January 29, 2008

Thoughts on Whole Foods in London

I am a pretty regular shopper at Whole Foods in London. The place makes me feel like I'm back in the States. There is something hugely comforting about the size of the store, all my favorite brands and the American staff. But for some reason the store doesn't seem to be doing well here. This is based on my observation that during the week the place is dead. I was there last night from 6-7pm, key shopping time, and there were very few shoppers and even fewer people at the tills. I've put some thought into it and here are possible reasons.

1. You can get healthy, organic, top-quality foods at almost any grocer in the UK.
2. People are not fashion conscious about where they shop - that's a big deal with Whole Foods shoppers in the States. Food is not a lifestyle here. Shopping at Whole Foods in the States is a statement about your politics, income and where you live.
4. Too expensive! Cheese and dairy products are cheap in the UK because of European Union farmers' subsidies. Why the heck are the prices triple at Whole Foods?
5. People aren't foodies. You buy your food, you cook it, you eat it. You don't talk about it, obsess over it, create weird allergies around it (although mine are real).
6. The store is overwhelming. Most grocery stores don't offer this kind of choice in the UK or probably Europe at large. People are overwhelmed.

It is a super store and I love going there - even if I forgot to use my discount coupon today - people just don't use coupons here - perhaps I'm becoming European in my shopping? Nah, a European wouldn't have written this post.

Counter to my assumption there is an article in the 2 December 2007 Austin-American Statesman that says the store is doing well.
Signs seem to show that Whole Foods is preparing for second London store

An apology to those who leave comments

Dear loyal readers and commenters. I discovered as I went back through my blog archives to find the Ear Wax story that people have been posting comments and I never received any kind of alert from blogger. I did have my suspicions as people had been telling me that they posted comments but I didn't see them.

I appreciate your comments and now receive alerts that they have been posted. I will respond to your comments via the blog.

Deaf boy's cotton wool bud 'cure'

You may recall that in October 2006 I expertly lodged a wax earplug into my ear and Stephen had to expertly extract it with tweezers. Yes the whole experience was gross and traumatic - although I did get some excellent advice from friends and yahoo answers.
The reason I take us down this path of memory lane is that Stephen found this story on the BBC news website Deaf boy's cotton wool bud 'cure'. What is so super freaky is that the boy had this cotton stuck in his ear for nine years and the doctors said it was probably just wax. There is no report of them investigating - they concluded wax and said, "sorry son, live with it." Of course this is not an exact quote, it is my take on the situation. Even the parents thought there was something lodged in the ear.
The poor kid was quoted as saying, "I think I'll be much happier at school now my ear does not ache all the time." I feel for you. I know what you're going through.

This is what scares me most about the National Health Service in the UK which seems to be run like a third world country. In the States this could would have had some kind of x-ray or probe put into his ear to see what the heck was going on. In the UK with their assembly-line health service they just say oh well.

Democrat presidential primary abroad

I've been following the Presidential primaries pretty closely. Clinton or Obama is the talk of London. My excitement took a new turn this weekend when I found out that I can vote, live and in person, in the Democratic primary on 5 February. All I need to do is bring my passport to the London poling place, conveniently located just down the street from our flat, and I get to vote.

My vote is even counted - something I feared wouldn't be the case if I tried absentee voting through Texas. Apparently there are 22 Democrat delegates representing Americans living abroad. Information is available at www.votefromabroad.org. Now our delegates are worth more than Florida's. How's that for a dimpled chad?

January 25, 2008

The Friday Club

Our staff at work is pretty small - just 11 of us. On Fridays it is always down to just two or three for some reason. The cool thing is that we get to crank the radio, which is fun, but otherwise it is kind of quiet and lonely. "Why are we the only ones here?"

Today we decided that we are going to start The Friday Club for us hardcore folks (is working five days a week really hardcore?)

Ideas include:
  • We take turns making lunch - but that does awaken the fear of death in me
  • We take turns deciding which take-away place to order from - nothing too greasy
  • We take turns making a snack like rice crispy treats, fairy cakes (cupcakes), biscuits (cookies) - fear of death again
  • Order pizza - oh that does sound like a good option
  • Get a worker loyalty card and if you're here on a Friday you get a stamp and if you get 10 stamps you get a prize - your paycheck!

Or maybe we should just be pleased that we love work so much and really care about our mission so we work on Fridays. Check please.

January 24, 2008

Everybody needs a good whinge partner

Whinge isn't a word that I heard before moving to the UK. It basically means whining and complaining, but it is one of those British terms that goes that extra mile, I mean kilometer, to provide the perfect description. Whinging is ageless while whining is something you would use more to describe kids.

By the way whinge is pronounced windj as in wind with a j sound at the end. (This reminds me of how my great uncle Syd use to spell Kweskin "we skin with a k").

I believe a good whinge requires a witness, someone who is there to fully receive your whinging. That was the role I played today for one of my work associates who we will call Mr. Whinge. Mr. Whinge doesn't like change and unfortunately he is facing it head-on with a web-based program that has recently been modified to present information in a different format from what he is used to. Instead of brushing him off as he whinged about the program, I decided instead to sit next to Mr. Whinge and fully witness, encourage and embrace his whinging.

Mr. Whinge went on and on about how the new presentation format just didn't work for him. He had to hit this button and that key and request this document until he finally got to what he needed (whinge, whinge, whinge). Unfortunately while I was sitting there coaching him through the whinge session he actually found a solution to his problem. This nearly disrupted his whinge but being a professional whinger he expertly obsessed over how prior to this new discovery the presentation format didn't work for him.

Mr. Whinge: It is so annoying. Why did they change it? I can't find what I need (whinge, whinge, whinge.)

Amy: Look, you just figured out a way to make it work for you. (annoyingly chipper, solution-focused American)

Mr. Whinge: But it didn't work before and that is so annoying. (whinge, whinge, whinge)

Amy: You figured it out. That's great.

Mr. Whinge: But now I have to remember how to make it work. (whinge, whinge, whinge)

Amy: How about we check-in next week and you can tell me how it's working for you?

Mr. Whinge: There will be little bits of shredded paper all over the floor and pieces of the computer embedded in the wall by then. (whinge, whinge, whinge)

Amy: Fantastic, I look forward to viewing the mess. (chipper American)

It was quite amusing for me, and I think even for Mr. Whinge, that I fully indulged his whinging. After all, he really just wanted some attention and I didn't need to provide any solutions. It was a rather therapeutic session. I highly recommend getting a whinge partner.

January 23, 2008

The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour

Our English friends Adam and Tabitha gave us a hugely helpful book for the holidays - Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. Prior to moving to England this should be required reading for future residents. I've been diligently reading it during my daily commute on the London tube and in true English fashion people have been showing little reaction although I can see that they are reading the title. I suppose it has become my armour.

Here is a sample insight:

"It is not considered entirely polite, for example, to ask someone directly 'What do you do?', although if you think about it this is the most obvious question to put to a new acquaintance, and the easiest way to start a conversation. But in addition to our privacy scruples, we English seem to have a perverse need to make social life difficult for ourselves, so etiquette requires us to find a more roundabout, indirect way of discovering what people do for a living. It can be most amusing to listen to the tortured and devious lengths to which English people will go to ascertain a new acquaintance's profession without actually asking the forbidden question. The guessing game, which is played at almost every middle-class social gathering where people are meeting each other for the first time, involves attempting to guess a person's occupation from 'clues' in remarks made about other matters.

A comment about traffic problems in the local area, for example, will elicit the response, 'Oh, yes, it's a nightmare - and the rush hour is even worse: do you drive to work?' The other person knows exactly what question is really intended, and will usually obligingly answer the unspoken enquiry as well as the spoken one, saying something like, 'Yes, but I work at the hospital, so at least I don't have to get into the town centre.' The questioner is now allowed to make a direct guess: 'Oh, the hospital - you're a doctor, then?' (When two or three possible occupations are indicated, it is polite to name the highest-status one as a first guess - doctor rather than nurse, porter or medical student; solicitor rather than secretary. Also, even though an explicit guess is permitted at this stage, it is best expressed as an interrogative statement, rather than as a direct question.)... [pages 44-45]

Good golly we Americans would just say, "so what is it that you do?" Who knows how many times I've inadvertently embarrassed an English person when I've been so forward? Or perhaps they are relieved by my directness?

January 20, 2008

The Wonders of Sunday

It may be a bit early for Spring in London but this morning I woke up to the sound of birds chirping. What glorious music they were making. No rain today so I took out Ike the Bike and went for a ride around Hyde Park. The weather is a bit drizzly but also warm - I'd say in the mid-50s.

While on my ride I passed this port-a-potty situated outside a housing unit that is under renovation. Could you imagine having to use it? How do you get in or out and more importantly - how do you clean it?

Later in the day Stephen and I went to The Wallace Collection which is a mansion in Central London that houses a formerly-private collection of French 18th century painting, furniture and armour. The setting is amazing - each room is ornately decorated and the central courtyard houses a lovely restaurant.
On our way to our next stop - Selfridges - we passed this pink car. Super cute, super small. That wasn't the end of our amazing sites as Selfridges now has an area called the Wonder Room. I of course didn't understand that they meant jewelry so I asked one of the guys selling Rolex's where we could find the Wonder Room and he said, "Darling, this is the Wonder Room. You have arrived." One of the wonders was a 58,000 GBP mobile phone covered in diamonds. I wonder who can afford that?
The make-up expert at the Selfridges' Clinique counter made up my face as you can see in this photo. The best part was that although it didn't say Clinique bonus time they gave me two, yes two free bonus bags. One is a giant silver bag that is so over the top that I now need to get my hair done big to match.

January 19, 2008

British Laughing Gas

Oh the story gets better. I arrived home last night to find not one but TWO letters from British Gas confirming last Monday's meeting. (What the ?????) I called their customer service line (costs me money) at 7.45pm (because I have nothing better to do on a Friday night?!?) and the woman apologized and again confirmed that no meeting had been scheduled. She said someone will call back within 24 hours. We are now on hour 22 and no call.

She asked me how long this has been going on and I said, calmly because I'm over wasting energy on them.

"About a year." She didn't laugh, cry or smirk. The big question is did she quit her job in disgust?

January 17, 2008

British Gas is a Joke

Now it is three days later and I haven't heard a peep from British Gas about why my appointment was cancelled.

Maybe someone on the inside is reading the blog...

January 14, 2008

British Gas Makes Funny Joke

First the good news - the plumber arrived, on time. I even offered him a cup of tea or coffee as I've learned from my Watching the English book by Kate Fox. He was very pleased and said, "as a matter of fact I just had a cup of coffee." So I've now succeeded in English banter.

British Gas of course didn't show. I called and they said that my appointment had been booked and cancelled. Is there someone out there cancelling my appointments? I told them that I had to take yet another day off from work (6) and that this has been going on for a year. The woman went into standard customer-service-speak and said, "I said someone will call you to reschedule I can't tell you when." And then... "Is there anything else I can help you with today?" That must have been her attempt at a joke.

And the winner isn't...

Okay, so I'm not a Hollywood insider but I do think that it is nice to have a break this year from the Golden Globes and maybe even the Oscars. Perhaps this will bring Hollywood back down to ground level. Even those overflowing gift bags are taking a break.

Visiting the Hollywood Foreign Press Awards is an interesting lesson in simplicity. The homepage still displays glittery stars kissing their awards form years' past. Hidden in the corner is a link to this year's award winners. When you click over to the page the winners' names are displayed in simple black text on a white background. Heck, it looks like something an intern could have posted.

Now that the big event as been stripped away I understand the need for the awards ceremony - it is a giant advertisement for the films (actors, directors and studios too of course). I haven't heard of half these movies so now I'll have to look them up. At least the intern could have created links to their official websites - but I guess that wasn't in the script.

Home from work but not sick

The good news is that I have thus far avoided the nasty bugs of London.

The bad news is that our shower is leaking into our neighbour's flat so I am home for the day waiting for the plumber, in my pajamas of course.

To add insult to injury I am also waiting for British Gas. Yes, they re-re-re-re-re-re-rescheduled their appointment. Although promised, no confirmation letter arrived so we shall see if the tech actually shows.

January 9, 2008

Avoiding Mrs A

Sometimes it feels impossible to stay healthy in London. There are so many people in so many small, enclosed spaces like the tube, train stations, stores and offices, that germs gleefully jump from folk to folk partying on our weakened immune systems.

At work some of my associates have been out for six weeks with one flu, cold or virus after another. I don't think they're faking it either. These people are really sick. The latest news is that a new super bug called MRSA (Mrs A?) is making a mess of the city. Let's just say it strikes hard and impacts you at both ends - if you catch my drift...

I'm so afraid of getting this horrible bug or another cold that I've gone into anti-social stealth mode. On the tube I button up my jacket so that only my eyes show and I breath into a scarf hoping that it will filter out all those mucky germs. Every time someone coughs, sneezes or sniffles I give them the evil eye, "you polluter - you should be at home with the cat." I will even move out of my hard-won seat just to get away from the germ source.

Of course I wear gloves and touch nothing. As soon as I arrive at work I disinfect with antibacterial hand wipe gel. In fact, I use this every hour at work just in case one of my co-workers has brought something in from the outside world. Last night at our board meeting I provided pre-wrapped snacks to ensure that no contaminated fingers touch shared food.

Am I over-reacting? I think not. The goal is to avoid going to the doctor or ending up in the hospital here in the UK as things only get worse for you there. Some may say that I'm just being American. I can live with that.

January 8, 2008

Pursed Lips

I've been noticing in photos of myself that I often have pursed lips. My lips are tightly wound and little fractured lines are starting to appear on the upper lip. Plus, I'm developing sour looking lines like jowls on my lower lip. This is a very bad development. I think I need to create a little touchstone reminder for myself not to clench my lips when I'm thinking, walking, writing, working. Or is this just a sign of nearing 40?

Here's a website for people who obsess about jowls - aka everyone.

One solution I did notice for myself - if I smile I don't clench my lips. More smiling, less jowling.

January 5, 2008

Personal Evolution: Peer Coaching Circles

In June 2008 I am facilitating a Peer Coaching Circles half day workshop at the Americans for the Arts annual conference in partnership with four other career/life/business coaches. Learn more about it on my other blog - Career Goals: Take the Lead.

Jewish Barcelona

There is a remarkable amount of Jewish history in Barcelona. For instance, the mountain on which the 1992 Olympics was centered is called Montjuic, Mountain of the Jews. In the Gothic quarter in the center of the ancient Roman city there is an area called Call Major which was the Jewish quarter. Just outside the Roman walls was an area called Call Minor which was also a Jewish center.

We weren't specifically on the look out for Jewish history but it stood out in many of these places. Our greatest surprise was in the Museu d'historia de la Ciutat in the Roman city. We went underground into the archaeological site and there were bricks with Hebrew writing within the walls. In their gift shop Stephen found a pamphlet called El Call Barcelona's Jewish quarter and on our final day we followed its maps and discovered the former Major Synagogue of Barcelona. What a surprise. Jews have been worshiping here for over 1000 years.

Here are some final images of Roman Barcelona. My feet are still recovering from our hours of walking through its streets.

Barcelona is the ultimate vacation destination. Also, we weren't mugged, pick-pocketed or attacked in any way - despite what you hear from the tour books.

Barcelona Food Feast

Barcelona is a super vacation destination for its history, culture, geography and also its cuisine. We ate our way through the holiday. Of course we started with the traditional (touristy) choices of tapas and paella. But towards the end we found some amazing quality eats. Here are a few highlights.

Taxidermista Cafe - located in the Placa Reial off of La Rambla in Barcelona's Gothic quarter close to the heart of the ancient Roman city. Sounds like a strange place but actually it is in an old Taxadermist's shop but there are no stuffed animals watching you eat. The service was top notch, the wine excellent, food yummy, clean and simple, modern and the price wasn't bad. Plus, it was just a hop, skip and jump from Julie's favorite cafe (good golly we don't even remember the name) where she discovered chocolat con nata (follow link to 22 second YouTube video posted by aromafrisch, that says it all.)
Photo: Taxidermista located to center right and Julie's cafe to the far left.

Cuines Santa Caterina - our biggest gastronomical surprise both in concept, location and yum-factor. Located in a farmers' market that sells the freshest of the fresh the restaurant takes full advantage of its location to create inventive and delectable menu items. The menu is setup like a spreadsheet/grid with the left column being the style of cuisine (Asian, French, Spanish) and the top row displaying content (veg, meat, fish, pasta, rice). We had Gorgonzola risotto, ahi tuna tar tar with guacamole, pumpkin soup, chicken curry and tempura vegetables. How's that for a strange combo. Each was superb. They also have interesting fresh fruit squeezes such as apple/carrot/mint and the one I chose apple/ginger/cinnamon.

Photo: Gorgonzola risotto, ahi tuna tar tar pumpkin soup. Yum.

Here I am making my happy yummy food face.

On the last day we had a mid-day snack in a lovely tiny cafe within the Roman walls. Sorry to say that I forgot the name. The best feature was the window displaying all their sweets. Because the cafe is located at the center of an intersection you walk directly into the window and are lured in by the scene. So clever. Here's a shot of a soon-to-be customer looking in the window.

For our final meal we had Chinese food. Oh so not yummy.

January 2, 2008

Photography Holiday

Earlier in the year I read about an artist who took annual photographic holidays. He would dedicate one vacation to taking photos as the adventure. That was my goal for Barcelona and it has sparked a renewed interest in photography. Instead of using my mobile phone camera I am back to the big digital and am even shooting on manual as opposed to automatic.

Yesterday we walked along the beach and found the high roller areas near the casino. Plus, too much information naked lady sunbathing. We walked about 1 million miles to Stephen's new favorite piece of architecture - Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. It is so large and dominating the city that we kept thinking we were just a few blocks but in reality it was miles away.

Today Julie and I visited Gaudi's Park Guille and his home which has been turned into a museum. The mosaics were breathtaking.

January 1, 2008

New Year's Day at the Olympic Stadium

While the city of Barcelona awakened from its NYE celebrations - perhaps they weren't even asleep yet - I took the fernicular up Montjuic to check out the 1992 Olympic Stadium. I can see how the setting inspired athletes to perform at their best. It was certainly inspirational for New Year's morning.