Monday, May 03, 2010

Spring Here in the UK

Last week was a preview of lovely weather to come; warm, sunny days in the upper 60s. I was inspired to find a bike so as to spend more time outdoors and roam the area in a more personal way. I wanted a bike like I saw in Amsterdam - sturdy, "sit up and beg" style bike. I explored all the local bike shops whose sales people told me that they don't carry that type of bicycle in Chelmsford, perhaps not even in London. One savvy bike salesman suggested that I try Cambridge, which has a huge bicycle culture. Looking online, I found just the bike I wanted at a shop called Howe's Cycles. So, one morning, I drove north to Cambridge, which is always a pleasure. I found my way to Howe's, and there, in the window, was my bike. An Electra Amsterdam Classic 3i. It's a dutch style bike, 3 speed, coaster brakes on the rear wheel and caliper brakes on the front. Fenders, skirt guard, enclosed chain (so no oiling needed) carrier on the back, dynamo to run the headlight and taillight, a bell and sturdy. It rides like a dream. Comfy seat. It's heavy. Not as heavy as some dutch bikes are, but much more so than most bikes I have owned. I love it! I started out my riding close by on streets by my house and bike paths. On the first day, I fell over twice. My brain couldn't register the coordination required for braking. So, one of my first goals was to find a park where I could ride safely and teach myself braking and maneuvering skills and build up my confidence. I thought it would require loading the bike onto a carrier and driving to a park. Fate conspired to keep me local that day and happily so. I found a lovely park just a few blocks away called Beaulieu Park (pronounced Bew-lee park). Lovely little park with ample paved paths in tight circles and long straight stretches. Just what I needed! I got the feel of my bike that day pretty quickly. I still don't venture out on to the busy roads to ride, but I am much more confident.

This weekend has been cold and very rainy. I have stayed indoors for the better part of the 3 day weekend. Today is Monday and it's a bank holiday here. Tomorrow morning, I board a train to London, then the tube, then on to Devon on business. Should be a lovely trip! I am taking trains because for the moment, my wings are clipped. I suddenly discovered that my NYS Driver's License had expired! So, until my new one arrives, I am not driving. It takes a few months to get a UK license, so renewing my license from NY is the better options right now.

I have made arrangements to come to the US for 2 weeks in July. I will be visiting with my children and my sister, who is about to move to South Carolina. So those will be 2 very busy weeks! I will likely take the train to NYC and then back to Buffalo, then drive to South Carolina. Sure will be fun! I have missed my family so much and can't wait to see them! Even the dogs!

Work has improved. I know a bit more than I did a month ago. I have more support from management than I did the first 4 months. It's still overwhelming in terms of keeping up, but at least I have a bit of a grip on the processes and procedures. I also now have a laptop and a way to connect to the secure network to do my work. That makes a big difference. Now, if I could just get my driving back, my engine will be firing on all pistons.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


What does one say about Paris?
Paris is big. Everything about Paris is big. Start with the Eiffel Tower. I have seen images of the Eiffel Tower all my life, in print, on television and in movies. Still, when I came up from le Metro at Trocadero, I was impressed by the enormity of the Tower. Add to that its elegance and you begin to get a sense of the experience of seeing it for the first time. It is truly a beautiful sight to behold. When I first saw the Eiffel Tower, it was drenched in sunlight with black thunderclouds looming behind it, adding to the dramatic affect.

When I explored Paris, the weather was cold and rainy, not the best way to meet this grand city. In order to see as much as possible in the few days we were there, we hopped on and off an open tour bus that circulated through the different parts of the city. We saw the Latin Quarter, Notre Dame, Les Invalides, the church where Napoleon's ashes are interred, the Champs Elysees, the Louvre Museum, Trocadero, Place de la Concord and much more. Paris boasts many grand monuments and statues commemorating it's victories and its heroes. The city displays a powerful sense of pride in its victories and history. Paris reflects the visions of many great Kings and military heroes, elevating them to godlike status in its memory of them. The scale on which many of the buildings and monuments were built conveys a sense of might and majesty.

The streets were full of people visiting the city from all over the world. In that sense, it reminded me of New York and London. We heard the sounds of many American accents and said hello to them along the way. The visitors often spoke English. We did encounter a number of French people who spoke some English, but also a few that were rude in their response to the questions we might pose in English. I understand that the French are very proud of their history and culture, but I have difficulty understanding why they would want to alienate visitors. I would think they would want visitors to appreciate their country and its people, not have visitors go away with a sense of having been rebuffed. I certainly would not patronize establishments where I was treated rudely. I will happily take my euros elsewhere. For my part, I greeted the French with a bonjour or bonsoir and a smile and always made my requests with a s'il vous plait.

It is challenging to get around Paris. By the time we were ready to leave, we were finally getting the hang of taking le Metro and reading its maps. There is no comparison with how easily we got around in Amsterdam; like day and night.

The Louvre

We devoted one day to visiting the Louvre. It's an amazing complex on a grand scale. We each got the multimedia guides to assist us with our exploration of the museum, but even those took a while to figure out. I finally wandered around on my own and punched in whatever numbers I could find to hear the commentary of the paintings. I stayed mostly with paintings and did not explore the sculptures or the objets d'art. I did visit the Mona Lisa. It wasn't hard to find. There was a huge crowd where the Mona Lisa was on display, a dense crowd difficult to penetrate to get close enough to get a look. My perseverance paid off and I was rewarded with a view good enough to take a photo.

All around the city there are lovely outdoor cafes with chairs facing the street so that the patrons can watch the city and its people. It was so cold that when we stopped at cafes, we went indoors. We enjoyed crepes that you can get anywhere - cafes, stands near the base of the Eiffel Tower, walk-up snack kiosks throughout the city. Very tasty! The crepes are sweet. You can choose your filling. I had mine with cheese. My friend had one with apricot jam and another one later with ice cream and whipped cream. Crepes are tasty without anything in them! We had dinner at a few different restaurants in Paris, but they both served Italian food. My first dish was l'aubergine parmagiana, eggplant parmiagian. Delicious! I ordered a veggie pizza in one restaurant. It came with a fried egg in the middle. The pizza was very good and the egg in the center was an interesting surprise.

Not surprising that we had Italian food in Paris. We also had Mexican/Argentinan food in Amsterdam which was incredibly good. Come to think of it, we also had Asian food in Paris. Also very good. One evening, we just picked up les baguettes et du fromage for our evening meal. That seemed a very French thing to do. The baguettes were the best I ever tasted. And what do I need to say about camembert? It's my favorite cheese even when I'm not in Paris!

I will remember my brief tour of Paris. It is an amazing city with many beautiful sights and pleasant surprises. Those are what I will remember.

Friday, April 02, 2010

EUROPE at last Part I - Amsterdam

I just got back from my first Euro trip. A friend and I traveled to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris for a total of 8 days. What an adventure! This was my first experience planning a trip and I learned plenty. I don't think it's possible to do it in a more difficult fashion than I did it. Next time, will be different. Our destinations were Amsterdam and Paris. The Brussels stay for one night was necessary because I could not book that middle night in either of the other two cities. The trip was comprised of one flight and three train trips, not counting all the local trams, trains and undergrounds we would be using while in each city. In Amsterdam and Paris, we stayed in youth hostels. Very different experiences in each of them. Pros and cons at each. In between, in Brussels, we stayed in a very nice, reasonably priced hotel. If you are ever in Brussels, stay in the de Fierlant Hotel. Very nice, and around 30 euro each.


Amsterdam turned out to be the absolute best part of the trip! I loved everything about it. We stayed in the Zeeburg StayOkay youth hostel. Very nice. Clean, well decorated, cheap and friendly/helpful staff. They have wifi that you can use for a modest fee. They also have a bar, cafeteria (only opened for breakfast or if you are in a group for an evening meal). We mostly ate out after breakfast. Nice laundry facilities, although the dryer was set to very hot.

Amsterdam was very easy to get around by tram. We bought a 48 hour pass, for around 11 euros that allowed us to go anywhere an unlimited number of times for 48 hours. Great deal! We very quickly learned to get to all the major areas we wanted to visit. We also went on a free walking tour. Also a very good experience! Our guide, Ryan, was part tour guide and part stand-up comic. He told great stories about Amsterdam. We had wandered accidentally into the red light district on our first day. There is a red light district walking tour in the evening that we heard was lots of fun too.

Once you get yourselves to Dam Square, pretty much anything you want to see and do is within walking distance. Dam Square by itself is very interesting. There were entertainers of all sorts there in the square, performing for tips. Music, cafes all around, horse-drawn carriage rides, the tram going in all directions and amazing shopping, just to name a few. The pace in Amsterdam is one of the things that makes it such a great place. People gather in the outdoor cafes, chat, meet, drink, eat and linger. English is commonly spoken everywhere, in addition to Dutch, so language is not an issue. The canals are beautiful. Bicycles are everywhere. There are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam. I still haven't figured that one out. Some people have two bikes, I guess. One for everyday and one for holidays, I guess. There are special lanes for bicycle travel and pedestrians better beware!

Our favorite stores there were Sissy Boy and the Birkenstock store. That's where we spend money. Plus, the flea market. Very interesting items there. Vintage items, bags, scarves, clothes, leather goods, cannabis lollipops. You name it. They sell it.

We followed our tour guide to a place called Boom Chicago for some beer and food after the tour. They serve Stampot which is a traditional Dutch meal comprised of mashed potatoes with carrots and onions in it, gravy and a sausage on top. I had the vegetarian version, minus the gravy and fresh green beans instead of sausage on top. Excellent! You can have additional plates of this dish for the one price, which was 7.50 euros, I think. One was plenty for me. Elsewhere, we tried a place that offered "very old cheese" on waldkorn, a dark bread with lots of seeds on top. The cheese was well-aged cheddar-like cheese. Very good! Washed down with a nice Heineken or Amstel beer. Good food.

Who would not like the Van Gogh museum? I had some real pinch-me moments when I saw his paintings. I had to remind myself that they were his actual works, not a print or an image in a book. The museum traces his evolution as an artist, includes his sketches and early works up to the paintings that he is now best known for. Well worth the wait to see the museum. We had tickets prior to arriving, so we didn't have to wait in the line to buy a ticket. That's a good tip to remember. Whenever possible, buy your ticket in advance so that you don't have to wait in the long lines to buy one upon arrival. You can get tickets for many museums in airports, train stations. Also check with your hotel or hostel or even online prior to traveling to purchase tickets.
We took a canal cruise of the Amstel river and the canals. That was a lovely trip. You get some history of the city on that cruise. It's very relaxing. Every now and then it's nice to do something that doesn't involve lots of walking.

To sum up, if you are looking for a first European city to visit, I strongly recommend Amsterdam, for the following reasons: 1.) people are very friendly and helpful
2.) very laid back pace
3.) everyone speaks English as well as Dutch
4.) hundreds of fun places to eat and visit
5.) easy to get around
6.) BEAUTIFUL! Love the canals and the old world buildings
7.) Van Gogh Museum
8.) Anne Frank House
9.) Heineken brewery
10.) very welcoming
11.) free walking tour by day (fun!)
12.) walking tour of the redlight district in the evening (10 euros - we didn't do it this time, but did stumble into the area and explored on our own)
13.) good food - I recommend a sandwich of very old cheese on waldkorn bread and stampot, a mashed mix of potatoes, carrots, onions with gravy and a sausage on top. I had the vegetarian version).
14.) lots of good beer

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Making adjustments. This and that.

Inside Essex County Hall in Chelmsford

It's been almost 2 weeks since my car accident. From what I hear, the car may be a total loss. I feel so bad about the car. I only had it 25 days. This has got to be a low point in the adventure so far. I must say that if anyone had asked how I might be involved in a car accident, I would have imagined it would have been on a roundabout. But no. This was just a crazy big intersection in Chelmsford.

I am still sore. It's my ribs in my upper chest. The knee is pretty much better, and I did end up with a bruise or two more than I thought I would. The aftermath of the accident includes some anxiety about driving. I wish that would hurry up and disappear! I have been driving and mostly it's ok, but every now and then a car will approach me from the side and my heart skips a beat.

I decided to stay behind from the little trip this weekend with friends who are going ahead to Bath. They are already there. I am content to lay low this weekend. I need peace and relaxation. I'll save up my need for excitement for my trip in 12 days to Amsterdam and Paris - with no driving!! We're flying to Amsterdam because its about 1/10 the price of the train ticket. Then all the other legs of the trip are by train. So much fun! We're going to the Louvre, the Van Gogh Museum, Torch Gallery (where Justin has had a show) and the Jordaan area around the canals in Amsterdam. And what trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a walk down the red light district!!

The next time I plan a trip, it will be to one destination rather than several. That would be much easier to plan. Live and learn!

Work. I have found one thing I can change that makes work so much easier to manage. Working out of the office. When there is a great deal of paperwork to be done, I need to focus. I can borrow a laptop and do it at home. I did buy a laptop of my own to use for work, but it's not happening. To interface with the system at work, I need Windows XP and the laptop came with windows 7. Too bad they didn't mention that to me when I asked them about specs BEFORE I bought a laptop.

I have now been vegetarian for 6 weeks. Actually, I am a picsetarian, or aquatarian as a friend calls it. That means I eat fish. I am thoroughly enjoying it, including cooking. Today I have a simmering pot of beans, peas and vegetables on the stove. It smells lovely - and I haven't added all the veggies yet. It's that magic combination of garlic, onion and celery that is so aromatic.

On my way back from a meeting at a school and a home visit some 25+ miles away yesterday, I drove through the intersection where my accident happened. I dreaded it! It didn't look so horrible coming from the opposite direction. I still can't understand how it happened. Oh well! Trying not to dwell on it.

I would post the picture I took of my car from inside the ambulance, but I don't really want to look at it just yet. Darn those solicitors! They keep asking me over and over for info about how the accident happened, what was the weather like, draw a picture - where you were driving, where the other driver was...AHHHH!!!! I am trying NOT to think about it and they all want me to recount it over and over and over!!

I don't know what is going to happen in terms of a car. I suppose there will be another one assigned to me, a lease car. I 'm not sure I want one like the one that was damaged.

I had an interesting learning experience in Sainsbury's this week. I am taking ibuprofen for the pain from the accident. It's hard to find any OTC medications in large quantities here. Mostly they are in little boxes in blister packs with 16 or so tablets. At Sainsbury's, a box was 20 pence, so I picked up 5 boxes. When cashing out, the clerk said I couldn't buy that many, I would have to go to the pharmacy to get approval for that many. I asked why that was. She told me it was so people could not easily buy enough to overdose on. Apparently, it's the law. What a surprise! So I went to the pharmacy, and they offered to sell me a box of 96 tablets without any prob elm at all. No questions asked. Strange. Similarly, potato chips, or crisps, and other similar junk food, come in sacks with 6 mini packets in them rather than one large bag. Trust me, this is something I noticed right away, being a big fan of potato chips. I suppose that is to help you do portion control. How's that? In some ways I like it. But it is different. If it is meant to provide portion control, I have, brilliantly, discovered a way around it. Eat more than one packet!! LOL!

More interesting things. Post Offices are inside of stores, not buildings that are just Post Offices. You can also do your banking at Post Offices, or buy insurance, get your currency changed, pay your taxes and so on. Very handy.

Have I mentioned how polite the people are here? Especially business people. When you are purchasing something, the clerk rings it up and tells you the amount. When you hand them the money, they always respond with "thank you". You are thanked before the transaction is even completed. Very nice. I'm not always sure how to respond though. I guess "you're welcome" is appropriate. It is different.

Have I mentioned what a wonderful thing Skype is? How it makes me feel like my family is close at hand? My daughter and I have a video chat almost everyday. My sister and my son skype with me a bit less frequently. It's amazing! I get to see what they are doing, watch the dogs playing, see their faces and so on. It's such a comfort. And you can't beat the cost! (it's free).

Thanks for reading. It feels a bit jumbled, but that's a good reflection of how I am today. I am sure it will all get organized again, given a bit more time.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

YouTube - Broadcast Yourself.

YouTube - Broadcast Yourself.

Sometimes I don't write

I have heard from various friends who apparently read my blog (!!!) that I haven't written much lately. I have thought about that. I mean to write about the adventure, but there are obstacles. But there is one that overrides the rest.

Sometimes, I need to not think. Writing requires thinking. So, as a means of self-protection, I avoid those things which require thinking. That's it.

Most of my time here is spent working. As I wrote in my previous entry, the work is HARD. When I am away from work, I need to do my best not to think about it. I have never had so much difficulty not thinking about work before. I was pretty good at it back in Buffalo. Out of work? I turned off the working part of my brain and attended to all things not work-related. I had become a master at the ability to switch it off. But here, it's different.

Here, distracting myself is more difficult. I have to actively keep myself more occupied, both mentally and physically. Work thoughts are much more intrusive. At night, they are haunting and can cause me to lose sleep. I have a few strategies for that. I watch the Big Bang show on my macbook or I listen to Coast to Coast on the radio. These are great comforts and I can fall asleep with them on.

When I am off work, it's usually dark. It's tough to find things to do after work. I love going to the Town Centre, walking, shopping, getting a chai latte at starbucks and doing people watching/listening. But the town Centre closes down at 6:00 pm. Then it becomes a ghost town. I'm not a regular pub goer. I don't drink much and when I do, I pay for it the next day, so that's not much of an option. I read, I watch tv, I cook, I clean. When it's daylight, I watch the birds I feed in my backyard. As the days get longer, this will become more of an option as well.

So, that's an answer to those of you who wonder why I am not writing much. When I have free time, like on the weekends, I do travel around. I often take a day trip on Saturdays. I photograph or videograph and post them on flickr, facebook and youtube. That's another way of chronicling my adventures. And there's alot less thinking and more enjoying in those activities. (See my videos by clicking on link in previous post).
I will be going with friends to Bath and Stonehenge the weekend of March 11/12. At the end of the month of March, I will be traveling by train to Paris and Amsterdam. Those things I can write about!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why I Visited Buckingham Palace

It's been a while since I added something to my blog. I can explain.
I work. I work like I've never worked before. Long hours. Frenetic pace. It's really hot in there. Multitasking. Not just 2 things at once. More like 6. And the phone rings and someone needs something else from me, like 10 minutes ago. It's never ending. The phone rings. Even if it's not my phone, I have to answer it. Take messages. Track down another worker. There's no voicemail. There's noise of the 40 or so other social workers and support workers doing the same things - all at once, in one big room, nothing between us. No buffers for sound. No cubicles to reduce distraction and help you focus. There's no room on the desk/table to place a file that you want to read. After many hours, you suddenly realise that you are hungry, or need to use the toilet, or you're late for your meeting. You grab what you need. 3 people stop you and ask you for information or can you cover for them Wednesday or could you sign this please or that a reviewing officer or solicitor is on the phone or all of that all at once and you are late. You realise you don't have the address you need to get to the meeting you need to be at and hope that you can find it on your personal iPhone and or sat nav. Grab your coat, your diary, your mobile phones and RUN. I mean RUN.

Once you are out the door, you breathe.
You walk to your car. You hear the birds singing. The sun is shining.
You are reminded that there's a world outside of that massive noisy roller coaster that is your job.
You ask yourself how long it is until Friday. You remind yourself why you came here. Why you packed
up your house, sold your belongings, risked it all, leaving family and friends behind and the comfort of
the familiar. Oh yeah.
The adventure.
This is the adventure.
This is part of it.
Not the part you desired, but it is part of it.
And you know you can get on with it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coldest Winter in 30 years

I came at a time when the UK is having a record-breaking cold winter. Coming from Buffalo, I have wondered if it followed me here.
Temperatures here have dipped into the upper teens (F) and haven't been above freezing in the past two weeks. There's another week of the same temperatures coming up. I have seen enough snow in Chelmsford to slide around in my driveway. Life doesn't really come to a standstill here in these conditions, but pretty close. There are trucks out throwing down "grit" onto the highways. Salt is also being applied to the roads. There are no snowplows. I was discussing how Buffalo "plows the roads" and one Essex native asked me what that meant. Because they are not accustomed to snow and ice, people don't know how to drive in it. There are some foolhardy drivers that won't slow down until they have slid off the carriageway into a tree. For these reasons, schools are closed and police are asking people not to drive if they don't have to. That includes work. All client contacts were canceled last week. If workers live more than a few miles from their office, they can stay home or work from an office closer to home. There are stories of car accidents mixed into the office conversation. The weather is the top story of all news programs.
I have been driving around without difficulty. The grocery stores are extremely busy. Bread and milk are flying off the shelves. People are stocking up on essentials. So far, there is still no need to buy a shovel. But the radio announcers are encouraging people to prepare their cars for all possibilities, with food water, blankets, warm clothing and a shovel kept in reserve.
The one thing I have been doing is paying extra attention to the birds that come to my backyard. I have blue tits, robins, sparrows, great tits, doves and starlings in great numbers feeding from my feeders. The cold weather has kept the cats indoors more, making it safer for the birds to feed.
It has been cold in my house. I am heating right now with one space heater, which actually does a pretty good job. I was delighted to find a shop in Braintree called Edinburgh Woollen Mills, where there was a sale on 100% lambswool sweaters. I bought one for 12 GBP and wish I'd bought several. It's great to layer with a heavier sweater. I will not be cold again. I also found wool gloves for a few pence and heavy wool blend socks. I am very toasty now.
I hear from my daughter in Buffalo that things are very cold there these days. I don't miss that level of cold! Nor do I miss the blowing, drifting snow and the need to shovel or plow driveways and sidewalks.
My fellow US recruits from California are really suffering. They have no driving skills in this weather and have little tolerance for the cold.
I am hoping, at least, that spring here will be early.

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