Anyway, my hair was so straight that my mom let me get a perm every so often. I won't post those photos, cuz they are pretty tragic. But that meant my hair flipped from straight to 'fro throughout my pre-teen years. Post-puberty, my hair got really thick and puffy, and I developed a really annoying jeri-curl in my bangs that I could not blow-dry out to save my life. This should have been my first clue. 

So my solution to a lot of these issues was to chop my hair off. I spent quite a lot of my high-school self with a pixie cut. Hey, it was the 90s. I loved it. It was so cool! I don't have any pix of it, but I would share if I could.

When I got to college, I grew my hair out and straightened it religiously every day. I can't even imagine how much damage I did with that flat iron. But I had a mane of straight and lovely hair and I loved it.

Please disregard the horrible glow off of my shawl-thing, but focus on how straight my hair is. Le sigh. 

But then I moved to New York. And I found Paul, the most fabulous hair dresser in the world. He cut my hair and discovered that the frizz I battled for so long was actually natural curl! And lots of it! So I ran around New York for many years with bouncy waves.

I thought I had a better picture of my lovely curls, but this will have to do. Also enjoy my 27th birthday crown, courtesy of my lovely friend Rietje.

Soon after this picture was taken, though, I moved to the UK. And there started the downward spiral of my hair – pun SO NOT INTENDED. I lost my hairdresser, my styling routine, and access to cheap hair products. Even though I went to see Paul every time I went home, I soon ran out of products that I was used to using and couldn't quite find the right replacements. Over the years, I've used so many – Redken Ringlet 07, Deva-Curl AnGel, Schwarzkopf Osis+ Twin Curl 2, MOP C-Curl cream – but none seem to do the trick of shaping and defining my waves while cutting down on the frizz. Then, last summer, I got an unfortunate shag cut that, while cute, was actually heavily thinned.

As it grew out, it looked increasingly limp and straggly and was losing a lot of its curl. In search of a solution, I bounced from hairdresser to hairdresser, seeking a good cut as well as someone with whom I could build a hair styling relationship, as I balanced waited for my hair to grow out. Meanwhile I was using up all of the remaining product I had in my cupboard, trying to economically get to a place where I could start over, as it were, with fresh product and a fresh outlook on my hair. Not only was I dealing with the poor haircut, though, I was also battling some dry scalp, the general feeling of thinness to my hair, and a lot of hair breakage.

Cut to now. I've just had a haircut where the guy did something weird, something I've never seen before: he twisted my hair into sections and cut perpendicularly into it. Curious, I started doing some research into the best way to care for and style curly hair and discovered a whole lifestyle devoted to caring for natural curls. Reading sites like Naturally Curly and British Curly Girls is just exhausting me with the amount of time and energy to required to "do" my hair. When I think back to deciding to wear my hair curly, the number one reason was definitely so that I wouldn't have to dry and straighten my hair for hours anymore!

So. Where to next? I've switched to low sulfate shampoo and conditioner in the hopes of really cleaning my scalp and preventing breakages, and I'm trying Trevor Sorbie Curl Cream (a cheap Boots product) because I've had a travel size bottle of it for a couple years now and my hair ALWAYS looks good on holiday. So far, mixed results as washing my hair has made it feel even limper (yet softer)! and the Curl Cream is disappointingly a different formula. I've also discovered that hard water is to blame for my dry scalp and thin-feeling hair (great) but I can't quite solve that in a rented flat. I think that over the summer I will treat myself to a cut at a salon that specializes in curly hair, and in the meantime commit myself to the scrunch. 

Any curly-girls out there have any hard-earned advice? Melizza over at Sifting Through just wrote a post about liberating her curls, and she's reinspired me to keep up the quest to keep my curls happy – c'mon girls! We can do it!

Spotted: Sleeping on the job

Cross Street, N1
Saturday, May 14, 2011.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Year 3

Last week was my three-year anniversary of life in the UK.

And you know what?

I forgot.

Between getting swept up in the giddy excitement of the Royal Wedding, suffering another Irish invasion in my apartment, keeping an eye on the situation in Syria while getting out and about to enjoy the glorious weather, I've simply been too caught up in my life here in London to remember when I actually arrived. I contemplated not posting about the anniversary, and just blithely sweeping past it into year 4. But ignoring a milestone means not taking the time to remember just what has been achieved. And I've achieved a lot since moving here; sometimes it doesn't seem like it, as small victories like successfully shopping for groceries and finding one's way on a bus are everyday habits back home.

But it's also a good thing that I forgot the anniversary. It means I'm fully acclimated to life in the UK, really a resident rather than a transitory guest overstaying her welcome. My daily life is normal, rather than exciting; the currency in my wallet has lost its charm (as well as its buying power) and I whinge just as much a native Brit. The only thing left for me to do is vote - which I won't get to do for a while yet.

As I move from enchanted tourist to weary nearly-citizen here in world's biggest small island, the implications for this blog are also weighing on my mind. I started BloodyBrill as a journal of my time away, my travels, the quirky Britishness I encounter, and record of my experiences. As I settle in and settle down, I'm finding it harder and harder to think of what to write. It's not that I don't love the readers and commenters who frequent BloodyBrill, but I'm thinking that you probably don't want to read about my composting, my struggle to keep my flat clean, or my constant war with TFL about overcharging on my Oystercard. As I am not traveling too much for work anymore, there isn't much for me to report as the farthest I'm going is in cabs to Embankment – a far cry from monthly meetings in Amsterdam.

So friends, three years on... what do you want to see, read, hear about on BloodyBrill? I'll be using the summer to think about a new focus for BloodyBrill, so please let me know what you think. There are so many other expat blogs out there doing a much better job than I, so hopefully you can help me develop a more personal (and sustainable) angle here.