John Hawkins



Dr John Hawkins

Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff, home to a huge load of pictures, and my daily blog.

My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.

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Recent Entries:
Money
The Cheese Incident
Haircut and Kimchi
Office Summer Party
Picture In a Frame
Whisky Mac
Foody Tuesday
My Own Office
Quite a Nice Day
Stew's Birthday
Glum and Glummer
Glum
Working Late
Meeting the residents... or not as the case may be
Planning the Escape
Afternoon Tea at The Orangery and Pimms in Pimlico
Vera and The Great Grandchildren
Vera and Bud Flanagan
CAKE
Wednesday
Long Day
Dinner at the Office Again
Covent Garden
Nerdy and Whisky
Friday
Dr. Lang
Wednesday
Not that Great
Something of a Rarity
Chie's Family Back to Japan
Hampton Court Palace
Changing the Guard and Pub Crawl
Day Off
Back to London via the Cotswolds
Stratford and Salford Hall
Washed Out in North Wales
Driving up to North Wales
Abergavenny and Lough Pool Inn

Money
[Monday 30th July]
I wasted this evening reading all about savings and interest rates and all that nonsense. It's hardly really worth it is it?

I found my national savings account book with the last balance in it at 6.54 in 1992. I got momentarily excited about this, until I worked out the pathetic effect of interest over time. Even if the interest rate on that account is as good as 5% (which it probably isn't) that will basically have just doubled in value to 13 measly quid.

In 1992 the average price of a pint of beer in the South East was 1.40. Now it must be at least double that.

So in short I could have bought 4-and-a-bit pints of beer with that money back in 1992 (despite the slight hindrance of being underage) or 4-and-a-bit pints of beer with it now in 2007. Drinking four pints of beer at age 15 would have probably lead to some cherished teenage memories (actually it wouldn't, I could never have got served prior to being 18, but bear with me) whereas now that would just be a routine and unremarkable visit to the pub.

Boy am I glad I kept that money in a savings account.
[11 comments]

The Cheese Incident
[Sunday 29th July]
Ate some hideously overripe brie today, and spent the afternoon worrying it might kill me. Apparently it didn't.

(This is reported in more detail on the the July 2007 archive of the message board).
[No comments]

Haircut and Kimchi
[Saturday 28th July]
Had a very Japanese (well Japanese/Korean) sort of a day today.

First of all, I went and got my hair cut - as always it was somewhat overdue. It's the second time I've been to this Japanese place in Soho now. Again the very talented Tomoko-san transformed the floppy unkempt mess atop my noggin into, in my opinion at least, a rather nice looking head of hair. I have to admit I have turned into a bit of a girl in this respect - going to get my hair cut always used to be a chore, now it is something I really look forward to. Besides the obvious nicety of jut being pampered a bit, there's a really nice atmosphere in this place, and it is always a really good opportunity to practice my Japanese. It's also a great way pick up some local knowledge about the best places to find Japanese food and drink in London - apparently Akari comes highly recommended - I shall have to try it out sometime soon.

Once I'd been follicularly reconfigured, I took advantage of my location in Soho to pop to one of the Japanese food shops there (Arigato for a change, rather than our "usual" Rice Wine). I rather fancied kimchi nabe for dinner, so I bought a few bits and pieces for that.

I headed back home after that and then Chie and I went off to Sainsbury's to get some more things for dinner. We also popped into Rippon Cheese Stores on the way there, which was rather exciting - it was reminiscent of the cheese shop I used to go to with my parents in Melton Mowbray when they ran the pub.

Back at home again, I decided to embark on a bold culinary experiment. When we used to live in Pangbourne, we occasionally used to make our own kimchi - however we were never doing it the entirely authentic way, as we used a bottled sauce. So today I thought I'd go one step further and try to actually make the sauce from raw ingredients. I didn't use a proper recipe - I just guessed at the ingredients. So my version was basically just crushed garlic and ginger, Korean chilli powder, and then a bit of salt, a bit of sesame oil, and a tiny splash of rice vinegar.

Although we had a packet of shop bought kimchi in the fridge, we ended up leaving that unopened, and just using our own home made kimchi for the nabe. The results were really rather pleasing - my randomly concocted sauce did actually taste like kimchi! I think the hakusai (chinese cabbage) probably needs to mature a bit longer to be entirely authentic ( so we've left another batch in the fridge) but initial results have seemed very promising.

To finish off the Japanese(ish) themed day, we watched a Japanese film (by a Chinese director) called Cafe Lumiere. It was, I suppose you could say, "atmospheric", perhaps in a slightly similar vein to Lost in Translation. It had a strange approach to a film narrative in that the story just didn't really develop - there was a situation presented (the main character announced she was pregnant), and then you saw how her friends and family reacted to it - and basically that was it. Nothing really "happened" as such. It was very slow moving, lots of long takes containing almost no dialogue, where the camera just focused on some trains going past or tempura being made. Still, the imagery was all very Japanese which I quite enjoyed actually - very reminiscent of my time there.
[1 comment]

Office Summer Party
[Friday 27th July]
My company had a summer party thing today, held in a marquee in the grounds of Imperial College. It started at 2 in the afternoon, and went on into the evening until about 10.

I'd initially wanted to be there for the whole thing, but got caught up in a couple of things and so didn't get there until 4... and then when I did get there I realised I basically didn't know anyone, so had a quick beer and then made a swift exit again, on the premise that I'd come back later when Chie finished work. It was rather unfortunate that all of my team were either on holiday this week or had just decided not to come along. As a team we do seem to be notably lacking in terms of "making an effort" for these type of social functions, and as a result I don't really know anyone outside of my team very well. However I'm determined to try and buck this trend.

So I spent a very dreary two-and-a-half hours or so wandering around trying to kill time. I'd hoped I might be able to discover a nice little pub I could sit in and read a paper or something, but the area around Imperial College seems markedly barren in this respect.

Chie arrived some time before 7, and so we went back again and things were much better on the second attempt. By this time a few people I vaguely knew had arrived.

Again the issue of my team being a bit isolated from the rest of the London office seemed to come up. I can't help but think it's a two way street - whenever two groups of people are not communicating with each other, it is usually not solely the responsibility of one side. I guess what it really boils down to is the fact that we work on completely different areas, and have no actual need for interaction on a daily basis. My team is basically a satellite of a project in the US - our manager is there along with basically everyone we ever need to talk to in order to get our jobs done.

Anyway, I have set myself an objective of reversing this situation over the coming months. Perhaps a few of my famous pub crawls, or a whisky appreciation evening, may be in order.
[2 comments]

Picture In a Frame
[Thursday 26th July]
The title comes from a Liane Carroll song of which I'm rather fond. It is tenuously appropriate for this entry given that the frame I ordered a couple of week's back arrived today. Given that the walls of our flat are somewhat bare, for Chie's birthday back in May I had got some large prints done of a couple of our wedding photos. Since then we've looked in all sorts of shops and never been able to find the right size frame - so eventually I decided the only thing we could do would be to have one specially made.

The frame arrived in the morning, so at lunchtime I popped out to buy picture hooks and a little hammer. Then in the evening we put it up on the wall. It's this picture, printed at 20" x 30", so what with the mounting and everything the frame is even bigger. It's a pretty striking effect, although the lounge still looks a bit odd, now having just one thing hung up on the wall rather than nothing at all...

Other than that, this evening I also went and took a look at Facebook for the first time, to see what all the fuss was about. Whilst it did certainly look a lot better than MySpace (which I had almost immediately hated), it didn't really seem like that much of a revolution to me. I'd already been using LinkedIn for a few years, and had also occasionally dabbled with FriendsReunited, and it basically seemed like not much more than a superset of those two. As far as social networking sites go, I was a lot more impressed by LastFM which uses your taste in music (by monitoring what you play in iTunes etc) to find people similar to you. That seemed to be a lot more about a worthwhile pursuit - finding like-minded people and expanding your taste in music - rather than the popularity contest "look how many friends I've got" that is Facebook (and even to some extent LinkedIn).
[6 comments]

Whisky Mac
[Wednesday 25th July]
There's a bit of a play on words in the title here (a Whisky Mac is a drink Vera likes on occasion, to "buck her up", which is equal parts whisky and ginger wine) given that tonight I went out to drink whisky with a guy called Mac (well Makoto-san to be more precise).

Mac-san is a colleague of Chie's who is apparently quite keen on whisky, and was very keen to visit the whisky society. So tonight him and his wife Manami-san came along with Chie and I for a bit of a pilgrimage to London's sacred chapel devoted to single cask malts.

We started off with a quick dinner at the Pizza Express near Farringdon, and once we'd eaten we headed straight for the club.

We sampled a wide range of malts between the four of us, taking in such diverse distilleries as Littlemill, Glenlivet, Bruichladdich, Loch Lomond and of course some of my "usuals" such as Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Highland Park and Clynelish. The barman was on absolute top form tonight - I gave him all sorts of complicated requests as I tried to work out the tastes of my guests (e.g. I want something between the Bruichladdich and the Caol Ila in terms of peatiness, but a tad sweeter, and with a hint of something fruity in the nose). He really knew his onions, and came up with some great suggestions.

I was particularly pleased to see the Laphroaig described with the signature note of "barbecued apples" something I'm more familiar with in its Japanese form - yakiringo - which cropped up a few times in some particularly excellent malts at Quercus bar back in Tokyo. Tonight's "barbecued apples" offering was also something of a hit with our guests tonight (well, Mac-san liked it, his wife was less keen).

It's always fun to have an opportunity like this to introduce people who like whisky to the society - a great way to spend an evening!
[No comments]

Foody Tuesday
[Tuesday 24th July]
Today was characterised by two nice food related experiences.

Chie's office had flooded apparently (nothing to do with all the country wide flooding - just a coincidental plumbing problem) so she had the day off work. This meant she was able to come into my office for lunch, which she hasn't done for a while (she has been in for dinner, but the selection isn't quite as good in the evening).

The food today was really good - I had a very tasty mushroom ragout, in which I found several morels. Having on a few occasions eyed these exciting mushrooms up in various shops around London, but always ultimately decided they were just too expensive, I was really impressed to find them liberally thrown into a big stew like this. It was all the nicer for being able to have lunch with Chie, and as the weather was rather pleasant we even sat outside on the little roof terrace we have next to the cafe.

Lunch aside, today was even more empty in the office than it had been the previous day, which again meant I could just get on and have a really productive day, and this suited me very well. My current assignment basically requires me to just play around with a few different internal technologies we have to see which works best for the particular problem we're trying to solve, and I have to admit I'm finding it quite fascinating and rather enjoyable.

I also managed to get a few more of the arrangements for our forthcoming trip to Scotland sorted out today - I booked the hotels we were going to be staying at on Islay. First the White Hart in Port Ellen (where Alfred Barnard had also stayed back in the 1880s) and secondly the Kilmeny on the other side of the island, near Port Askaig. I also booked the ferry crossings which means all that remains is to find one more night's accomodation on the way back from Islay to Edniburgh (maybe around Loch Lomond?), and then the car hire and the return leg of the train journey from Edinburgh to London. Oh, and the all-important distillery tours!

In the evening we decided to go out for a curry. I've been to a couple of Indian places in the area around where we live now and had thus far generally been pretty underwhelmed. Tonight's venue was a considerable improvement though - whilst there wasn't anything wildly out of the ordinary on the menu, everything we ordered was done to a good standard, it was reasonably priced, and the service was very good too. What more can you ask for really?
[3 comments]

My Own Office
[Monday 23rd July]
A couple of people from my team are on holiday this week, meaning the office I normally share with two or three other people is all mine for the next few days. Although it sounds a bit unsociable I really appreciate the peace and quiet, it feels great to be able to plough on with the stuff I'm working on undistracted, and it's also really nice to be able to play music without having to use headphones. So, it was rather a satisfying day at work.

I got back home around 7:30, and Chie had made Japanese food for dinner - a sort of vegetarian version of gyudon.
[3 comments]

Quite a Nice Day
[Sunday 22nd July]
In a similarly inexplicable fashion to the rather miserable week I'd had running up to this weekend, today I was quite the opposite - feeling all chirpy, and generally had a very nice day of it.

We'd stayed the night at Leon's house in Canterbury following Stew's party. I was keen to get off early in the morning (relatively speaking - it was a Sunday after all) as I'd planned to have a chat with Tanaka-san via Skype, and the time difference with Japan meant that if I wasn't back by a reasonably early time in the afternoon I'd miss him.

So we left Leon's house not long after 9, although did have a bit of a wait for the train as I'd somehow managed to get a bit confused about what time they were running. Still, this was rather nice, as Canterbury West has a sort of farmer's market next to it. Therein we were able to get a couple of very nice coffees, a couple of croissants, and also these strange rock hard doughnut shaped biscuit things.

We got back into London around midday, Chie went off to spend the afternoon shopping, whilst I headed straight back to the flat for my Skype appointment with Tanaka-san.

It was rather fabulous - it was the first time we'd spoken by any means other than email since the day I finished my previous job. We both spontaneously decided we ought to have a beer to mark the occasion, and despite the scenery it felt a lot like being back in Japan, going for that after work drink in an izakaya near the office.

It occurred to me this may have been one of the contributing factors in my recent malaise - the lack of a Tanaka-san in my new job. It's really important to have a friend like that who you can go for a drink with now and again and chew the cud with.

After a long chat with Tanaka-san, I let him go off to bed, and spent the remainder of the afternoon shopping and cooking for Sunday dinner. It came out rather fantastically - the highlights being some really tasty crunchy parsnips, and some top notch Yorkshire Puddings - I really surpassed myself!
[4 comments]

Stew's Birthday
[Saturday 21st July]
Today Stew was having a party for his 30th birthday, down in Canterbury.

It was a fancy dress party, with the theme being rock/pop stars - this turned out to be surprisingly difficult actually - not that many of these icons are actually that iconic, if that makes sense. That is to say there aren't always obvious things to wear if you want to look like a particular celebrity.

Chie went very topical and dressed as Amy Winehouse - I think this actually worked rather well, as all you really need is black hair done up in a beehive, a couple of fake tattoos, and some distinctive eye make-up. Having wracked my brains for weeks the best I could manage was a rather half hearted Flavor Flav, although in my defence I did by a rather nice wall clock especially for the event. Still at least we did make a bit of an effort - as is always the case at fancy dress parties, some people didn't dress up at all (and in that odd backwards way of things they end up looking rather daft for it).

Anyway, for further details of the days' proceedings, take a look at the pictures.
[9 comments]

Glum and Glummer
[Friday 20th July]
Today was enshrouded in another cloud of glumness, exacerbated somewhat by some fittingly glum weather. In the afternoon the rainclouds made it look so dark that I thought it was evening already.

I left work around 6:30, and during the usual end of the day "what do you want to do about dinner" call with Chie, we decided it might be nice to meet up somewhere and go for a drink. So I headed over to Chancery Lane. We were unsure as to what to do for dinner, so as it was close to the station headed into the Cittie of Yorke. We got a drink to start off with, as we found out they didn't do food in the back bar (on Fridays?) any more. I think we initially planned to go to the other bar where they were serving food, but somehow that never quite happened. My mood seemed to be really rather crappy, Chie quickly lost patience with it, and so we came to a mutual decision eating out probably wasn't that great an idea.

So instead we just headed back home. I really didn't feel like getting back on the tube, and really needed some "fresh" air (if that description is really applicable in central London). So Chie got the tube, and I took a long walk back, in an attempt to clear my head.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that long walk completely solved the existential crisis with which I've been wrestling the past few days, but it did seem to help somehow or other.

When I got back to the flat, Chie was out at the gym, but when she got back we had a little bowl of pasta, I spoke to Vera on the phone, and eventually by bedtime I felt much better. No real reason really, the gloom just seemed to have lifeted.

I still don't know what exactly caused this onset of misery, but perhaps as Nigel suggested on yesterday's post it has something to do with this weird weather we've been having. It occurred to me that I don't actually get out in daylight that much - just my short walk into work in the morning, and then I don't leave the office until the evening (and sometimes quite late).
[4 comments]

Glum
[Thursday 19th July]
I've been feeling a bit down recently. I'm not really sure what is at the root of it. I shouldn't really have anything to complain about - I'm very fortunate in terms of my job, I live in a nice flat, right in the heart of an exciting and vibrant city, I'm in good health broadly speaking (although I could really do with some exercise) and I'm married.

...and yet I have, quite unreasonably (given all of the above), felt really pretty glum for the past few days.

This evening I was particularly glum. I actually left work early for a change, as I felt like heading into the centre of London to see some, well, life basically. Unusually for me I jumped on a bus - pretty much the first one I found, which luckily enough took me in the direction of the city centre. It was quite a nice bus ride - to start with I was all alone upstairs, and it was a great vantage point from which to watch people going about their business on the streets of London.

I gave Chie a call and we arranged to meet up near Tottenham Court Road. I decided I fancied Japanese food (and more importantly some Japanese beer) and so we went to a place called Ikkyu, right next to Goodge Street station. It was rather nice I suppose, a bit like being back in Japan, with that familiar experience of the waitress asking Chie questions about things that I'd ordered. Presumably at some point this used to annoy me, now it has a pleasing sense of nostalgia about it. So it was quite a nice dinner I suppose.

After that we took advantage of late night shopping and had a look around for what we were going to wear to a fancy dress party we're going to on Saturday. The theme is rock stars / pop stars, and we're both really pretty stuck. Unfortunately I never like trailing round the shops at the best of times, and tonight it seemed to really get to me - the glumness I had experienced prior to dinner came back in full swing.

We basically just headed home after that, by way of Rice Wine (the little Japanese food shop on Brewer Street we often frequent) to pick up a couple of bits and pieces.
[2 comments]

Working Late
[Wednesday 18th July]
Chie went out with some people from work this evening, so yet again, in the absence of anything better to do, I just worked late. It was another one of those days where I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at the office.

I had a vague idea of going over to the whisky society, but by the time I left work my enthusiasm had somehow wained. So instead I just went home and partook of a couple of drams there. I gave that Port Ellen I bought the other day another go, and whether I just had a dead palate the first time round, or it had somehow improved from a brief airing I'm not sure - but it was really good this time. A lot like that classic Fortnum and Mason bottle, of which a dribble still remains at my Dad's house.

Also booked the train tickets for our trip up to Scotland. Strangely when buying tickets in advance it seems to work out cheaper to buy two singles rather than a return. As there wasn't a huge difference in the price I went for First Class tickets too (on the way up at least). So that ought to be nice.
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Meeting the residents... or not as the case may be
[Tuesday 17th July]
After a quick dinner at my office, Chie and I thought we'd finally try the bar in the square where we live tonight. The square is all part of one big development built in the earlier half of the twentieth century, which has all sorts of amenities on site. During Vera's visit the previous weekend, she had pointed out what a waste it was to have all these things available and not make use of them. Thus tonight's trip to the bar.

Well, maybe we just went on an off night or something, but it wasn't really my cup of tea. It was a strange sort of atmosophere in there, but I couldn't really put my finger on why. Perhaps part of it was just the location - although it is actually at ground level, there are no windows and it felt a bit like being underground.

On top of that, I somehow have the feeling of being a bit of an imposter in the place where I live. I have to admit to having deliberately avoided meeting my neighbours, given that we seem to be so "demographically opposed". Up until recently the square was mostly full of fairly well-to-do retired people, although now a few other 20/30 somethings like me and Chie have taken up residence.

So anyway, it doesn't seem likely I'll be turning the bar into my local.
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Planning the Escape
[Monday 16th July]
Well, a holiday.

I'm not exactly sure how the idea started now, but recently we decided to go and spend a week in Scotland. Part of the reason was that Vera would really like to go up to Edinburgh, and visit North Berwick again - the village where her mother was from. Also I thought now that I'm back in the UK, I could finally go and visit the island where most of my favourite whiskies are made - Islay. I'd very much like to retrace at least some of the steps of Alfred Barnard.

So the idea is to spend the first few days in Edinurgh, and then hire a car from there and drive over to Islay.

Today I got the first bit booked - the accomodation in Edinburgh. We're going to stay in one of the Whisky Society's flats, which look rather nice.

Other than that nothing much to report today.
[No comments]

Afternoon Tea at The Orangery and Pimms in Pimlico
[Sunday 15th July]
Today we went out "shopping" with Vera. I have always rather liked Vera's style of shopping. Within minutes of getting in the first shop she starts thinking about where we can go for a nice sit down and a cup of coffee, and then not long after the coffee break she'll be thinking about where to go for lunch, or a spot of tea.

We started off our day out by getting a bus over to Sloane Square, and there spent a fair while in Peter Jones and the shop next door (General Trading Company?). We did rather well - finally got ourselves a teapot, and also bought a rather nice tall jug which seemed rather perfect for Pimm's. We also had a coffee in the restaurant on the top floor of Peter Jones, from where some nice views out over London are to be had.

After leaving Sloane Square we got on another bus towards High Street Kensington. En route we were entertained by a couple (a man and his mother, I believe) in full (albeit slightly shabby) Proms dress, on the way to the Albert Hall. I would initially have used the word eccentric to describe them, but eventually I began to consider it may actually be a little too light. They were quite possibly clinically insane. The man talked incessantly about the Proms, occasionally bursting into song, at which point his mother would then start attacking him with an umbrella, and he'd then retaliate with some rather uncharitable remarks about the old dear.

Anyway, our main highlight of the day was at Kensington Palace. Robin had recommended the Orangery as a good spot for afternoon tea, and we thought we'd give it a go. It was all rather nice. Having skipped lunch, we got there quite early, which turned out to be a bit of an oversight as afternoon tea service didn't start until 3, but they seemed quite happy for us to just sit and wait at our table in the meantime. The standard Orangery afternoon tea comes in stages, rather than on the classic three tiered plate, but that didn't bother us too much. They started with cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches - surprisingly flavoursome, and then followed with a very fresh fruit scone, which was very good indeed. To finish was a slice of "Orangery Cake", a sort of lemon sponge cake which everyone seemed to enjoy. Even Chie liked this, who is extremely hard to please in this area, and doesn't generally like this very English sort of cake. The actual tea itself was rather noteworthy too - they have Tregothnan tea there (the only tea grown in England). It's the first time I've had it, and I am really quite impressed - it is quite a light tea, extremely refreshing, fragrant without being overpowering, and altogether quite sublime. I'm not sure if it is available in shops yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

In terms of the weather, we timed our arrival for afternoon tea quite well - not longer after we got inside the rain came bucketing down, and there was even a bit of thunder and lightning. The grand surrounds of the Orangery made for a rather fantastic setting from which to watch the storm. Tremendous.

We got a taxi from Kensington Palace back to the flat, and I jumped out en route to pop to the supermarket. Having acquired a rather fine jug earlier today, I was keen to give it an inaugural use back in the gardens, and have a round of Pimm's. So I bought all the necessaries - cucumber, lemonade, an orange, strawberries, fresh mint, and of course the Pimm's itself.

So upon my return I knocked up a jug of Pimm's (actually the first time I've ever mixed it myself) and following Robin's advice, used half lemonade and half ginger ale. It was rather splendid. We sat out in the gardens enjoying this wonderfully English drink, and admiring the rather fine new jug it was in as well.

For dinner I'd originally planned to pop out to the Pizza Express just round the corner from our flat, but our fairly long day out had clearly taken its toll on Vera (and Chie!), so instead I went round and picked up a couple of takeaway pizzas to have at home. They were very efficient, and actually this made for rather a nice meal still.

So, all in all a splendid day in London with Vera and Chie.
[11 comments]

Vera and The Great Grandchildren
[Saturday 14th July]
In the daytime today Vera, Chie and I went down to Guildford to visit Adrian, Liz and the kids. The kids were adorable as ever of course, and I was struck by what a superb thing it was that they were able to spend time with their Great Grandmother like this.

We headed back into London towards the end of the afternoon, and having cogitated over the question of dinner for some time, I decided tapas might be the right thing. Vera doesn't eat a great deal (she never has really), and finds having a big plate to finish by herself rather daunting - so this sort of meal where we can order small dishes and just pick at whatever she feels like suited her perfectly. We also had a just of sangria with it - a drink I've hardly ever had before actually (always thinking it was a bit tacky), but given the situation it was just perfect.
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Vera and Bud Flanagan
[Friday 13th July]
Vera came to stay this weekend, and arrived today at lunchtime. She got a coach from South Wales, which was very handy as Victoria Coach Station is just a short walk from my office. So I went to meet her there, and we then went back to my office for lunch. I've taken quite a few people for lunch at my office now, and the usual reaction is along the lines of "Oooh, this is quite nice isn't it - is it really all free?". Vera however seemed positively awe struck at the notion of all that choice, and not having to pay a penny for it. Admittedly she had chosen a particularly good day - they were celebrating Bastille day, and so all the food had a French theme to it, and they had really gone to town. I think thee food there is always done to a good standard, but today it was really excellent.

After lunch I took Vera back to the flat, and left her there to potter about for the afternoon while I went back to work. I had imagined she would just sit and read a book for the few short hours until I came back from work, but the ever itchy footed Vera was not content with such a sedentary means to pass the time. So instead she went for a bit of a wander round the square where we live, and apparently met several of the locals (more than I had met in my whole five months there). Apparently Vera had asked one lady she met if anyone famous had lived there, and the lady kindly took her to see a bench dedicated to Bud Flanagan. That's the Flanagan of Flanagan and Allen fame - I have to admit this was the first time I'd heard of them, but following a bit of research on wikipedia it turns out they were responsible for such wartime classics as "Run, Rabbit Run" and "Underneath the Arches". Anyhow, it turns out Vera had actually met Flanagan and Allen - during the war she'd been to see one of their shows in London, and by strange coincidence they ended up getting on the same train as her back to Portsmouth (or was it Haslemere?). I just loved the connectivity (if that's the right word) of this story - a famous (well famous back then) comedian who Vera had met, turned out to live in the same place where I now live.

So when I got back from work, after a quick cup of tea we decided to go and sit out in the gardens and have a couple of gin and tonics - and naturally we chose Bud Flanagan's bench. We had an utterly charming time out there, supping our gins, and watching the world go by. Vera smiled at just about everyone who passed, as though she'd been living there for years. They all probably thought she had.
[3 comments]

CAKE
[Thursday 12th July]
Tonight Chie and I went to see CAKE play at the O2 (basically the Millenium Dome). We'd seen posters a few months back, and bought tickets, and then had pretty much forgotten all about it until some time this week.

This was my second time to see them play. I'd still definitely rank them among my favourite bands, and still listen to them on a regular basis - I even bought their obscure B-Sides and Rarities CD recently... and yet, somehow I found the whole thing a bit of a disappointment tonight. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, maybe the venue wasn't right, maybe I'm too old to enjoy this kind of live music any more. There was certainly far too much waiting around, and whilst I was prepared to persevere, Chie was clearly getting fed up with it - she brought a book along to read to fill in the gaps. The tickets said the show started at 7, so eager to get a good place we turned up not long after 6... but then we queued outside for ages, only to eventually be let in and stand in front of an empty stage for ages.

When the support act finally came on, things did begin to look up. It was just a guy by himself, called Ruarri Joseph. I instantly liked him - which is rare for me with any kind of music. There was something just honest and endearing about his music. I hope he has a future ahead of him.

There was then another very long wait before Cake finally came on, which I think was some time after 9 - we'd basically been hanging around almost three hours by this point. So yea, they were great, they played a lot of my favourite songs (well, I like pretty much all of their songs, so that is more or less irrelevant!), but they basically only played for an hour, then went off and came back with three encores. So in total it was definitely lass than an hour and a half.

Again, I feel I need to punctuate any criticisms with re-iterating how much I like Cake, but the other issue that I find makes it a bit difficult to really enjoy watching them is John McCrea's general demeanour. He gives off this vibe of really not wanting to be there, and somehow despising the audience for the fact that they're watching him and expecting him to perform. Last time I saw them play he walked off stage after the first song - I think because the audience were too loud and drowning out Vincent Di Fiore's trumpet solos . He did eventually come back on and do the rest of the gig, but it left me with the impression that I was causing him a huge imposition by paying him 15 or 20 quid to watch him perform. Whilst tonight he didn't storm off or anything, I just got this constant feeling from him that he was on the verge of being really pissed off with us all. It was as though he just wanted to get it all over and done with as quick as possible and then go home.

It's a shame really, because at times, when his mood is in a better state (and it seemed to vary on a song by song basis) he is capable of being quite a showman, he sounds absolutely fantastic live, and is generally very entertaining... but at other times there's this undertone there that certainly made me feel sort of uncomfortable, and I had a feeling I wasn't the only person that picked up on it.

Maybe I was just reading too much into it. So I guess if I try and ignore all of that, I did have a great time, and it was fabulous to see them play again.

For anyone interested in that sort of thing, the songs the played included (I might have missed a couple):

Excuse Me, I think I've Got a Heart Ache
Short Skirt/Long Jacket
Comfort Eagle
Love You Madly
Frank Sinatra
The Distance
Stickshifts and Safetybelts
Comanche
Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle
Wheels
Carbon Monoxide
Mexico
Never There
Guitar
Sheep Go To Heaven
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Wednesday
[Wednesday 11th July]
Not much to report - another in a succession of generally uneventful days. Had some fresh pasta (tortelloni) we'd bought at Marks and Spencer the other day, this time just with olive oil and that Twineham Grange Parmesan-esque cheese. Jolly nice.
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Long Day
[Tuesday 10th July]
Again not a hugely eventful day. We had a video linkup with the US ofice at the end of the day for a big meeting involving quite a large part of the company. It was quite good for me because they were focusing on the work a few teams were doing, one of them being mine. My manager gave a presentation, involving a couple of slides showing graphs of data I'd generated. It made me feel quite proud!

What with that meeting and everything it ended up quite a long day - I think it was about 9PM by the time I got back to the flat, and then still had a few more odds and ends of work type stuff to clear up, so I didn't really finish until gone midnight.

Still, another day where I really felt I was earning my wages!
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Dinner at the Office Again
[Monday 9th July]
Not much to report really. Chie came to the office for dinner at the end of the day. I'd intended to stay on and work a bit longer after that, but decided to just go home and call it a night instead.
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Covent Garden
[Sunday 8th July]
Somehow or other we came upon the idea of going to Covent Garden today. It's not an area of London I go to very often (being a bit touristy etc), but I had a strange desire to go and visit Neal's Yard, and buy some seaweed shampoo.

As it turned out Neal's Yard was a bit of a disappointment - the seaweed shampoo was rather on the steep side, and apparently the cheese shop is closed on a Sunday (no, that wasn't a backup plan for shampoo, I just happened to want to go there as well).

However, while we were there we took advantage of our location, and on discovering a mutual craving for beer and chips, decided to have lunch at Belgo Centraal, which was jolly nice. I had a salad and some chips, and Chie had moules frites. It turns out she doesn't actually like mussels all that much, but it just seems to be the done thing in a Belgian place.

We actually walked back home - we can walk from the very central bits (Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus etc) to our flat in about 45 minutes which is rather handy. Although today we took a pretty roundabout route, and stopped off at a couple of places en route.

Dinner was fresh pasta, bought from Marks and Spencer - and very nice it was too.
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Nerdy and Whisky
[Saturday 7th July]
Chie went out shopping with a friend of hers for most of the day today, and apparently my presence was not obligatory, so I took the opportunity to just have a peaceful day in instead.

What with having been pretty nose-to-the-grindstone at work over the past few weeks, I haven't really been in the mood for doing anything excessively computery at home recently. Today though I thought I'd buck that trend and spend a bit of time working on cheese, laying some of the foundations for the GPS tagging feature I want to put in there. Yea I know, there are a load of other pieces of software which apparently support this feature (and for the record, Photo Studio was one of the very first of these) but none of them really seem to work properly, so as every I'm resorting to writing my own. I've had my Sony GPS receiver for over two months now, and still haven't really used it to properly geotag any photos. Alas, it seems quite a lot more work is required on this, so I doubt I'll be unveiling the all new GPS-tastic John's Pictures any time soon.

I did pop out for a bit towards the end of the afternoon - I had a sudden craving for Laphroaig - and after a quick consulation on the web for a decent whisky shop in London, I found the Whisky Exchange (a mail order company I'd bought whisky from in the past) now had a shop in central London. It was at Vinopolis - a sort of wine based theme park (?!?) I'd been to once a few years ago, although the whisky shop had opened there since then. It turned out to be a pretty good shop, and I bought a couple of bottles in the end - one small Douglas Laing Port Ellen sample (a 20CL bottle), and a cask strength Laphroaig. The Port Ellen was actually a little uninteresting (as is often the way - I've still not found another one anywhere near that legendary Fortnum and Mason bottle) but the Laphroaig was quite fantastic - I guess I'd just forgotten how good this stuff is.

Chie and I arrived back at the flat around the same time, and following a period of negotiation we decided to have bangers and mash for dinner - and despite this being an intrinsically English sort of meal, Chie decided she wanted to cook. I have to admit it makes me mildly insecure that she actually makes English food very well indeed.

We then spent the remainder of the evening watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Chie had asked to watch it after having been to see Spamalot a few weeks ago. Chie did chuckle a bit now and again, but predictably I don't think it was really her cup of tea - ho, hum.
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Friday
[Friday 6th July]
Rounded off the working day with the usual Friday 5 o' clock beer and pizza thingy at work, which was quite nice as ever. Although I think in this instance I didn't actually go home straight away afterwards (as most people seem to) as I had a few things to finish off.

I'm writing this a few days hence, and really don't remember much more than that! So I guess the evening was probably pretty uneventful.
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Dr. Lang
[Thursday 5th July]
Took the day off work today to go and attend a very special occasion - finally today was the day for Rob to put on his floppy hat and go and shake hands with the Vice-Chancellor.

I arrived in Reading towards the end of the morning, and met Rob for lunch in town (which also gave him a chance to buy a last minute new suit in an impressively short amount of time). From there we then headed to Rob's place where we met Jill and Iain (Rob's Mum and Dad), and then over to the London Road campus, picking up Byrnie and Kate on the way.

After a quick drink Rob, Kate and his parents went into the ceremony while Byrnie and I waited in the marquee. We had a rather nice time of it actually - the two of us sat and drank Pimm's and tried to pretend it was summer (it was in fact raining outside, as it also had on my PhD graduation day). Byrnie and I realised we had now become rather seasoned graduation ceremony attendees - I had been to had least five in Reading that I could remember (count them - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It's a rough average of one every two years over the last decade. We determined that we would be quite happy to come along and join in the festivities even if we didn't know anyone who was graduating. Slightly reminiscent of that film The Wedding Crashers I suppose.

Anyway, on Dr Lang's triumphant return from the ceremony there was the obligatory bottle of champagne, and it did just about brighten up for long enough to get a few pictures outside. After a while longer of just generally soaking up the pleasant atmosphere of graduation day we headed off. We had a couple more drinks at the Turk's Head (nearest pub to the London Road campus), and then I headed back into London.

A jolly nice day out, and I am so pleased after all the ordeal poor old Rob had to go to in order to get the final sign off on his PhD that he now has it - and I couldn't think of anyone who deserves the qualification more.

Congratulations Dr. Lang!
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Wednesday
[Wednesday 4th July]
Nothing much to report really. Given that it was Independence day, everyone in the US was out of the office, so I didn't get the usual end-of-the-day flurry of requests for odd jobs. It was nice and quiet at work in general really, and consequently I was very productive.

Chie met me at the office in the evening and we had dinner there. Went back home after that and I wiled away the rest of the evening on the Interweb.
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Not that Great
[Tuesday 3rd July]
I didn't feel all that great for most of today. I suspect my initial analysis of Monday's work night out (that I managed to make plenty of scintillating conversation, met lots of new people and didn't just sit there in silence drinking constantly) may have been a little inaccurate, judging by the size of the hangover I had today. Or maybe I'm just not used to drinking on a school night any more.

Nobody on my team was in the office today, which made it especially odd - so I had the whole room to myself. The day really seemed to drag.

In the evening Chie and I made Japanese food, however it was a bit of a disappointment. We'd bought some fresh tofu on Sunday, but by today it was already past its best, and a bit sour. We also had some inari cases that had been hanging around for ages, and were probably even further past their best.
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Something of a Rarity
[Monday 2nd July]
...I am referring to work nights out. Whilst all is generally good with my new job, I've been there almost six months now, and can count the times I've been out for an after work drink with people here in London on the fingers of one hand. Almost all of those occasions have been down to entertaining a visiting guest from the US - I can't think of a single instance of the classic end-of-the-working-day "fancy a pint?" as I would have done with Tanaka-san or Aoki-san in Japan, or with Kev and the rest of the guys back in Pangbourne.

Actually technically this isn't true - there was at least one instance of this happening in my new job, but there hasn't been a repeat performance since.

Tonight was someone's birthday, and whilst I was only really invited by virtue of a mail sent out to a wide distribution list, I was concious of the fact that after six months I seem to hardly know anyone outside of my team, and was determined to try and get to know some more people in the office.

It was difficult at first, whilst I vaguely recognised a few faces, there wasn't anyone there that I'd ever had more than a five minute conversation with. I persisted though, and inevitably there was a certain amount of the obligatory smalltalk regarding who does what at the office, and what the weather was like etc, but at least I wasn't sitting in silence nursing a pint for any period of time. I guess things improved as the evening wore on - or perhaps following a few beers it was just my perception of it that improved!

I don't really recall it requiring this much concerted effort to develop a social life at previous jobs - even in Japan I just seemed to fall into it.

Anyway, at least I learnt a few new names tonight, so if nothing else there'll be a few more people I can say hello to at the coffee machine.
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Chie's Family Back to Japan
[Sunday 1st July]
Chie's family flew back to Japan today. Their flight wasn't until the early evening, so they had the morning and early afternoon free to get in some last minute sightseeing, and we basically just left them to it.

We all met up again at our flat around 3ish, and then they got all their things together and we headed over to Paddington to catch the Heathrow Express. We decided to say our goodbyes at Paddington in the end, rather than going all the way to the airport and back again. Despite the inevitable stress of entertaining guests, I was actually quite sorry to see them go - "a week with the in-laws" would strike fear into the heart of some men, but I'm rather lucky in that Chie's family are actually really nice people, who are very pleasant to spend time with. So it is a shame they had to go back, but I suppose it's also good to be able to have a bit of a rest now.

On the way back to the flat we stopped off in Soho to visit Rice Wine Shop on Brewer Street, which seems to have now become our shop of choice for Japanese goods. It is a bit cheaper than some of the other Japanese shops nearby, and perhaps because of this it has the impression of more of a shop for Japanese people living in the UK, rather than non-Japanese people interested in Japanese food.

Chie's Mum had brought us some Japanese curry powder from Japan, allowing us to have Japanese curry for the first time in probably six months or more (the stuff we can get in Japanese shops in the UK always has some animal fat in it). I'd got rather hooked on this whilst living in Tokyo, it is really hearty and satisfying, and at the end of a busy week, this, and a can of Sapporo, was just perfect.
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Hampton Court Palace
[Saturday 30th June]
Today was Chie's family's last full day in the UK, and like just about every other day on their trip the weather was looking pretty dreary. Still, we had to do something, and after a bit of thinking in the morning I suggested Hampton Court Palace, on the grounds that there were things to do both inside and out there - so if the weather did improve at any point we could take a stroll around the gardens, but inbetween we could look at all the interior bits.

It turned out to be quite a good choice - I have to say, as tourist attractions go, I rather approve of Hampton Court Palace. The entrance fee is a relatively steep thirteen pounds, but this is at least slightly less than Leeds Castle, and when you compare the two, Hampton Court has far more to see.

Some of the rooms had minstrels, playing presumably authentic music for the period - again, touristy though it may be, I appreciated that some effort was put into actually entertaining visitors, rather than just milking a nice old building for all it's worth. The feeling of grandeur was still very evident in the King's and Queen's state apartments, and I also rather enjoyed the Tudor kitchens.

The rain did let up enough to enable us to go and see the gardens towards the end of our visit, which were also very nice - I particularly liked the great vine (about 250 years old). Oh and we had to visit the maze (it seems all these big castles/palaces are required by law to have one), although it was a fair bit easier than the one at Leeds Castle.

We left Hampton Court some time around 5 or 6, and headed back to the flat, where we spent the rest of the evening. Given the rather inclement weather, we didn't particularly fancy going out anywhere, so instead I cooked dinner at home. I made a couple of big lasagnes, which seemed to go down rather well.
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Changing the Guard and Pub Crawl
[Friday 29th June]
After yesterday's "day off", today I returned to the role of entertaining our Japanese guests here in London. Chie opted to stay in and have a bit of a rest in the morning, so I took her family out to witness a pinnacle of touristy behaviour in London - the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The nice thing is that it's actually in walking distance from our flat.

It is quite a spectacle I suppose, and amazing that they go through all that rigmarole every day, but it was hard to really enjoy it as there were just so many other tourists there, and we could hardly see anything most of the time.

Right on schedule, just as the show was coming to an end, the clouds burst and it really bucketed it down with rain. We decided therefore we should go and have lunch at my office - as it was nice and close by, and it would be interesting for Chie's family to see where I work - especially as the food there is rather good, and best of all completely free! This seemed to go down rather well, there was something for everyone there, including sushi for Chie's Dad, and some rather nice desserts for the girls.

In the afternoon I handed over the baton, and I had a bit of a rest whilst Chie did her bit as a tour guide. We then met up again in the early evening around Leicester Square - in fact I decided to walk there from the flat which, given that the rain had stopped by that time, was very pleasant. We had a quick dinner at one of those vegetarian Chinese buffet places, and then Chie's Mum, Mikiko-san and Yuka-chan headed off to see a musical (Mary Poppins) leaving me and Chie to take Chie's Dad on a tour of some of my favourite London drinking establishments.

We started off at the Lamb and Flag as it was close by (and actually rather a nice pub), and then from there took a long-ish stroll over to my usual area - Holborn / Chancery Lane - where we introduced Chie's Dad to the ever excellent Cittie of Yorke. He seemed to rather like it. From there it was then the usual trail, taking in Ye Olde Mitre (which seems to be undergoing some construction work at present, but still retained much of its' usual charm), and then ending up at the whisky society.

Whilst I suspect Chie's Dad is generally more interested in the beer itself than the surroundings in which he is drinking it, I think he still quite enjoyed my little tour. I often have a quandary over what to show people who are visiting London, but have eventually settled on the notion that the best bet is to just show people the bits I really like. At least then I can present things with genuine enthusiasm, which generally seems to pay off.
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Day Off
[Thursday 28th June]
My manager had come over from the US for this week, so I had arranged to take a day out of my week entertaining Chie's family, and go into work. Once in London there were plenty of things for Chie's family to do that they could easily manage without their own transport or a guide.

I'm not sure it was really a very productive day at work - a lot of it was spent just sorting though mail and getting back up to speed on things I'd missed while I was away. In the afternoon I had a little end-of-quarter appraisal meeting with my manager, and at the risk of blowing my own trumpet, I'm pleased to report the feedback was all very positive. Particularly he said I had put in "the single most important man week of the entire quarter" - referring to that disaster recovery week at the end of May. I was rather pleased with myself, as you can imagine.

In the evening we had a team outing, where for more or less the first time everyone on my team (plus our manager of course) came along. The boss is apparently quite keen on Indian food, and was keen to try out Brick Lane. However, following a period of consultation with some other people at the office we were warned off Brick Lane itself, and advised instead to go to the famous Lahore Kebab House, just off Commercial Road. It was actually rather good - really basic and down to earth, and really decent, honest Indian food.
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Back to London via the Cotswolds
[Wednesday 27th June]
We had to return our hire car in London by 7PM tonight, which gave us the whole day to gradually wind our way back. The obvious choice for a scenic route was to go by way of the Cotswolds.

So we started off with a hearty breakfast and a wander round the grounds of Salford Hall, giving Chie's family a further opportunity to get to know Mum and Keith a bit, before we all said our goodbyes and headed off.

We did what is becoming a fairly standard tour of the Cotswolds for us now - including all the usual favourites such as Chipping Campden and Bourton-on-the-Water (which actually I'm not sure if I like that much given how overly touristy it is, but it feels somehow obligatory to include it on the itinerary). We then ended up at Burford in good time for an early afternoon tea at mine and Chie's usual haunt - Huffkin's. It was very nice as ever, and despite only ordering food for 4 people (we were a party of 6) there was still far more than we could manage.

Once full up on tea, scones, little sandwiches and cakes, we then left the Cotswolds to head back down to London. It was a surprisingly easy journey in the end, and the timing worked rather perfectly. We got to our flat just before 6, and unloaded all the luggage there. Given that our flat is right on the boundary of the congestion charging zone, we the only had to wait a few minutes before we could then head over to the car hire place without having to pay the congestion charge. Chie was very pleased.

Having eaten rather a lot of rich food over the past few days, tonight everyone wanted to eat something very simple - so dinner basically just consisted of rice and miso soup with a few vegetable side dishes. It was rather nice having everyone eat dinner in our flat, all sitting on the floor around the little coffee table which is just the right height for this sort of thing - it felt very much like being back in Japan.
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Stratford and Salford Hall
[Tuesday 26th June]
The next leg of our journey would take us from North Wales down to Stratford-Upon-Avon. We set out fairly early, conscious that we had yet another long journey ahead of us. The first part of the journey has some really nice views (North Wales mountains) to help pass the time, but, and I'm slightly loathed to admit it, as we approach England the scenery became a lot flatter and generally far less interesting!

Anyway, we arrived in Stratford just before 3, and launched straight into sightseeing mode. We did all the touristy bits there - Shakespeare's birthplace, Nash Hall, Hall's Croft, the Holy Trinity Church, and a bit of a walk along by the river, and past the theatre. Hall's Croft (which Robin had recommended) was probably my favourite - a lot quieter than the other houses, and it somehow had a much more realistic feel - more like a real house than a museum.

We left Stratford some time after 5, and from there headed onto our hotel - Salford Hall, a few miles away. I had been there once before for a Christmas party, and remember it being rather nice. As the location was really convenient for us, and for Mum and Keith to get to, it seemed like an ideal choice.

After dropping off our bags, and sprucing ourselves up a bit, we headed down to the bar (and then the lobby) for some pre-dinner drinks, and a chance for Chie's family to meet Mum and Keith for the first time.

I don't really remember what the food was like when we were here for that Christmas party 6 or 7 years ago, but tonight it was very good indeed. The particular highlight for me was my starter - a Worcestershire cheese risotto with curried parsnips and apple tempura. Sounds a little odd, but it was really quite exquisite. I was still suffering with my stomach a little, so couldn't finish my main course, but that was very nicely done as well.

All in all it was a very pleasant evening - it's really nice to have a meal like this without having to worry about getting back home at the end of it. I have to admit I have a bit of a thing for country house hotels, and with the prospect of a few nights in over-priced and underwhelming London hotels ahead of them, I hope this was a nice little treat for our Japanese guests.
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Washed Out in North Wales
[Monday 25th June]
I started off today with a trip to the doctor's - my stomach ache of the previous few days had got me a bit worried, and I thought it best to get a professional opinion on it. I have to say I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of service of the health service in North Wales. We phoned up at 9AM and managed to get an appointment on the same day (in fact the same morning). The doctor I saw was pleasant and very efficient. He did a few checks for anything more sinister (like appendicitis), and then concluded I probably had a form of good old gastroenteritis. He prescribed me some medicine which wasn't just the usual antibiotics / pain killers. I was also surprised to find out prescriptions are free in Wales - although I was more than happy to pay, the people at the pharmacists wouldn't let me.

So anyway by lunchtime I already felt well on the way to a full recovery, and was brimming with admiration for the excellent North Wales health service. If only the rest of the UK could be like that (not the free prescriptions bit though - I'm more than willing to pay).

The weather was, unfortunately, pretty awful today. I had really wanted to take Chie and her family to Portmeirion today, thinking it would be right up their street. So we actually set out in the afternoon with the intention of going there, led by blind optimism that the weather would somehow magically improve enough to make it a workable proposition. Sadly though, when we arrived the rain was still pouring down, and given that a visit to Portmeirion is largely an out-of-doors thing we decided to give up.

Ever resourceful, Dad managed to use the miserable weather to our advantage, and we headed over to Snowdonia. Despite the reduced visibility, the torrents of water cascading down the sides of the mountains made for quite a spectacle.

The last stop on our day out was Caernarfon, where we had a quick walk around the castle, and also gave Chie's family an opportunity to buy those all-important souvenirs.

We had a late tea when we got back to Dad's house, and then an even later supper. This time I was actually well enough to sit and join in on the meals, even if I couldn't really eat all that much. The kitchen / dining room at Dad's house always seems to produce a very convivial atmosphere (a bit like being on Bardsey, as we often say), and so despite the obvious language issues everyone seemed to get on rather well. Very gratfiying.
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Driving up to North Wales
[Sunday 24th June]
We had a lot of ground to cover still on our trip around the UK to get Chie's family to meet all of my family. So today we left Abergavenny bright and early (well, in the morning at least) to do that now very familiar run up to North Wales, where my Dad lives.

It is allegedly a four hour drive on a good day, but Chie and I have never managed it in that time - typically once we've added in a break for lunch and a couple more stops en route to stretch our legs, it is more like six hours. Still, on the plus side the scenery is rather nice en route, and we were treated to the occasional clear spell where we could get out of the car and appreciate it.

We did have a small drama at one point - after one particular break to admire the view, we all got back into the car and found the seatbelts on the middle row were somehow locked. I've no idea why this would happen in a car, but we eventually managed to fix it with the automobile equivalent of Ctrl+Alt+Delete - we turned the engine on and off several times, and eventually we were able to pull the seatbelts out.

Our final stop-off on the journey was at Criccieth for a quick ice cream from the famous (?) Cadwallader's shop there.

On arrival at Dad's house, as it was such a nice day (and threatening not to be the following day), we went straight out for a drive to take in some of the local scenery.

Unfortunately, I'd had a bit of a stomach ache the past couple of days, and whilst I'd felt fine in the morning, this afternoon it gradually built up, until I was actually in quite a lot of pain. After our little drive around the local area I basically went straight to bed, and missed out on the evening's merrymaking. I hear everyone else had a nice time though.
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Abergavenny and Lough Pool Inn
[Saturday 23rd June]
Today was Chie's family's first full day in the UK. We spent the morning and part of the afternoon in Abergavenny - took a wander round the town centre, then headed over to Vera and Robin's house for a "hot fork buffet" and a glass or two of Pimm's. Robin does a particularly excellent jug of Pimm's, which seemed to go down very well with all of our guests (despite the ladies being more or less teetoal). I therefore predict Pimm's could become the next big thing in Japan.

Some time after 4 we headed out to wend our way over to our evening venue - the Lough Pool Inn in Herefordshire. On the way we stopped off at Skenfrith, which provides an excellent return on investment for casual sight seeing - featuring both a ruined castle, and an interesting old church (and both free!). We also popped into Ross-on-Wye very briefly as well - Robin seemed to be a dab hand at fitting in with the Japanese whistle stop tourist ideology.

We got to the Lough Pool at 6pm, a little early it turned out as the pub wasn't actually quite open yet, but it was just about nice enough to sit outside and wait so we were undeterred. It is a really charming little pub, as hopefully the pictures attest, and exactly the sort of image of England I would like our guests to take back to Japan with them (albeit not that representative any more).

Louise, Ian, Beck and Dave (my aunt, uncle, cousin and cousin's other half) joined us there, and so we totalled 12 people - a decent sized party. Everything went pretty well really - the food was good (well, everyone else's was - I wasn't too impressed with the vegetarian option, but never mind), and the setting was perfect. The only slight downside was that we had a long table, and naturally the Japanese and English seemed to group together at either end. So this, in addition to the usual language barrier, meant the two groups didn't really speak together as much as I would have liked. Still, Chie's family had also spent all of the afternoon with Vera and Robin, and they'd all somehow managed to cmmunicate then. Plus my uncle Ian and Chie's Dad did seem to form something of a bond, in that particular way smokers who are forced outside to smoke often do.

So all in all a very pleasant evening.
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