Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cool Yule

Today is my first full day in London in over a week. It’s great to be back – but a Christmas break at my parents did me good too. After a manic month in London it was nice to take a step back from life – and, to some degree, in time. You see, where I come from, we do Christmas Old School, from real Christmas trees and holly to stockings and retro food.
It was a typical family Christmas. Christmas Eve was a hive of activity with a last minute trip into town and a frantic flurry of decorating and cleaning before the festivities kicked off with an “alcofrolic” and a game of Scrabble. Christmas Day started with croissants (a family tradition) and Bucks Fizz before I took up position by the Christmas tree to distribute the mountain of presents – a role that, as the youngest member of the family has been mine for time immemorial and one that I hold proudly, despite the hazardous pine needles.
As usual, we shunned turkey (my dad hates the stuff) and opted for good old fashioned Prawn Cocktail followed by Mushroom Swiss Steak. It was Retro Heaven, and went perfectly with my Eighties-inspired batwing top. After the Queen’s Speech (my mum needs to watch it to keep up with the Jones’) we returned to the board game cupboard and selected Monopoly - and I mean proper Old School Monopoly which my parents suspect was purchased before they were even married.
On Boxing Day we went for the obligatory mince pie-busting walk – and gave my mum a chance to use her Christmas Nordic walking poles (even though we bought them for her in September). Back indoors I settled down to my newest hobby, knitting and luckily my sister arrived before I made any more mistakes. She came without her man, who was suffering from an ear infection and feeling less than festive, leaving us as a family of four for the first time in several years. Needless to say, more present opening, games and eating ensued.
Yesterday I rounded up my Christmas with thank you notes to my relatives for the lovely gifts I had received. Letter writing is a lost art, but I like to think that it means more than a quick email or a text message – and, let’s face it, at this time of year it is a joy to receive anything in the post that doesn’t have a minimum payment on it. So, at the train station, I posted my letters before settling in my seat on a refreshingly quiet train.
Tomorrow I will be heading off once more for NYE with friends in Derbyshire. Along with their Christmas presents and a few leftovers from my mum’s bulging kitchen cupboards, I shall be keeping up the retro theme with Twister – and possibly dominoes too.
So, what is my message to you all, you may ask? Keep Yule Cool – go Old School!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas Countdown

Well, there’s five more sleeps ‘til Christmas – and I am sat in my flat at a bit of a loss of what to do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty I could be getting on with, but considering we are well and truly in the middle of the festive season, I am feeling decidedly calm and organised. All those essential pre-yuletide activities have been ticked off that oh-so daunting list and, with two days spare before I go up to my folks, I can’t help but think I must have forgotten to do something.
The last week has been a whirl of Christmas activity. Last Wednesday I met a couple of girlfriends at my favourite haunt, Drink Shop Do, for cake, cocktails and Christmas card making. The following day we had a Christmas “do” at work, so when I got home later that evening the kitchen became a hive of activity as I set about making sausage rolls, white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake and wrapping up my Secret Santa gift. The following day the fruits of my labours went down very well (someone told me to take my cheesecake recipe to Marks and Spencer’s!) and my Secret Santa recipient seemed quite taken with her pretty scarf – and a personalised map of Camden to stop her getting lost (and I thought my geography was bad). Chuffed with myself for throwing her off the scent by asking ignorant questions about the map (“What, someone got you an A to Z?”) I settled down to one too many beers, followed by some flirting, insulting my boss (“But saying you look like Patrick Stewart is a compliment!”) and getting a bit teary when a colleague started telling me how good I was at my job (cringe!) before tottering home. Needless to say, the following day was spent nursing my hangover and my ego.
On Saturday it was time for the obligatory Christmas visit to the hairdressers. Sadly, this was less than successful – the highlights are okay, but the over-zealous layers are NOT – and I have been left looking like I’ve just had a fight with Edward Scissorhands and in need of some very strategic hair clips. Needless to say I won’t be going back to that establishment. On Sunday my final Christmas delivery showed up (I shall save you from another rant about Amazon and Yodel) and after a lovely roast in the pub, I got down to making my flat looking Christmassy, with the help of a parcel from Mama Berry full of fairy lights and cute decorations.
Yesterday I wrapped things up - quite literally - with an hour in the queue at the Post Office, a trip up to Highgate to mop up the Christmas present shopping and cooking Beef Bourbignon for a relaxing pre-Christmas dinner with another chum. After she left I settled down to a movie and wrapped up the rest of my gifts, which are now artistically arranged on my lounge floor.
So, today and tomorrow I have nothing I need to do other than enjoy having a couple of days to relax. Then on Thursday I head up north for a Christmas surprise that evening courtesy of Mama Berry. On Friday it is the annual meet-up with the girls before the festivities get well and truly under way on Christmas Eve. Which reminds me – I need to pop out to get some mince pies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. I knew there was something I’d forgotten...
Merry Christmas! :-)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Service with a Sting

Happy Monday everyone! Or rather, happy Monday evening – and congratulations on getting through the first day of the working week. The weekend seems like months ago already, and the fact that I was in picturesque Prague less than 36 hours ago feels like a fiction after a day at the office. But then, I did land in London with a bit of a bump.
My travel chum pre-booked a taxi to bring us home after our weekend of sightseeing, shopping and Staropramen. After our whirlwind tour of the decidedly touristy city, I was happy to fork out the extra few quid to return to north London in comfort.
After a bit of a debacle trying to find the taxi driver, we were on our way.
“The taxi company said it was £35?” My chum checked.
“Yes yes.” The driver confirmed. So, happy that we knew where we stood, we sat back and both settled down to a bit of texting to our loved ones. My chum asked how much it would be to drop me home too.
“Eight pounds extra.”
For a five minute journey. Max. We muttered a bit. My chum tried again.
“What about if we call it forty for the entire trip?”
“No. It is forty-three to Finsbury Park.”
We looked at each other. Somewhere between Stanstead and Walthamstow the fare had gone up eight pounds. My friend quibbled. That’s when things started to get hairy.
The driver pulled over.
“Give me my money now!”
“But we aren’t at our destination!”
“Give me my money now or I’ll go to the police!”
Sure enough, he set off again and stopped a few hundred yards further on outside a deserted police station. I tried to reason with him.
“Sorry, is that including the extra drop off or to Finsbury Park?”
“Finsbury Park! Give me my money!”
Well, after a call to the cab firm we established that the fare had gone up £8 because he had had to pay for parking – although there's a free pick up point – and 40 minutes waiting time. Despite the fact that we had arrived ten minutes earlier than arranged. In the end we paid up and off we went – with a heavy cloud over the conclusion of our weekend.
Nothing like service with a smile, eh? And, don’t worry, I shall be complaining.
I had already had a weekend of being blatantly – and cheekily - ripped off. The first time I didn’t let it bother me. After a lovely drink in the grand Cafe Louvre we settled our bill with the friendly waitress, who announced that she was keeping the change for her tip before we could argue. Never mind the fact that she settled for less than we would have given her, but the cheek! Anyway, we muttered under our breath a bit and got over it.
Until it happened again.
We were having a whale of a time over a couple of Kozels, but sadly it had to come to an end. We asked for the bill. It arrived, 153 kroner and correct, so we gave a 200 kroner bill to our waiter.
No change arrived.
“Er, excuse me, but we are waiting for our change?”
A big show ensued as our waiter searched for some change and gave us 20 kroner back.
“Sorry, but we are still short?”
He looked at his mate and walked off saying something about it being his tip. Er, hello? I thought we were supposed to give the tip based on the service we received? And yes, we would have tipped generously – BUT IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE CUSTOMER’S DECISION!
The final straw came when we decided to grab a corn on the cob on the way back to our hotel on Saturday night. I gave 60 kroners for a 50 kroner snack. My change was placed in front of me, but when I went to pick it up my hand was slapped away by the lady serving my midnight feast.
“That isn’t yours! You gave 50 kroner.”
“No, I gave you three 20’s.”
“It was 50.”
Unbelievable! Okay, so I am a tourist, but that doesn’t give locals the right to well and truly extract the pee. Okay, so a vast majority of people we came across were polite and respectful, but the handful who weren’t really tainted my view of such a beautiful and interesting city.
Sadly, I suspect I know where they might have got such a disregard for other people from. Especially if they have ever caught a cab in London.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Festive Freebies

Oh my word. I am knackered. I have just been out on my bike to test my new cycling helmet (yep, if definitely makes me look like a geek) and my thighs aren’t thanking me. You see, I can just about jog up hill, but cycle up one? Riding a bike clearly uses a set of muscles that I have neglected to use in the gym.
And, the best bit? I have just had a workout in the great outdoors – for free. A couple of months ago I cancelled my gym membership and decided to take a more thrifty approach to exercise. Okay, so you have to pay for a certain amount of equipment, but once you have it, you’re done. No pesky direct debits to worry about every month.
So, along with my new love of cycling, I have my running to keep up my cardio, and the Wii Fit I got for Christmas two years ago offers a range of muscle workouts – and gentler exercise if I don’t feel like venturing outdoors or getting too sweaty. And, if I’ve been a good girl, I might just get the Zumba game for Christmas too.
Maybe it’s my northernness or my recent change of circumstances, but I have recently embraced the thrifty life. More specifically, freebies. I have long sang the praises of being able to walk to work – okay, it takes 45 minutes, but so does the bus – which doesn’t burn any calories, is unkind to the environment and costs me £1.30 a pop. Okay, it’s not exactly a huge amount of money, but it all adds up. I have also started to take my flask to work if I am not at my usual office – much as I like a gingerbread latte, they don’t come cheap, and, well, no coffee means no workee.
Then there is Christmas shopping. 3 for 2 in Boots? Oh, yes please! Even better – make your own gifts. I have made three this year – my sister got some framed photographs I took of Highgate Cemetery for her December Birthday and two other friends will be receiving my handiwork on the 25th. Need some new Christmas decorations but can’t squeeze them into the budget? Try Freecycle. I’ve signed up to about 6 in North London, and, although I’ve not yet been quick enough to get anything, I’ve seen two Christmas trees posted on it already – not to mention loads of TVs, DVD players and furniture. It’s my new internet addiction.
Okay, so we have covered shopping and exercise, but what about having fun without splashing the cash? The other week I went to the V&A to see the Annie Lennox House exhibition and a display of entries to the Illustration awards – both free. Then, of course, we had the rest of the museum to get lost in. A perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Feeling peckish? Well, if you hang around a busy shopping street or station for long enough, you’re bound to see someone giving away free samples. Yesterday in Angel I was offered a free Miso soup and chocolate beans courtesy of Itsu. Needless to say, I didn’t say no. And then there’s my old favourite: Complaining. After getting stuck at Peterborough train station on Sunday evening for three hours on my way home from York, I was determind to get at least some of the £88.60 I had paid for the pleasure back. So, on Monday I got online and filled in the “Delay Repay” form. Yesterday I received the full amount back in vouchers. Result. Shame I’ve already booked my tickets home for Christmas...
And lastly, need something doing but can’t afford to pay a professional? Don’t forget your friends. A group of my chums have offered to help me out recently with a bit of a logistical nightmare that was looking like proving very expensive. Someone else has offered me a memory foam mattress cover to aid my achy back in exchange for dinner. Another chum has offered me her old DVD player to plug the hole in my movie watching capabilities that I really can’t afford to fill at the moment. This same friend is also a keen barterer – in the past I have bought her coffee and cake in exchange for a Twitter tutorial, and she has returned the favour in exchange for a homemade draught excluder for her mother in law. It might be old school, but it saves a lot of money – and lets you help each other out.
London is an expensive city to live in. You just need to look at it a bit differently and you can get a lot out of it for very little cash. A case of what you know – and who you know.