Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
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Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
- You don't know what you've got 'til it goes up in price
Back to Earth
Four Countries and Five Languages
More Truffly Adventures
Planning a Trip
Money Money Money
Quick Pint After Work
Truffle Season is Almost Upon Us
Pontefract Castle and Sushi
End of a Short Week
Another Day at Work
Back to Work
...And Welcome to the Year of the Mouse
It's the end of the year as we know it
- You don't know what you've got 'til it goes up in price
- [Saturday 26th January]
Still no resolution as of yet on the accommodation issue. I was supposed to get back to the management company by the end of this week (i.e. yesterday) which ended up not quite happening. So there is still a big question mark over this.
Chie, ever the frugally minded sort, seemed to be leaning more towards wanting to move out, and so had arranged to view some flats in the local area. A surprising number of estate agents didn't seem to be able to arrange Saturday viewings, and so in the end we only saw one flat today. It seemed a typical sort of price for the area and size - about half way between what we're paying now, and what we would be paying as of next month if we stayed at the current place. Whilst the outside of the building looked quite promising, the inside of the flat was really quite shabby around the edges - there was even a bit of an unpleasant smell to it. If anything it was slightly smaller than what we have now, with a lot less of the benefits we get where we live (use of the gardens etc), and in much, much worse condition - our place had been newly refurbished just before we moved in and everything was in great condition - whereas this place was bordering on studenty.
I can't quite get my head around the fact that people expect to be able to rent out places in that condition, at those sorts of prices. Yes of course it is the area that drives the price up, but surely if you want to live in that area it's because you've got a decent paying job, and if so you probably have some basic expectations about the sort of quality of place you want to live in.
Whilst I always take everything estate agents say with a huge pinch of salt, I did give my honest impression of the place to the woman who had shown us round, along with my incredulity about the condition of the place, given the price. She said that for that price, in that area, that was pretty much the best you could hope for - had it been newly refurbished it would go for a lot more, and so the only way to get something in a better condition would be to look for something smaller.
Her advice was basically just to stay where we were - again, I instinctively don't trust estate agents, but when their advice is to do something which in no way profits them whatsoever you can't help but have at least a glimmer of hope that they might be saying that out of genuine honest human compassion.
OK maybe that's a bridge too far, but my takeaway from the viewing was basically that what we've got right now is actually a really nice flat, and unless we were going to move to a wholly new area, we probably weren't going to do any better for the money.
Chie's friend Mika-san had come to visit us for the afternoon, so we had lunch with her (at Nando's, of all places) and she also came along to the flat viewing - it was good to have a second opinion. On the way back to our flat I showed her around the gardens etc and managed to completely convince myself at least that we ought to just stay where we were for the time being.
Mika-san headed off around 6, and for dinner me and Chie had, somewhat to my embarrassment, a frozen Linda McCartney lasagne each - eaten straight out of the little plastic dish. They were something crazily cheap like 84p each.
Later on in the evening I wacthed a film on the telly called Man on Fire, with Denzel Washington being generally very depressed and/or angry in Mexico. It was entirely not my sort of film, but somehow I got drawn in by it. It was interesting in that it painted a picture of Mexico City as an extremely dangerous place to live, and then in the closing credits had a message saying something like "We couldn't have made this film without the help of Mexico City - a wonderful place".
Well, if nothing else I imagine the rents are a bit lower there.
- Winding Down
- [Friday 25th January]
When I spoke with the company who manage our flat earlier in the week about the renewal, they'd asked that I get back to them with a decision one way or the other by the end of this week - meaning today effectively. So with some trepidation I gave them a call this morning, and just got their answer phone. I left a message but they didn't get back to me, so I guess it won't be resolved until Monday now.
We had the usual end-of-the-week beer and pizza thing from 5. Since my team took on a few new people towards the end of last year, I've noticed this weekly event stretching out from a cursory 20 minutes or so, to quite often being an hour or two. We now tend to turn the one quick beer into two or three, and sit around doing a bit of a post-mortem for the week, or just generally chatting about anything we feel like. It's a little thing, but I really like this, very important for winding down and transitioning from work mode to "weekend mode". Whatever that means.
Chie also fancied pizza for dinner, so on arriving back at the flat I had more of the stuff, plus a can of Maes beer I'd brought back from Belgium.
Watched School of Rock on the telly - I had seen it before, but actually still managed to find it quite entertaining on the second viewing. Great to take my mind off the woes of central London accommodation.
- [Thursday 24th January]
Still wasn't feeling 100%, but struggled back into work today nonetheless. I didn't get in particularly early, but stayed until around 8 so definitely put in more than the requisite number of working hours.
The whole of this week - from Tuesday onwards at least - seems to be characterised for me by an overriding sense of gloom. Tuesday night was probably the worst, but I've had continuing problems getting a good night's sleep each night since then.
I think it's mostly down to the accommodation situation hanging over our heads - not being sure where we're going to be living next month - but there are also a few other background factors - not least the fact that I've been ill, plus the state of the stock market. Throughout my life I've been blissfully ignorant of the ups and downs of the financial sector, but frustratingly this particular slump has come just around the time my shares vested, and had things been different I would have sold at least some of them straight away.
In the evening, Chie made dinner - pie and mash, with some Linda McCartney pies that had been on a ludicrously cheap special offer at the supermarket recently.
- Off Sick
- [Wednesday 23rd January]
My cold had deteriorated somewhat by this point, from being a nuisance to something that was making me feel really pretty awful, and actively preventing me from getting stuff done. A combination of the cold and worry about our accommodation situation had meant I'd hardly got any sleep the previous night. So by the time it came to this morning I really didn't feel in a fit state to go into work.
There is a strange querk of my company by which no-one every seems to just take a straight day off sick - the standard response seems to be "I'm sick, so I'm going to work from home today". I too fell into this patten today, and whilst it probably wasn't the most productive day I've ever had, I did manage to get a couple of very useful things done.
To our surprise we found Quorn in the supermarket in Brussels - so there must be at least something of a vegetarian community there. Interestingly the Quorn products there were all similar but slightly different to what we have here in the UK, and I was fascinated by this localisation process, so had to bring one back. So that formed tonight's decidedly half arsed dinner - these Belgian Quorn fillet type things, with hash browns and broad beans.
- Back to Earth
- [Tuesday 22nd January]
For the last couple of weeks I had started to feel like my star was in the ascendancy (or whatever that expression is) somewhat - particularly since my one year anniversary at work. Having been there one year had meant my first batch of shares had vested, I'd had a pay rise at the end of last year, and after a stressful last couple of months things in the job were really looking like they were settling down. All in all I had been feeling rather pleased with myself. On top of that I'd just had a very nice weekend away (albeit that I had picked up a cold on the way), and Chie and I have a trip back to Japan to look forward to in March.
Today though I was slapped somewhat down to earth by a bit of an unexpected occurrence. Our year's lease on the current flat was coming to an end, and today I phoned up the management company to discuss renewal. We'd received a letter informing us there would be an increase in rent for the next year, and I suppose I'd expected it would just be in line with inflation, or maybe a little bit more. So I was completely stunned when I found out they were putting up by a whopping 22% - and it wadsn't exactly a low rent before as far as I was concerned. Apparently it was just to keep it in-line with the local market or something.
Not sure if irony is the right word for it, but it turns out the extra amount we're going to be paying in rent is almost exactly the same as they extra amount I'd be earning each month as a result of my pay rise. So I guess you could look at that as a positive thing - if we did decide to stay I wouldn't be any worse off - but on the other hand it made me really angry to think of all the hard work last year that had gone into earning that rise, only for it to be handed straight to some landlord I hadn't even met, and certainly hadn't done anything to deserve it.
So I guess now the question is whether the stress and hassle of moving somewhere else is really worth the money we'd save in doing so. It seems like this is just the deal with London - rent is crazily high, but then the wages are high too - you've just got to look at it all in perspective.
Chie met me at the office after work for dinner, where I imparted the rather shocking news. I decided afterwards we should go to the whisky society to drown our sorrows a bit.
- Four Countries and Five Languages
- [Monday 21st January]
We'd both taken the day off work so we could turn our short break into a long weekend.
So in the morning, after checking out of our very nice hotel in Aachen, we headed over once more to Carolus Thermen which was in a sense the main point of the whole trip - to visit a hot spring in Europe.
Unlike yesterday's slightly disappointing spa experience at the hotel, this was rather good. They had a number of different pools at several different temperatures. A few of them were perhaps slightly more lukewarm than what we were looking for, but at least one provoked the all-important "aaahhhhhh" reaction that we were familiar with from hot springs in Japan. Plus there was a definite whiff of sulphur in places which reassured us this was genuine hot spring water. There is something distinctly primal about bathing in this kind of water, and I can really understand why this is such an obsession for the Japanese.
They had a couple of outdoor pools at this place as well, one of which had a sort of current thing which swept you round in a circle at surprising speed - that was a big hit with both of us.
Thinking about it a lot of it was very familiar from our visit to Thermae Bath Spa - and I couldn't help but wonder if the new spa complex in Bath had been largely inspired by this place in Aachen. There was a similar current thing in Bath, and even details like the changing rooms were definitely very similar.
So that was all rather successful.
Before leaving Aachen to head back to Brussels we had lunch at a charming little olde worlde place in the centre called the Rastkeller. I suspect it is probably aimed at the tourists somewhat, although on a drizzly Monday in January we were the only people in there, and the food was actually quite good. Again I ended up having a pasta dish with "truffle aroma", and again pleasingly I could actually detect the truffle. Better still, they served Kolsch here - a very light pils served in little glasses, that I had first fallen in love with in Koln.
Oh, and to tick one more item off the "to do" list for visiting a hot spring, we also tasted the water - it turned out there were spouts in the town centre where the water just pours out constantly. It was quite hot - over 50 degrees - and quite sulphurous, so I couldn't quite say it was particularly pleasant, but I did feel better somehow for having had a sip.
We got on the train back to Brussels around 3:30, and were back in the Belgian capital by 5. We then had four hours until our train back to London left - I'd originally hoped we might be able to find dinner somewhere near the Garde du Midi, but it turned out there wasn't really much around there, so once more we headed back into the centre.
After a quick visit to a supermarket to load up on waffles (mainly destined for Chie's colleagues) we entered into the usual harrowing bout of indecision over where to eat. Thankfully though our suffering was only brief on this occasion - I suppose the fact we had a train to catch later on helped us focus - and we decided upon the cafe nearby the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. So there was a nice kind of symmetry to this - we started and ended our time in Brussels in more or less the same place. Chie had wanted to eat Moules-Frites to tick off another of the obligatory boxes for a trip to Belgium, and luckily this place had that on the menu (and apparently Chie rather liked it as well). There was also a vegetarian lasagne on the menu, which wasn't wildly inspiring, but I was glad of having anything to eat really. Oh, and of course more Belgian beer - this time Maes I think.
So we then headed back to Gare du Midi, and headed to the Eurostar departure lounge. The train left at 9PM CET, which should have meant we'd have been back in London for 10PM GMT. Unfortunately though there was some problem en route, which meant we spent somewhere in the region of an hour-and-half stopped somewhere around Lille station. Still I guess it can't be helped. We finally pulled into St. Pancras around 11:30, and were home by just after midnight.
It occurred to me during the course of the day we'd been in a total of four countries - starting off in Germany, then going through Belgium and France on the way back to the UK. Moreover we'd spoken* and heard five different languages - German, Flemish, French, Japanese and English.
What seems wonderfully multicultural and exotic to me is presumably just an average day on the job for the waiters of Brussels' restaurants.
* OK - you're thinking - can they really speak Flemish? Well, I bought a phrasebook, and practised how to say please (alstoobleeft) and thank you (dank u wel) - so although I didn't actually say these words to anyone in particular (everyone seemed to speak French in Brussels), I did actually say them out loud at some point.
- [Sunday 20th January]
We checked out of our hotel in Brussels in the morning and headed for the station. We actually went to the central station to begin with, but it turned out the train to Aachen would actually go from Gare du Midi (which is apparently the South station - the same place the Eurostar trains go from). Anywho, it was only a short connection which was no great problem.
We got on the train from Brussels to Aachen around midday. It was a really nice train - very nice interior, very comfortable and also very quiet. It was a very pleasant run of about an hour and a half from Belgium just over the border into Germany. I had wondered if we might need to show our passports or something at some point, but despite the fact this was technically an "international" service, it didn't feel any different than going between two cities in the same country. Although the announcements were hard work - delivered in French, Flemish, German and English.
We got to Aachen around 2, and set off from the station in the vague direction of our hotel, by way of the city centre. Like Brussels, it turned out to be surprisingly nice - it has a fairly small town sort of feel to it, but has lots of grand buildings in the centre. We went for a bit of a wander around the town hall there, which was rather impressive.
We then went and checked into our hotel, and then from there went for a short walk to check on the nearby Carolus Thermen spa complex. Given that it was a bit of a dreary Sunday afternoon the place was rather packed out, and so we decided to come back tomorrow.
The hotel was really rather grand, and although it was about twice the price of the place we'd stayed in the previous night it still seemed like really good value for money. We had a huge room, very nicely decorated, and superbly clean.
There was another spa as part of the hotel, and so on our unsuccessful return from the other place we decided we should try it out. Given that the area is famous for its hot springs (the reason we were here) I had anticipated the hotel's spa would have at least one pool where we could bathe in warm water. In practice though they just seemed to have a swimming pool at standard temperature, and some sauna rooms - which seemed a bit of a waste to me. Still, I suppose it was quite nicely done, and had I not been developing a cold I might have appreciated it a bit more.
After getting back from the spa, we decided we should try out the hotel bar. We started off with a glass of champagne (on the house - and it was my favourite - Veuve Clicquot), and then moved on to Bloody Marys (Maries?) before finishing up with their special of the day - a kind of fruit punch. All very nice.
My cold had got worse by this point, so we spent the remainder of the evening confined to our room, with me getting through reams of tissues trying to clear my nose out. Still, I guess if I had to be ill, it was a very nice room to be ill in.
- [Saturday 19th January]
Owing to the pricing structure on Eurostar, to have set off for the continent last night would have cost us an arm and a leg - and even some of the fares at sensible times today were a bit daunting, and some of which mean we'd have already lost most of the day by the time we got there. So I ended up booking an early train this morning - leaving St. Pancras at 8, which meant we had to leave our flat just before 7 - obscenely early for us on a Saturday morning.
Anywho, we boarded the train at 8, and enjoyed a very pleasant two hour run to Brussels. It was only a bit extra to get into "Leisure Select" (Eurostar's kind of First Class - ish - for non business travellers), so I had opted for that, which meant we had nicer seats, the carriage was a lot less crowded, and we also had breakfast laid on. It was sort of airline style food but I actually quite liked it.
We arrived in Brussels at 11 Belgium time, and after some confusion about exactly how to get into the station from Brussels Midi, we headed over to the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. They offer tours on Saturdays at midday, which Chie had heard about somehow or other, and was keen to go along for. We had some difficulty finding our way in initially - the main entrance was very closed with no signs or anything, and we eventually discovered, partly by chance, that the tour actually started from a different building, at the back of the theatre. Anyway, that was quite interesting, although I couldn't help but feel guilty that they conducted most of the tour in English - apparently for my benefit. I would have been quite happy to listen along in French (even Flemish at a pinch), but when they asked for a show of hands of who spoke what, I thought I'd better vote for English for the sake of the four Japanese people on the tour who didn't seem to speak any French.
After the tour, we thought we should wander through the city centre to our hotel. The Grand Market Square (whatever you call it) was actually quite impressive I thought, and our hotel was just around the corner from there.
Chie had chosen the hotels this weekend. One of the overriding revelations of this weekend were just how much better value hotels were on the continent (well, Belgium and France anyway). The place tonight came in at under £70, and whilst it was pretty basic it modern, immaculately clean, and extremely convenient - just a couple of minutes walk from the main square.
The remainder of the day passed in a blur of wandering about, eating and drinking. We started off with some frites (with "samurai" sauce) for lunch, then after a bit more of a wander stopped off at a bar for our first couple of Belgian beers - the kriek there was particularly great. A bit later on we popped into a fairly upmarket cafe called Wittamer in what I assumed to be Brussels' answer to Kensington or Knightsbridge for a coffee and some fancy cakes, which Chie seemed to be rather pleased with.
For dinner we had the usual mass of indecision, but somehow eventually managed to settle on a place called something like Le Peon Royal. I had a pasta dish there. Not very Belgian I know, but the city wasn't exactly overflowing with vegetarian options. Still, it was actually pretty good - it was a truffle tortolloni and to my surprise I could actually taste the truffle in it. Plus of course some very good beer.
All in all a rather enjoyable day in Brussels.
- [Friday 18th January]
Had an unusually quiet day at work today, which was rather nice. I'd been putting in a few extra hours each day earlier in the week, and so by this point I was ahead on all my deliverables, and could take the opportunity to relax a bit.
After the usual 5 o' clock Friday beer and pizza event (which we stretched out for a good hour-and-a-half today), I headed back home. I had thought about going to the whisky society tonight, but in the end I gave up, given that we'd need to be up early in the morning to head off to Belgium, and I had a few chores to do before we went away for the weekend. I also took the opportunity to get the blog up-to-date, as it was over a week behind by this point.
Chie on the other hand was out at her Hiroshimakenjinkai (the monhtly gathering of people from Hiroshima who live in London).
- [Thursday 17th January]
Today marked eight years to the day since Chie and I first met. Although the main celebration would be our trip to Belgium and Aachen this coming weekend, we thought it pertinent to also dine out this evening to mark the occasion.
I couldn't get away from the office until around 8, so we decided to eat somewhere fairly close to home as time was already ticking away. So we went back to Noura in Belgravia - the Lebanese restaurant we'd been to once before.
The food and wine were very good, as they had been the previous time, and once again I particularly revelled in their foul moudammas - a sort of fava bean stew. Quite delicious.
We just had mezze and no main course, but still by the end of the meal we were both utterly, utterly stuffed, and opted to get a taxi back home as we'd both become too fat and lazy to walk.
- Booking Flights
- [Wednesday 16th January]
Chie and I had been umming and and arring about a trip back to Japan in March this year. However, we'd held off on buying the tickets, as apparently if we got a Virgin Atlantic credit card we'd be able to get a fairly significant number of air miles just for buying the tickets with it, on top of the miles you ordinarily get for actually taking the flight. The process of applying had seen somewhat long and drawn out - apparently there are some question marks over my credit rating given that I had lived out of the country for a while. Anyway, after sending through a few bits of paperwork to prove my earnings etc it was approved, and the card arrived today.
So, this meant we could actually book the flights this evening. Despite constant pressure from Chie to be frugal, I couldn't bear the thought of those endless plan journeys in economy, so managed to get her to agree to at least premium economy. I'm hoping if we can accumulate enough miles we might even be able to upgrade to upper class on the way back.
I couldn't help but be slightly miffed that when booking Virgin flights with a Virgin credit card that I was charged the princely sum of nearly 30 quid for the privilege of paying by credit card. A bit of a nerve really when you consider they must be giving at least some of that money back to themselves. Still, I guess it is fair enough considering it has bought me nearly 5000 bonus miles - 25% of what I'd need to upgrade from premium to upper.
Both Chie and I were rather existed once we'd got our flights booked, and I then set about busily informing my friends in Japan that I'd be coming to see them in a couple of months' time. I can taste the Asahi Super Dry already!
Had bangers and mash for dinner with 3 different types of vegetarian sausages, allowing us to do a bit of a taste comparison. I think Cauldron' were narrowly the winner, with the Quorn offering in second place, and Linda McCartney's lagging well behind in third.
- [Tuesday 15th January]
Met up with Chie in the supermarket after work and did a bit of shopping. We decided to have enchiladas for dinner. We bought corn tortillas for a change, rather than the usual flour ones.
Other than that, not much to report really!
- Richard Hammond
- [Monday 14th January]
Similar to last Monday, one of the guys I worked with suggested a quick pint after work today, and naturally I jumped at the chance. Unlike the previous time though, we ended up in the pub all night.
Rather strangely, at one point I glanced over at some of the other patrons of our drinking establishment of choice, and spotted a familiar face - it took me a few seconds to work out why he was familiar, and then realised it was Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.
Didn't talk to him or anything, but still as always I found being in the proximity of a celebrity oddly quite exciting. Apparently the Daily Telegraph have offices near that pub, and he was being taken out for a few drinks by them - it was suggested they were trying to persuade him to write a column for them or something.
So that was odd.
- More Truffly Adventures
- [Sunday 13th January]
Had a lazy day in today - Chie was markedly better than she had been the previous day, but still not quite up to going out anywhere, and I was quite happy to just loll about the flat.
Watched Tokyo Story at some point today (or was it yesterday? can't really remember). We have watched quite a few Ozu films over the last couple of months, and I have been finding them really endearing. What fascinates me is Ozue seems to use basically the same cast over and over again. My particular favourite among these is Chishu Ryu, who on the surface comes across as a particularly wooden and unidimensional actor - always playing the same stoic old man - and yet has an expliciable kind of charisma about him. I find him oddly spellbinding to watch.
Dinner was another adventure in gastronomy - I had to think of what to do with the other half of the truffle I had bought yesterday - knowing that they lose their flavour if they hang around too long, I was keen to use it up ASAP. So tonight I went for a risotto - the base risotto was very simple indeed (and as I didn't have any risotto rice I used sushi rice, which I find makes a great substitute) - some sauteed shallots, a splash of booze (rather unconventionall vodka, as I didn't have any white wine), a very gentle vegetable stock, a dash of cream, and some olive oil and butter. Onto this went the remainder of the truffle, just before serving, again just thinly shaved.
If anything I think this was even better than yesterday's dish, again really rich and fragrant, with that wonderful perfumed aroma which isn't quite like anything else. Heavenly!
- [Saturday 12th January]
I have had a hankering for truffles the past couple of weeks, ever since it dawned on me we were entering the season (for the Black Perigord variety, at least).
So today I decided to venture out to find some, and also get my hair cut while I was out. Chie seemed to have caught a nasty cold and decided she out to just stay in - so in an odd kind of role reversal for one of our weekends, Chie lolled around the flat all day whilst I went out shopping.
I initially tried Borough Market, and have to say I was very disappointed. In fact I'm increasingly thinking I don't like Borough Market at all. There was me, with a large wad of cash in my hand and some pretty extravagant tastes, ready to hand it all over in exchange for some kind of tasty morsel. Once it became clear that none of the stalls had fresh truffles I revised my plan to just buy anything that was exciting and gourmet-ish, and even then I was still very disappointed - there just wasn't anything there that really grabbed my attention. It's all bloody "organic ostrich burgers" - I am starting to think it isn't a real market at all, and is in fact more of a theme park - completely overcrowded, with a load of stupid people who think they're "foodies" because they're eating a slightly different kind of steak sandwich to usual.
So I came away empty handed (although still in posession of a lot of cash) and distinctly disappointed.
I had booked to have my hair cut at the usual place in Soho at 4, and had left Borough Market before 3 to head over there. I initially got on the tube to head into the centre, but by Southwark I had realised I had become very irritable over the whole Borough Market incident, so I decided to get off there and walk the rest of the way, hoping it would calm me down a bit.
I walked over Blackfriars bridge on the way, and bathed in the tremendous views along the Thames from there - even after a year of living in London the appeal still doesn't seem to have worn off.
I got to my hairdressers just before 4, and enjoyed the usual hour chatting away with Tomoko-san in Japanese whilst she transformed the embarrassing mess atop my head into something which was actually quite respectable. Some of the other customers got involved in our conversation at one point, after which they all did the usual "sugoooooiiii ne! nihongo pera pera!" (which translates as "wow - you're fluent").
This kind of exclamation is of course a bit over the top for my level of Japanese (and I've often found it quite amusing how people say that after they've only heard me say two words of Japanese), but it is nice to hear nonetheless. I guess Japanese people living here in the UK don't often encounter non-Japanese people who can speak the language, so it must be a bit of a surprise.
After leaving my "Japanese conversation class" - you know, even though it isn't a particularly cheap place to get a haircut, it may still work out cheaper than paying for proper lessons - I set out with renewed vigour once more to find one of those elusive truffles.
I'd had quite enough of the hoy polloi of the trendy farmer's market type venue, and thought I should try a different tack. So, enter Fortnum and Mason - none of that ostrich burger nonsense, just simple good old fashioned fine foods and unadulterated extravagance.
I headed straight for the food hall downstairs, and could see behind one of the counters, in a little cabinet, they did indeed have fresh truffles. The sign was, however, a little daunting - it appeared to read "Fresh Truffles - £300". I think I had got the impressions this was the price each. A bit of a shock. On closer inspection it turned out this was actually £300 per 100g - yes, that's £3000 a kilo. So I plucked up a bit of courage, and asked the very well spoken gent behind the counter to weigh one for me, and tell me the price. Modesty forbids me to tell you the exact price, but let's just say it is far and beyond the most expensive single article of food I've ever bought - the previous claimant to this accolade being the last truffle I bought.
On the way back home I stopped off at our nearest Sainsbury's to pick up some things to help Chie get better, and also popped into the little Italian delicatessen near where we live, to buy some really good pasta to have with the truffle.
Dinner was of course a real treat - I used half of the truffle, shaved thinly, and mixed with melted butter and the mafalde pasta. It was quite divine - the truffle had excellent marbling on the inside, and the end result was wonderfully rich and fragrant. Fabulous.
- Planning a Trip
- [Friday 11th January]
Next week will mark the 8th anniversary of when Chie and I first met, which, along with the rest of our plethora of anniversaries, we're in the habit of doing something to mark the occasion each year.
Particularly with Christmas having turned out to not be much of a rest (what with Chie only taking a few days off, and me supposedly being off the whole time but in practice having to work almost every day) we had decided it might be nice to go for a long weekend away somewhere.
Unfortunately, we had been struggling to actually come up with any winning suggestions. Given my utter loathing of air travel I didn't want to go anywhere that would involve a flight, and Chie didn't seem keen on anywhere that would involve a long train journey. I was all for getting the Eurostar/ TGV all the way down to the South of France, but somehow the prospect of a full day's travelling at either end of a long weekend didn't seem to win Chie over. Ho, hum. Theoretically a destination in the UK would have met our requirements, but neither of us could think of anywhere that we hadn't already been to, and could muster any real enthusiasm about - particularly at this time of year.
We were definitely quite stuck, and it was beginning to look like we'd be doing nothing at all the weekend-after-next. Out of the blue though, a suggestion emerged (I think from one of Chie's colleagues) to go to Aachen. I had barely even heard of the place before, but it turns out it is famous for its hot springs - an instant win with Chie. Better still, it was just the other side of Belgium from here, and well served by trains - with the new Eurostar line, London to Brussels can be done in under two hours now, and Aachen is only another hour-and-a-half from there. We could even break up the journey en route and see what Brussels has to offer - from what I have heard it isn't generally hailed as particularly exciting, but then it doesn't really need to be as it is not our final destination.... and really, how bad can it be? As long as there are a few Belgian beers to sup, and some frites and waffles to nibble on, surely we can't go wrong!
Concerned that we might just dither over the idea for the coming week, but never actually get round to sorting it out until it was too late, I took the bull by the horns and booked our Eurostar tickets there and then. As always I was baffled by the prices - and it seemed hideously expensive if we were going to head out on a Friday night - but with a bit of searching about I found an acceptable cheap fare (albeit at a somewhat inconvenient time - very early Saturday morning).
So, job done. The trip was arranged for the weekend after this one, and I felt very pleased with myself.
- [Thursday 10th January]
Hmmm can't remember today at all!
- Money Money Money
- [Wednesday 9th January]
Following a couple of nights out I spent this evening staying in and watching telly. Amongst other things I watched "What Britain Earns" on BBC Two, and given my recent worrying obsession with filthy lucre, I was transfixed.
Similarly to (I imagine) almost anyone else who watched the program, I was quite annoyed to learn that some plumbers could earn nearly £100k (although this was quite exceptional - the average for plumbers was apparently £25k). It was interesting however that the particular plumbing firm they used as an example of the super high earners among their trade was one based locally to where I live in London. I guess that figures - having gone through a plumbing emergency in a posh area of London a few years back (that infamous washing machine incident some of you may recall) I am well aware of the power these people hold over those members of society who are financially very succesful, but in DIY terms somewhat inept.
Other sources of frustration included a woman whose job it was to organise rich ladies' closets, and charged several hundred pounds a day for it. Oh, and it turns out the director general of the BBC earns somewhere in the region of three quarters of a million pounds each year - this just seems insane for what, in my understanding at least, is a role in a public institution. This means it takes about seven thousand license payer's fees just to paying his salary - or about three pence of the fee paid by each and every license payer in the country.
The program divided the country up into a number of wage brackets - and whilst I was broadly pleased (in an entirely superficial way) about where I stood in the overall rankings, I couldn't help but realise that basically no-one is ever completely satisfied with their wage. Even the vicars / imams / rabbis said they'd like to earn more.
Moreover the investment bankers, venture capitalists and CEOs, right at the top of the spectrum, earning vast swathes of cash that they can never possibly spend, still seemed to be driven to do better, presumably at least in part because it is all relative and there is always someone earning more than you are. I would like to say the world's richest man is uniquely free from this tyranny, but it doesn't even seem to be the case there - it is so hard to actually tie down exactly how much the world's richest people are worth (and it changes minute by minute with fluctuating stock markets etc) that even Bill Gates / Mukesh Ambani / Carlos Slim must have some niggling doubts that they might be being outdone by their rivals.
I can very easily see myself falling into this trap - for the first time in my life I'm earning a decent salary and yet still I look enviously (and even bitterly) at those people who are doing better than I am. Particularly when, as in this program, they appear to be doing a job which appears so much less arduous or less skilled than mine. At a pinch I could believe there are some moderately technical and gruelling aspects to plumbing - and it is certainly supporting some very fundamental human needs - but ordering people's shoes and colour coding their cocktail dresses...?
It's crazy isn't it? We all say money can't buy you happiness, and on some level I totally understand this is vicious circle, and yet I am still subject to it.
Again, I think the only answer is converting to Buddhism!
- Career Milestone
- [Tuesday 8th January]
Today was actually quite a monumentous occasion for me, career wise. First of all today marked one year since I started my current job. Whilst at most companies this wouldn't be much of a cause for a song and dance, there does seem to be a culture at my place for making a bit of a big deal out of this event - which I thoroughly approve of. I guess this partly stems from the fact that we're still a relatively young company, growing very rapidly, and particularly for people working in the remote (i.e. non-US) offices a year at the company actually feels like a significant degree of seniority.
Perhaps more significantly than that though, today my manager anounced a reorganisation of our team in London. For the majority of last year we'd been just a small handful of people in London working as a subsidiary of the main engineering team in California. Fortunately we had been given a significant and very clearly defined chunk of the project to own - and over the course of the year it had been gradually recognised that our bit was the real "value add" (as management types like to say) of the whole initiative. This, on top of the fact that the London team had been seen to do a fairly good job of it, had meant we expanded significantly towards the end of last year, more than doubling in size.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the team in London has now grown to the size where it is becoming too big for us all to be sitting in regular meetings together and so on, and so the decision was made to split it into two separate teams.
And I've been chosen to lead of one of them.
It's important to note the difference between a lead and a manager here - I won't be in charge of hiring and firing, or deciding people's salaries or anything like that (although in my company even managers don't really do that kind of thing directly - it is all decided by committees). Still though, I will have responsibility for the deliverables of "my team", and am supposed to guide them and motivate them and all that kind of stuff.
Throughout all of my career up to this point I have always been just a regular software engineer - an "individual contributor". I guess I have been the principal developer on projects before - laying the groundwork for other people to follow and so on - but never someone really responsible for other people's work. So this is a really big deal for me. Especially at a company where the hiring bar is so high - I still think I only got in largely by luck - by being in the right place at the right time, and when I started I definitely had feelings of inadequacy... and yet here I am now leading a team of some of the best engineers in the industry - several of whom are more experienced than I am. It is a bizarre situation to be in.
Frankly, I am pretty nervous about the whole thing - it was enough of a challenge to just work out what the right thing for me to be doing was previously, but to have some hand in deciding what other (highly paid) people should be working on as well is really intimidating. I guess to a certain extent I had been doing this role already over the past couple of months - as the team had been expanding the job of bringing the new starters up to speed had fallen largely to me for one reason or the other (I suspect mainly just because I was more consistently in the office than anyone else). So probably it's just a case of continuing in that vein. All I can really do is try my best. If the worst comes to the worst, my work as an "individual contributor" was recognised at the higher echelons of the project, so even if I make a complete mess of being a lead I would hope I can still go back to what I was doing before.
Anyway, concerns over my career progression aside, to celebrate my one year anniversary at the company today - along with a couple of other people who started the same day as me - I organised an outing to my old favourite - The Cittie of Yorke. To my surprise the turn-out was actually very good - most of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis came along, as did a lot of other engineers I didn't really know so well (although presumably the latter category were there for the other people celebrating their one year anniversary). I couldn't entirely escape the slight feeling of awkwardness created by my new assignment, but other than that it was a fun evening.
- Quick Pint After Work
- [Monday 7th January]
Today was the start of the first proper 5 day week since mid December - so actually a little bit of a shock to the system initially.
A new guy started on my team a month or two ago. He has really impressed everyone so far by absolutely hitting the ground running - our company in general (and specifically our project) has a fairly steep learning curve in terms of internal technology we have to learn, which most people (myself included) find quite intimidating when they first start. This chap however seems to have taken it all very much in his stride, and I'm sure he has great things ahead of him. Anyway, the reason I bring him up is that today he raised himself even more in my opinion - at the end of the day he uttered the magic words "does anyone fancy a quick pint after work?". Tomorrow will be my one year anniversary at this job, and in all that time, with the exception of people visiting us on business trips, I could easily count the occurrences of this phenomenon on the fingers of one hand (and still have some spare fingers). So I was very pleased indeed.
We didn't stay out long - just a couple of pints - but I can't over-emphasize just how important this is to me having a happy work environment.
- Truffle Season is Almost Upon Us
- [Sunday 6th January]
In a similar vein to yesterday I had another lazy morning and early afternoon, Chie went out shopping and left me to my own devices again, with the vague plan that we might meet up a bit later on. I ventured out around 3:30 as I had a sudden desire to buy truffles - a bit of research on the web suggested we might now be entering the season. So I popped in to Fortnum and Mason, but it seems I was a bit early - although they said they would be getting some in next week. I'm a bit confused about when exactly truffle season is - one article on the web suggested F&M had British truffles in stock, which was rather an exciting prospect, but that seemed to be dated in Autumn last year, so presumably the British truffle season isn't the same as the French one. I'm only dimly aware of when the French truffle season is as just by chance I was in Paris in February a couple of years ago (see here) and on wandering into Fauchon was delighted to see a big pile of fresh truffles for sale - such a rare sight here in England.
So anyway, I left empty handed today, but will be checking assorted outlets in London regularly over the coming weeks.
I wandered around somewhat aimlessly after leaving F&M, and realised I had no other reason to be in the centre of London. Eventually I decided I ought to just buy things for dinner and go home. In the aftermath of my failed truffle buying attempt I was still in a distinctly gourmet-ish frame of mind, and so ambled into the Waitrose in the basement of the John Lewis on Oxford Street to see what they might tempt me with. I had the vague design to make some kind of stew or hot pot, and was looking for some interesting vegetables etcetera to go in it. I settled on some fresh beetroot, some large flat cap mushrooms (we really need to get some more interesting varieties on a regular basis in British supermarkets), some Shetland black potatoes, a couple of echallion shallots and a jar of capers.
I then headed home to make the aforementioned stew, leaving Chie to finish off her shopping in the centre. I guess the end result was OK, but not quite the gastronomic delight I was hoping for.
I blame the lack of interesting mushrooms available in this country - supermarkets habitually only ever have plain white mushrooms (yawn), chestnut mushrooms (slightly better, but still not that exciting), perhaps the odd portabella and then an annoying selection of disappointing "oriental" mushrooms including the uber-crap floppy slimy oyster mushrooms. OK, admittedly the more interesting shiitake (and some other Japanese mushrooms like shimeji on occasion) are becoming more commonly available in supermarkets, and do actually have some flavour, but I don't think they are really that well suited to European dishes. I want to find morels, girolles, chanterlles, ceps (aka porcini), blewitts - perhaps even the odd fresh truffle. I suppose this is at least one compelling reason to not shop in supermarkets - at least here in London there are conventional markets where these items are seasonly available - albeit at a eyewateringly high price sometimes!
- Pontefract Castle and Sushi
- [Saturday 5th January]
Initially Chie went out in the afternoon today and left me at home to do my own thing, but after a while I too headed into the centre to meet her. We had a vague plan of trying to find somewhere for afternoon tea - Chie had the idea of trying the cafe at Fenwick on Bond Street, but once we actually got in there it was a bit underwhelming, so we gave up.
Luckily we were saved from a mass of indecision over what to do with ourselves by a phonecall from Chie's friend Akino-san. Akino-san and her other half Tim were also shopping in central London, and suggested meeting up to go for a drink. This required a snap decision on a reasonable pub near Oxford Street - not exactly a normal stomping ground for me - but I drew on my expansive recollection of pubs I had wandered past at some point and thought looked worthy of trying out.
So to this end we gave the Pontefract Castle a go. Whilst from the outside this had looked quite appealing, my initial reaction on entering the place was actually a slight twinge of disappointment - it had very much of a chain pub feel to it. However, the lack of seats on the ground floor prompted us to give the cellar bar a go, which was actually quite special - dimly lit and with lots of little nooks and crannies, and mostly unoccupied. I think for this reason I shall retain this in my list of viable pubs if I'm ever required to suggest one in that area again.
We spent a good couple of hours there, and were also joined by a couple of Tim's friends who happened to be in the area - one of whom was a very interesting guy who worked in television, making documentaries for the BBC on all sorts of subjects. His most recent project was about Arab science, which brought to mind the conversations I used to have with Ali (my Phd supervisor) on the importance of zero. It's apparently an Arab invention (although I have since heard it claimed by Indian mathematicians) - amazingly Roman numberals and other earlier number systems have no concept of zero, and it wasn't until our Middle Eastern chums came along and started to theorise about zero that we really had any solid foundation on which to build mathematics as we know it today.
I suppose the Romans would probably argue that there isn't really much point in writing down a number if it represents something you don't have any of. If they didn't have any bananas, they probably just wouldn't have recorded that fact.
Eventually we decided we ought to get something to eat - and so the four of us (me, Chie, Akino-san and Tim) went on a short quest to find some Japanese food. Our initial attempt - a restaurant called Sakura just off Regent Street - wasn't particularly successful - there seemed to be more people queueing than people actually eating. So instead we opted for for Yoshino - a suhi place just off Piccadilly where Chie and I had been once before. We were able to get seated straight away - I'm not really sure why this place isn't a lot more popular, as the quality is very good, it's very authentic, the decor is very nice and the prices are also quite reasonable. Well I'm certainly not complaining - it's great that we could just walk straight in and get seated.
So dinner at Yoshino was very nice, just like our previous visit, and I particularly enjoyed our atsukan (hot sake).
We have recently spent time with a few of Chie's Japanese friends who have native English speaking other-halves. I find this quite gratifying - I do occasionally feel a twang of frustration that my Japanese isn't better than it is, considering I've known Chie for nearly eight years now. However what I actually realise is that the norm in this kind of situation appears to be for the couple to converse almost entirely in English - particularly if they met and are still living outside of Japan. So if anything my Japanese is a lot more advanced than other people in the same situation - obviously helped by the fact I lived there for a while - especially considering I have never formally learnt the language, with the exception of a few basic lessons laid on by my employer when I was working in Japan.
- End of a Short Week
- [Friday 4th January]
One nice thing about the timing of New Year's Eve was that it made this into a very short week - just three days in the office - which was nice.
Still had the usual end-of-the-week beer and pizza thing at the office though, albeit that there wasn't any pizza this time - apparently the place our pizza comes from was still closed for New Year. I suppose if one of the two has to be dropped now and again, then this was the right way round.
I had fancied a lasagne for some time, so that's what I made for dinner tonight. The cheese sauce was a bit runny (almost a Python quote there) but it came out alright nonetheless.
- Another Day at Work
- [Thursday 3rd January]
Not much to report really, another day back at work, pretty similar to the previous one.
Had halloumi for dinner, with the usual accompaniments - that broad bean in olive oil and tomato sauce dish I often make, along with pita bread, hoummous and a salad with lemon juice dressing.
- Back to Work
- [Wednesday 2nd January]
Well, I'd like to imply it was a shock to the system to be back at work after almost two weeks off, but the reality is that it wasn't - over Christmas and New Year there had barely been a single day when I hadn't been dealing with alerts and emails, and so the only real difference today was that I was in the office rather than working from home. Ho, hum. Still, it was fairly quiet there - it seemed lots of people were still on holiday - and given that I'd been checking my mail constantly over Christmas I didn't have a mountain to wade through on my return or anything like that.
Not much else to report really. In the evening we had veggie kara age (soya chunk in this special Japanese batter). We hadn't been able to get hold of quite the same soya chunks we normally use - possibly these are only available in Japan - so had to resort to some we'd got from one of the vegetarian Chinese buffet places in central London. So they weren't quite as tear inducingly delicious as normal, but they were still very nice.
- ...And Welcome to the Year of the Mouse
- [Tuesday 1st January]
Happy New Year everyone!
Yes, it's the Year of the Mouse in Japan - they borrowed the system for naming years from China, but technically in China the New Year hasn't started yet.
So Chie and I woke fairly early in the morning in the very nice conservatory in Rob and Kate's house. It didn't seem like anyone else was stirring, and I wanted to make something of the day, so decided to just tiptoe out.
To this end, the New Year for us commenced in earnest with an increasingly desperate attempt to find our way out of the maze of suburbia which is Lower Earley. At the time of construction it was the largest private housing estate in Europe, and I believe it's design principles were inspired by the work of King Minos of Crete. I began to despair after about an hour, when I was convinced we had actually come in a full circle (although how would you know in the suburbs?), and being the morning of New Year's Day there wasn't a soul to be seen on the streets for us to ask directions. Eventually we found ourselves in some sort of park, where we did finally find a couple out walking their dog, and with an air of desperation asked them for directions. We got to Earley station just in time for the train (albeit that our horribly convoluted route meant we'd probably missed the previous two) and breathed a sigh of relief as we headed back to the safety of London.
We were starving by the time we reached London, and so rather strangely went for lunch in the cafe of the House of Fraser near Victoria. It was completely deserted in there, and felt a bit like the end of the world, but the bowl of leek and potato soup was welcome nonetheless. I also bought a new jumper in House of Fraser, in an attempt to appease Chie and hopefully bring the ordeal of shopping to a swift conclusion.
After a bit more shopping we headed back to the flat. For dinner we had a kind of Osechi-ryori, the traditional food eaten in Japan at New Year. It was of course a very cut down version given the available ingredients and the requirement to make it vegetarian, but it was nice nonetheless - I'm a particular fan of mochi.
Oh and we also finished the jigsaw that me and Chie had been doing over Christmas. The last bit - the sky in the scene - was nothing but trial and error grunt work - and the thought of just giving up did occur to us several times. However we persevered, and when we finally did get it finished it was very gratifying. It's the first time Chie and I have properly done a jigsaw together and I have to admit to finding it a very relaxing way to pass the time.
- It's the end of the year as we know it
- [Monday 31st December]
Well, that's it then, another year done and dusted.
Chie went to work in the daytime, and in the evening we went to Rob and Kate's house in the suburbs of Reading to drink away the last few hours of the year.
Akin to Lox's recent post I am inclined to wallow in a few self indulgent paragraphs about what has been achieved in this year.
Well, in a sense not much has changed really - the big upheavals came at the end of 2006 - getting a new job (although at that time not yet starting), leaving the old one, moving house and moving country, plus of course getting married. So there were no real big changes this year, all the big decisions had been made before it started, and so I suppose this year was just about riding it out (if that is the right phrase). I started my new job back in January, and we found a place to live in February... and from then on it was pretty much just work, work, work up to the end of the year.
Within the job itself I suppose I am in quite a different position to when I started - when I first started I was really uncomfortable, and pretty unsure as to whether or not I was really capable of doing the job. I've gone from there to being in quite a key position on one of my company's highest profile projects. Things are looking pretty good for the future, if I can just keep on top of it all - certainly the last few months of the year were getting very stressful - not to mention the 17 hour days and so on - and I don't feel like I've ever worked so hard in my life.
Work aside though I have occasionally been able to squeeze in time for recreation, and looking back there have been a few highlights. Perhaps most of all was our trip to Edinburgh and Islay in September. I've been wanting to go to Islay for years, and despite the weather it was absolutely fantastic, everything I could have hoped for.
My birthday this year was also quite a good one - I think it probably ranks in the top 5. My 23rd (the one with the bonfire) probably remains my all time favourite - largely because it was only planned two days before, it was midweek and I didn't expect anyone would actually come - and yet the turn-out was actually fantastic. For the record my 26th and 27th probably also feature in the top five, although disregarding the unpleasantness at the end of the evening in the former case.
Amongst the other highlights were spending time in Calfornia with Chie as part of one of my business trips back in March, and the week in the Dordogne with Mum right back in January - it's a really beautiful part of the world. Oh and the week when Chie's family came to stay was also really nice, despite the bad weather and a bout of the old gastroenteritis on my part. I suppose our trip to Cambridge and Ely was also quite nice in hindsight, although the awful weather and hugely disappointing hotel made it a bit hard to actually realise we were enjoying ourselves at the time.
So in summary it has been a year largely characterised by hard work (and constantly bad weather!), on balance probably less amount of time having fun than previous years, but maybe now that I'm in my thirties it is time to get my head down and finally do something serious about making that fortune. I'll go back to messing around in my forties, I think.