Saturday, 25 April 2009

What is life...

"What is life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare"

Just hearing the first 2 lines of this poem slows down my breathing and brings me a sense of peace. I can't describe it any other way but I often recite it to myself when I'm feeling stressed or overwhelmed - easily done in these inpatient times we live in. I'm back at my parents' house this weekend and my dad came down to the canal with me this morning on my run. I hadn't even noticed that he wasn't following me but I jogged back to find him chatting with a canal boat owner at one of the locks. He was like a child - completely enthralled by how the lock was controlling the water levels to allow the boat to pass. I was jogging on the spot, stretching, shuffling my feet and generally acting like a spoilt child when he asked if I had ever seen this before and understood how it worked. I only just stopped myself from answering yes, because on reflection, I don't think I have. I just think I have because I've obviously seen it on TV at some point - maybe in a geography class in school when I was much younger. Don't get me wrong, I am and will forever remain a huge TV addict and it lets me into worlds that I would never otherwise see. But it's also de-sensitized me to the real world - I could really do with some standing and staring...

In case I'm coming over all zen, I'm going to end with a mini-rant. Our great leader has pushed through an incredible 50% tax rate to begin next year on any income over £150k. This comes after having made every £1 in my pocket worth substantially less than it ever has been at a time when all food and commodities are priced much higher. Sure, copy the Italians with their Robin Hood tax and placate the masses but how many high earners does he think will remain UK domiciled if they have to pay 50% tax? Discourage the high earners and high spenders, and all he will be left with is a huge deficit created by his own over spending and his sell off of the UK manufacturing industry (currently one of the only countries without their own steel production which is arguably a national defense issue). I don't know, it all seems very complicated and vicious-circle-esque. I think I'm just bitter because despite my best efforts, I don't make it anywhere near the £150k line! My lack of career progression has been effective tax planning all along...

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Recession dating

Another effect of the financial crisis has been the change in the dating scene. Gone are the days when 2 girls out at a wine bar in the City could almost guarantee being offered a drink by some well heeled banker - they are much more calculating over their discretionary incomes now. Also, there's probably a lot less of them around. Bankers are either moving on to pastures new - the cheese shop they've dreamt of running, the new start in a new country or even moving into teaching where bankers are being offered a fast track option to lessen the shortage of science/maths teachers - or they are even more tied to their desks as the fight for survival gets tougher and tougher.

I've always been a big believer in opposites attract so have generally tried to avoid dating anyone in finance. Can you imagine how dull life as a couple would be if your common interest was limited to work - especially if you work in an industry that encourages high competition and high stress. Plus now there's the added risk of both of you being unemployed. No no, the best piece of advice now would be diversify your assets and spread away those risks...

The man I am currently pretending not to like is a government employee (safe as houses!) - and this is the first time I have dipped my toe in Her Majesty's pool (so to speak). I always say I am far too mature and sensible to be dealing with boys who play games, but secretly I love all this will-he-won't-he-call-me angst. The James Bond affair has been one hell of a long game, I think we've met up all of 6 times in the last 8 months but he's incredibly witty and very confident. He came to meet me after work one time, to have a drink I thought, but he took me to this small museum which has recreated a London house in the 18th Century (sight, sounds, smell - the lot). You walk from the servants quarters in the basement all the way up past the kitchens, living room to the top floor bedrooms and you're not allowed to talk. I never even knew it was there - I love that he is so different.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Chicken Licken

It's amazing how much of a difference a four day week can have on your general well-being and goodwill towards men. After several months of chicken licken mania when all the media were running round telling the world that the sky was falling down, there seems to be a sort of reprieve at the moment. Maybe the markets are still sleepy after gorging on too many eggs but there is a definite calm and sense of peace. I think people are ready for some good news and willing it to happen. If we collectively wish for it hard enough - then maybe it can happen.

Sadly, fairytales don't cut it with me - I blame the years at an all girls high school where being the first to denounce santa claus and my little ponies was vital for survival. Moments of calm like these just make me worry about the impending storm. Whilst everyone else is enjoying the sun, I'm scrambling about buttoning down the hatches. You should have seen me entering the new millenium when Y2K was allegedly going to cause a global meltdown as all the sophisticated technology we rely on wouldn't be able to cope with a change of year... It was not pretty to say the least.

I've found a journalist who shares my view - have a read of his piece on how big corporations are still able to get away with accounting shenanigans. Have we learnt nothing from Lehmans, Enron, Northern Rock etc? Our ability to forget pain is often bandied about as a blessing in reference to child birth but it would probably be wise to keep a rubber band around our wrists to remind us to be more vigilant.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Gold Digger

As a budding young capitalist, whilst my school friends were dreaming of being doctors and lawyers, I dreamt of the day I would marry rich and live the content life of a kept woman. I must have done something bad in my life time as this is not what fate had in store for me at all. Not only am I nowhere near married but I am a fully signed up member of the rat race - working crazy hours to fund my non-designer lifestyle.

So it amuses (actually more irks) me that this week the Financial Times is carrying a piece on how women are paid substantially less than their male peers. I don't know why they do this same piece year in year out like it's some cutting edge piece of journalism but it grates me every time. I can't help but look at the rest of my otherwise all male team and wonder whether they earn more than I do simply by being male. This little seed of doubt is enough to drive my ambitious self crazy - good thing I am also blessed with the memory of a goldfish so will not think about this now until they write about it again.

Even more amusing, my new found hero is the Swedish Marie Douglas-David. Not happy with divorcing her much older husband for an arranged settlement of $43m, she is taking him to court to bump this up to $100m as currently it is not enough to finance her weekly spend which "include $4,500 for clothes, $1,000 for hair and skin treatments, $1,500 for restaurants and entertainment, $8,000 for travel, $700 for limousine services, $2,209 for an assistant, $1,570 for horse care and $600 for flowers".

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Adios Madrileños...

Having crawled into bed at some outrageous time close to 5am, I dragged myself out of the hotel at 9am as this was already my last day in Madrid and there was much to see. Weekend breaks can be so stressful...

I walked along Gran Via down to Sol to wake myself up and had a quick stopover at the completely huge El Corte Ingles complex which covered three prime sites in this busy retail centre of town. I always like to look at Supermarkets when I'm abroad to see how people's daily food needs differ (weird I know) and given I had no time to track down a Mercadona, was thrilled to see huge Iberian jamon and cheese counters in the basement food store at the nation's favourite department store. The wines took up 4 aisles and was incredibly good value - we have the same brand wines in London supermarkets which sell at almost 2.5x the price.
My walk took me past all the fabulous old buildings on the way to Banco de Espana - theatres, national banks and the Spanish stock exchange. There was already a queue of budding art enthusiasts when I arrived at the Prado museum but the wait was to be proved worthwhile. I'm not a big art fan by any means but this gallery is so huge and packed with a variety of works that even I managed to recognise some of the paintings and artisits. Whilst as one of the most famous art collections it is obviously home to the Spanish greats such as Velazquez and Goya but the Prado also showcases some of the big names from Holland and Italy including Rubens and Titian's Venus.

After that draining cultural stop, I briefly paused for a cool beer at the Terrace of the Ritz hotel. You can walk straight in to this beautiful patio, where white wicker furniture with plump cushions allows you to rest your weary feet. The beer was served in tall stemmed glasses accompanied by a selection of nibbles (included in the price) and you can sit back in the Madrid sun and listen to the live pianist.

Feeling pretty mellow, the question now was whether I wanted to spend this gloriously sunny afternoon in the next gallery. Being somewhat sun starved, I figured I would return another time for Picasso and opted instead to stroll round the botanical gardens. Again, I'm no big gardening enthusiast, but for the sum of €2, I was able to roam this huge garden which had plenty of postcard-perfect landscapes and a greenhouse full of the more exotic plants.

Only then did I realise that I hadn't eaten all day. I started walking through the back streets towards Plaza de Santa Ana - where I stopped for some tapas at Lateral. I opted to sit at the bar indoors as the outside terrace was largely unshaded and relatively full whilst the inside was cool and empty. Along with a glass of red house rioja which was beautifully drinkable and well priced, I enjoyed a taste of tortilla, sardines and pimientos. I chose this particulare tapas bar out of many on the square, as the restaurant was modern and clean and they use the cutest crockery - but the food turned out to be delicious too. Just a little further down past Plaza de Angel and on the way to Plaza Mayor is a little square with an open market selling various bric-a-brac. Not that I needed to after the tapas, but I bought a little bag of dry roasted sunflower seeds (toasty and sweet) from a man who was applying the same dry roast to everything imaginable!

A trip to Plaza Mayor saw a suspiciously Mexican looking group of street entainters who were pleasing the amassed tourists. The square is huge and amazingly, despite its scale, was completely packed with people - some sat in the outdoor terraces of the many bars and restaurants, some looking at the collection of stores under the grand arches and others, like me, just enjoying the sunset and watching the world go by. Tired, full and aware of the inhuman hour of my flight back home, this is where I bid adios to the City and its people.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Hola Madrid!

What a beautiful City.

On some sound advice from a fellow blogger, I did some homework and found that the Prado museum is free from 6pm on Fridays which was perfect as I was due to land at 2pm. However, as is often the case, even the best laid plans are thwarted by exogenous circumstances and I was delayed a massive 4 hours at the airport because of fog (the perils of being a Londoner).

When I finally arrived at Madrid, the airport itself was stunning. Terminal 4 was recently added in 2006 and has won several design awards for its straight lines, open plan structure, floor to ceiling windows and bamboo panelled ceilings (keeps it cool apparently). Using my google print outs, I bought a Metro ticket for 10 journeys (a bargain €7.40 although I didn't use it 10 times) and made my way to my hotel. I had to change lines twice but the Metro system is amazingly simple to follow, the platforms are well labelled and the trains are wide, modern and air conditioned. I was staying at the Melia Princesa, just North of the Plaza Espana. As a tip, if anyone is also looking to go to Madrid, I recommend looking at the Sol Melia or NH Hoteles websites - as publicly traded Spanish hotel companies, they have suffered the brunt of the Spanish real estate related sell-off and are now offering attractive rates to ensure hotel room occupancy at even their luxury hotels. The Melia Princesa is just 20 metres from the Metro stop and an easy walk to the Royal Palace, the stores of Gran Via and I even walked to the Prado Museum without much difficulty as there's so much to see, you forget how much you've walked. Plus it means you can work off those delicious churros dipped in thick chocolate you've indulged in for breakfast and be ready for the first round of tapas of the day!

Once settled in the hotel, I still had 2 hours before I was due to meet some friends for dinner - they had kindly decided to convene early for dinner as I was a heathen from London but still, at 9:30pm this was rather late for me! The sun was just setting, so I strolled down to the Palacio via the plaza Espana and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the Palace gardens. The young Madrileños were out in force, dipping their toes in the fountain and enjoying the hazy sun. I took a seat at a terrace bar in the Plaza de Oriente to drink a quick aperitif before jumping on the Metro to get to dinner.

We met at a lovely restaurant called La Trainera in the affluent Salamanca region, which is home to most of the International banks and other corporates as well as boutique design stores and private galleries. They serve wonderfully fresh seafood from the Bay of Biscay - the restaurant is named after their fishing boat. I left the menu in the capable hands of my friend Jaime and his wife who had invited me here to meet their friends. I met Jaime a few years back through work as he works at a Spanish bank. His wife is training to become a nurse and his friends were artists of various sorts. After a hearty meal of almejas (clams) - so fresh they are served raw with a squirt of lemon and centollo (king crab) - again so fresh and tasty it was served on its own, I was ready to call it a day but this was only the beginning.

After much kissing and hugging with the restaurant staff at the door, we walked down to Momo's for a drink - something that was necessary as we had met so early for dinner (!) and could therefore not go straight on to a club. Our final destination was Pacha. I couldn't help but groan when I saw it - as a chain of clubs across Europe, it had been a long time since I had been to the one in London and I stay away for a reason! But the one in Madrid was much more relaxed, there was a huge mix of people from the very young to the more mature and it was genuinely good fun. The drinks are much more potent - a vodka tonic here is basically 50:50.

It was almost sunrise when we left and I got a lift home on a Vespa - first time for everything - from one of the artists who had drunk nothing but red bull all night which resulted in an interesting journey to say the least! We stopped over at the Chocolateria San Gines, named after the church in whose shadow the cafe stands. I'm not exaggerating here at all, but the place was completely packed and it was close to 4am. We ordered 2 cups of intensely thick, rich chocolate and the waitress cut off sticks (churros) from a huge long roll of freshly baked doughnut. I could seriously get used to this...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Facebook stalker

My revision schedule has allowed me to re-discover facebook in a big way and I've found 20 old friends this week alone.

More disturbingly, I've done that which I swore never to do and looked up the first guy I ever dated from when I was 17. His picture is one of those group photos so I can't make him out at all.

I was just about to hit 'add as friend' when something made me stop. Something in me wanted to make me think twice and normally you should follow your gut instinct. But I am weak - and I want to see if he has changed and what he is doing now.

It's funny he still has this effect on me.

Vamonos de Fiesta!

Tomorrow I set off for Madrid!

Sadly it looks like I am taking the London weather with me. But it is not a big deal as I don't believe a spot of rain will take away from the cultural experience - it will probably give me more incentive to spend longer in the galleries if anything! I can't wait to sip a crisp white rioja with my tapas in a cosy bar...

I'm most looking forward to going to a religious country during a religious holiday. Spain was once considered one of the most catholic countries, having been under the Roman Empire and fought off the Muslims and the Moors during various periods of its history. The religion really came into its own under Franco when catholicism was the State religion but since then, the Spanish constitution has severed this link with the State and religion is now a much more secular affair with a marked decrease in catholicism - as seen across the rest of Europe. Interestingly, the Opus Dei faction, popularised most recently by Brown's Da Vinci code, originated in Spain.

Visiting these once bastions of Roman Catholicism, you can't fail to be impressed by the architecture of the glorious churches and there's still a sanctity about holidays like Easter and Christmas - unlike here where we swap chocolate eggs and think about using the free time for some home rennovations.

Vicky, Cristina and an old war veteran called Walt

Yesterday I met up with a university friend and we relived our glory days by going to the cinema to do a movie double - something we have not found time to do since graduating but which we were able to do now because I am supposed to be revising and he has been made redundant. It was tough times for a while as he was let go just before Christmas, which adds to the horribleness of having to break the news to your family. However, he is back on his feet now and enjoying the last few days before he starts somewhere else. I did suggest however that we could take some tips from the French workers, famous for their uber-strong labour unions, and try some boss-napping but it all seemed a bit too strenuous so we stuck with our movies agenda.

The cinema we chose was in affluent Chelsea - a relatively small screen but the only one that was still showing the 2 movies we chose to watch. Movie tickets in my opinion are hugely overpriced (€13 a pop!) in London but we did get some cushioning on the chairs and the place was completely empty.

We kicked off with Vicky Cristina Barcelona - a vague nod to my impending Spanish adventure and also something I thought my friend would enjoy given the much hyped kissing scene between Penelope Cruz and Scarlet Johansson. To be honest, I think it was much more of a chic flick - 2 American girls come to Barcelona who are polar opposites in terms of what they want from love and relationships. Throw in some smouldering Mediterranean charm in the form of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz and watch how many ways you can combine the 4. Rather than a defined story with a beginning and an end, this is more like a snapshot in time when their lives happen to intersect - the 2 American girls have their views on love challenged and they explore new experiences but ultimately they stay the same - if that makes sense. An added bonus is that a chunk of the movie is filmed in Oviedo, in Asturias (North East Spain)which is the home town of my hero Fernando Alonso.

We moved straight on to an altogether darker, more sombre movie about a mean old war veteran who gets involved in the lives of his Hmong neighbours. There's no denying the racism that underlies the whole being of Gran Torino but I thought Clint Eastwood was great and he even managed to make me laugh out loud in what is a sad tale about the last white man and his prize Ford Gran Torino in a US neighbourhood that has been overtaken by Hmongs, refugees of the Vietnam war. Stern, racist and ostracised by his materialistic family, Clint Eastwood's character finds redemption through his relationship with the 15 year old boy next door. It's definitely one I would recommend to see.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Roll on the summer...

Definitely the most played song on my list at the moment

It's funny because it's sad...

...and it's sad because it's true.

There's a whole collection of Pon and Zi cartoons by Jeff Thomas - click on the picture to link to his site

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

No credit but plenty of crunch

There are actually polls and surveys saying that lending to households and small businesses is increasing and that house prices were up in March - I don't know what or who these surveys are based on but as a consumer of the great economy I would have to disagree. Since the big blow out in 2008 - much accelerated post the Lehmans bankruptcy - there has been much press coverage of the financial turmoil and the various world leaders trying to find the best 'global' solution to help themselves.

But how has this effected you and me? I see increasing mortgage renewal costs - a sore subject I closely follow given I am due to renew this Summer; paltry interest rates on my savings - yes I worked hard to pay off my student debts but that is clearly not valued although allegedly all the banks are supposed to be fighting for my money; and most alarmingly of all perhaps, ever growing job insecurity.

I think this was perfectly encapsulated today with the news that RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland), one of the big lenders in the UK, is making another round of redundanices. This is of particular note because it is one of the banks who had the most aggressive lending policies and because they are in a very public battle with their recently fired Chief Executive, Fred Goodwin (known to his friends as Fred the Shred), over his £17m pension pot. Now that the bank has reached a sufficiently small size on the stock market for the Government to be able to take full control, this pre-agreed pension is being aired in public with the full knowledge that it will pull on people's emotions and make Sir Fred Goodwin face a tough moral dilemma.

Whilst I am not a fan of the media manipulating people's emotions (the casualties are far ranging encompassing all sectors - George Bush, Britney Spears etc), I would hate to be in Sir Fred's shoes right now. The 9,000 extra people who are up to be redundant this time are the support function staff who earn a decent but not excessive salary (about $30k a year). One fat cat's pension or 9,000 separate individuals having to uproot their lives and those of their children?

No credit, but plenty of crunch...

Sweet tooth

My parents are coming up to town for dinner. My dad has a wicked sweet tooth so my mission for today is to make these beautiful looking meringues, from a recipe by Rachel Allen .

No pain, no gain...

Who came up with this ridiculous phrase?

I have never felt so sore and the pain today does not seem to be a fair trade for the delayed gain. What's even more outrageous, is that this delayed gain is also subject to me keeping up the painful fitness regime for a sustained period of time. I'm only 2 days in and I'm already moaning! The silver lining though is that I get to indulge in some retail therapy for some running shoes. I've been very frugal of late in my spending habits given the general economic uncertainty but I guess it' s time now to take one for the country and support the retail community - any excuse I know...

Monday, 6 April 2009

The morning before

I don't have the quickest of reactions, so it comes as no surprise that I've finally got the 'new year resolution' bug - in April. Maybe it's the longer days or maybe I'm feeling inspired by what the humble Honda F1 team have achieved over the Winter - but there's definitely something in the air.

I've taken some time off work and am trying to make a wish list of things I want to do - there's no timeline and it's certainly not a race to the end - but it's something to mull. Professionally I am very happy and my list so far reflects that. It's mostly places I want to visit (I've always half regretted not taking a gap year) as well as some lifestyle changes.

The aim of course is not for the list to be a passive wish list of things I will never achieve. So, this morning, I have run my first 2 miles (quite the achievement in itself for me!) as part of the build up towards the marathon I have signed up for in September (eek!) and next weekend I am off to Madrid to see the famous triangle of art galleries that the City has to offer.

For now though, I have discovered some great recipe blogs which have inspired me for lunch. When I figure out how to upload links and photos, I'll be sure to share my finds - and cooking efforts...