Friday, August 9, 2013

One year at home

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of receiving the keys to our home. Sometimes it seems surreal to think we own this little piece of paradise in between Dalston and Stoke Newington.

In the year since we purchased our home, I've learned a lot about what 'home' means. Of course there is the Pinterest moodboards about what your *perfect* kitchen looks like and mindlessly accumulating inspiring images of artfully placed vintage crates. But there is also what you do in your home – the entertaining, the hosting of guests, the visitors from afar, and the respect you show to your surroundings that makes it a nurturing refuge from a big global city.

Owning a home is so much different from renting in so many ways, but I think this notion of respect is central to it. Everything takes on so much more meaning when you completely control your surroundings and are 100% responsible for everything in and around them. What might have been annoying before takes on an offensive character, and what might have been a nice to have previously is suddenly an imperative. And vice versa.

But I think in the year that's gone, what I realized is just what I need for a place to be a home. A lot of things – actual things, like furniture and decorations – are exactly the same as they were. We're still lounging on the same IKEA sofa, and we're still eating from the same IKEA plates. They might not be of the highest quality, or the best of their kind, but they're ours and they've become symbolic of how The Irishman are choosing to spend our time: watching box sets together (West Wing, from the very first season!) and hosting dinner parties for our nearest and dearest. It's funny how things you thought you'd get rid of as quickly as possible actually become sentimental.

Overall though, I've spent exactly half of the year since we moved in NOT blogging. And I realized that I don't need nor really want blogging in my life. So I've made the decision to shutter Bloody Brilliant. Or at least, no longer update it. The winddown will be slow – I'll treat you to photographs of the final kitchen, once we find a tiler, and a few other shots of the house, and give you the update on our summer so far. My last post will be at the end of the month, when The Irishman and I depart for our two week summer holiday to Portugal. We've not had 2 weeks off, together, without family, friends, or other commitments in 3 years, so we're pretty pumped for this break. This seems like the perfect time to bow out gracefully.

I know there are a few of you who will be sad that Bloody Brilliant won't be an active blog any longer; I know there are more than a few of you who won't really mind! I'll write a post or two about how blogging helped me in my expat life, and what I think is great (and not so great about blogging). But I wanted to thank all of you who have, past and present, commented on the blog and reached out to me. It's been really wonderful to have you. The next few posts on here will be for you, and hope you enjoy them. xx

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Howdy from the homestead: a long overdue Project Casserole update

Well it's been a while, hasn't it?! It's like I just disappeared into thin air!

And I did, sort of, didn't I. I have to apologize to all of you – I've been here, and there, and everywhere over the last four months of not blogging. Mostly The Irishman and I have been working on the house, finalizing Project Casserole. But I've also been traveling, working, and living, and I've realized a lot of important things.

But first things first, a Project Casserole update:

We spent the majority of the spring working our tails off on the house. After Agim and his merry men left, we spent the Easter Bank Holiday sanding, filling, and painting the ground floor before beginning to lay the flooring.

We got a good start on the floor before having to go back to work, and then wrapped it up the weekend after. It was a hard slog – The Irishman had a lot of black fingernails and bruised knuckles, and we both had sore knees from crawling around the on concrete floor for so long.

Once we got the floor down, we started on the deep clean. There was dust EVERYWHERE. In the bathroom, in the loft, IN MY CLOSET ON MY CLOTHES. It took at least 3 vacuumings just to get the dust out of the house and for the floors to feel clean under your feet. I've never scrubbed so hard in my entire life.

After the floor was complete, we went to IKEA to finalise our kitchen design and order the units. The IKEA experience deserves an entire post unto itself, but suffice it to say we had so many issues that we were weekly visitors to IKEA Tottenham and knew the staff by name. Oy. But here's what an IKEA kitchen looks like when it is delivered flatpack style:

The actual construction of the units wasn't that difficult – if you can build a bookcase, you can build a kitchen. But I'm not sure that it would have been so easy to install it and make it look seemless if The Irishman wasn't an engineer. There are some seriously tricky things to installing a kitchen!

We spent a lot of evenings finalising small details in the kitchen, and lived without a working kitchen for probably 5 weeks. The night that The Irishman connected the sink was the highlight of my life. No more washing dishes in the bathtub or eating microwave meals. I think I might have wept with joy.

We even had a little helper one night – our neighbor down the street asked us to puppy sit her 10 week old Whippet puppy named Zelda. She and I ran around and annoyed The Irishman while he sorted little things out under the sink. She was very curious!

While I dictated all of the little "details", The Irishman got to pick out a new oven. He was so excited about this oven – it's a double oven which means nothing to me, but for the chefster it's a big deal. Here he's watching how it cooks something delicious and watching how his new toy performs.

Also note above that we have plywood on top of our cabinets. We had a really hard time dealing with countertops – worktops as they're called in the UK. We (I) initially wanted marble, but that's not exactly durable. And then we started considering engineered stone and Corian, but that is absolutely ludicrously expensive. And then we just decided that it's probably best at this stage to go fully IKEA and use their butcher block wood worktops. Only, I hated the color options.

So I made The Irishman stain them. Of course.

And I also was really fussy about the color of the stain. So we bought a bunch of different ones, tested them all, and ended up CUSTOM MIXING OUR COUNTERTOP STAIN. I know. I know. The Irishman then decided that he also really wanted to "cure" them with a food-safe wood oil. He spent nearly every night smoothing them down with steel wool and then re-applying oil for about 10 days. He then left them while we went to the US for 2 weeks to let the oil set.

In the midst of all of this, we did do normal things like go into town for the sales. I dragged The Irishman into Liberty in early May to check out the end of their Spring Sale, and we ended up taking home 5 discounted Cox & Co stacking chairs. We put my paltry £5 Loyalty voucher to good use for an additional (paltry) savings.

And then, we took a break.

We went to America for a wedding in Wisconsin. We hosted friends and family, including my world traveler career break peeps over at Banh Mi & You. I went to Doha (twice). We went to Ireland. We went to Glastonbury. We had BBQs. We saw friends.

Basically, we had a life.

Only now are we back in the DIY saddle, and finishing up little details in the kitchen. Last weekend, we filled a hole we made in the ceiling (we had to make the hole to get the cabinets straight and level), put the final sides on the cabinets to make the units look grey and seamless, and filled in little bits here and there. We also took the horrible bookshelf unit off one side of the kitchen and replaced it with a vintage wine rack that I found in a charity shop for £20. The Irishman was extremely excited to fill it with all of the wine he's been collecting for the past few years. FYI - the wine rack holds 54 bottles. In case you wanted to send us anything ;)

You can see our lovely countertops in this picture as well.

So what's left? Well, we have to put the beading moulding around the bottom of the walls throughout the ground floor. And we have six boxes of white metro tiles sitting next to the cabinets, waiting to be hung, but we can't find a tiler to do it any time soon. And we are continuously moving things around from cabinet to cabinet, trying out new locations for things.

A final overall picture is coming soon, as well as a few other updates for you guys. Thanks for sticking with me here – welcome home.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The life and legacy of Baroness Thatcher

So by now, if you're alive, you know that Margaret Thatcher passed away yesterday morning here in London. Every news outlet, pundit, and commentator – professional or otherwise – has offered his and her assessment of her work and legacy, so I won't offer anything more here. You can find them yourselves, if you haven't already, across the internet. But what I wanted to point out here on my patch of the internet is what's been missing from the commentary.

I watched 4 hours of coverage about Margaret Thatcher last night across the BBC, read countless articles and had several conversations about her yesterday. Not one of them focused on Margaret Thatcher as a woman beyond her being the first female Prime Minister of the UK. I've been fascinated and impressed that the coverage of her life and death has been shaped by her policies and achievements (and failures) rather than her gender.

Regardless of whether you think her actions shaped modern Britain successfully or detrimentally, or whether you're conservative or liberal, or whether you think she was a feminist or not (she absolutely didn't think so), Margaret Thatcher should be celebrated for her achievements in breaking into the old boys school of politics in the UK. In a world where still the US cares more about whether Hillary Clinton wears makeup or not and who a woman is married to, you have to hand it to a woman who achieved a position of political power and accomplishment over 30 years ago. At that point, women were still fighting for a seat at the table in the US rather than commanding leadership at the head.

Debate will continue rage for the foreseeable future, as all of these headlines attest, as to whether Thatcherite policies built or broke the UK. I can't claim to know the truth, and my opinion is clouded by the here and now rather than the experience of living through some of her more dramatic decisions and policies. But I will always respect The Iron Lady who said

Friday, April 5, 2013

Project Casserole: UK vs US DIY terms

A short and sweet post for you guys: as we've been working hard at completing the renovations to our home, I encountered some serious linguistic differences in the words Americans and British/Irish (Bi-rish) use for home improvements. I stubbornly refuse to switchover to many of them, resulting in a fair bit of confusion and sometimes hilarity. Here's a quick list for your amusement:

crown molding, or cornice (US) = coving (UK)
molding (US) = beading (UK)
spackle (US) = filler (UK)
baseboard (US) = skirting boards (UK)
drywall, or sheetrock (US) = plasterboard (UK)
hardware (US) = ironmongery, or fittings (UK)
shop-vac (US) = Henry (UK)

I'm sure there are more, so I'll update you when I discover them – but maybe you have some to add? Send me your additions to the DIY word differences list!

PS: Even though I use it liberally across the blog when talking about our renovations, DIY as a term is a uniqely British concept and saying. It not only encompasses the activity (i.e., the home repairs completed by an individual not a builder) but also the category of paraphenalia and associated jargon surrounding the activity. So if you talk about what you did over the long Easter weekend, you could say you "Did DIY" which isn't grammatically correct AT ALL but refers to the wearing of yuck clothes, going to B&Q, prepping, doing, cleaning – the entire lifecycle of a home repair. And it can be anything – renovation, repair, redecorating, replacing lightbulbs – anything home-related.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Project Casserole: the DIY files

Hi everyone. I hope you've all been well and staying warm  – here in the UK, in London, on the 4th of April, it snowed. SNOWED. I'm sick of the winter now and am really desperate for spring.

The other thing I'm desperate for is my house renovation to be complete. I know I promised to keep you up to date with our progress, but it all happened so fast that on the Tuesday after my birthday I left for work and came home to this:

It's been over three weeks now without a kitchen, and frankly, I think we were a bit naive. We really just thought they'd take down the wall separating our kitchen and our living room and that would be it. But they also reinforced the structural support in the ceiling (so our bed doesn't end up on our sofa).

And they re-routed the pipes, which went through the wall we removed, and moved our boiler to the opposite wall which helped with the plumbing being made all nice and tidy. They also extended this wall, so that we could put more cabinets on it. This is really only exciting if you're into plumbing and plastering.

While all of this work was going on, my living room looked like this:

And everything, I mean EVERYTHING, was covered in dust. We spent most of our time in the loft, sitting on mattresses from the spare bed, watching tv from the iPad via the Apple TV. It was like being a student, in a squat, only we own it. Weird.

At the end of the 10 days our workers were in, this is what we were left with:

On the left there, that new door is my coat closet. I fought The Irishman very hard for that closet, and I'm very excited for it. This is my life now: excitement about built in storage. But the space is open plan now, and feels light and airy and BIG.

Obviously you can see that the flooring is gone; our kitchen had tiles and the rest of the ground floor was a laminated wood. We decided to put wood down on the whole floor, and went with engineered wood – and decided to save money by installing it ourselves. It arrived last Thursday, in time for our Easter Bank Holiday DIY-athon Weekend.

This is what they call "curbside delivery." You have to heft it into the house YOURSELF. I was the lucky one who worked from home that day and had to do it – all 28 boxes.

And here is the wood, and all of our DIY supplies bright and early last Friday. We covered a lot last weekend – filling in holes, removing the decorative woodwork, sanding, priming, painting, and laying over half of the flooring. We are finishing the flooring this weekend, and installing most of the kitchen cabinets along with the new oven (which arrives tomorrow) so we will have a pretty much functional kitchen AGAIN for the first time in nearly a month. We'll post photos of the nearly complete space next week – and in the meantime, if you have any tips about countertops or tiles, we'd really appreciate it!

Til next time... xx

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Yoga v Pilates

One of my New Years resolutions was of course to exercise more (isn't it everyone's?) but specifically to resume a weekly yoga class. I've written before about how robust and balanced I felt when I practiced regularly, and in the depths of winter I was eager to get back to that place.

Since moving to our house, my previous yoga studio in Islington, The Life Centre, has become slightly inconvenient as a place to go for regular classes - plus they cancelled the later vinyasa flow class on Tuesday nights that I could make with my hectic work schedule. So I decided to start trying classes at the studio around the corner from my house called Yogahome.

Like everything else in Stoke Newington, Yogahome is an eclectic place with a homespun vibe. Spread across two spaces, it's a bit higgeldy-piggeldy and apparently they even keep chickens out the back of the main space. I haven't met them yet, but it's nice to know they exist. Anyway, I was pretty pumped to find a place with a lot of class options so close to my home, especially vinyasa classes that start at 8pm - sometimes (okay, most of them time) it's really hard for me to get out of work for a yoga class so a later one is usually best. I signed up for a 10 class card before Christmas and promptly went to my first class the first weekend of 2013.

Only my first class wasn't a yoga class - it was Pilates. Something made me feel like it wasn't just stretching I needed but lengthening and a 'serious' workout. I'd taken a short series of beginner Pilates classes last spring that to be honest were rather boring, though the instructor did being her French bulldog named Claude to class every so often. This time I went to a Sunday Pilates class at mid-day and experienced a true mat work class: hard on the abs, soft on the back, and small stretches that shockingly leave you sore for days. I left the class feeling knitted together, a tightened, tauter version of myself with better posture. I have to say, I was slightly obsessed with Pilates after that and tried desperately to get to midweek classes as well as the Sunday class.

But then I couldn't go for a few weeks, because of a trip to Doha and a weekend out of town, and suddenly I found myself craving the movement and openness of a vinyasa flow class. So two weeks ago, I went to yoga on a Sunday instead of Pilates - and it was joyful. For the first time in a long time I felt the power of the flowing movement and syncing of breath and movement, and it was immense. I fairly floated home.

So what's the difference? Well, in a nutshell, the movements. Pilates is a series of small, precise, repeated movements that target extremely specific parts of your body. If you're type A, you'll love Pilates - it's focused and goal oriented and you walk out of class feeling strong, with your muscles pulled tight to the bone not flapping all around. Also, all of the movements are modular, so you master one movement then you "add on" to deepen the intensity or shift the focus to a different muscle.

Yoga on the other hand is big, constant, whole body movement. Poses work your whole body and take all of your breath. The goal is to synchronise movement with breath, so that your intake of air and exhalations power your movements through the asanas. There is no perfection, just constant progress towards achieving enlightenment. No one gets there, but in order to come close you have to surrender the self - this isn't about lunging deeper or longer than the yogi on the mat next to you, this is about lunging as deep and as long as your body can on that day. Walking out of yoga class I feel light, expansive, and energetic - empowered.

Though Pilates and yoga are connected, there is a stronger spiritual element to yoga; incense, chants, spiritual readings, even an accordion have all played parts in classes I've taken. I can't deny that the first time I took a yoga class I was weirded out by the recitations and bells and Buddhas, but I've grown to consider them as a broader part of the yogic ritual. By contrast, Pilates - especially the classes with machines and weights - can feel like a standard exercise class, and more than a little soulless. Yoga is exercise for both body and mind.

I went back to Pilates this past weekend for the contrast, and I'm currently enjoying the delicious ache of my triceps after arm raises. But I know that dry soon I will need a more holistic and emotional session. I'm glad I have both in my arsenal, and can deploy them at will. When I start training fully for the half marathon I entered in October, I'll need all of the stretching - of various forms - I can get!

Let me know if you're a yogi or a Pilates-devotee - I'm curious about the split!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Project Casserole: T-minus 10 days to demolition

...give or take.

We've found and selected our builder, a knowledgeable man named Ajim, and bargained him down to a more affordable – though still eye-watering sum – and now we just have to wait for his plumber to free up so that we can start work. The pipe work is the first thing to happen, and the plumber is currently booked up for the next week or so. Apparently we'll get a start date from Ajim sometime in the middle of next week. My birthday is March 6th so I bet you £5 that they'll be waking me up at 7am on my birthday to begin the renovation. That's okay, because it means I get to buy myself this exciting birthday present:

This is a dishwasher. I've officially become middle-aged.
Honestly I never thought I'd be more excited by an appliance than a pair of shoes, but there you go.

I am so excited that we are nearly ready to start tearing down walls, ripping out pipes, and generally transforming our ground floor. It's taken a lot of planning and thinking, which is surprising, because I thought that when I owned a house I would have free reign to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. But even though I don't have to ask anyone's permission, doing stuff to a house you own takes time: thinking, planning, discussing, reviewing, budgeting, sourcing, negotiating, approving, all before you start any work. Which makes sense, because everything you do to a house either adds to or reduces the value of the property. Whereas when you rent, you might need to get permission to paint, but then you can go ahead and just buy the paint and get it on the wall. It's a subtle difference but you definitely feel it when you realize it's taken 6 weeks to decide which contractor is going to remove the wall you've wanted to get rid of for 6 months.

So stay tuned for more updates on when we start the demolition and start creating the kitchen!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Horseback riding in East London

Editor's note: I drafted this post to completion twice and Blogger lost it both times! So I really hope that third time is a charm!

After I wrote my post in January about trying to be happier, I spent a lot of time thinking about times in the past when I was truly happy and what was present then that is missing now. And one starkly missing element is animals - specifically dogs. This is the longest period of time in my life that I've gone without having a dog, and I feel it on a daily basis. I desperately want a dog, especially since London and my neighborhood of Stoke Newington particularly are so dog friendly and welcoming to four-legged friends. But as much as I'd love to get a puppy right now, I do know it's not the right time: I'm traveling a lot for work right now, and I really value the freedom I currently have to jet off for a long weekend in another country at a minutes notice (without worrying about a dog sitter). Plus given all of our house renovations and capital expenses, I don't think our budget can stretch to cover the inevitable veterinary bills that come with rambunctious puppies.

So while I console myself by befriending all of our neighborhood dogs - like Peggy the 4 month old Chow Chow and Bruce the cool corgi mix owned by the proprietor of my local coffeeshop - I decided to find another way to get more animal interaction in my life. Cue horseback riding.

When I was a kid, I was nuts about animals and I was lucky to have parents who indulged this passion by letting us have a menagerie: dogs, hamsters, fish, ferrets. They also indulged me in horseback riding lessons twice a week. Not only was I riding, but I even picked up a menial job turning in the horses each evening, brushing them, blanketing them and feeding them. I joyfully rode and hung around the stables until my early teens when my parents made me decide between horseback riding lessons and dog shows; I already had two dogs and knew it was highly unlikely I could convince the parents to add a horse to our family. So I sadly hung up my jodhpurs and haven't been on a horse since.

Until three weeks ago, that is, when I took the 56 bus from my house to the Lee Valley Riding Centre for one of their super-beginner assessment classes. I had brought my riding helmet, breeches and paddock boots back to the UK with me during one of my previous trips home to the US, so when I arrived at the stable suited and booted I was told that I could do a little bit more than riders typically get during a new rider session. I got to lead my mount to the outdoor arena, ride without a leader, and put my horse away after the lesson. Hilariously though, my riding equipment was so old that I had to get rid of my gorgeous old velvet helmet with the ribbon the back as it no longer conforms to equestrian safety regulations. Ha!

And it was joyous. Just like riding a bike – once I was up in the saddle, everything I ever knew about riding came back to me: how to hold the reins, how to position my feet, when to squeeze my knees. It was amazing. I was so happy, despite the cold, for that hour, and at the end of the class the instructor suggested that if I were to return I could skip the introductory class for new riders and move up a step to the beginners class. She said that because she hadn't seen me canter, she couldn't move me up to Novice. That's okay by me – it's been two decades since I moved that fast on a horse and I'm happy taking my time and working my way up to it.

After the lesson, I got back on the bus and arrived home smelly, covered in horsehair, frozen to the bone, but elated. Classes are £28 for a group lesson, so no prohibitively expensive, and I plan on trying to get out there at least once a month if I can. It's not as good as being woken up by a dog every morning, but I'll take it!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flying over the Middle East

Happy Valentines Day, everyone! Apologies for the absence; I've been absolutely up to my ears with work and the house renovation over the last few weeks, and then had to fly to Doha unexpectedly last Sunday. It's one of the trade-offs of working with another culture that you have to give up your weekend sometimes to adjust to their schedule (Fridays are their Saturdays).

Anyway, I was flying back yesterday and for the first time we had an absolutely clear sky without cloud cover and could see the geography below in detail. I was so curious about the landscape that I switched off my movie to track our progress on the inflight entertainment system – and discovered we were flying above one of the most contested areas in the world.

Our flight path took us over Basra, where I saw the US military base, and on over valleys that looked surprisingly verdant. There were snaking rivers that I found out later are the Tigris and Euphrates, major arteries that empty into the Persian Gulf. We flew over other cities like Najaf whose names have become synonymous with the loss of American soldiers. And then we flew over Baghdad.

I never ever thought that in my lifetime I would see, even from the air, a city that has been defined, for the majority of my life, by war. As we passed, I kept imagining images of protestors pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein and how when I was in Germany for New Years they captured and executed him. I thought about the war that ideologically tore America apart for the first decade of the century and to this day splits people on basic democratic issues. And I thought, this is so close to a part of the world that I am drawn increasingly into on a personal and professional level that I can't ignore its proximity nor its importance.

Expats leave their home countries for opportunities and experiences, and so frequently those opportunities and experiences happen in places beyond their new homes. So even though an expat from  the US might assimilate to life and work in the UK, there's an even bigger challenge when her work takes her to the Middle East where cultural norms and values are that much more different.

It can be hard to be an American in the UK; it can be even harder to be an American in the UK who goes to work in the Middle East – where do you belong? Who are you representing? What is 'you'? Who are 'you'? I thought I had all of those answers, but confronted with such a symbolic place as Baghdad – even from 30,000 ft – I suddenly thought that maybe I don't have such a handle on it. And probably that means I'm closer to the truth than not.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Project Casserole Design Development

Sorry for the massive delay in posting, guys. Since I last got a chance to update you, it's snowed quite a lot here in London and my family was here visiting. So I was a bit, shall we say, preoccupied! But now the snow is gone and so are the familials, so let's talk kitchen design. Specifically, IKEA kitchens and trying to figure out an aesthetic for our open-planned ground floor.

Photo courtesy of Design Crisis

I'm finding that the problem with an open plan kitchen / living room is that setting the "look" for our kitchen is actually about setting the look for the entire floor, as the kitchen will spill into the living room and vice versa. So it's made me slightly adverse to do something wild like this nautical blue and white kitchen, because how do you synch that with sofas?!

Photo courtesy of Apartment Therapy

And my aesthetic for kitchens tends towards industrial chic, which is all well and good in a warehouse conversion but not our little contemporary mews house. First of all we don't have any exposed brick, and secondly it just doesn't feel homey enough. Our house feels like a home. This kitchen felt like it was a step in the right direction but still too cold – all that steel! I hear it's a bitch to keep clean.

Our other option is to go for a modern or contemporary kitchen. We could definitely do it; it wouldn't feel like an anomaly in the house and our current furnishings could definitely work with a more modern aesthetic. But when you touch these kitchens, there is something off about them... a bit soulless or something. I don't know.

Photo courtesy of Apartment Therapy

Plus, it's not just me. I have strong aesthetic ideas and as a visual person, I see what I want in my head. Sometimes I have a hard time describing it, though, and The Irishman gets a bit frustrated by my lack of verbal clarity. So both of us have been Pinning our ideas for kitchen looks separately, and sharing big finds. Surprise surprise, we actually have pretty much the same thing in mind: traditional style cabinets, minimalist color, oh-so-trendy (but so cool!) railway tile, and industrial steel appliances. Our prayers were answered when The Kitchn posted this amazing and classic kitchen renovation a few weeks ago:

Photos courtesy of The Kitchn

Basically, this is what we want. We're going for a galley style, and want dark cabinets but a sense of lightness. There's a ceramic sink, stainless appliances, and that iconic tiling. And the homeowners even have big French doors like us! You can totally see a nice big sofa leading out from this view.

We'd already started designing our kitchen via the IKEA Kitchen Planner, but these photos really helped us solidify our layout and look. We are going for the Lidingo (or Lidi) style of cabinets, shown here all in grey but depending on the actual color of the white versions we might try the white on top to give the room a sense of lightness.

Sorry, this is a screenshot. But hey, IKEA, I'm giving you free advertising. So, you know.

Here are a few images of our initial room layout. We're not tiling EVERYTHING, but it's just easier to leave it all tiled that separate out the areas where we want tiles (though there will be some full walls with tiles above the sink and around the window.

Now that we're pretty confident on the layout and the style, we're just waiting on a few quotes from contractors so that we can decide how fast we can do the work. A lot of structural stuff has to happen first, as well as pricing the floor (so expensive!) but then we can go and actually buy the kitchen itself. So exciting! For the next installment of Project Casserole, let's talk fun design things: lighting! Taps! Appliances! It's home renovation galore!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Project Casserole

In addition to figuring out what makes me happy, calorie counting, and working 50 hour weeks, The Irishman and I are resuming our home renovations. Specifically, redoing the kitchen and making the ground floor open plan in what we're calling Project Casserole.

I know a lot of you have been clamoring for photos of the house, but as of right now it's sort of a mess. I mean, the house isn't mess-y but the ground floor is in a state of suspended DIY. All of this is sort of abstract, so let me take you on a little virtual history tour of our home.

When we bought our house, the layout of the ground floor was like this:

There was a built-in kitchen diner in the front, by the window, and a pass-through window (with venetian blinds, UGH!) from the kitchen into the lounge. Here's how it looked just after we moved in, at the very beginning of our refurb process. We'd ripped out the built-in table and chairs, and our farmhouse table is visible squished under the window.

You can't really tell, but all of that white around the kitchen is wall.

When we bought the house, we saw the potential of it to be open-plan on the ground floor. We both like to cook and entertain and it was a real priority for us during our house search that if one person was in the kitchen cooking, they wouldn't be sequestered in a separate room while everyone else was partying in another room. This conviction was held up when we met one of our neighbors who bought her house (identical to ours) and it was already open-planned. So we stopped by her places a few times to get ideas, and then went to town. 

First, The Irishman took all of the cabinets off the wall we want to remove and reinstalled them where the built in table was, creating one long worktop and all of the appliances in a row. The fridge also moved down to that end of the kitchen, and a spare Billy bookcase went in to hold our cookbooks and booze – the most important things in life. 

The Irishman then started poking around in the wall before trying to completely remove it, because as he suspected not only did it contain electrical fittings but also pipes that still ran water. Oops. Before we could take the wall down, we'd have to reroute the water and electricals. 

But that didn't stop us from a light demolition work; we decided that we were pretty set on going full open-plan and that we might as well at least open up the pass-through completely. So in late September/early October, The Irishman broke through the half-wall between the kitchen and the lounge. It's so nice living with a DIY-friendly-hunk.

So basically this is the kitchen we've been living with for the last three months or so.

But now it's time to go whole-hog and redo the entire ground floor.

We've been having plumbers and electricians and general contractors come in to quote on Project Casserole. The first things we need to have them do are:
  1. Move the boiler
  2. Reroute the water so that it goes directly upstairs to the bathroom from the boiler (and not circle around the kitchen - byproduct being a much warmer shower much faster!)
  3. Move the radiator
  4. Get a building control officer in to tell us whether we can leave the remaining wall (the one near the window) as-is or need to make it more compliant with the fire code (possibly extending it? possibly insulating it?)
  5. Ripping down the main kitchen wall as well as the parts of the wall near the ceiling where the doors used to be
  6. Quote for installing the new kitchen (but we may do that ourselves depending on the cost)
And while we're getting these quotes, we're having fun playing with IKEA's online kitchen planner application - designing the budget kitchen of our dreams! My next Project Casserole post will be about the look we're going for, and how we're learning to compromise on form versus function.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My happiness project

YOU GUYS, you seriously rock.

I have received so many nice comments, emails and links from you since I posted about my general state of being on Friday (including one from Mom-Mom, thank you, I promise I will call you this week!). It seems how I'm feeling resonates with so many of you, and I'm glad that by finding the courage to give voice to my issues I'm actually speaking for you, too.

So in the spirit of sharing collective learnings and sentiments, I'm going to set up a separate page on the blog called Finding Happy and collect posts, book reviews, musings, and other learnings about finding happiness and passion in life. Sort of my own self-directed happiness project. If you haven't heard about this book, the author did what I'm talking about: set out to find what really makes her happy in life over the course of one year. I'm adding it to the reading list.

Finally, I want to report that I had a great weekend. I didn't do much of anything, really, but had good healthy food, kept the wine to a minimum, went to Pilates, and most importantly spent a lot of time on Facetime with friends in farflung places (New York! Penang!). I feel really centered and rested and full of energy today. Optimism abounds. I hope you're all finding yourselves in similarly positive places as well.
Image courtesy of Mayhem & Muse

Friday, January 4, 2013

Where I've been and where I'm at

I love this photo. I took it on a sea wall in Lahinch in Ireland just before the clouds unleashed a torrent of hail on us. For a good comedic sketch-worthy 25 minutes, The Irishman, me, and his parents jumped in and out of the car in an attempt to go for a walk on the beach; every time we thought the rain had stopped and there was a break in the clouds, we would get about 10 feet before some sort of precipitation came clattering back down on our heads. We ended up soaked, annoyed, and ultimately gave up and drove to drier climes.

This anecdote pretty much perfectly encapsulates where my head has been for the last 4 months or so. I promised you yesterday that I would explain why I haven't been blogging as much and I want to prepare you for a really big dose of negativity and frustration and a few side dishes of jealousy, bitterness, and despair. It's not great reading, nor writing if I'm honest, but hey, where else can you be honest except on the internet?

I tried writing this post a few times before Christmas, and always ended up abandoning it because I just couldn't go all the way there yet. But a few good conversations with good friends, my mom, and a few others in the real world have helped me see that the only way through it all is to be honest with myself and the rest of the world and just do it. Like the photo, there are tons of dark clouds in my head at the moment but hopefully there is a break coming and brightness to follow. I was also inspired by Emily at From China Village who wrote a post that really spoke to me about not blogging about what's really eating at you, and how isolating it feels, and related so much that I felt like I could come clean too.

So what's up, sugarplum?

Well, sometimes it feels like WHAT ISN'T. And other times, it feels like WHAT IS? But I can't really sugarcoat it more simply than this:

I'm just not happy.

It's been a long time coming to be able to admit this in public. Sometimes, when you have a blog and you're an expat, you don't realize that you're unconsciously holding back, pretending your fabulous foreign life is full of excitement and glamour, hiding the lack of fulfilment, the frustration, the pain. Sometimes you even feel guilty that you feel those negative thoughts because you think, well, I mean, at least I am here in London and doing wonderful things like eating in Michelin-starred restaurants and traveling to cool cities so of course I must just be ridiculous because look how lucky I am! But lucky doesn't come with a side effect of being miserable.

I'm conscious that this post can really quickly devolve into navel gazing (and probably already has) so let's really quickly recap on the positives that I've got going for me:

1. I have a house
2. I have a secure job in an interesting industry
3. I have a fabulously supportive boyfriend
4. I have a fabulously supportive family
5. I have a great network of close friends near and far

So, you know, with regards to Maszlow and all of his needs, I should be fairly well-placed to be seek enlightenment. And maybe that's what I'm missing? Because despite all of the above, I'm finding that each day I struggle to wake up with any motivation for achieving anything. I don't have much excitement. I'm bored with my routine, but lack any desire to change it. I'm tired. I'm frustrated. That frustration is making me see the things I have as burdens, rather than joys. 

For example:

1. I have a house
With walls that have holes in them, waiting for plumbers to come remove pipes.
With windows that are constantly covered in condensation (Editor's note: I never ever thought in 1 million years that I would be worried about condensation but there you go!)
With a loft full of boxes, instead of the craft/design room of my dreams.
With a guest room where the freshly applied wallpaper is already peeling.
With cosmetic fixes that cost more than any pair of shoes.
With so many other things to fix in it that I feel like I'll never have a weekend to myself or spare cash to buy a handbag again.

2. I have a secure job in an interesting industry
That causes me untold anxiety.
That I constantly measure my success in against my peers.
That I am always worried I'm doing well enough at.
That I don't really know where I'm headed in.
That sometimes I'm not sure why I'm doing it.
That I can't see a future in 10 years down the road that appeals to me.

3. I have a fabulously supportive boyfriend
Well, he's pretty much great. I'm not airing my issues with him here, but suffice to say it's little things like "will he ever close all of the drawers and doors ALL OF THE WAY instead of leaving them open 1 inch".

4. I have a fabulously supportive family
Who I never see.
Who live in the US and it costs me £500 at least to go back and see them.
Who I constantly feel guilty about never seeing.

5. I have a great network of close friends near and far
See #4.
Add worry that their lives are fast-forwarding through marriages and babies and moves and etc, and I'm not there to share it... so where does that leave me?

Phew. All of that and more has been rattling around and stuffing up my brain for a while now. It feels good to get it out. And even better to read it because I know that it is LUDICROUS. Most of it, at least.

But it gets worse.

Because I've been torturing myself over the above, and more, I've really taken a negative turn for the worse in terms of my general attitude. I've given up exercise, and started comfort eating, and find myself back at the weight I hated 2 years ago. I'm not spending as much time out, socially, because I don't really feel like I have anything positive to say, and I don't have anything cute to wear (because it doesn't fit, and I don't have the spare cash to buy anything new). Social media terrifies me because every new announcement of a vacation, engagement, baby, etc, reinforces my lack of fulfilment. 

It's easy to say "I'm jealous" but it's more than jealousy over achievements or possessions; I'm jealous of people knowing what they want, knowing their dreams, and striving to them. My besties are on a career-break trip in Asia right now, something they scrimped and saved and fought to do, and are having the time of their lives – meanwhile, I'm sitting on the sofa staring at cobwebs and trying to find the energy to dust the house, let alone try to figure out what my dreams and life goals are. Before Christmas, it took me 4 days of saying "I'm going to clean the bathroom" until I finally did – after we got back from Ireland. This negativity is eating away at me, and starting to affect my relationship with The Irishman too. He is nothing but supportive but my life state is exhausting him too. 

Overall, it's a bad scene over here.

So what am I going to do about it? 

Well I've been doing a lot to fix it up to this confession. I've a lovely therapist named Wendy who I pay over the odds for; she can't make it all go away but she has taught me ways to recognize the pattern of thinking that leads me to a place where I feel paralyzed. So at least I can avoid getting to a point of no return. I'm taking a small break from her because she's helped me through the emotional aspect of all of this, and now I need to start the fixing part. I've also been working with two ladies I know, one of whom is a close friend, who are becoming life coaches. They've both agreed to take me on as a test case to help me suss out where I am, what I am, who I am, and how to sync up my values with my work and my goals. I'm terrified by this process because I hate change, but it's necessary. I've gone too far stop now.

Personally, though, I'm starting the following (call them resolutions if you like, but they're more like life shifts):

I'm reading a book called The Element that people have told me really helps you understand what is unique to you – and how to use it to make you happy. I've just started it, so, you know, I'll let you know what I think.  

I am recommitting to yoga and pilates. But in a different way than in the past; I used to go to the hardest class, really push myself, really force myself to get into the hardest poses and hold them the longest and generally be super competitive. This time, it's all about me just doing it. Getting up on the weekend mornings and going to class and celebrating that I'm doing it will be enough. I'm hoping the toning and leanness will follow from the centeredness.

I'm also recommitting to running. Short runs to start and hopefully a half marathon in the spring. A goal to work towards with the side benefit of clearing my head. 

I'm doing a mini January detox. I'm cutting out refined carbohydrates and sugar, and restricting alcohol and red meat (only on the weekends, in moderation). I'm tracking my calories on My Fitness Pal and hoping to hit my goal weight in May.

With a lot of help and encouragement from The Irishman, I'm working on getting up earlier. Ideally to run before work, but this is baby step territory. I am not naturally a morning person, but I do know that when I get up earlier and don't have to rush around, I am more at peace and feel more accomplished – it's just that I really like to sleep. A lot. So the goal is to get to a place where I can get up at 7 every morning easily and hopefully add in a 30 minute run. Let's see.

Also with The Irishman, we're doing a lot of budgeting and financial tracking. Since buying the house, our finances are ever more intertwined and it's helpful to understand what we can afford to do in terms of renovations. But also, I constantly feel like I'm broke. I need to stop dreading the credit card bill and ransacking the sofa for £1 in the days leading up to payday (they're probably The Irishman's anyway).

Finally, I've given myself a deadline of June to work out what I want and need in life. It's not going to be a full life plan, but some things like location might be things that fall out of it; realistically, it's going to be an honest assessment of the things that I need in place to feel at peace and, dare I say, happy again. It's going to be a hard road, and very intense, so I probably won't actively blog about it. But from time to time, I'll update you on how I'm doing. I'm sure you'll sense when changes are amiss, anyways.

If you've stuck with me through this post, thank you. Hopefully you won't abandon the blog but it's okay if you do. If you're going through something similar, feel free to reach out – I've been reading a lot of books, some might be of use to you so message me privately. And if you've a friend like me, well, just go give her a hug and a cup of tea because really that's all she (and I) really need. 

Wherever you are in life, with your resolutions this new year, I wish you nothing but success and satisfaction, happiness and love.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Irish Christmas

A very belated but still Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! It's day 2 back in the office and I must say, I'm not really feeling it. Even though I had 9 days off, I'm still rusty and not back in the groove. My first yoga class of the year is tonight so hopefully I can ease my way back in smoothly.

I know I haven't really been blogging much lately, and we're going to touch on that in another post tomorrow. But before we get into reality, let me fill you in on my Christmas. I spent it with The Irishman and his family in Dublin, as we alternate every year – last year was the US with my family, and this year we went to his home. We had a few lovely evenings in Dublin, joining in the festive cheer, and spent the rest of the time having meals with family and friends. On St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) we went for a walk on the South Pier out by the iconic stacks.

The day after St Stephen's Day, we all piled into the car and drove out to County Clare in the west of Ireland near Galway. The Irishman's uncle lives out there and, get this, has a castle on his property. In actual fact it is more like a keep, but he has restored it to a liveable space and we had dinner there one night and a tour of the fuller property. It's pretty cool – but very cold. We stayed in less historic accommodation, in this little thatched roof cottage.

The landscape of Clare is pretty dramatic, owing to its glacial geography and The Burren. It's hard to describe, so I won't really try, except to say it is barren, bleak, and utterly beautiful. I'd suggest going in the summer, though, because the wind and rain make it particularly raw so you tend to not spend too much time outside seeing the sights.

And sights there are! Clare also hosts evidence of some of the earliest settlers to Ireland, who left these epic burial tombs called dolmens across the region. There are also several other castles, military fortifications, medieval crosses and crumbling churches littered across the fields – not to mention the geographical wonders like the Cliffs of Moher. We went on a cold and rainy day and I was very dumb not to take a hat. Learn from my mistakes, people – always take a wooly hat to Ireland. Even in July.

From this area, if you wanted to go out to the Aran Islands, you could easily take a ferry there but they weren't running over Christmas and I don't actually think they run during the winter. But there were other places to see too, tiny towns like Ennistymon and Doolin and lovely little hamlets with one pub and one church. Lots of Irish to be had – this cafe we went to in Ennistymon is literally named "food house." Apt, I think!

After a week with The Irishman's family, I was ready to come home. Don't get me wrong – they're a lovely bunch and we had an amazing and warm and lovely family Christmas. But we, and when I say that I really mean me, wanted a break for just us, too. We had 3 days in London together but it simply wasn't enough for us to unwind together. So as 2013 unfolds, I'm really looking forward to some quality time with this chap that doesn't include family, friends, DIY, or modern (in)conveniences.

Despite my crankiness about that, we still managed to have a fabulous New Years Eve at The Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill and then caught the fireworks down by Parliament.

I hope you all had just as wonderful a Christmas and New Year, blogfriends. Tell me how you spent it! Next post will be about why you haven't heard from me in a while, and what I'm planning to do about it in 2013. Until then, I hope you're finding the transition to 2013 smooth, joyous, and relaxing.