Saturday, 19 November 2011

Item 100: Working Holiday

Location: London, United Kingdom

So this list finally made it to Item 100.
The Working Holiday.

Yes as the last 99 items have clearly documented there were numerous weekend trips to lands of faraway  (from Oz), amazing food, in search of sunshine, Legoland, new friendships, Christmas markets, affordable fashion, cheap alcohol but there was also the experience of living in Britain through a recession.

During the struggle to get back into the workforce, there was the £7.75 an hour summer temp job to enable cash flow. The evening shifts during sales time at Harrods were followed by gruelling morning shifts the next day. Life lessons were taught by colleagues who grew up in London, ever so street-wise and with more bite than I ever had at the age of 18 growing up in Melbourne.

Exhausted after a day in heels life was on replay in the evenings - being greeted at home by the disappointment of company job freezes via rejection emails and then the assumption that I really just wasn't trying hard enough to land a professional role by my peers. There was fierce competition for every position advertised and my days off were filled scouring Internet job sites and calling recruiters hoping they could get me out of retail hell.

From job hunting to flat hunting, sometimes it's got to do with luck in the transient London society.  Finding a room in a flat-share that has the right mix of people, location, a bed that doesn't touch all three walls and a toilet that doesn't require a bucket to refill after flushing is a challenge in itself. Following on from that is stage two of the accomodation search process, waiting to get the OK from the new flatmates. Hopes are high that they 'pick me, pick me' all so I could have a home to lay my hat.

Living in London is tough. You need to suck it up, but how long can you last without being consumed by the push and shove of the city? The economy is shot, the exchange rates are dismal and the concept of taking cold showers through winter when the boiler breaks down weren't really in the picture back when I planned the overseas adventure. Daily news reports of more company employment cuts and a double-dip recession have me working longer with little extra reward except for my much-loved weekends away to the continent. 

So I ask myself as I complete my work visa extension form - is this still a holiday?

Item 100: Working Holiday? CHECK!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Item 99: Ryokan

Ryokan Japan
Location: Wakayama, Japan 

To balance out the hustle of the city, I toured down Shirahama seaside to stay at a Ryokan -a traditional Japanese style B&B. I'm not really a spa girl myself, but having enjoyed the blue lagoon this year I was open to a bit of relaxation and the hotel offered 'round the clock access to it's private onsen spas.

I was escorted to my room where I took off my shoes and opened the sliding doors to the tatami-matted room set up with a low table and tea.

Having done a little bit of research on the onsen etiquette I was quite hesitant to head straight to the spa. I spent the afternoon watching people in the hotel wander around in slippers and yukata, hung out on the balcony to view the panorama, enjoyed a traditional dinner and hydrated in preparation of the hot-spring water.

Finally having stalled as much as I could, I went and changed into the hotel provided yukata and headed to the ladies onsen. The spas are segregated between male and female, mainly due to the reason I'd been avoiding them- you have to bath naked! I left my slippers at the entrance of the spa, chose a basket amongst the shelves in the changing room to place my belongings and then measured up the hotel provided flannel to assess which part of my body to cover. As fast as I could, I stripped down to bare all and raced to the to an open cubicle furthest from any other guests without looking left or right to shower off.

Washed down, I headed to the closest of three pools and into the 40 degree water. Hot hot hot, especially when there's no time to dip in-and-out to acclimatise to the temperature and all you have is a tiny towel behind which to hide.

Realising no one was looking, comfort began to settle in as I relaxed in the water. That was for about two minutes. 

Then I got bored.

For one, if you're in a communal bath, you don't really want to be sitting close enough to your neighbour for common chit-chat. And the temperature is actually quite high to be sweating in for an extended time, even if you hop between pools. 

I called it quits after 15 minutes. My body was revitalised (enough), by the waters and it was back to my room which had been set up with a futon for a good night's rest while I'd been away.

Item 99: Ryokan? CHECK!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Item 98: Dotonbori - Osaka

Dotonbori Glico Man
Location: Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Dotonbori is busy with tourists and lined with eateries including street vendours selling takoyaki (octopus balls), and the infamous fugu which is easily identified by a giant puffer fish suspended in the air. 

Visiting this area last week, memories of my visit to Japan in 1999 were recalled.  Along the Ebisubashi bridge suited up men in the midst of winter came up to me and my sister with their business cards each time we crossed. With the language barrier and being our first overseas trip, we weren't really sure what to do. We were young and innocent...and blushed our way past these "suitors".

So this time during my return visit the season was warmer, I thought myself a tad bit more worldly and ready to tackle the bridge. But this time - the men weren't so well dressed and they were handing out leaflets to restaurants! Could I have been so naive to think I was getting lots of expressions of interest back in the day?

Perhaps things have changed in 11 years but I've just done a little search online and the bridge has the nickname of nampa-bashi - "pick-up bridge", so let's leave my younger self to dream a little longer.... 

Item 98: Dotonbori? CHECK!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Item 97: Hong Kong - food and markets!!!

Hong Kong Gold Fish Street
Location: Hong Kong 

I finally made it back to visit as was my intention during my last stopover in Hong Kong. Not much more was planned but to eat like a machine and shop like crazy. And that I did.

During the stay, my brunches were filled with dumplings from the dim sum restaurants en-route through the city to the next shopping destination. As I caught up with friends who lived locally and had recently visited Europe, at each meal came the question, 'Why is the food so bad in London?'

Having lived in the UK for the past four years it's still hit-and-miss for me to find a randomly good eatery at a decent price. So unfortunately I had no answer for them, but took their pity as they offered me the last dumpling on the table as I wouldn't "get anything this tasty for much longer".

I also made pit-stops to the fresh fruit markets around Times Square to pick up a pomelo, dragon fruit and guava to add some tropical elements to the holiday diet. This was counterbalanced by the supermarkets that offered peanut butter Oreo's, durian ice-cream, wasabi peas and 'essential Waitrose' (London's home-brand products), that were being sold as high-end British groceries. 

As for the shopping, Hong Kong is filled with many massive malls filled with luxury labels that the population of China's booming economy can't seem to get enough of. Look at the Burberry share price during the current double-dip recession. And then match it to the hoards of day-visitors from the mainland queuing outside the giant LV store. Other malls also have the equivalent high-street brands like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo which for me, are available in London. Consequently the markets took my interest for shopping ventures.

My hotel was based on the Kowloon side of the city this visit. Nice an close to Ladies Market (which sells clothing, not 'ladies'!), where I picked up some standard black leggings for HKD$30 = £2.40! Bargain!! 

The most interesting market during the evening was at Gold Fish Street - lined with pet stores with fish bagged and ready for sale under fluorescent street lights. Tiny turtles for the same price as my leggings were also on offer as were tea-cup dogs for a much higher price, bred no-doubt to fit into the tiny apartments of the bustling city. 

A completely fulfilling visit to the city and please note, no new pets were added to my shopping list.

Item 97: Hong Kong? CHECK

Monday, 12 September 2011

Item 96: Summer Barbeque - London

summer bbq
Location: London, United Kingdom

Take that London! You may be rainy and windy with temperamental bursts of sunshine, but I got a barbeque in before the end of Summer! 

After seeing the weather forecast for a 26 degree day, with a day's notice I managed to round up a good group of random friends, gather them around the mini-Weber on a Saturday evening and light up the coals to make the most of the last outdoor-eating opportunity for the season.

On the menu:
- Old English and Pork and Apple Sausages
- Organic hamburgers straight from the local butcher
- Lamb chops marinated in garlic and rosemary
- Roasted peppers
- One corn on the cob
- Mixed garden salad
- Chang's oriental noodle salad (ingredients care of the Australia shop)
- Bananas warmed on the barbie for dessert
- Apple and strawberry crumble cake
- Kelly's Cornish clotted cream ice cream 

We gambled on the English weather and came up trumps on the night. Can't wait until next Summer for the next barbie. 

Item 96: Summer Barbeque? CHECK!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Item 95: Bergen, beautifully romantic

Location: Bergen, Noway

Arriving by train in the afternoon, we made our way to one of the top hotels in Bergen. Having only eaten at the station en-route we were very excited to hear the hotel offered afternoon pancakes in the restaurant and also fruit for those who were health concious. 

After a satisfying afternoon tea, we took the Floibanen funicular up to Mt Floyen which had a few intermediary stops along the way, signifying how high the mountain was from the town. The lookout had beautiful views of the city which were covered in sunshine. We were told that it would only take half an hour to walk back down, and as we wandered downhill, past suspecting trolls and traditional Norwegian wooden houses we wished we were as fit as the people making their way up-hill for the steep incline. 

In the evening, we took advantage of our accommodation for views of the city from the hotel's tower.  It was a gem that we hadn't realised we'd booked. The location of our hotel allowed us to tick off more things on our list very quickly.

For one, Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf was right next door so the beautiful historical waterfront was at our doorstep. Similarly, the fish market was down the road  and we were shocked to find whale meat on sale for the same price as tuna, actually we were disappointly shocked to see it on sale at all!

We found ourselves with the second day's afternoon in Bergen to spare. It was a Monday and the Art Museum was closed. It was the perfect excuse to spend some time in Juhls Silvergallery (well, it's like a museum), by the wharf treating ourselves with a small piece of art to take home to remember our wonderful time away.

Item 95: Bergen? CHECK! 

Item 94: Norway in a Nutshell... Bergen to Flåm return

Location: Flåm, Norway

I picked my friends' brains for inspiration when I planned my final bank holiday of Summer: Norway in a Nutshell round trip from Bergen. I'd seen amazing photos and heard only good things. And friends, you know your stuff! This was one of my  most revitalising short breaks since coming to London four years ago.

My travel buddies and I collected our tour tickets from Bergen train station on Saturday morning and began our first day's travel via train, bus and ferry to the town of Flåm. The entire journey was filled with steep declines down to where the valley met the Sognefjord, Norway's longest and deepest fjord. Vibrant greens were dotted with pretty little houses along the coast, covered with mist for the morning. A sense of atmosphere posed the threat of down-pour which luckily started and finished during the second half of the cruise before docking at the harbour for our one-night stay in Flåm.

With the extra time in town, we were able to enjoy its peaceful  ambiance after all the tourist buses had left. In the afternoon, we went for a two hour hike up to the ecological farm which provided views of the fjord and valley from above, along a river, past the waterfall and enjoyed a cup of apple juice from the locally grown produce on the way back down.  We arrived back in good time for a casual and tasty dinner at the Fretheim hotel cafe, one of the four restaurants open that evening (and the only one not booked out).

The next morning we woke to find a healthy sized rabbit munching on the pretty flowers outside our hostel, happy the sun had come out for our journey on the famous Flåm railway, one of the world’s steepest railway lines. Again the scenery was amazing, and the train provided commentary and a stopover at at Kjossfossen waterfall. A perfect photo opportunity as we kept a look out for the local seductive forest creature - Huldra.

The mystical spells of the stop were broken by the whistle of the train conductor and it was back on board for a short transit at Myrdal station on to a commuter train back to the city of Bergen.

Item 94: Norway in a Nutshell? CHECK!