Saturday, 29 March 2014

Bean Reminiscing...

I was travelling to Pilsen with a colleague this week and having only met before very briefly, we took the opportunity to chat en the taxi, on the Heathrow Express, in the airport lounge. You get the picture...lots of finding ways to make the time go faster while getting to where we had to be. 

Anyway, we were chatting about my living in the UK and the invariable questions came up: Why did you leave? Will you go back? and What do you miss most?  Nothing unusual.

But this time the last question really made me think. What do I miss most?

It goes without saying family, family, family. And usually at this time of year, I would have answered something about really feeling the lack of sunshine and daylight hours during London's winter months. But we've had a mild winter which in the last few weeks, has merged into a lovely Spring - beautiful blue skies, double digit (celsius) high temperatures and patches of colour everywhere as London's parks, gardens and suburban streets are transformed by a riot of daffodils, crocuses and cherry blossoms.

And I've just come back from my Vitamin-D top up in Abu Dhabi so I'm missing the sunshine much less than usual.

So the question gave me pause. What do I really miss?

And then I thought back to my last trip Down Under and I knew...the coffee. Great, great coffee. Creamy lattes, foaming cappuccinos and pungent espressos with velvet-y golden crema.

I have not enjoyed coffee anywhere nearly as much as I have in Melbourne. Not even in Italy, the self-proclaimed mecca of coffee.

And it would seem that the voters on website agree, with 301 of them nominating Melbourne as having the best coffee in the world (followed by Vienna - 187 and Rome - 116).

It's not the first time I've waxed lyrical about coffee here at Gidday from the UK and I have found a treasured favourite or two serving sensational shots here in London but there's no hunting for these rare gems in Melbourne - great coffee is everywhere.

So I'll be booking myself a Christmas Down Under this year to get me a fix!

Oh and Sydney? Sydney got 20 votes in the survey. Not that I'm competitive or anything.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

My Backyard...B Is For Brixton

Having returned from playing away in Abu Dhabi for a week, it was time to play a little closer to home again so this morning I was up and on the way to Brixton for another 'backyard' walking tour. 

Brixton is in South London and being most notable for the Brixton Riots in 1981, it's an area of London that it's fair to say has been somewhat tainted by its turbulent past. But the area is also one of those 'up-and-coming' parts of London as home buyers seeking lower property prices move outwards from the city while still remaining in commuting range. In fact it's one of the things that surprised me today - how near Brixton is to central London. (I thought it was much further out!) 

Anyway our small group met at the Ritzy Cinema at 11am and headed down Coldharbour Lane to the frontline of the 1981 Riots at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue.

After a bit of background on the Riots from our guide Angela, we continued down Coldharbour Lane a little further to see Nuclear DawnThis extraordinary mural was painted by Brian Barnes and finished in 1981. It features a large skeleton swathed in the flags of nations who had nuclear weapons at the time and paints a grimly powerful portrait of politics and the Cold War during the late 70s/early 80s. 

Turning away from the mural, we faced Southwyck House - also known as Brixton's Barrier Block - an unusual building featuring the Brutalist architectural style common of the period in which it was built. 

The Barrier Block has played a controversial role in Brixton's history. The other side of the building features large windows and balconies and has been home to one of the world's most famous artists, Damien Hirst. Ex Prime Minister John Major lived briefly in Brixton and his support for the demolition of the block later in his career was more than a little undermined by the fact his Planning Committee had approved its construction. Oops!

Our next stop was Brixton Village, a series of markets accessed through an entrance across Coldharbour Lane from the Nuclear Dawn mural. Fascinatingly enough, our short dash across the road was peppered with more art from the locals...
French street artist Space Invader leaves his mark at the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Avenue.
Bee (top left) can be found at the intersection of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Avenue as can the image bottom right. The image top right was right near Nuclear Dawn and 'B Our Guest' adorns the railway bridge over Brixton Hill.
Lucy' Casson's Foxes and Cherries sculpture (top left) adorns the roof on the corner of Electric Lane and Electric Avenue; bottom left - collaborative mural near the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Coldharbour Lane; right - an homage to Brixton-born David Bowie (or David Robert Jones as he was christened) painted by Australian street artist James Cochrane.
Brixton Village was traditionally a food market where the local Caribbean community would buy fresh produce, particularly specialities like ackee, plantain, yams and salt fish.

On our little tour, I got a bit of an education about Caribbean cuisine, also finding flying fish (top left) - which I saw flying several years ago on a trip to Tobago - and breadfruit (bottom left). The biggest surprise came when I was introduced to chow chow, which I knew as choko growing up in Australia! We also laughed at the ubiquity of Milo (a malted chocolate powder that we add to big glasses of milk) in both the Caribbean and Australia - how strange that such similarities exist between islands so far away from each other.
The produce stalls are far fewer and the markets have been taken over by restaurants and cafes. It was fairly quiet as we walked through but you could just imagine the little lanes buzzing with the energy and chatter of lunchtime or after work crowds.

Clockwise from top left: Traditional Caribbean fare from Fish, Wings and Tings; enjoy a tipple and nibble at Champagne and Fromage; tuck in to morsels from the sea at Etta's Seafood Kitchen; beat the crowds for a cuppa at Federation Cafe, graced in the past by none other than Hollywood star, Will Smith.
Emerging from the markets it was a short walk down to Electric Avenue - yes the one made famous by the Eddy Grant song.
Electric Avenue, so named as it was the first market street to receive electric lighting. Bottom left: Healthy Eaters' delivery vehicles feature the names of prominent locals.
Further down Electric Avenue, we found Brixton Speaks an installation on the wall of the Iceland store. Created by author Will Self, Brixton Speaks pays homage to the unique Caribbean patois of the area. Click here for a much better photo! This was also the site where a nail-bomb exploded in 1999 injuring 39 people.

Turning right onto Brixton Hill we walked under the railway bridges to visit our next point of interest, the Ricky Bishop Memorial TreeRicky Bishop was taken into police custody in 2001 and was later admitted to hospital with unexplained injuries. The tree serves as a poignant reminder of the still-fractious relationship between the community and the local police.

We crossed over Brixton Hill and spent about 20 minutes away from the cacophony of the high street.
Left: emergiing from Stockwell Avenue between the twin buildings of Bon Marche, London's first purpose built department store; top right: the Grade II listed Brixton Academy which started life as the Astoria Theatre in 1929; bottom right: Trinity House on Acre Lane, Georgian architecture preserved since 1822.
Life in a leafy Brixton Square: a two bedroom (top right) will set you back at least £750,000 but you can always drown your sorrows at the Trinity Arms (bottom right).
With that we headed out onto Acre Lane and wandered back to the Ritzy Cinema. 

Nursing my hot chocolate on the tube ride home, I felt like I'd barely scratched the surface of this colourful neighbourhood, so different from my own yet discovering so many unexpected similarities in our cultures. And I mused once again at how utterly fascinating this big backyard of mine called London truly is.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Ma'a salama...

My week in Abu Dhabi is at an end and in just a few short hours I'll be jetting back to London. My carry on bag is just waiting to be closed and I'm making the most of still having my room tonight (even though I won't be sleeping in it) to tap out an end-of-holiday post - my goodbye to Abu Dhabi.

I sat on the restaurant terrace earlier tonight, Apple Martini in hand and desert sunset before me marvelling at how much there had been to enjoy this week despite not venturing very far afield. (I've limited my daily excursions to breakfast - beach - sunset with cocktail - dinner and lots of lovely reading in between.) Yet every day has been different with something new to notice, to admire, to hear, to read (the count is four and a half books - although that may be five by the time I arrive home - and two magazines)...and to drink.

Whether this could be counted as a Gidday Armchair Tour I am not so sure but in any case here's a little homage to my time in Abu Dhabi for your enjoyment.

It was an Apple Martini tonight but there have been both a Long Island Iced Tea and a Singapore Sling in the mix too.
The view from room 703 at The Traders on morning number one - I couldn't wait to get down to that private beach...
...and it was front and centre (with a bit of shade) for a whole six days.
During my morning meanderings I found a few interesting things to admire/marvel at...

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (didn't visit but a lovely view!) - the several-times-daily call to prayer was hauntingly beautiful.
A shisha shack...reminded me of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.
A rockin' sound system... (okay sorry about that)
...and a quirky rescue point.
And speaking of admire, what's a beach holiday without a few sunsets...

The locals were welcoming everywhere I went but I just loved this ghost-like image in the doorway of the hotel lobby...

And last but not least, just to prove I was really there, a footprint in the sand (and clever advertising that has really left it's mark)...

So all there is left to do is log off, close my case, pay the bill and bid Abu Dhabi a fond farewell. Hope you've enjoyed it vicariously even a smidgen as much as I did being here.

Ma'a salama!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Little Things...

Yesterday I got on plane (yes another one) and headed south east for a week of wallowing in Abu Dhabi.

Abu where (or why) many of you may be saying.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a tiny country near the tip of the Arabian peninsula overlooking the Persian Gulf. It is a little under 8 hours flight time away from London and as to what I'm doing here, at this time of year day time temperatures average between 28-30C, I am in serious need of some sunbeams and there was a ripper of a deal.

So enough of the background. Let's get to the point of my story.

I arrived last night at around 9pm and after making my way though the cacophony of the terminal and spending more than an hour shuffling with the rest of the queue through passport control, I found my 'pre-booked transfer' man and was duly on my way to the hotel in the lovely leather back seat of a white Audi. With a driver that sensed I was too tired to chat.

A little thing, but nonetheless appreciated.

My room is lovely and spacious - on the 7th floor overlooking the lights (at night) and the white sands of the private beach (during the day). The Traders Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri is a 4 star hotel and yet there is a robe, slippers, a gigantic bed with an assortment of pillows and a fully equipped bathroom: when I say fully equipped I mean not just the requisite toilet and basin but also a bidet, a big bath and a separate shower (not a shower over a bath).

I also found two complimentary bottles of water on the bedside table - these are rarely complimentary or offered (versus being asked for) in multiples - and there are both English (3-prong) and European (2-pin) plugs in the room. 

A further 3 bottles of water have been left in my room today. Oh and the wi-fi is everywhere, fast and completely free.

Such small attentive details create such lovely looked-after moments, don't they?

After the haunting sounds of the Muslim call to prayer echoed across the hazy dawn sky this morning, it was off to explore the breakfast buffet and not only did I have a delicious, freshly cooked omelet but there was also turkey bacon. Yes turkey bacon - these things are of great significance when you don't eat red meat. I do have turkey bacon at home but have not seen it anywhere on my travels so this was such a rare and happy find.

A post-breakfast stroll along the paved and scrupulously tidy boardwalk took me past several of the Shangri-La residences in the complex, the marina and into the souk. I'll wander in the other direction tomorrow - apparently there's a day spa nearby.

And then it was time to hit the beach. Free water (another 2 bottles) in a little esky was duly delivered along with 2 big towels to my sunlounger of choice. A further and even larger towel was wrapped over the mattress with the offer to replace this later in the afternoon. And I was about 10 steps away from a cooling, salty swim.

Little things people, it takes such little things to make me happy. 

I can hear the wailing call to prayer as I sit here wrapped in my borrowed robe typing away. The lights are appearing in the dark night sky and with Day 1 under my belt, I'm already feeling loose-limbed, sunkissed and deliciously relaxed. 

As-salamu alaykum (السلام عليكم) is the traditional Arabic greeting here and while it is used as 'hello', it actually translates as 'peace be upon you'.  And I can confirm peeps that yes, peace is definitely what is happening up here on the 7th floor.

I can see nothing for it but to repeat the whole luscious process tomorrow.

Ma'a ssalama...
(See you soon...)

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Water Water Everywhere...

It's the first of March and Spring has sprung. In the last week, our mild winter has melded softly into more blue sky days and some double digit temperatures. Bunches of green pointed leaves have broken through the soil and the anticipation of bright bursts of yellow daffodils lies hopefully in parks and gardens. It would appear that unusually, the heralding of Spring has corresponded with its calendar counterpart.

It's come after months of storms and torrential rain which has put something of a dampener on the start of 2014 for many in the UK. And waging a watery war with this, one of the harbingers of climate change, brings us to this month's Calendar Challenge from Simon Drew...

Image Source: Simon Drew's Famous Phrases Calendar 2014
I was reading an article about the impact on rising sea levels this week. A report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers released five years ago suggests that areas like London and the Norfolk Broads could be consigned to a watery grave if society's impact on the environment continues unchecked.

Image Source:
Ecologically speaking, one could argue that this small island nation has good reason to worry.

And yet on the other hand, a large - or certainly larger than it should be - proportion of the world's population has no access to water. 

A recent campaign by Water Aid UK shows a young girl walking more than two hours to draw 'life-giving' water from a muddy pool, dirty water that could kill her or her family. How often each day do we simply turn on the tap - to fill the kettle, brush our teeth or even take a drink of cool, clear, safe water?  Even with all of our efforts at limiting water waste, we live in our Western 'bubble' where having no access to a flushing toilet or a morning shower occurs not as a part of everyday life but rather as a short term immersive 'experience' in the realms of adventure travel.

So this year, I've started donating to Water Aid UK - as little as £10 per month is enough to fund a well to reach clean water far underground. 

There are a myriad of ways to contribute more to the world we live in and this is my small step into this battle alongside the elements. But every journey starts by putting one foot in front of the other and along with my monetary contributions, I'm also hoping that tuning my environmental antenna to such a cause will lead to more opportunities to educate myself and understand how I can make a difference.

Oh and I've also resolved to stop grumbling about the rain.

Calendar Challenge 2014 - Back Catalogue
Keep Calm And Carry On
Sour Grapes