31 December 2008

Jack the Ripper and my best night in London



So on Monday night we got to do my most anticipated activity of this whole trip to London – the Jack the Ripper Tour! I remember back when Lenny was studying abroad in London and Spencer went for a visit. One of the most exciting things I heard about that they did (besides purchasing their lady-killing Storm watches) was this incredible tour that went all over the seedy side of London to where Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. On top of that, the tour included a stop at many pubs where they were able to get their drink going. In my head, this tour was kind of the coolest thing in the world and consisted of 6 to 8 strangers who all got on great and spent the night learning all the gruesome details about Jack the Ripper and got drunk to boot! However, as I began to research such tours I realized that my experience might be a bit different.

After searching through a dozen or so websites, we came across one company called London Walks that had a lot of positive reviews. We learned that there was no need to book and that we just needed to show up outside the Tower Hill tube stop at 7:30pm. This made me a little wary because other sites had touted how prior booking was needed on their tours to insure that tours were capped at 30 people. However, I convinced myself that since it was Christmas Week and freezing cold outside, that there surely could not be 30 people who were interested in going on this particular tour, so we set out.

During the subway ride I worked myself up like only I can because the website had warned of fraudulent tour operators who would be lurking near the exit and would take our money and run. I reminded Kathleen a few hundred times that we needed to “suspect everyone and trust no one.” I also took a quick video to distract myself and keep Kathleen happy:

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Finally we arrived at the tube stop and walked outside. What we were confronted with was kind of awful in a way. It reminded me a bit of the cattle pens that Michael Pollen describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here is another quick video. Notice how happy and excited everyone looks!

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At this point we forked over our £7 and proceeded to lay out our plan for the tour. By the appointed start time there were probably about 100 people or so. They decided to split the group into two groups since there were two guides (neither of whom were the Jack the Ripper specialist who had written multiple books and is touted all over the website). After a quick analysis of speaking styles we decided to risk going with the larger group being led by the male. He had a nice loud voice (and tended to roll his R’s very theatrically) so we thought we would learn the most. Unfortunately, he decided to stay an extra five minutes to wait for any latecomers. I swear by the middle of the tour we had about a hundred people.

Our tactic was to stick to the tour guide as closely as possible throughout the two hours. We would do our best to get as close to him as possible when he spoke and would try to anticipate which direction the tour would go next. We would then at times run as quickly as we could to make sure we had a good spot at the next location. There were a few light elbows thrown in the process as well as I was not letting anyone prevent me from getting my full £7 worth. I think the guide thought we were a bit off since at every stop there were Kathleen and I front and centre with our Flip Video ready to go.

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The tour itself was actually really good. Due to our offensive approach we had absolutely no problems hearing the tour guide or understanding where we were and what its significance was. The tour wrapped all through the border between East London and London proper. We saw a lot of old buildings and sections of the old Roman wall. We learned in pretty impressively gory detail all about the murders that took place and the botched investigation that followed. (Kathleen was actually surprised at some of the details provided considering there were children on the tour) We saw three of the murder sites, an old soup kitchen, and a lot of the buildings that still exist from the 1880’s. Although we did not go into the pub, we saw the Ten Bells which is where the last victim was last seen on the night of her murder. Here is one of the quick stops that we took.

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After the tour finished, Kathleen and I went down one of the Jack the Ripper alleys and found a great Thai restaurant called Sri Thong: http://www.srithong.co.uk/
Kathleen had been missing Thai food since we got to the UK so we were stoked to find the place. It is certainly no Tiny Thai, but the food was excellent. All in all, we had a really fun time on this. Although it was drastically different from what I had imagined Lenny and Spencer doing 12 years ago, the guide and the structure of the tour were excellent. You definitely need to look past the blatant commercialization of the whole thing as well as the scores of other tour participants, but I highly recommend it.

Oh and I had terrible nightmares that night. I awoke from one and sat there for about an hour before I could fall back asleep. So that was pretty cool too, I guess… Do a quick google image search of ‘jack the ripper victims’ if you want to have nightmares without having to fly to London and spend the £7.

Westminster Bells on Christmas Day

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28 December 2008

Christmas

It was a little crazy, but we managed to work a half day, get home, pack, and make our train to London on Christmas Eve. The train ride down was uneventful, but it was also quiet - very unlike our Christmas Eves in the past.

We were traveling to spend our holidays in a friend's apartment in Warwick Square in London. We decided not to come home for Christmas since we'd only arrived in the UK a few weeks before, and it seemed silly to return home so soon. And we ended up having a great Christmas - we missed our families, and both of us got quiet at some points during the day, but we managed to make this year pretty special.

One of the best parts was when we arrived at the apartment late Christmas Eve and started to unpack. Unbeknownst to me, Mark had gone to the "pound store" and stocked up on tacky Christmas decorations and lights. I am a total sucker for Christmas decorations, and while we weren't able to lug our tree down, it was a thoughtful surprise.

Christmas morning, we woke up and started to open gifts. Everything we got was so thoughtful, but I think our faviorite was the picture book of Miller. We both got a little teary-eyed, and we think next year we'll try to do Christmas in England again, so we don't miss him a second time.

We went for a long walk around our new neighborhood, and found ourselves along the Thames, by Westminster Abbey and Big Ben (our new neighborhood is "posh"), before ambling into a pub for a few pints by a warm fireplace. Mark had made reservations for us in a Turkish restaurant a few miles away, so we only lingered a few hours before returning home to fancy ourselves up and have a delicious dinner.

You all were missed.

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24 December 2008

Madchester, Hot Dogs, Black Panthers, and… Christmas!

(note: these pics are not mine as I have not uploaded any yet)

Last weekend, we ventured out to Manchester. Kathleen had been briefly back in October but I had never been. I was super excited to check out the city because of the whole Joy Division/Factory Records connection. During my trip up to Flimby last week, one of the team leaders mentioned that he had gone to university in Manchester during the Hacienda’s heyday. He was there for the drug-fuelled Happy Monday’s chaos and had fond fond memories of the city. From the moment we got off the train, I felt that familiar urban feeling settle in. Our plan was to check out Urbis (a museum dedicated to life in urban centres), but first had to check out the last weekend of the Christmas Market.

Not sure if we've mentioned how insane Christmas is over here. The idea of political correctness in regards to non-Christian holidays is not at the forefront of the culture and everyone and everything is centred on the arrival of December 25 (I thought we did a good job decorating our cube back at Burton, but have since been put to shame). One of Manchester’s traditions is turning all of Saint Peter’s Square into a gigantic Christmas bizarre selling goods, food, and alcohol from all over Europe.

On our trip through we stopped and grabbed lunch. These were all grilling on an open fire at the middle of the market:




They looked and smelled delicious. On top of that, they were serving fresh pints of beer. We both agreed this was an amazing tasting lunch… until our stomach aches, which apparently occur about 30 minutes later in females and about 5 hours later in males.

We then made our way across town to Urbis. The building itself is pretty amazing and definitely stands out from a lot of the older architecture of the city.

They were having an exhibit of the work of Emory Douglas who was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party. He was responsible for all of the artwork, posters, and newspapers that the party distributed. Both Kathleen and I were unprepared for how emotional this exhibit was (yes, Jason, you too would have been emotional). We spent about an hour wandering through the exhibit which used videos, prints, books, and other media to tell about the black struggle. At the start you round a corner and gunshots sound out of nowhere, which make your heart jump. These sounds and a partial list of those civil rights leaders who were assasinated pretty much set the tone for the entire show. The exhibit ended with a full quotation of the PE song Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.

On a side note, we found out that the museum offers walking tours of the city including a Factory Records Tour. OK, so the city is definitely cashing in pretty heavily on it’s musical heritage, but sometimes you have to give in (Bill, we will try to wait for your visit, but I see myself going back in January).

After our museum time, we spent another hour or so wandering around High Street, weaving in and out of Christmas shoppers (whom I have decided don’t really love their friends and family if they are still shopping this late in the game). On our way back to the train station, we stopped at a bar inside of an independent movie house. Although it is lacking that run down non profit look of the Brattle in Harvard, I was still psyched to learn about it. We had a few pints of Bitter and started discussing whether we could live here or not (dog, commutes, expense, etc). I am not sure whether we can make it happen or not, but I am psyched to have the city close by. We really only saw a fraction of what is there and people at work have promised to make me a map of good places to go out at night.

So there is my Wednesday update. Kathleen and I are off to London for Christmas and will be down there through the New Year. Internet access might not be happening in our place there so we may be incommunicado for a bit. I hope everyone has an awesome holiday though and for those near the snow, get on it!

21 December 2008

Speke Hall and Crosby Beach

Our first weekend in England was filled with trips to IKEA and our local home electronics store, Curry’s, where they're just as incompetent as the people at our local Best Buy in Somerville. But the most important thing was that we got a TV, a DVD player, and a Christmas tree. We also went into the city and saw the Tate Modern extension at Albert Dock, which was pretty neat. Liverpool is Europe’s “City of Culture” for 2008, and it’s cool to see how much they’ve embraced the title.

Our second weekend, we decided to try to explore the area a bit more. Which, for Mark, meant Christmas shopping. I was planning to do all mine online, but I was game and we walked to our local train station to head into the city.

I won’t talk about the next two hours, because they were a blur of far too many Christmas shoppers and bad mall music. Mark was successful and gathered a few gifts, while I paced the cobblestone streets until he was ready to meet back up. But then we wandered about a bit, away from the more commercial downtown shopping district (cobblestone pedestrian-only streets and the biggest mall I’ve ever seen, “Liverpool One”) and toward a hipper, younger area with music, bars, and a bunch of smaller shops. It was nice to find the area, and we had a few beers before heading home for the night.

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We’ve met a few of our neighbors, and they all happen to be “pensioners,” people who’ve retired and can now get tax discounts and ride public transportation for free. They also really like meeting their neighbors, and we’ve been roped into an evening of carolling and drinks tomorrow evening, so that should be… Interesting.

But one of them, John, mentioned that we should visit Speke Hall, a local attraction. I looked it up on Wikipedia the other day but have forgotten any other details about it, beyond it’s proximity to Liverpool’s airport and the Tudor-syle house. We decided to venture out on Sunday morning during a break in the drizzle.

One of the coolest things about England (I think) is the abundance of public footpaths. On nearly any street, you can see these small signs pointing out to public ways across properties ranging from churches and private homes to large farms and land trusts. It makes me look forward to having Miller here.

Anyway, we found one of these footpaths leading to Speke Hall (there was also a road, but that’s too easy). We spent an hour or so walking about the impeccably groomed grounds before exploring the adjacent woods, eventually ending up on a well-worn path atop an earthen wall. Elevation is key here, because it rains nearly every day and all of our other paths were waterlogged and muddy. Anyway, this circled around the property, eventually bringing us to the airport. A little weird, but we took some pictures and then headed back to the car.

We then drove through Liverpool to the mouth of the River Mersey, where it meets the Irish Sea. This is a heavily industrial area, filled with busy docks and some pretty rough areas. But there is also some gentrification in spots, and some efforts recently to set up parklands. Mark had heard about an art installation nearby, so we parked the car and began walking toward the shore as the sun fell (it was about 330pm).

The artwork was amazing and a bit haunting. The artist, Anton Gromley, made a cast of himself and produced 100 identical iron statues. These are placed along three kilometres of barren coastline, punctuated only by razor clamshells and urban detritus (read into that as you will). On the horizon are enormous wind turbines which, in the evening haze and fog, seem eerily futuristic, like the imagined coastline in a Philip K Dick novel. And then you notice all these solitary figures, their gazes fixed at the sea, as if waiting for someone to arrive. I don’t know if the installation is meant to be so sad, but it seemed so to me.

18 December 2008

Flimby

I arrived at our domestic manufacturing facility in Flimby this AM, which is situated right on the shores of the Irish Sea. You can look out the windows of the facility and you see multiple wind mills in your immediate foreground and about 100 metres on the open water. I would say it is one of the most idyllic settings for a factory and warehouse. It’s certainly better than the Dicks D.C. outside of Pittsburgh and way beyond World Warehouse in upstate New York.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately introduced to Jim who is the leader of a large cut and embroidery team, and has been with the company for over 22 years. The labour force is all drawn from the immediate communities and there is a very low turn over rate. The average employee has been with the company for a long time, in the industry for longer, and takes an incredible amount of pride in their work and in New Balance. The facility is very well integrated within the local community, which is great to see.

Jim took me into a room with samples of the styles currently being made on the floor and asked me to choose my favourite. I naturally gravitated towards the 576’s at which point he produced a collection of pigskin leather swatches in an array of colours. He then explained that the best way for me to understand the shoe making process was to make a pair of my own from scratch! I immediately began to grin like a little girl and set about the task of choosing the colourway of my own personalized shoes. Naturally I thought of my favourite article of clothing – my Purple Idiom 2.5 Jacket so I settled upon a purple, two shades of grey, and a yellow. We then filled out the work ticket and selected which colours and materials to use on each of the various components.

There were a few hiccups in some of the proto machines so it took a little bit longer than usual, but it was a pretty amazing process. We started by choosing the pigskin sheets and cutting out all of the various components that we would need. Billy, who was operating the cutter told me how he had been doing the same job since he left school (he was in his fifties) and yet was still in love with the work. He let me cut out the majority of the components for my shoes and I quickly realized that I am way to ADD for that type of work. These all went into a box and over to embroidery. The tongue and heel cutouts were embroidered and then everything was sent over to be stitched. One person stitched the entire pair together using a few different sewing machines. If this were an inline shoe and not a one off custom pair, a larger team would be working closely together to do all of the stitching on an upper. After this, we went back to the warehouse and pulled the outsoles, insoles, and laces. They then pressed the uppers onto the outsoles using various degrees of heat and pressure. Then the laces and insoles and… voila!

Of course there was a lot more involved, but that is a basic overview. I must say I enjoyed my visit to Flimby a bit more than the visit to Lawrence. It was really amazing to see the volume of shoes that this committed group of people make on a daily basis. And again, I cannot stress how proud and dedicated this group was, and that made me super psyched to be working with NB over here.

Manmade Snow and The Darkness

So yeah, I was super excited to land in the UK for a whole host of reasons. However, one of the reasons why I was most psyched was because the day I landed was Kathleen’s Christmas outing to none other than the Chill Factor(e) – a man made indoor mountain in the middle of Manchester (and I don’t know why they put the ‘e’ in parentheses and whether you are supposed to even pronounce it or not). I mean there is no surprise that I was definitely a little apprehensive about the lack of snowboarding here in the UK, but this had to be a good sign. After an uneventful flight on a unspectacular airline (Delta), I disembarked to find that my snowboard had managed to find its way to France! Not sure if it was the idiocy of the aforementioned airline or perhaps the draw of Les Deux Alpes but my board did not make it. Fast forward 90 minutes and Kathleen and I are standing at the top of the snowdome wearing extremely hard and uncomfortable boots, long planks attached to each of them and carrying poles. Wow… I was skiing for the first time in 20 years, indoors, in England, and the effect of the jetlag made the whole thing see even more surreal. Needless to say the next 2 hours were full of a bit of pain, a lot of laughter, and multiple instances me trying to get ‘awesome’ on the bumps (As you can see, I was pretty successful).



Sorry to say, but I’m afraid my feelings towards the sport have not changed too much. To quote one of Chip’s favourite phrases, skiing is just “not that rad.” However I was able to bond with a rather loquacious snowboard shop employee who may prove to be a useful connection in the future.

It is now 6:30 AM (and about 10 days after my skiing experience) and I am in the town of Cockermouth, in the county of Cumbria, in what is commonly referred to as the Lakes district. I just got back from a 3 mile run in what I am told is some of the most beautiful countryside in England. However, I am not sure if that is true or not because it is dark. Dark, dark. I don’t mean you can see the morning on the horizon dark, I mean it is like I set my alarm for 2:00 AM and decided to go for a run. As Kathleen mentioned above, it does not really get light out until after 8:00 AM and starts to get dark around 3:00 PM. This makes for short days indeed. I was a bit worried about how I was going to adapt to this, but I think the running has helped. Keeping a fairly strict schedule, I have been sure to get up a little bit earlier every day. Now I must say I am pretty comfortable with getting up early and not really seeing the light until I am on the final leg of my commute to work.

It is amazing how quickly your routines can adapt, as long as you set your mind to it. Plus it helps that I keep reminding myself how good the beer is going to taste come summer time sitting outside in the daylight around 9:00 PM.

15 December 2008

Arrival

Welcome to our new blog! Our hope is that this serves as a spot for friends and family to stay updated on our adventures and also a travel journal for us.

(Quick aside: The blog title is a reference to our minor adventure discovering the Brits' unabashed love for mayonnaise. It's inescapable. It's gross. It's pretty much the worst.)

I've been informed that I need to write the first entry, since I was the first to arrive some fifteen days ago. We're still without internet at home, so these first few posts may be a bit erratic, but we'll try to be better about updating the site once we're able to work from home.

I arrived early one Sunday morning and was picked up at the airport by Joyce, my new HR manager, and an absolute godsend these past few weeks. I'm afraid I didn't make much conversation, but arrived at the apartment and collapsed for several hours in bed. I woke up in the early afternoon and tried to venture out in the neighborhood, but everything in walking distance appeared to be shut down and the one open store wouldn't take my credit card (the British seem really fearful of "fraud" and all their cards are microchipped, which has made using our American cards a bit hit or miss, particularly in smaller local shops). I wandered back to the apartment as night fell (ahem, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon) and made some tea before unpacking a bit and falling asleep. There was no TV/internet at home, so I read a 1000 page book that Sunday, too, and then knitted myself to sleep the rest of the week (until pilfering a laptop and some DVDs from work).

My first week at work was pretty uneventful, except for the fun of convincing the local HSBC branch that I only wanted to open a checking account (and not launder money)... what else... Oh, yeah, in the first hour of having access to a car here, I knocked the passenger side view mirror off. In front of my boss. Awesome. Definite confidence-booster.

You'd think the problem would be staying on the left-hand side of the road, but the issue is really drifting left (since you're used to centering yourself in the lane from the left-hand side of the car). The "accident," if you would even call it that, was really so minor, but it definitely startled me a bit. The following night, my satellite navigation crashed mid-route home, but I was proudly able to get myself home.

And that's pretty it, for my first week or so in Liverpool, until Mark arrived! I was missing him so much, and we had some fun activities planned for that first day...