Saturday, December 27, 2008

Primark: Where the Seconds are Firsts

Primark is a very cheap clothing retailer in the UK. You can buy a pair of jeans there for around £5 (NZ$12). A t-shirt is around £3 (NZ$7.50). And not just on sale, that's every day.

About a week ago I bought a grey jersey there which I quite like (it was £5.87), and so yesterday I decided to go back and get another one of the same style, but in a different colour.

I bought it, took it home, took of the tags, put it on, and then immediately took it off again because it was inside out. Unfortunately, when I pulled it through the other way, it was still inside out.

My tan jersey, not inside out.

During the making of the jersey, someone had obviously forgotten to turn it inside out before sewing the trim on. So the sleeves, the shoulders and the strip around the bottom were all overlocked on the outside rather than the inside. Just to be sure, I compared it with the grey version, which had no such problems.

We still had the receipt, so we decided to take it back this morning. Since I did like the style, I decided to get a replacement. However, when I went to pick one out, they were all sewn like that.

It's too haphazard to be an intentional design, so we think the mistake must have been made on the whole tan-coloured line. Primark just decided to just go ahead and try to sell them anyway. Still for £5.87, it's hard to complain.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The British Christmas Tree Adventure

It was a bright and sunny day. Freezing cold. Everywhere, white frost sparkled and crunched underfoot as we made our way across the long grass of the paddock, to the stand of Christmas trees by the creek.

We were undertaking a British tradition, as introduced to us by Mike: the yearly finding of the Christmas tree.

Apparently, the traditions are:

1.) You actually have a *real* Christmas tree. And it's not a Radiata (North American) Pine, either. It has short little needles. The same type of tree seems to be standard throughout Hampshire, if not most of the UK.

(Here is the one we eventually chose.)
2.) Taking a tractor ride to the stand of pines grown for the occasion.

I thought he was joking, and that it was just for the kids. But, no. Everyone climbs on the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor with straw bales for seats. The tractor is decorated. Cheesily.

3.) Picking a tree takes a long time. Actual arguments break out over which is the "best" tree. One with the perfect blend of symmetry, an even "spread" of branches vertically, and strong top branches to put angels on.

4.) The company lends you spades (so you can literally dig up your tree and plant it in a bucket) or a saw.

It's a huge family affair, and everyone takes photos.

The Christmas tree farm also doubled as fishing ponds stocked with fish, where you could sit and fish, for a fee. (I think that's cheating, but the Brits are big on fishing and who has a fishing licence and who gets what spot. Meh.) The night before, the temperature had been around -6*C after midnight. A hoar frost. The pond had ice on it. Mike threw a stick into the water. It skittered across the surface and came to rest. The top of the pond was solid ice, about 2cm thick.

I wanted to put Sheepie on top of the ice for a photo, but I didn't want to fall in. So Brendan was leaning down to put him on the ice when the old man who had been driving the tractor saw us from the other side of the paddock, and bellowed, "Oi! Don't break the ice! You'll scare the fish!" I think he misunderstood what we were doing, because Brendan was holding a small saw in the other hand.

After looking at many, many trees, eventually Mike was satisfied he'd found the best one, although it was slightly bare at the back. It was surprisingly light to carry.

(Mike had a Christmas party with 60 mince pies and most of the village attending. The village kids absolutely loved decorating it! Brendan and I are not huge mince pie fans, so we ate far too many Roses chocolates instead and had to buy Mike a new tin! And then we ate half of that one in one day too. Oops...)

I hope y'all have a fantastic and safe Christmas holiday - we're going to be spending Christmas Day with Brendan's aunty Yvonne, uncle Andrew and cousin Turner (and friends) down in Southampton. Which will be fun, I think. We're having a no-present Christmas this year, owing to cost of postage>funds.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Basingstoke, home of the 'chavs'

Apparently. 'Chavs' is technically a British word for street kids, but it seems to generally connotate people of low class/ intellect, who are 'trashy' and wear baseball caps and sweatsuits. Or something like that. Think the character 'Vicky Pollard' ("Yeahbutnahbutyeah") of the TV Show 'Little Britain' or groups of Cockney 'lads' ("innit?").

Popular consensus is that there are a lot of 'chavs' in Basingstoke, according to this Hampshire Chronicle article about the wonders of a Primark (cheap clothing shop) coming to Basingstoke. (The comments section is priceless, and fascinating from a cultural point of view. It very clearly shows British class distinctions - here, where you shop and what you buy is far more important than NZ, or even than the US!)

Anyway, we are very pleased to have moved back into civilisation last Sunday, chavs or no chavs. To a place with streetlights. Public transport. Being able to walk 10 minutes to shops. And most importantly, *warmness*. I was permanently cold at the last house. Especially so before our clothing arrived from the US, as we assumed we'd retrieve it the same month (summer). So I'd brought just one pair of jeans and one jersey/sweater. The house was heated only late at night and early morning, and was often colder inside than out. My hands swelled up so much from chillblains I couldn't wear rings. Within about 3 days here, in a warm room, the swelling had gone down.

Basingstoke itself is boring, but has been 'prettied up' by the local council. (Reminds us of Milton Keynes, actually.) It won 9th in the "Crap towns" survey in 2003. Probably the NZ equivalent would be Palmerston North.

While it doesn't have the charm of nearby Winchester or other 'market towns', Basingstoke does have a cute "Top of town" market area of shops in the original village style, and a nice railway station. The park by our house has also been improved with fountains in the ponds, and it has great running/walking tracks similar to the MK 'redways'. The large mall is the key feature (Top Gear apparently spent a day a few weeks ago, racing cars inside it!) and has obviously had a lot of money spent on it.

However, the houses in the suburbs are ugly, with a same-ness of white walls, a flat roof and golden bricks. Or red bricks. Entertainment options are about average for a city like this: we don't care to experience the nightlife in Basingstoke's four clubs, or check out the local neighbourhood pub, called 'Skewers', or visit the Vue movie theatre. (We're incredibly boring by most people's standards, aren't we?!)

So while I'm honest about Basingstoke's flaws, it's not a bad city, contrary to the 2003 "Crap Towns" survey. And I'm sure it's improved a lot since then. It has low unemployment, and seems to be OK for safety, as long as you're not in Popley. It's 45 minutes to central London by express train, and has lots of good points. The supermarkets are only 10 mins walk away, parking in our area is not an issue (although you do have to pay in the downtown area - hence why supermarket proximity is important) and there are plenty of places for me to run which don't involve narrow,unlit roads with hedges on either side,with cars doing 60mph along them. And we're not 4 miles from civilisation. We're looking forward to exploring Basingstoke more.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Today I reached a marathon-training milestone: I ran 10 miles. It's the longest I have ever run, and I'm surprised at how much it wiped me out to do an extra mile. Now I just have to add another 3 miles (approx 30 mins running time) to get to the half-marathon (in March)!

I had to run most of the way in the dark, along the narrow roads, unfortunately. I had a little torch so I could at least shine it at cars and make them slow down for me. I know someone else who drives a few miles away to the New Forest so she can run there instead, since she also worries about the cars.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Town and Country

Famous last words... before we arrived here, I mentioned to Brendan that I might like to live in a quaint English village. Now, after almost two months of living in a quaint English village, I am ready to give up and run screaming back to the city again. Why? Because of streetlights. Yes, streetlights. At 4pm the sun has already gone down, since it's winter here, and by 5pm it is pitch black. And apparently the villagers don't want streetlights, since it means they would then be a town, forbid.

So I end up doing my marathon training between 3 - 4:50 pm, before it gets too dark to see the road. It's a bit worrying running along the country roads here sometimes, since they are mostly one-way and very narrow and winding, with tall hedges on either side.

Unlike New Zealand, where 'living in the country' really means that you can live at least 30 minutes from anywhere, living in the 'country' in the UK means that you live in a sort of suburb next door to about 50 houses, interspersed with maybe 5 paddocks on a 3km stretch of road. So it's really more like living on the outskirts of a town, but without the benefits of access to shops, street lights or public transport. We're trying to juggle two people, one car at the moment, made easier since I mostly use the car to attend job interviews in Southampton.

Add to this our landlord issues, and you have a recipie for Brendan and Tina moving again. Of course this was always meant to be a temporary fix until we could find a house in town, but it's a bit more urgent now. So we'll let you all know when we move.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A weekend in Paris: Part 2

We got up bright and early in the morning. It was cold, and the small patch of blue sky above us soon closed over to gray.

This small dog on the Metro was unhappy. I don't think it liked the noise and movement. We were lucky - because we were under 26, and it was a weekend, we could get all-day Metro (subway) tickets for E3.20, the price of a return ticket. Paris seems to have quite a few discounts if you're under 25 or 26 - good for frugal backpackers!

We were following a suggested walk on Wiki Travel, which quite often has useful suggested itineraries. The first stop was the Arc de Triompf. It's bigger than it looks.

Built by Napoleon to celebrate his war victories, the Arc is at the centre of a large, 6-laned roundabout. Driving around it is completely chaotic, as we shall later see, and it has no specified lanes.

It was freezing cold as we walked from the Arc de Triompf to the Champs Elysees, the main shopping street in Paris. It started to snow! Tui was very disappointed as all her friends told her about it, but she was inside working.

Because I was travelling with two boys, we had to stop off at the Peugeot showroom to look at concept cars. This is the back of one. I think it looks like a bug. A very shiny bug, but still a bug.

This is my favourite shop in the world. I'm so disappointed they don't really have Sephora in the UK. At least, I've never seen it there.

It's probably also worth mention the number of scams we came across at this part of our trip. Brendan had read up on them before we left, and pretty much every one described happened to us! I guess the problem with big cameras is that it always marks you as a tourist, even when I try and keep the camera itself inside my bag and just wear the strap showing. My hands were freezing, because unlike Geoff and Brendan, I had to keep one hand on the camera and my bag at all times.

Anyway, the most common one was that a young woman or boy would come up to us and ask, "Do you speak English?" If we had said yes, they would have started a sob story about how they were trapped in Paris with no money to get to their child in another city. This happened to us at least 6 times in the one day, at various places. After the first three, we just said "No" in Spanish instead, or ignored them, and they didn't pursue anything further, even though they would have heard us speaking in English.

Another scam was a man who asked Brendan to put his finger in this loop of string. The idea being that you couldn't step back as easily when he asked you for money, as your finger was caught in the string.

Here is the Grand Palais. I assume the glass fountains are usually on.

This statue in front of the Grand Palais celebrates the French Revolution, or something similar.

It was really cold, as the snow turned from huge flakes swirling occasionally, to full rain. We searched for hats and Brendan for gloves, finally finding some on the street markets at the end of the Champs Elysees.

This woman was cooking sausages and things in what looked like a giant wok, complete with massive handle.

The Square at the end of the Champs Elysees was quite pretty, and contained a lot of fountains and monuments.

From here we headed past the Square and into the gardens at the end. Although it was a bit too cold for lovers today, Tui said that it normally was filled with the stereotypical "lovers in the park".

Geoff took a rest while I stressed to Brendan about the camera and how it was getting fogged up and wet all the time and couldn't take good photos and the sensor wasn't working again. (Can you tell I am obsessive about being able to take pictures?!)

At the end of the gardens lives the Louvre Museum, home of the Mona Lisa and many other amazing and famous paintings.

We were quite frozen by now, so we went into the Louvre to have lunch. Unfortunately though we didn't have time to stand in line and look at paintings - we'll have to save that for next time!

Next, we met up with Tui and headed along the Seine river. It would have been very nice to walk along here in summer, but at the time it was windy and raining, and our umbrellas weren't impressed.

On an island in the Seine, is the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Inside, half the church was shut off for a Mass at 4pm, and tourists wandered around the rest. It was very beautiful.

The famous stained-glass windows in the nave.

This is just before the service started - I got in the way of the priests - oops!

View from the front of the church:

The choir hang out before the service. They're surprisingly small, a chamber choir. I felt very lucky to hear them.

At the back of the church, behind the altar, there were a series of rooms which were the graves of wealthy people buried there. The stained-glass windows here were incredibly detailed.

Mass in progress.

From Notre Dame we said bye to Tui and went to the Eiffel Tower. It's one of the few famous monuments that's actually far bigger than we expected! The elevators go up and down on an angle up the legs.

Obligatory tourist photo...

There were a lot of police around, and soldiers with automatic weapons. I guess the Tower is a bit of an obvious target. I still can't get over the amount of security in other countries compared to NZ sometimes. It's a pain, because people don't understand that you're just a tourist, and freak out when you take photos. Argh.

There was a little pond at the back end of the park.

The Arc de Triompf beckoned as it started to get dark. We managed to get discounted tickets (E5.50 instead of 9.00) for being under 25, yay! You can climb up inside the Arc onto the roof, to get a fantastic view of Paris. It was well worth it.

The French version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is under the Arc. The only time the flame has ever gone out was when a drunk Mexican guy peed on it! Yucky.

The stairs are a bit like the ones in Gaudi's Sagrada Familia - narrow, spiral and many. There are 285, I think.

We stood out on the roof and watched the crazy chaotic roundabout that the Arc sits on. With traffic coming from 6 directions, controlled only by stoplights onto the intersection, cars tend to bunch up in lanes of three.

After a while we decided to go back inside and wait for it to be a little darker. Here are some views to compare, between early and later evening:

Looking towards downtown Paris (in the second photo you can see some of the crazy roundabout antics)

The Champs Elysees

The Eiffel Tower (lit up in blue, with the Euro flag)

Finally, as we left the Arc, there were some soldiers standing silently at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was pouring with rain. The enormous flags flapped. One of them had to catch his red beret as the wind took it.

We drove the long journey back to Calais, arriving around 11pm. I got out of the car on one street to take a photo, and rapidly got back in the car when I saw a group of 6 guys walking down the street a little way off, towards us. Unfortunately I lost my beret, and it was too late to go back and get it since we were already through customs.

Here is the famous town hall in Calais. I am extremely sad about my beret. Maybe I can get Tui to buy me another one when she comes over at Christmas.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A weekend in Paris: Part 1

Lying awake in bed at 11pm, we were too excited to sleep. In just a few short hours we had to get up again and drive to London.

At 3am on Friday night, we were meeting Geoff on the outskirts of London, before driving to Dover, and catching the ferry to Calais, France. From there we would drive to Paris.

As well as driving on the right hand side of the road again (not a big deal for us, of course, but more so for Geoff who forgot twice), driving in France is more of an expedition than in Britain. For a start, there are a whole lot of additional requirements under "Things you need with you in the car":
  • reflective roadside triangle
  • fluorescent vest
  • spare bulbs for your headlights
  • first aid kit
  • mini fire extinguisher
  • GB sticker for the back of your car (denotes RH drive car)
  • headlight covers/ stickers (to point the headlight beams in the opposite direction)
Also, the signs were in km not miles, so they required mental calculation sometimes. Entering roundabouts on the right took a bit of getting used to.

Dover is very picturesque, with the white cliffs towering over the houses all stuck together. We went through customs on the UK side first. The sailing was at 6am. I stood outside on the deck in the cold, watching the sun rise, for much of the hour-long trip, since I didn't want to feel sea-sick.

The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world. I counted about 9 boats on each side just heading out of Dover!

We decided to avoid the toll motorways and drive through the French countryside instead. It was absolutely gorgeous. Little villages every few miles, each with its own church and houses stuck together. (I don't understand why there is so much space and yet the houses are still stuck together.) The sky was dark and heavy. It snowed the first snow of the season, splatting on our windshield.

We stopped off in Arras, about 2 hours' drive from Calais, to see a site of particular interest to New Zealanders. The Wellington Quarry was one of a number of chalk quarries around the town of Arras. In WWI, New Zealand sappers were tasked with linking up the quarries with a series of tunnels so that 25,000 men could hide in the tunnels undetected for several months, before a successful attack on the German front lines. The New Zealanders were all "bantams", guys who were too short for the army. They named the quarries after their home towns, e.g. Wellington, Auckland, Blenheim, Christchurch. The Wellington Quarry has been restored, and turned into a museum. (I think they confused Australia with NZ here. The koala on the left is not a NZ national symbol, but an Aussie one. The Kiwi is, however.)

The black writing and numbers are how the men found their way around.

In WWII, the tunnels were also used as air raid shelters for the townspeople of Arras. The writing on the walls from that time is red.

Soldiers drew graffiti on the walls. This one commemorates a fallen comrade. Look for the crucifix and the sad face.

It was very damp and cold in the tunnels, and the chalk walls were wet. Occasionally a large drop of water would fall. One can only imagine the plight of one soldier, who complained that his bunk bed was dripped on constantly and he had to sleep under a waterproof sheet! Above ground, it was snowing.

Here's a tunnel dug by the sappers, with one of the original mining buckets. British engineers built a small railroad to take the rubble out.

When it was time for the battle, the men were told to leave their greatcoats (heavy jackets) behind, even though it was freezing. They went up these stairs, and a hole was blasted to the open trenches. The sign on the left you can see in the photo, says "No 10 exit to circular trench". Many men died in this battle.

When we finally got into Paris in the evening, we called our friend Tui and met up with her. It was awesome to see someone we actually knew! It's a bit lonely out here in the country.