30 July 2015

Dole post in progress

I know I'm late in posting this week. But I do have a post in the works. Every time I start writing I get lost in the memories and time slips by. Also I might have to split it in two to avoid it being too long a read. Be sure to check back again soon, or you can subscribe to my rss feed (button is on the left) and you'll be emailed when it's up.
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22 July 2015

Arriving at a cute French village for my friends wedding

As I write this, I'm ensconced in a comfy first class seat aboard the TGV Lyria speeding my way through the French country-side. I can see fields and villages whizz by in a blur of greys, greens and gold (thanks to the sun kissed wheat). I'm on my way to my friends wedding in the south of France. My bridesmaid dress sits by my side - a cautious move in case someone poor bugger decides to steal my bag, the dress, at least, will be safe. I'm looking forward to having a few days off in a quiet village, spending time with my friend, and meeting all her Aussie friends who have made the colossal trip out to share in the celebration.

If I can manage a stable internet connection, I'll be sharing some photos of the provincial French village and countryside on my Twitter feed (@TravelsByVP) so be sure to follow me there if you haven't already.

...well I wrote the above earlier today, and over 12 hours later, I'm finally getting around to posting it. It has been a busy day! The little town is ADORABLE! Ive met K's friends and family, all who are really nice and, my gosh, its nice to hear the Aussie accent again.

Tomorrow we're all going up to Dijon for lunch before heading out on a wine tour. I don't drink but I'm looking forward to seeing a bit more of this region, finding out about its history and (hopefully) sampling some yummy cheese!

I'm sure coverage will be awful tomorrow - it wasn't so great today even in the centre of town - but I'll try to tweet some pics.

Have you explored the French countryside or gone wine tasting?

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14 July 2015

A tiny park with a big heart

Postman's Park is a tiny bit of greenery sandwiched between buildings and street only a few minutes walk from the grand St Paul's Cathedral. I must have walked past it so many times without realising what it was and, being only a few minutes from St Paul's, its really a nice spot to visit if you are in the area, so no excuses!

The park sits on the site of the old churchyard and burial ground - some of the headstones can still be seen on the edges of the park. Might be a bit creepy for some, but that didn't deter me and clearly didn't deter the postmen who used to stop for their lunch break back when the headquarters of the General Post Office was nearby which, incidentally, is how the park got its name. Now its home to office workers taking a break, seeking respite from their day by the side of the softly bubbling fountain and the little fish swimming away in it.

The park is also home to a peculiar memorial. The artist GF Watts wanting to have a memorial for the 'average' person managed, after several suggestions and set-backs, to build a memorial "In commemoration of heroic self sacrifice". On the side of one of the park walls tiled 'plaques' remember ordinary individuals who gave their lives in order to help others. I walked along and read every single one.

I couldn't help being impressed and a little humbled at these ordinary acts of bravery. Children as young as 8, young women, and men as old as 60, are remembered for their sacrifice. My cynical side did wonder if people today are still capable of such incredible kindness. If I was capable. But despite the coldness of commuters, I have seen on many occasions how kind they can be when they need to be.

The little fountain, circular flower beds surrounding the sundial and many benches dotted around the park do make it a cute little place to escape to. Its not very quiet, being off a main street, and its a little bit odd being surrounded by buildings but, all the same, its worth a peek - even if its just to see the memorial. I really don't know of any others that are not associated with remembering soldiers. Not that soldiers shouldn't be remembered, its just nice to see ordinary bravery remembered too, there should be more.

Did I mention that this park caught the attention of Hollywood? Apparently several scenes from Close were shot there - I'm going to have to watch that movie now.

Oh, and in case you haven't seen one yet, an old blue police phone box sits outside the Aldersgate Street entrance :)

What do you think about the memorial? Would you visit?

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07 July 2015

Sandy seaside escape to Margate

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that Timeout had mentioned Margate as an escape from London. I did just that a couple of months ago. I was tired (shock-horror!) of my commute, the pushing, the bumping, the crowds and general routine, and wanted to escape for a bit to somewhere with a bit more space. I didn’t know I'd end up at Margate. I was looking for a place that involved a long-ish train trip, wouldn’t be expensive, and would land me somewhere fairly central so I could walk around rather than take another mode of transport.

Click to expand

And so it was that Margate popped up and Margate was where I had this view while munching on fish and chips.

It just so happened that Margate was my first sandy beach experience in the UK! Take that Brighton! When I arrived the tide was out, way out. No one was swimming, it was still a bit too cold for that, and it looked like mainly a few of the locals were out and about. But it was perfect. Lots of space, chilled vibe, just what the doctor ordered.

By the way, why is it such a pleasure to walk along the beach just out of reach of the lapping waters edge? I don’t know, but for me, it was instant relaxation.

Old market square

It was definitely the 'off' season, the main strip had that quiet, shuttered up feel to it, the arcades mostly empty and the new 'retro' funpark not yet, but I could imagine it on a hot summers day, full of beach goers, sun seekers and swimmers. I walked along the beach till I reached a set of steps leading up to the old town centre which was busy with locals and just begged to be explored. You can imagine, little shops selling antiques, tea varieties, household ornaments, books and a few cute cafes.

Cute little tea shop

Just love the name of this antique shop

But Margate is not just about the seaside, arcades or funpark. Its home to a curious little site, a good 10 minutes walk from the centre of town...the Shell Grotto...

No-one knows who built it, why it was put there or anything about how it came into being. There are theories of course but not one knows for sure. The shells come from all over the world, which makes it more interesting. It piqued peoples curiosity since it was found and has been open to visitors since. If you look closely, a lot of shells have been 'signed' by visitors. I found one that was dated 1866 - now that's really old graffiti!

Back then the grotto used to be lit by gas lanterns which is why the natural shell colours don't show anymore. This pic sort of gives you an idea of what it would have looked like.

The grotto also has a small display of shell art, history and other info before you descend into the grotto. These two carved shells are just gorgeous don't you think?

So, next time you want to escape London for a day, keep Margate in mind, you're bound to come back relaxed.

What do you do to escape your 'daily grind'?

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01 July 2015

Brunching at The Providores in Marylebone

Marylebone high street, only a short walk from Oxford Street, is a great place to escape to in central London. Its full of cafes, restaurants and shops, and retains a little bit of a 'village' feel. Because its so central, its a great half-way meeting point to catch up with friends. And that's how I came to be at The Providores for a spot of brunch with a friend of mine one weekend.

As we didn't have a reservation,we were lucky to snag a seat in the busy Tapa Room on the ground floor and quickly ordered coffee - that's the only incentive that can drag me out of bed before 10am on a Saturday - while we ummed and ahhhed over what to choose from the menu. Being run by two Kiwis, it was nice to see Vegemite on toast on the menu.

From sweetcorn and blueberry fritters, French toast, fruit salads to tortillas and fry-ups, everything seemed to have a bit of a twist. I ended up ordering a veggie fry up (my breakfast taste buds can be so boring sometimes), while my friend gave me serious food envy...

She'd ordered the Turkish eggs on whipped yoghurt with hot chilli butter and gluten free bread with a side of avocado and bacon. My gosh did it look good. It even sounds good doesn't it? I really wanted to order it too but was worried it might be too spicy. It wasn't...next time that's what I'm getting! When it arrived, everything was delicious.

The Tapa room was buzzing with chatter while the staff swiftly took orders and delivered food to ravenous customers. At our window seat, my friend and I caught up while people watching. We couldn't help feeling very lucky as people came in wanting a table but having to either wait or find an alternative. It did get a little too noisy after a while due to the small space - or maybe the coffee kicked in ;) Either way, we were happy to move our catch up to the high street and wander a while, explore a bookshop or two - not a bad start to the weekend don't you think?

Any other brunch spots you think I should try? Whats your go-to brunch dish?

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23 June 2015

Are you afraid of the dark?

I wasn’t going to tell anyone this. In fact I was very serious when I said, quite sternly to a certain Kiwi, "That never happened". But there are moments which are just too funny not to share. One such moment happened to me in the dark. Please wrench your minds out of the gutter. I said funny, not dirty. Ahem. Anyway, I was in the dark and I was having dinner. It was so pitch black that I could not see my hand in front of my face. I had to feel my way around my table, yup, there's the cutlery and…pat pat pat…yep there's the glass of water…mmmhmm, feels like a square plate…ok now the tricky part, fork in hand, lets find the food on the plate. A methodical light 'scraping' and…found something! Eureaka! Stab it! Quick! Before you lose where it is! Hahaha! *smug look* Yeah, no one can see that. Now to actually eat it. "Woohoo! I found my mouth!" Um, yeah, I actually said that last bit out loud. In a still relatively quiet restaurant. But I had to laugh, and the lovely Emma (the Kiwi in this story) had the generosity to laugh at with me too. Thankfully no one can see you go red in the dark.

Arriving at Dans Le Noir, the hostess sat us down and explained the process before asking us to choose which menu we preferred and taking our drinks order. The menus are generic (meat, seafood, veg, 'suprise me') and you can make dietary requests. Once that was sorted, we were asked to place all glowing/light generating/shiny objects, jackets, bags, scarfs and the kitchen sink into a locker before being taken to meet our blind waiter Darren. Introductions made, it was time to go in. Right hand on each others right shoulder, Darren led us beyond the heavy red velvet curtain and into the darkness. It wasn't a gradual loss of light, almost as soon as we'd stepped through, and the curtain had closed behind us, it was pitch black. I could not see a thing. I have to admit, I had a "Holy sh*t! What have I done?!" moment and maybe a bit of a "What excuse can I come up with to back out without looking like a coward" moment too. But it can be really surprising what you learn about yourself when you push through challenging moments. Have I said moment enough times yet? Moment, moment, moment.

Total trust and rationality got me to my seat. The feel of the chair and the table, oddly grounding. The voice of my fellow diner, reassuring. Especially when the both of us started giggling away at how surreal it all was. But it was fine, after the initial nerves died off, we both settled into the amusing challenge of eating in the dark. Darren was great and learning to eat without being able to see was surprisingly easy - sort of. There may have been the occasional use of fingers to find/eat/poke the food...what? Its not like anyone could see what you were doing!

What I learnt

  • How to pour a glass of water without spilling.
  • How much I rely on seeing someone speak to 'hear' them in a noisy room (and the restaurant did fill up and get quite noisy)
  • I do things subconsciously, like gesturing when I speak, even if no one can see me.
  • In a normal restaurant, I don’t think about or 'taste' what I'm eating. Its as though just knowing what I ordered, my brain supplies the flavour when it sees the food presented. Unless its an amazing restaurant where the flavours blow you away.
  • Seeing food is part of the pleasure in dining out for me.
  • Just how much I rely on my vision – to feel safe, to 'read' people, to get around and be independent.
  • Just how little I rely on my vision – my body knows how to do stuff without my having to really think about it; think muscle memory.
  • I will never stop seeking and trying such weird and wonderful experiences.

Tips to make it through the dark

  1. Keep your wits about you.
    • You need to trust that a) Your waiter knows his way around the room and will make sure you reach your table safely and b) You wont trip, this is a business who knows people cant see where they're going so they are not going to put anything in your way
  2. Don’t Panic
    • No one is going to jump out at you.
    • You aren’t going to be left on your own.
    • You can leave at any time.
    • You will get used to the darkness once your mind builds up a mental image.
  3. Feed your mind anything you can for a mental image
    • Use your sense of touch to 'see' your chair, table and items on the table.
    • Use your hearing to figure out where other people are, where they are and how far they are. This gives you a sense of space and your place within it.
    • Use your imagination. Its like daydreaming, you can 'see' things in your daydream and this is no different.
  4. Go with a friend
    • You can go alone, but having someone to share the weird experience with helps it feel real. And chatting to someone distracts you from your initial discomfort.

The food

To be honest, I wasn’t blown away. It was average. But that may have something to do with the fact that I couldn’t see it and didn’t know what any of it was. I'd love to do an experiment where I did the whole thing again knowing what I was eating to see if it affected the taste. My one criticism, which has nothing to do with not being able to see, is the temperature of the food, it was warm, not hot, and one dish was actually slightly cold. So, don’t go for the food, go for the experience ;)

Would you try eating in the dark?

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16 June 2015

7 Tips to see and enjoy Shakespeare

Photo by John Tramper. Courtesy of Globe Theatre.

Ok, ok. I know Shakespeare isn’t for everyone. I didn’t like it either thanks to English class at school. But I fell in love with it thanks to a friend of mine taking me to Twelfth Night performed by Sydney's Bell Shakespeare Company. Twelfth Night became my favourite play because of that production. Since moving to London however, I've been incredibly lucky to see many of Shakespeare's plays; Much Ado About Nothing by the RSC, Taming the Shrew at Kensington Palace Gardens, Twelfth Night at Richmond Theatre, A Midsummer Night's Dream & A Comedy of Errors at the Globe Theatre. And on Saturday I went to see As You Like It, also at the Globe Theatre.

So why? Why do I bother going to these plays? Because they are quite funny. Yes FUNNY. If you don’t know Shakespeare, each one of those plays I mentioned are one of Shakespeare's comedies. Aside from Hamlet in high school, I haven’t seen any of his tragedies or histories. So hear me out, I'm here to help you enjoy a night out watching Shakespeare. If it doesn’t work, you are welcome to come back and yell at me, I can take it ;) So for Shakespeare newbies, here is how to do Shakespeare.

1) First thing's first. Choose a Comedy. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT be silly and pick a tragedy or history as your first Shakespearian play. Go for something fun, light and full of laughs. Some of Shakespeare's more popular comedies are those I've already mentioned.

2) Make sure its performed by a company known for good Shakespeare. This will probably cost a bit more but its worth it. Amateur productions may be interesting , have an interesting take, and done well enough but a high-end company will really make a difference to such a play. In the UK/London, you cant go wrong with the Globe Theatre or the RSC.

3) Get a good seat. I know good seats are expensive but here's the thing. A lot of what makes a play is the expressions on the actors faces…if you are too far to see it, you miss the emotion and impact of the words. It leaves a whole lot of talk and little meaning.

4) Get an idea of what the play is about. You don’t have to read the play – in fact, that’ll probably just bore you – just hop onto the interwebs to find and read the synopsis. This will help because, if you know basically what's happening, the language won't lose you.

5) Expect that you wont get all of it. And that’s ok. Even today, a lot of people who study his plays still arent sure what is meant by some of the things he wrote. But Shakespeare wrote for all audiences, some stuff is subtle, some slapstick. So if you get a few laughs out of it you have just rocked your first Shakespeare play, you awesome thing you.

6) This is a Globe Theatre specific tip. Those £5 standing only tickets are a really good deal, you're as close as you can get to the stage and, often have actors walk right past you. Don’t buy them for your first play. Just no. After about maybe 15 minutes or half an hour the novelty of being close to the action will wear off and all you'll think about is sitting or getting out of there. And lets not even mention how wet and miserable you'll be if it rains. If you get a seat, fork out an extra £1 for a cushion – trust me, your bottom will thank you.

Alternative 6) Buy 2 £5 tickets to the same play on different nights. Watch the first half one night and the second half another night. Bring a rain poncho - I doubt they'll let you obstruct other peoples views if it starts to drizzle.

7) Its ok if you do all of the above and still don't like Shakespeare! I'll still love you, and you'll still be awesome ;)

Do you have any of your own tips or experiences to share?

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