07 September 2007

Follow me... to Snowdon!

If you haven’t heard from me in a long time then it is because I have stormed the summit of Snowdon, the highest mountain of England and Wales (1085m), one of the few things those two countries have in common.

The Welsh are credited with about the same reputation as Burgenlaender in Austria. I asked Steve, one of the English guys with us, what the most offensive thing was you could say to a Welsh(wo)man. In Scotland, they take off your head when you claim that Scotland is part of England. If you want to get into similar trouble in Wales, the quickest way would be to call them “sheepshaggers” (there are LOADS of them, even on the mountain ridge when you ask yourself – sweating profusely and feeling all the muscles in your body – how the HELL it got there.

I have to say that my first trip to Wales proved to be a very beautiful and rewarding experience. It is just so completely REMOTE. No big cities, loads of lovely green scenery and bilingual population (Welsh is their first language and English their second).

We were a group of nine people who covered London – Wales in seven hours in two cars and who met on the facebook group City Trekkers, founded by City University alumni Samir, our mountain guide, everyone more or less fit (the spectrum encompassed people who hadn’t done any sport in a year – namely, me! – regular gym goers, a guy who did Mount Kenya and a guy who did the Himalayas).

The way up started off smoothly but became quite steep soon enough. The fact that the path consisted mainly of big chinks of big stones in all shapes and sizes (similar to Mauthausen), was what made it difficult. No way to find your own rhythm, also quite inconvenient for a short-legged person like me. But the motto was to have fun and do it in your own pace. Samir kept saying, “It is a mental problem”.

It also doesn’t help to hike in scrubs covered by waterproof trousers which are small-sized… Honestly, sometimes I was thinking, “You go ahead” and at some point I was panting and had to stop every ten seconds. Luckily, two gentlemen offered to be my sherpas, one packed my jacket, the other my rucksack!

Otherwise, I would have not made it to the top or it would have taken two more hours.
The summit itself was brimming with peacefulness and quietness (only disturbed by the loud clanking of the construction site on the peak). Apart from that, the view was beautiful, just a sea of clouds below.

After our well-earned R&R = rest & recreation (B&B had their Indian food, I my omnipresent cereals which were only topped by Khilian’s – I want to write this in capital letters – TEA WITH MILK *lol* *shaking head* sth which I was absolutely stunned to see), we attempted an adventurous alternative descent route via the ridge which developed from light climbing to ever steeper and steeper scrambles with less and less between you and the abyss. The ridge has quite a reputation…

If my mother had seen me up there, she would have had a heart attack! But it was great: Just you, your mind and the mountain. After the hard work, we relaxed with some low-level walking on the following day. Just some exploration walks around the area. Kinda reminded me of my childhood (my parents and I went to the alps a lot when I was little)…

We stone-hopped on the stream and I of course managed a huge gap between two stones (took me ten minutes to decide I wanted to do it) only to fall up to the waist into the water after encouraged by some applause.

Some Sikh fellows camping nearby filmed the whole spectacle (probably the closest they get to entertainment). They later offered me a towel and their tent to change into Clare’s dry spare clothes. Nice but a bit pervy…

After lunch in the “Alpine Tea Shop” (really recommendable, very lovingly decorated and great selection of teas and food) near Betwys-y-Coed’s “Central Station”, learning about the tradition of lovespoons, looking into the souvenir arts and crafts shop (where they interestingly sell wooden figurines of Maasai people) and riding an iron cock, we find ourselves exploring some disused mines, dancing 70s-style Bollywood with the dancing queen Baila (what a fitting name) and Clare. Of course, that is on video!

On the way home: A beautiful green landscape and free train ride to Colwyn Bay (north coast of Wales). For some reasons, in the UK, there are huge emergency instruction stickers everywhere in the train designating the emergency exits (= the doors), pretty much like those cards on the plane.

From Colwyn Bay, we caught the coach back to London via Liverpool, a city I have never been to before and which does not look worth the visit. Our first driver was a butch of a woman who snatched a gentleman’s suitcase and threw it into the suitcase compartment like nothing. She also bitched around to find out if people brought hot food (sin #1) onto her coach.

Change of drivers, in Sheffield. Loud commotion outside the bus. Turns out, driver #1 was having a choleric fit Wedl-style with driver #2 who did not understand why he could not eat his KFC chicken inside. Before we left the station, driver #2 announced in the middle of the bus, “My team won. England won against India” – Surprised faces. “I am English” he added smilingly and with an air of amusement: He is very dark-skinned, has a full white beard and a Sikh turban on his head. “India is my ex-country”. Funny somehow, but cool!

Sometime later, a really dysfunctional family got onto the bus, grandmother, mother and three children to behave and sit down. I was reading “Watching the English” by Kate Fox when they got in and the section where it says that in the UK, people will avoid direct confrontation at all costs. Sure enough, 20 minutes later, coach moving but children and mother arguing where to sit. The bus driver goes: “Would everyone please make themselves comfortable on the coach” Just hilarious.

21 August 2007

Long Time No Blog

Going to post in detail another time because the WiFi at home is now secured, so I only have internet at work or in the cafe! Probably, I have been downloading too much, that's why...

# Went to Brick Lane for the first time
# Stayed over at Lila's & Clare's so often that I should actually pay rent already. After I came home on Friday it was as if I had been on holiday. The whole cupboard of mugs was in my room with mold on the teabags and a huge heap of dirty clothes was taking up space, too. So I did some serious dishwashing and laundry
# Was on an awesome picnic in Hampstead Heath (pictures are online!)
# Appeared on a dinner which took place the next day (so typical me, isn't it?)
# Going to Brighton on Thursday on a Volunteer's day out at work
# And on Friday I depart for an exhausting hiking weekend in Wales

11 August 2007

Bureaucracy & Pregnancy

Another update:
# Debt collectors kept calling at least twice a day at different times at our landline (our telephone equivalent of a spam e-mail address) to speak to a person which 1) does not live here anymore and 2) which had settled the issue three weeks ago even though it was not her fault.
I told them every. single. time. that they called that she was on holiday and does not live here anymore by the way. They said they would have to call until they get hold of that person. So I offered them her mobile number abroad. "We don't do that. We only call numbers in the UK". As an alternative, I offered them her e-mail address. "We are sorry but we don't do that". Irritated, I asked how they expected to get hold of that person if they do not accept any alternative contact details.

Whenever they call, I can tell it is them because the first thing they say is, "Can I speak to...?" or "Ms xxx?". I don't know where these people come from but where I come from, people usually introduce themselves before they make any demands. The last time I talked to them and that I will have picked up the phone, I was really angry because they keep spamming me and I keep telling them every time the same thing and they do not stop. Actually something you could call harassment and something which can count as a criminal offence. So, in determination to end this spamming once and for all, I started explaining as much as I know about that girl's case and that they can keep calling but that she is in the right. That I do not care if they show up on my doorstep to ask for my proof of identity etc. etc. and the guy had the guts to calmly say, "I have to end this call now." I told him that he had no reason to be rude and hang up on him.

I haven't picked up the phone ever since. I am so annoyed at them for telephone terrorising me like this! Lila said a good method is to threaten them to report them to the financial ombudsman, a person which I like more and more the more I deal with HSBC and all these people.

# Two people in our flat also received court summons for non-payment of council tax. But: A few weeks ago, they demanded payment of the amount even though all three girls sent in their student confirmations (students are exempt from paying council tax) MONTHS AGO several times because they kept losing it or something. One of the girls called them up in response to that and settled the matter. As a consequence, they sent a confirmation that the girls owned them nothing. A few days later, we received another bill demanding the payment of the full amount of council tax and a threat that legal action will be taken soon. In response, the same girl called them up and then sent the student confirmation AGAIN via e-mail, fax and recorded letter so they cannot say they lost it. Horrible.

But that is the system here in the UK. There is not one person working on your case but many. Probably it is a database from where people take their pick when they come in in the morning. *rolling eyes*

# Something which is also annoying is that when you look up the bank branch telephone number on the yellow pages or on the HSBC website, you will always find the same number which is one where you will be asked for your account number, sorting code, date of birth and security number before you FINALLY reach the EXTENSIVE menu (the whole thing is a machine). if you manage to have the patience to wait until "to speak to a customer representative, please press X", you are put through to someone sitting somewhere in India where they manage all the calls instead of someone at your local branch around the corner. Even UK people find it frustrating (I heard a woman complaining about it yesterday in a branch, that is why I remembered that I have to write about this). Someone even asked Lila once if she could spell London. *lol*

# I have just got my first precription! Did I mention that I had to deliver a sample and I had to come back to deliver a second one? Well, on Monday and Tuesday last week I slept too long to do that before work, on Wednesday I would have been able to do that but then I did not manage to "produce" that urine sample. *rolling eyes* On Thursday, after much concentration, I was successful, came back to the practice and was told to "just put it in the fridge and we will call you back". One week later, symptoms much worse but still no call. So I went again and the doctor says he could not find my *precious* sample on the system! Turns out, the fridge is only for samples to be sent to the laboratory and not for the ones to be looked at from practice staff themselves. *more eyes rolling* So this time, I had the pleasure to do two of them in one go. The doctor gives me instructions to do a mid-stream sample. I asked him, half-grinning if he could repeat that and he said, "The first pee goes into the toilet. Then, if you can manage that, hold and then pee into the cup." I must have been positively staring and grinning widely by then because he added reassuringly, "I am sure you will do the best you can!" *lol* The other cup was for reassurance that I was not pregnant (a nurse told me that in the UK, they do that to every woman just to be on the legal safe side when they prescribe medication).

# Which reminds me that I think my mum believes I am pregnant. *lol* In the past two weeks she must have puzzled together information I gave her on the phone, namely:
1) I had a strong interest in private health insurance.
2) I told her that I considered taking a gap year.
3) I was talking to her about Kat's and mine intention to going to Paris to visit our friend Oliver. I pointed out that it might be possible to ask Oli if we could stay at his halls of residence and then as an afterthought, that we might need to ask a flatmate of his for help because in HOR, you are usually allowed one guest staying over at any time. My mum replied to that we could ask that friend of his if he was OK with moving in with Oli during the night so Kat and I can stay in one room. I broke into laughter then and told her that that I was not in elementary school anymore and that we were all adults. *lol* Poor her! Her mind must have gone riot!

Anyway, she did not say anything. Just last time I talked to her I was speaking to her about something entirely else and she, entirely randomly, asked me if I had water in my legs. I, confused, replied that no, I didn't and asked her where that came from. Only later did I remember that my mum, when she was pregnant, had swollen ankles like many other women. *shaking head* Weird...

06 August 2007

Of Strippers, Wax, Salsa & Die Berge


# I settled the affairs with the registry.

# I settled the affairs with VISA. However, not to my liking and the complaint is still due.

# I start work at SOAS tomorrow and am already excited about that. I am looking forward to working on the financial leaflet!

# Above all, I had the most awesome weekend with Lila & co! It was Clare's & Lila's housewarming party and basically a BBQ on a balcony-style rooftop (in the UK, you will find that quite often)! There are some great pictures & videos of us coming up on facebook as soon as the girls have internet again!

We had a bunch of French-speaking people among them the infamous Cyril who after downing a bottle (!) of Vodka (!!) more or less on his own (!!!) started picking a peculiar interest in the sexy cat from across the street. He shouted sth really incriminating in French which more or less translates as very dirty speech... Then he started learning Polish from the native neighbours (after 5 minutes of acquaintance for 30 minutes) who were having a party on their "balcony", too. We did not hear what kind of conversation he and the girl had but at some point he gave her his (expensive-looking) watch. He really is a lady's man! In the end, Lila, his French friend David & I waxed his leg (always been a secret fantasy of mine, to do that to a guy!). *lol* He was so mad at us! After ten minutes though, he did not know anymore who did it to him (he called the very next morning to threathen, " 'oo didd this to me? 'oo-everrr shafed my leggs, I am goeeng to cut off your 'airrr, too!!!" - he says shave because he cannot pronounce the word wax)!

Among other guests was Sam, a Chinese-looking paramedic who stopped by during his break while driving rounds in the vicinity. When I saw him coming onto the roof, heard someone saying, "Take off your jacket, you can start now" and saw him getting out of his uniform, I believed someone had ordered a stripper! As YES, this is so typically me, I probably won't have to point out that I am not kidding!

Anyway, I met some really interesting people and had great fun!

After spending the night at Clare's & Lila's place, I accompanied them to a homeless shelter to give out self-made sandwiches, something they do every seven weeks (groups take turns). I received a really interesting history lesson by a guy who turned out to be a former Genevan banker until his divorce.

The round-off was the Latin American Carneval, Carnaval Del Pueblo (Europe's largest celebration of Latin American culture) in Burgess Park, SE London. The park is really huge, maybe the Vietnamese festival that I did not see DID in fact take place when I came here... Anyway, it was HUUUGE and loads of good food! We met up with Francois, someone who was at the party the night before, too and who spent a few years in Dublin as software engineer (the recruitment story was awesome, the company that asked him to come over for the face-to-face interview paid everything for him for a week while he was in town!). He has a quite quaint accent, half French and half Irish, with the occasional exclamation "Jasuss!"in between!

We were accompanied by Désirée who is French as well and who went to Tirol lately! How crazy is that?! And on top of that, both she and Francois began to sing the Heidi song!!! It turns out, they know the Heidi comic TV series! Crazy, crazy!

31 July 2007

The hell of a week

I had a really great week, as some of you probably already know:

# First, SOAS sent the breakdown of results to Austria (you usually first know if you passed or failed and after a few weeks you get this letter with all the details) which makes me really nervous because of my family (apart from the fact that it is just annoying because HSBC did the same thing before). Also, I had changed my address on an online form in June but they never confirmed it (same thing happened to Stacia, they sent her sth to the States instead of around the corner). When my flatmate Sarah's letter came, I called up the registry and they told me they have my new address in Earl's Court, yeah, yeah. On Friday, I called again (because I had a feeling what might have happened since Deborah already received her's in France) and then the truth came out (they keep two addresses and never deleted the other one). So they sent it, of course not on Friday but on Monday. And the Royal Mail strike made me really nervous yesterday.

# After nearly four weeks and loads of complaints, FINALLY I have a date with the laundry repair man. Problem is, since this is a rented flat, I have to contact a company approved by the landlord which in return sends a contractor (instead of calling the hotline directly) because the landlord is going to pay for any repairs. The laundry man called me today and asked me when he should come. Of course, in the three weeks from where I reported the problem, I started work and of course, the repair service does not come after 5pm. So, to make the 4th week complete, we agreed on Sunday 9am. Very unchristian but what the hell. At least it is done.
I still haven't figured out how to claim my rights as a customer in this country without "offending the staff" (sth you can get in trouble for). Is there a "Complaints for Dummies" for the UK? ("Excuse me, Sir. Pardon my frankness about your services but I am highly displeased by the unvirtuous lack of esprit you displayed perpetually in our correspondence in resolving the matter. I must insist on you reconsidering your judgement about the urgency of my request.")

# I opened my studyview account yesterday and was shocked. Not at the amount of spam but at the the fact that all my e-mails were gone!!! Oh dear! Fortunately, thank the heavens, SOAS IT fixed the problem (which might or might not have been caused by them, they of course never admit such things and when they actually do, they never apologise).

# I opened my studyview account today and was shocked. This time because I received the very first spam message in an account I have managed to keep clean since I had it. It is because the ISO account was redirected to my individual student one. I have to call them to tell them I want it separate!!!

# Due to bad communication between several people including me, Sarah who is in Latin America right now, did not know that Camille was staying in her room! SHOCK. It is very complicated and involves a lot of people you don't know (yet) so I won't elaborate. Oh dear, the least thing I wanted to happen is a conflict. But we talked about it and there is no single person to blame.

# I went to the doctor's because of pain in the back which I was afraid was kidney pain. We ran some tests (I was actually touched by a doctor, yeah!) but unfortunately, the result was unsatisfying and since it was weekend, I have to come back this week. I have been diagnosed with back pain but we just want to rule out any other possibilities. Oh and Stacia if you read this, I actually told the receptionist expressedly that I DID NOT want to be seen by Dr. Lifestyle. And the first thing he says, with phone in hand, *lol* "Have I just spoken to you before?". I said "No but she's got quite a reputation..." Finally, I stood up for myself. Never had to do that at a doctor's before. "Which doctor do you want to see?" - "I take anyone else, I don't care."

# My current Austrian bank account was frozen thanks to my credit card company who messed up. And also thanks to their fault, I was charged a penalty fee (is that what you call it in the UK?) by my bank on top of that which I do not want to pay. I had taken appropriate steps in time to prevent this from happening and was assured by the lady on the landline that my request was implemented immediately, literally. One week's past and still no change. Of course, no-one gets back to my e-mail (I want this black on white this time).

# So, regarding the registry, I finally got the letter and it turns out that I passed all the exams I did!!! That is the good news. The bad news is that they marked the only exam I did not take (because I was sick) as "failed" (instead of "no result") which is bullshit. I am really mad!!! Number 1, it is not core unit so from official school regulations, I may retake the exam. Number 2, I gave them a doctor's notice on the very same day (I made a copy for me, just in case). Number 3, I asked the woman about the consequences and she said it is no problem, I just retake the exam. Now, the letter I received contains two important sheets: 1) the breakdown of results (basically, the figures) where it says failed but also that I am eligible to retake the exam and 2) my list of options regarding course progression. In my case: a) Leave of absence and repeat assessments in 2007/2008 b) Repeat year of study (full-time and repeat assessments in 2007/08 c) Repeat study and assessments in 2007/2008 (part-time) d) Transfer to another degree at this school e) Withdrawal!!! Also, if the exam counts as "failed", then this means that when I DO retake it, the maximum mark to be awarded is capped at 50%!!! Of course, I wrote them an e-mail a few hours later today and to my disappointment, no-one got back to me!!! And of course, if I "fail to act" by 6 August, I will be expelled from SOAS!!! I am tearing down their door tomorrow, first thing in the morning!

26 July 2007

A New Challenge... and another one!

Haven't blogged in a while because I started a new job at one of the most significant human rights NGOs. It is a three days a week job for three months and I am doing the press monitoring for Southeast Asia. For security & safety purposes, I'd rather not mention its name here... which actually quite restricts what I CAN say about my job...

So let me just tell you that I would not have thought that I would be the lucky one! When I received the call telling me when I would be able to start, I was speechless! After I hung up, I was walking down the street grinning like a madwoman!

Anyway, it is very interesting work and I have the pleasure to be part of a really supportive team! I constantly try to improve myself and therefore contribute to the team's workflow. I gues finding something like a routine is normal when you start at a new job but never before was I more motivated to benefit from an employment than now!

The other good news I mentioned is that I received notice that I can start working for SOAS, paid, to help out with some project work during the summer, I assume ISO-related! That will keep me busy until the beginning of term!

15 July 2007

Follow me... to the Barrio Fiesta!

This year sees the 23rd Barrio Fiesta (a Philippine festival) in London. Barrio Fiestas take place throughout the world, depending on Filipino population from once a year to several times a year. Compared to the last and first one I went to (in Vienna, last summer), this one here in Hounslow, London was huuuuuge (last year 60 000 people came on one single day which is why it is now held for two days)! Sooo much good food, the smell of childhood, authentic Philippine food! I am sure there were at least 50 stalls selling their food. As you can see below, I enjoyed one of my favourite Filipino desserts, Sapin-Sapin, a rice & yam pudding-like cake served with brown grated coconut! Gosh, ang sarap-sarap (tagalog for, "it was really yummy")!!!

Now when you got out of the tube, there is a stream of Filipinos flocking to the park where it took place. The park itself - I thought, "Where the hell did all these Filipinos come from?!?" You know, I've lived in London for a year now and I might only have seen ten Filipinos in total, four of them while having blood drawn in a hospital. Amazing! Some of them came with their British husbands...

To give you an overview of the scene: There is this big place in the park where all around dozens of stalls sell hot food, groceries, desserts (it is quite amusing to see Indian bobbies patrolling the site with a cup of halo-halo - that is multicultural London!), ube-flavoured ice-cream (violet yam, in the Philippines, not only children love the flavour), advertise native travel agencies, real estate in the Philippines, UNISON membership (one of the trade unions in the UK), money transfer services, T-Shirts, native crafts, recruitment agency services for nurses etc. etc.!

There was a display of folk dance but unfortunately no Eskrima one (Eskrima is the Philippine martial art, it is synonymously known as Arnis and Kali, practised with everyday objects like sticks of different length but also knives or machetes, developed by the oppressed during Spanish rule to defend themselves). Ping and I know how difficult it is to find a club where you can actually learn and practice Eskrima, especially in Austria. There is one offered at ULU but it was too expensive!

Below the engines of low-flying airplanes approaching or departing nearby Heathrow Airport(just three more tube stops, surely just around 3-5 km away), one of the most popular Filipino artists, singer Regine Velasquez, "Asia's Songbird" (who came to the Wiener Stadthalle several years ago) , gave a free open-air concert!

14 July 2007

Follow me... to a galaxy far, far away!

My mother asked me a while ago, why I like it so much better in London. I told her, "Because it is so much more on the pulse of happenings". What better prove of this than the Star Wars Celebration Europe, an event for the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars Saga - in London!

Entrance to the event cost 23 £ for one day and 55 £ for all three days. I have never been to a convention before (except for a tiny expensive Manga one in Vienna I was dragged to) but I loved it!!!

It took place in an exhibition centre in the Docklands, therefore loads of space for the most amazing fan stores with the most amazing collectibles! Everywhere people dressed in costumes, stormtroopers swarming the crowd (they really DO look intimidating up close), Lego scapes of Star Wars sets and characters, a fan stage where fan clubs host events, a main stage where actors are invited to events, life-size props from the set, a workshop where you can act in the first scene of Episode IV on instruction of a director and it will be cut with music to watch right afterwards, an autograph hall where you can have the actors of Lando, C-3PO and Luke Skywalker among many others sign for money (Mark Hamill cost 85£ but his queue was ENDLESS!!!)...

I wanted to have C-3PO's actor sign but I only made up my mind when it was already too late!!! I asked the ticket office how long they'd be there and the guy said, until 6pm probably. Since I had about 40 minutes, I rushed to withdraw some cash to buy sth cheap to sign on. I went for a picture. By the time I got back to the ticket box, the actor was gone (but I still had 25 minutes to go)!!! Turns out, he and Mark Hamill and probably some others were at the main theatre in a show but the security people wouldn't let anyone else in because the show had already started a while ago. Double Hmpf! And I didn't know about the whole schedule of events because I did not want to spend 6 £ on a programme!

And even more annoying is the fact that I saw Ewan McGregor face-to-face on two occasions but was not sure whether or not he was the real thing or his twin so I did not go for a picture!!! He was in full costume and groomed like in the movies, being part of the crowd with his own camera and all. But actors look different in real life than on screen! So I only figured it was him when it was already too late!!! I could kill myself for being such a nixchecker all the time!!!

Anyway, today's events ended with a free open-air screening of Episode IV, opened by Ian McDiarmid himself! Interesting and funny speech! I got some of it with my camera! I wish I could have enjoyed this with Kat, seeing that we're both great fans and I am sure she would have loved it!

04 July 2007

The rain goes on...

Since my plans of blogging about my tour through Notting Hill, the surrounding area with tea at the Orangery of Kensington Gardens & Palace (sth like the London version of Schönbrunn) were crossed by a thunder storm yesterday, I decided to dedicate this blog post to the weather that has been tormenting this country for two weeks now (not without mentioning a few things about my tour though).

About Notting Hill:
Yes, it is a fancy bohème sort of area, with Portobello and a lot of expensive boutiques nearby (in the street called Westbourne Grove, to be exact). Has a healthy nightlife (so I've read) and also, some celebrities live in the area, like Pete Doherty. I discovered a quite original idea for a café, it is called The Natural Café and the name basically says what it is: A fairtrade, organic café from ingredients to the wooden furniture and the organic paper cups. Smoothies are a dream (you can choose between cow milk, soy or rice milk) and staff is super nice! The leaflet says that for the company, it is important that the cows where their milk comes from are "happy cows", so they even play music to them ("Their favourite is Cold Play"). Right opposite of it is a Malaysian restaurant that looks very inviting. If anyone is interested, I'd like to go on a culinary journey! Btw, I am teaching myself Malay online now. It seems to be a simple enough language.

About Bayswater and Queensway:
East of Notting Hill is Bayswater and Queensway. If Kensington is the continental heart of the city, then the former two are the ones for what I will call "Mediterranean Arabs" (Lebanese, ...). Also, there are Greeks, Chinese and South Americans. Is reflected in the restaurants but also in the shops.

About Kensington Gardens:
From there I entered Kensington Gardens from the North, one if its gates opposite the station. The sky was completely covered in grey clouds on the sky and you could already hear the thunder. But I discarded all that and decided to go on with my programme for the day and through the park instead of taking the tube home. Usually, when it rains, it is not very heavy and only for short periods of time and grey clouds don't necessarily mean that it is going to rain that day. Haha! Yesterday, of course, was different! I was halfway through the park when IT started. Rain, as people in Austria understand it and worse. After walking 10 seconds in it, you are drenched. The thunder storm took its full course: Lighting, thunder and a sudden shower. I followed the example of other park visitors and ran under a tree for shelter. Still, my jeans (fresh out of the laundry!) soaked up the water up to my upper thighs, my down jacket failed to keep the water out as I later discovered and water started to pool (!) on the zipper of my bag. Perfect. Damp from head to toe. I decided to run to the next wooden hut where some cyclists were already waiting for the rain to stop and believed it was a good idea to hold on to their bikes while lighting could strike at them anytime.

About emergencies:
So, tea in the orangery and a visit to Kensington Palace literally fell into the water (do you say that in English, too?) and I decided to take the tube. The second I stepped onto the platform in Earl's Court, there was an announcement, "Due to a reported emergency, would all customers please leave the station immediately" (in a recorded but slow and calm voice which for me, suggested there was nothing "serious" going on but maybe that is just an illusion). So they closed down the station, swiftly but without panic (even if maybe a bit nervously), everyone got out. Police was there. You don't know what's going on... Turned out later, it was a fire alert.

Regarding the weather, it has been raining for two weeks now and there has been severe floodings throughout England which remind me of the "flooding of the century" we had in Austria in 2002, as it was coined by the media. You can find an article about the British flood here.

03 July 2007

Follow me... to Harrods!

Today, first day of "famous July Sale" at Harrods. They hired Sarah Michelle Gellar to open this year's sale but since it was her, and neither Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman nor Colin Firth & co. AND at 9am, I slept right through the opening and came later that day.
Harrods is really as impressive as everyone says! Only the crème de la crème of luxury brands. I thought 80£ was expensive for a flip flop (Kensington High Street) but 200 f* £ is absolutely OTT, just for a slab of leather, a string between your toes with a few designer stones on them, by someone named Giuseppe Zanotti or so. In Vienna, Zanotti is an ice-cream parlour in the city. Also OTT is the Egyptian escalator that Al Fayed had built when he took over the business. It cost 20m £!
In the Lower Ground Floor right at the foot of the escalator, there is a Diana & Dodi memorial. It is a picture of both of them with candles around it. In the middle is the glass they last drank from before they left the Ritz that night, in the condition it was found and together with the ring that was supposed to be her engagement ring from Dodi, crafted it into a glass pyramid.
I read later in the map the cortous employees gave away to the customers that there is also a bronze statue of both of them setting free an albatros, with a book of condolence on the Ground Floor. But the building is sooo big, that I unfortunately didn't see that. But I might return anyway, to look around some more. Besides, Harrods is really not that far away from me.

02 July 2007

Glimpse of Science Museum & Kensington Stroll

So what do you do on a Sunday afternoon? Exactly, you call Kat for help in deciding which is the best option: Staying in, reading in a park when the weather forecast predicted rain or doing sth else. Door number three was some kind of attraction. In the end, my time management coach and I decided to send me to one of "the museums", as the Victoria & Albert, Natural History and Science Museum are called due to their being next to each other along Exhibition Road maybe 20-30min walk from my place.

The Science Museum is right next to Imperial College, btw, the prestigious technical university in London. The museum's collections comprise space, energy, time, telecommunication, history of medicine, maths etc. Currently, there is an exhibit about spying which was opened by the head of MI5 herself which is even more of an honour, as she seldom appears in public. Unfortunately, the exhibit costs 10£ entry, so I'll save that for September when Kat can hopefully join me! *sigh*

Anyway, it is a big interactive museum with a lot of what I will call leisure areas, ideal for families with children. The space collection was highly interesting! Space has always been sth that fascinated me. They showed a movie from 1985 (?) the Apollo 11 mission (I had never realised that space shuttles don't have an engine, meaning they have only one shot at a right landing!), I believe and some equipment and lifesize gear, sometimes even original! Intriguing was also the part about how astronauts live out there. Did you know that their feces and urine would be bagged and sent back to earth for analysis? Or do you know how a space toilet looks like? It has handles so the astronaut won't fly away before the job is finished (I am sure time has brought some developments in comfort, though)! Also, they don't shower, they use towels and if they stay on a space station for three years, well, then they can't shower for three years (Dinwiddy was already a challenge, I really admire these people for what they put themselves through). However, I have a blurred image of a space shower in my mind that I have seen somewhere online.
Anyway, I actually did not want to go anywhere near the maths collection but ah well, why not. Found this awesome machine, guess what it is!
It is a differential analyser!
And it is huge! Stunning! Nowadays, you just throw the figures into a PC or a calculator that fits into the palm of your hand. The machine above actually belongs to the University of Manchester, they conducted research with this!

On my home, I strolled through the lovely area of South Kensington where I have never been before. The picture makes it really evident why this is such a sought-after residential area! I found the following stunning figures in Time Out's "London for Londoners":
Royal Borough of Islington (where I used to live, includes King's Cross and Angel):
178 028 people with an average income of 2486£/month on 14.9 km²
Students: 11.08 %
Retirees: 7.84 %
Burglary: 14 (per 1000 persons; UK average 6.4)
Robbery: 7 (1.4)
Violence against the person: 42 (16.5)
Theft from vehicle: 20 (10)
Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (where I live now, includes Earl's Court, Notting Hill and Regent's Park):
163 520 people with an average income of 3650£/month on 12.4 km²
Students: 10.21 %
Retirees: 8.29 %
Burglary: 10
Robbery: 5
Violence against the person: 19
Theft from vehicle: 14

Now, regarding the fact that the closer you get to London and the closer you get to Central London the more crimes are commited, the high relative rate is not surprising. However, Islington is known for its proportionally high crime rate. I have mentioned several incidents before and only last week did a 15-year-old stab a 14-year old to death again. I guess I have been lucky this past year.

01 July 2007

Terror in London

Hi guys, to those of you who haven't heard of me yet after the two found car bombs in Piccadilly and the Glasgow Airport incident: I am fine which is probably likely in a city as big as London where you can be in a million of other places when some terrorists decide to attack, except - I happened to be near Piccadilly that night.

Actually, I was on my way home from Lila's in North London Zone 3 to Earl's Court. It was 1pm when I left her place and set out on an odyssee of long night bus rides, only didn't I know then that I would arrive at my place three hours later (the journey should take 1h 20min).
I caught a night bus that would took me to Trafalgar Square from where I had to take the N97, the only bus from there that goes directly to Earl's Court. It is supposed to come every 10min. 25min later, the bus was still not there. An ambulance rushed by. Some minutes later, a police car rushed by. Nothing unusual in Central London at night. I asked the driver of another bus that was parked at my stop if he had heard anything about the N97 on the radio (= german Funk). If for some reason, there is no service tonight. He said no. While I was talking to him, we were interrupted by an announcement on his radio, saying that there was a road closure ahead at Haymarket/Piccadilly due to a security alert. Now, a security alert can be a lot of things. I was not worried. I was fed up though with waiting so I decided to walk a bit along the route to see if the bus maybe took another route and pops up at another stop. I walked through Pall Mall (big parallel street to Piccadilly), saw some police cordon, a few officers and blue light through a side street but thought it was just some crime scene or an early preparation for the Tour de France or the 10km women's run supposed to take place this week and turned into Piccadilly near the Ritz. There is a bus stop right after it where a lot of buses pass by (Green Park). I wait 10 minutes and contemplate whether I should just take another bus that would not take me directly home or hail for a cab. You know, in Central London, there are hardly any benches or opportunities to sit down. I've been on my feet for more than two hours and I couldn't call or text anyone to pass the time while waiting.
Suddenly, clusters of people flocked towards my bus stop. The two guys I had been waiting with at Trafalgar and who had offered me a Ferrero Rocher (that I did not accept) were with them and told me there would be no traffic or buses from "that side". Apparently, some TFL people had informed them.

(for a bigger version of this map go to this link)

I decided to go for the cab. Problem: It was past three or so and for some reason, loads of drunk people (one girl climbed into a waste bin while her friends took a picture of her after she had fallen in like a folding knife) no available cab in sight. I walk around the corner of the Ritz where there is some fancy casino. A guy in a nice suit asks me if I am looking for a cab. I said yes. He takes me to his car. I said, "But this doesn't look like a cab!". He says, it is a minicab. I reply as uninsulting as possible, "I know but I want a black cab" (in London there are two kinds of cabs: black cabs = the classical ones you know from movies, and mini cabs = look like a normal car. Now, mini cabs are cheaper but also, they are riskier when you did not call via a trusted company as anyone could pretend to be a cabdriver). He meant he worked for the casino and I could check his license. I insisted on waiting for a black one. I also turned down the guy parking next to him and thought, where would I find a cab if not at fucking Piccadilly? So I walked down to Piccadilly Circus, even more people crammed at the bus stop right next to the circus. Most of the side streets were closed down (it is a major traffic hub), allowing only a few cars and buses to trickle through. I saw a guy in a white plastic "full body condom", a forensic expert. I still didn't know what the hell was going on and thought, probably some guy got stabbed or killed or whatever right at the Amor statue in the middle of the circus. There was no panic at all, just people leaving the night clubs or being annoyed at having to wait so long for a bus. No-one really had a clue. I decided to hop onto the next bus that remotely passes my place and took the N9 or sth which drives through Kensington Highstreet from where I return home on foot (15 minutes). By then, the sun was rising and the birds were chirping. I finally went to bed after a cup of tea and checking the news. But apart from the security alert and diversion/delays information on the TFL website there was nothing yet on the news.

Next afternoon, I get up and first thing I do, is to check the news. Whatever it was, if only a murder or whatever, if it takes place at Piccadilly, there should be a report somewhere. Google. Hit: Guardian's headline: Two car bombs found. I had half-expected something like this but for some reason, I was not shaken just a bit scared-but-life-goes-on. Maybe because I was not directly in that Tiger Tiger club right in front of which the first car was parked when the police arrived. Maybe because to me, it was not a threat but a nuisance since it held up all the traffic and kept me from going home. I would be more worried if it was sth like a biochemical agent that had been released or if it had actually exploded, the more so in broad daylight (Piccadilly is one of the busiest places in Central London).
I had planned months ago to go to the 7/7 commemoration at either King's Cross or Russell Square station, knowing that this is a potentially dangerous idea. Last year though, they said that there was no additional risk on that day, also when using the tube. I still don't know whether I would take the tube or the bus. I mean, if I'd believe the bus was safer, who says that the terrorists wouldn't think along the same lines? We'll see.

28 June 2007

Settling In

I realised recently that you guys still don't know what my flat looks like. Here you see a part of my room (note the spot of green outside the window and the lovely fireplace!) and our gorgeous shared bathroom (with the French tap!). Unfortunately, I do not have a fisheye option on my camera, everything would look so much bigger!
Anyway, I have made myself more comfortable already, I have rearranged my postcards and friend's pictures too on a smaller cork board and my Southeast Asia map will soon find a new wall. Also, I feel safer when dealing with the gas stove and oven. At first, I was shocked that I would have to live without a microwave but somehow I am glad because I will be forced to learn how to cook (I did Chili Sin Carne some days ago and was surprised at how good it was) and it should be healthier, too.
A weird guy called on our landline lately, saying he was from the Home Advisory Service and that he had spoken to Deborah a few days earlier (which is true). However, he kept asking strange questions and wouldn't give me neither his name nor his phone number. The Home Advisory Service compares gas/electricity and water providers and finds you the best quote, I checked it up on the internet. In the UK, you have to be really careful with your postcode, name, date of birth as identity theft is quite common here. What I was more afraid of, was that some kind of burglary was coming up because the guy asked me if we studied engineering. He'd be surprised to find that there is nothing really valuable in our flat.
Brings me to next subject:
Since I am still waiting for a reply for jobs and especially Baker and Spice (after my job interview), I went out for a brief shopping spree on Kensington High Street which also has loads of stylish shops but isn't as crowded or polluted as Oxford Street. Anyway, the term shopping spree might be contested, as with spending not more than 15 GBP I feel back in the Austrian/German 1950s or in movies about poor Irish families where - as I already said to Kat - everyone already got excited over a bar of chocolate.
My precious toys were a natural light bulb for my desk lamp (GOD! What a LIGHT! I have been illuminated, at last!) which really helps with make up, a night cream for my face, a proper eyeshadow brush, a box for my DVDs and a PC game (Myst: Masterpiece Edition. Why it only cost 0.97 £ is really mysterious but I will find out soon). To round up, I had a glimpse of Kensington Gardens (the Western and quieter half of Hyde Park) and the Palace therein.
A modest but nice day out for one person to get to know the local area.
As of now, I am through most of the DVD collection including one season O.C. and Prison Break each and now start on the books. Actually, I borrowed some from the SOAS library and am now reading on UK Asylum and Immigration Law to prepare for my next year's floater. Come to think of it, SOAS also has some novels from native writers. Southeast Asian literature, that could be interesting... Alternatives: Buying books myself or reading in French (also from my flatmates), both not really an option.
Will now send out some more CVs...
P.S. I was shocked for a few minutes when I misspelled my own blog address and believed my blog - my diary! - had been attacked by some evil hackers. See for yourself!

25 June 2007

Earl's Court, Refugees and the Joys of Boredom

A lot of time has passed since I blogged last. I have a good excuse, at least for some time: I was busy with moving.

Imagine dragging a huge suitcase and a huge sports bag through an antiquated underground system with hardly any lifts (luckily, there is a brand new one at King's Cross) and then up three floors with no lift at all. Imagine doing that AT LEAST once daily, if not two or three times. Sounds like excercise to you? Definitely felt like it. People who witnessed me moving before will remember the eternity it takes me to pack up my stuff. Well... I didn't change.

For the last batch, I took a minicab service from King's Cross to Earl's Court which is pretty exactly 10 km and paid 25 £ which is much less than I expected! I would have paid 18 £ were it not for the luggage (in the UK it is forbidden to put luggage on a seat, therefore if the cab driver has to fold a seat, you will be charged extra). Last time (and first time) I took the cab was on boxing day and I paid 10 fucking £ for a distance that takes me 10 minutes to walk just because it was a holiday!

Anyway, after some initial difficulties to enjoy the new flat despite its sheer beauty, I have finally settled in quite well. I have enjoyed the undescribable feeling of touching a shiny and clean surface with my feet while at the same time getting re-adjusted to a detachable shower head. Finally, I can wash my hair properly (non-detachable shower heads are logically but frustratingly never built for people my height). My room is bigger than my Dinwiddy one and I have a lovely double-bed, too big for one person... I look out of the room and see the rustling leaves of a big tree in a private park (to which we unfortunately do not have the key). The only downturn is the sometimes unstable internet connection, that makes it difficult to find a good pastime activity, especially if you have already seen all interesting movies available at home on DVD and the video rental is 3,60 £ or so per disc per night (in Austria, you never pay more than 1,60 €)!!! Luckily, there are three internet cafes around the corner where you can use the Russian version of Skype and the grimy keyboard if you are really desperate. Once I have some money, I can hopefully invest in a good modem. *sigh* Until then, we have a special telephone rate from talktalk where it doesn't cost anything (apart from a monthly fee) to call for free to 36 countries worldwide, as long as it is a landline. Voipstunt or skyping is cheaper but then - the internet - is a dog, as we say in German (or a rub, as you say in English)!

The last week I have also tried to top my record for writing job applications. I got one call from a call centre in the City (they said they will put me in the database - so probably a no) and one e-mail from a lovely authentic/rustic restaurant that has four branches in London and that I stumbled upon while paying a visit to Queen's Park for the first time (it is an area as well as a park). They would be interested in a job interview but said they are looking to fill the position permanently. So that is a no, too. My mum suggested - what else - McDonald's *rolling eyes*. I won't comment on that anymore. There is a pub down the road that is looking for bar staff. Now, I am really not picky but I'd rather do something where I don't have to deal with drunken smart arses who harass me (I saw the ad on Saturday night, guess how inviting the clientele looked to me).

My plan for today is to call up all companies I applied to and try to find some more I can send my CV to. Also since I am getting the Hauskoller (into a paddy), I will walk around town and keep my eyes open for any more job ads.

By the way, I went to Piccadilly today after 15 minutes on a refugee festival in Brent Cross where Ken Livingtone was supposed to speak (I missed him, I came too late) and 75 minutes trying to get there only to realise it was a rather small festival where everyone knew everyone and where there was little entertainment apart from food and a police enforced soccer match. The festival is because, as you might know or not, this week was UNHCR's World Refugee Day and it took place in that area because Barnet has as I have read one of the highest refugee populations in London (btw, 30 000 people sought asylum in the UK in 2005, 5000 of which were granted asylum - source: Home Office). There is more I could write on this but right now I won't.

So, I went to Piccadilly and wondered, what now on a Sunday evening? Oxford Street was closed already and it was raining cats and dogs and I wasn't dressed for going out, so I decided, "OK, let's find the Wolseley". The Wolseley is a café that has presumably been inspired by a great Viennese café. Sounds interesting, huh? It is really fancy and there is a penguin guy with bowler hat who runs to hold his black and white striped umbrella over guests that arrive by cab. Hm. Maybe Viennese but definitely with a British touch. Sounds very inviting and a peep inside shows a fully set table, including white & red wine glass and at least two courses. But the flair seems to be nearly authentic. I would have liked to go in and try their Café Mozart for 6,25 £ or one of their sandwiches in the same price range but maybe another time, when my bank account can enjoy it, too. A real person to enjoy it with, would be the cherry on top. *sigh* So I decided to have some lovely high cocoa at some pâtisserie at the other end of Piccadilly at a more digestible price.

Sorry guys to bore you with these little stories but that really has been the peak of my week so far...

09 June 2007

Singapore Historiography Workshop

There I was, attending a workshop on Singapore historiography at St. Antony's College, Oxford, in honour of Mary Turnbull whose book A History of Singapore has apparently been the first of its kind thirty years ago.

It quickly turned out that I was pretty much the only BA student among a bunch of PhDs or other researchers who kept asking me who I was working with and what I was looking into, the meaning of which took a while to register (namely, who the supervisor of my PhD dissertation was and what that was about).

Most people were from Oxbridge and some even had a PG from SOAS and came from as far as the NUS (National University of Singapore).
Still, I got some interesting insights into Singapore which is what I had come for considering that Singapore somehow got left out in my SEA GP class. As a response to that two people told me they could not imagine a history of Malaysia without a history of Singapore (true, it was the base of the British colonialists when they first arrived in the region).

At lunch, I got some really good (actually quite simple) advice concerning the Philippines from one of the presenters who came from the University of Amsterdam while he was chewing merrily on sth that we in Austria call Kümmelbraten, except that there was no cumin on it and he had poured soy sauce over it (my amusement at this was the icebreaker). I am mentioning the food because I was astonished to find how it resembles Austrian cuisine (I picked the filled pepper). They must have had Austria weeks at the college cantine. Anyway, it seems that in Amsterdam, I have just passed two years of big Philippines conferences which will probably come to an end because the professor behind it is retiring.

After the workshop, I still had some time to kill before my coach journey, so I took a walk through the city centre. Maybe it is just me but a city full of Oxford students (and little else) on a Saturday night is slightly disconcerting, especially as they mostly look the same: white (Oxford has been criticised for years for its diversity rates). Also, and understandably, a lot of them walk with the excess of self-confidence that being an Oxford student enhances (I have heard some insider horror stories from a transferred student at SOAS).

08 June 2007

Follow me... to Cambridge!

Mainly pictures this time, folks. Sorry but there is not much to say except that:

1) The National Express coach from Victoria Station to Cambridge takes a very good tour through London. We passed Chelsea Bridge, Thames House (MI 5), Horse Guards Road (from where the Royal Guards ride to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard), Ministry of Defence, Parliament Square, St. Paul, Tate Modern and the City including the Gherkin.

2) Cambridge is a lovely and stunningly beautiful city! Oxford in comparison seems more artificial and superficial but maybe that is just me.

3) Kat went to the Museum of Geology and I went to the Museum of Anthropology & Archaeology.

Kat spotted some ducks while we went through a park and decided to feed them with Tesco's Blueberry Muffins with the effect that we were suddenly surrounded by twelve ducks or so. Please ignore the label on my slip! Shortly after that picture - I was not paying attention because I was observing the two ducks on the left - the one duck that is raising its head snatched away the muffin paper together with the remains of the muffins and ran away with it, the ten other ducks following its tail as if it was about survival. Crazy!

07 June 2007

Follow Me... to Winchester, Stonehenge & Bath!

Today, Kat and I set out for a tour to Southwestern England.

On our way out, we passed through this exclusive town in London, apartments start from 2 million £. Once I move to Earl's Court, I will explore more of SW London, a part that I have neglected this past year. Did you know that Hugh Grant went to a private school in Earl's Court and then went on to study English at New College, Oxford on a scholarship?

... is the old capital of England during Anglo-Saxon times and today probably twice as big as Mödling. Our Sean-Connery-without-a-beard-tour-guide who alternates swiflty between English and fluent Japanese all the time, shows his Wedl streak: "There is no point in taking pictures now when you come back later anyway!"

The cathedral which you see below, is partly in 11th century, partly 16th century design, claims to be in possession of the Round Table (as do numerous other cities throughout the country) and is burial place of Jane Austen.

Kat and I decided to see Wolvesey Castle, 12th century ruins of the Norman bishop's palace. Queen Mary Tudor and King Philip II of Spain were guests before they got wed in the cathedral. On our way, we passed a house where Jane Austen lived six weeks prior to her death. Maybe I should let my Viennese flat to sickly writers and bohemians to secure eternal revenue. Hm...

Stonehenge & Salisbury Plain:
First impression: The stones are smaller than you imagine. Since everyone knows what they are famous for or can look it up online, I'll just give some quick facts:

The possible explanations include it being a solar temple, a lunar observatory, a source of healing power and an extraterrestrial monument. Others believe, some of the stones were brought over by Merlin from Ireland or by giants from Africa. Some even said that Uther Pendragon, King Arthur's father, is buried within the circle. There are also some burial sites nearby.

Magnetism: There is a high magnetic field surrounding the stones. I don't know if I imagined that or not but I indeed felt some tingling in my calves shortly before the tour guide said we were crossing some magnetic line. Also, his microphone went rustling for a second but he might have manipulated it for the sake of us tourists.

The area is also famous for the most UFO sightings in the UK or so, even though this is probably due to US-Air Force test flights. And on the summer solstice, some 30 000 (?) people gather around the stones. In case, you want to be part of it this 20 June, go and have a look at the Stonehenge website. You have to register in advance, I think.

The Salisbury Plain in which Stonehenge is located is well... plain. In fact, around the archaeological site there are just highly used motorways. Therefore, I had to pay four f$%$! Pounds for a Cheese and Onion slice (2,5x the average price) at the museum snack shop!

is something like the Austrian Baden because it is famous for its Roman spas and thermal springs. There is a whole cult surrounding the baths, involving the goddess Minerva. Read about the whole mythological framework in this short article (sorry guys but there is a limit to blogging like a machine).

The Sightseeing Saga continues

On Wednesday,

I helped Stacia to the station with her two huge suitcases to wish her farewell. I felt a bit melancholic now that the first of my two closest friends in the UK is leaving, not to be seen for God knows how long. I am sure she is looking forward to her new computer and coming home again. This is like the Oceanians and distances between islands: For them, the sea is not a barrier but a road. In this case, the internet is the road and the two continents the islands. Therefore, it shouldn't be that a big deal hopefully! However, I still needed a caramel moccha before I could go back to Dinwiddy.

Later that day, Kat and I went to Camden Market for a quick overview and after a delicious dish at one of the greasy spoons there, Kat decided to make this Saturday a Camden Day (I will be somewhere else at a workshop). Quick overview because I had to dash off to Earl's Court to sign the contract for my new flat at the real estate agent's, together with my new flatmates. In the meantime, Kat explored the wonders of Tate Modern. I told her that when Natascha went there, she said that the colours had been very inspiring. Interestingly, Kat confirmed that view. With these two strong recommendations, maybe I should really have a look myself!

In the evening, I talked to my mum who seems to be concerned about me but instead made me concerned about her:

Mum: Heidi, do you always look out for cars when you cross roads in London?
Heidi: Yes...?
Mum: Make sure you always look on the correct side. The cars over there drive on the other side.
Heidi: Uh... I know?
Mum: You always have to look at the right side first.
Heidi: OK... That is what I do anyway?
Mum: Because you know that cars over here in Austria come from the other side.
Heidi: So you never look first before you cross the street?
Mum: Where does the traffic come from in Austria again? Hang on. From the right or from the left? I don't know, actually...

06 June 2007

Wherever your feet take you

On Tuesday,

Kat and I left for a looong walk through the city on our precious two pairs of feet: First stop: Covent Garden. I have never really looked at the restaurants there (because I believed that they probably would be quite expensive considering the amount of tourist stomachs to be fed daily) but thanks to Kat, I now know what delicious things there are to be tasted! In return, I showed Kat my favourite café just around the corner in King Street: It's called Muffinski and I believe I have already mentioned that its inside reminds me of Mölkerhof in another blog post? Anyway, they have absolutely gorgeous muffins (butterscotch & banana, white chocolate & strawberry and banana & raspberry with real fruit in the centre)!

From there we "promenaded us" through the streets of independent shops of Seven Dials & Soho (we discovered the little streets of the red light district). Flashback here of Amsterdam... We wound our way to Oxford Street where we dropped by at Selfridges (sth like Harrods: Gucci, Prada, you name it, it's there) and into fashion shops just looking around and thinking of our beloved mums every now and then:

Heidi (looking at a brightly coloured pseudo-adult string tanga): My mum would say, you get thrush from that.
Kat (looking at the object herself): So would mine.

Finally, we let our swollen feet cool off in the cool grass of Hyde Park where we relaxed in the shadow of a tree, the leaves above us rustling with the breeze (a sound you don't hear very often in London). Wow, the last time I walked this far must have been Boxing Day...

We reunited with Stacia in the evening who relaxed at home before her big day, her departure to the US. Stacia showed Kat the speech accent archive, a website where people record and upload themselves speaking a given text together with information about their age, language background etc. Basically, it is for linguists who go crazy about phonetic pecularities...

Stacia: Nothing interesting there, just some boring German speakers with devoicing of final obstruants.
Kat: Ooooh! That is a strong palatalisation! That sounds like a really interesting Slavic accent!
Heidi: ?

In case anyone wants to donate a speech sample for Stacia's private collection... get in touch! Kat and I have already contributed!

Below, you see a shot of my room, that currently functions as an internet café, a storage facility and youth hostel. Stacia's main PC died two weeks ago and its substitute, her PC-to-go, only has WiFi which at Dinwiddy is of course outside any range of public networks. Also, Stacia and Kat have a lot of junk that exceeds their luggage allowance or that they don't need anymore. Yay! I inherit so many useful things for my new flat, thanks again you two! Finally, a mattress is lying around somewhere for Kat's convenience.

02 June 2007

Heidiwitz reaches 100th blogpost!

This blogpost is a special one for various reasons:

#1 I have found a flat for post-Dinwiddy therapy!

#2 My first reading-free weekend in ages!

#3 It is the 100th blog post!

[photo removed]

Ad #1 - Nix wie weg! Finally released from prison and happy end

As faithful readers among you remember, there was this gorgeous flat in Earl's Court that seemed like the fulfilment of my dreams: Openable window, bathtub, space, quiet and park nearby. As you also might know, my future flatmates had decided to give it to another student which cancelled last minute due to a problem with her parents. So finally, I do get the flat in the end! Spent two hours yesterday at the real estate agent who told us about his Australian aunt or sth coming to the UK for breast surgery, what he eats for breakfast IN DETAIL and that it took him eight months (!) to transfer to another bank (among other things)! Nah, he is a really nice guy around 50 (I am usually quite suspicious about people who try to sell me a flat which is another story in itself), the kind of person that cheers up the crowd at family gatherings. Anyway, so from middle of June, I am going to move to SW5!

[photo removed]

Ad # 2 - Learning to Relax

It seems strange to me that I can spend the whole day doing virtually nothing or just something for myself without feeling guilty because I should be doing my readings or an essay or whatever. This is what studying at a UK university does to you: Relaxation is a sin and unwinding from a year of full-time job 24/7 occupation a task to be reckoned with. So how do I spend my precious first week of freedom? Ironically, the grey rain clouds that have been looming over London like a promise of doom ever since the beginning of the exam term were gone as soon as the last day of exams had passed. I spent my first day walking the streets of London, the little side streets of Oxford Street (really interesting shops and a Swiss restaurant - Rösti! - that hide away from the stream of shoppers), having a look at the Photographer's Gallery where they currently feature FOUND magazine, among other things. The magazine lives from people sending in pictures, memorabilia etc. that they have found with a note describing the circumstances of their discovery. Have a look at it! It is like a real life story thing but more immediate and concise. Like a short story: A spotlight of someone's life. Finally, I went to Covent Garden and found out where all the shops for mountaineers are before I returned home to watch Children of Men, Lie With Me and 24 Season 6 after I had replied to all e-mails and facebook messages of the last four weeks.

[photo removed]

Ad #3 - My first year abroad - Taking stock

Some things change and some things never change. How miserable am I? I am still...

... studying until last minute (even watching the sun rise while having bean burgers for breakfast and being surrounded by lecture notes)

... trying to prove myself.

But I believe I have also changed and realised a lot of things (about myself) in this awesome past year:

_ What drives me is not knowledge alone but also acknowledgement.
_ I could do better at making myself more visible.
_ Standing up for your right and being clear and straightforward about it can be such an adrelanie rush! It feels so good to stand your ground, for a change. In London, you drown if you don't walk on the water.
_ It is true what people say about going abroad: (1) You find out who your real friends are and (2) Moving somewhere else does not solve ALL your problems. Still, it solved some, ie I am at a distance from a family that does not believe in me or what I am doing. I don't have to explain or justify myself all the time and just be a person.
_ Not all US-Americans are evil (not even the ones from Texas) and vegans are not aliens.
_ Talking about a problem can relieve stress immensely and helps putting things into perspective.
_ The UK uni system works better for me. Socially, it is like a community, and academically, you learn so much more than in Austria because you dedicate so much more time and effort.
_ It is OK to say it if you are not feeling fine. Anger & fear are not the only legitimate feelings.
_ Conflicts can be constructive, too.
_ I was reborn at 18 (when I moved out from my parents') and anew when I came to London.

29 May 2007

Keep the spirits up

For those of you who expect a pre-final exam spurt pep up monologue, I apologise for the disappointment. I will save the self-reflexive effusions for the end of academic yearpost. Instead, I will abuse my blog to revise for today's exam and at the same time, present you with the opportunity to gain invaluable insight into the most interesting spirit world of Java, followed by the significance of phalluses in Bali, as purported by my current favourite ethnographer, the late Clifford Geertz.

As a teaser, you should have a look at this funny horror clip of a Sundel Bolong:

So, Geertz distinguishes three greater types of spirits in Java:

1) Memedis: also called "frighteners". They scare the hell out of you but don't do you any harm. The motto here is "Their bark is worse than their bite". Subcategories are:
a) Panapasti: Who have their heads where their genitals should be.
b) Djims: Who pray five times a day in Arabic.
c) Sundel Bolong: The Javanese version of a succubus, more or less. Some believe she doesn't really do any harm while others say she is so beautiful that men cannot resist and follow her - only to be castrated. I daresay, the descriptions fit me a little bit: Long dark hair covering her buttocks, fair skin, the only thing I don't have is a whole through my stomach. I already wondered whether there is a fetish about that and Stacia suggested I could produce sundel bolong dolls that look like me and make a fortune in the sex industry. Well... But she also said that Super Mario was an analogy of Jesus (the fireballs! isn't it evident??) because Nintendo "could not contextualise Jesus as a Middle Eastern guy, therefore they re-contextualised him as an Italian guy". Hm.

2) Lelembut: also called "etheral ones". You really don't want to meet one of those. They live majorly in dark places and especially latrines are full of them. If you "step outside" at night, chances are high that one of them will enter you through, well... while you are squatting and possess you. Don't worry, though. People will find out eventually, once you show symptoms of madness, sickness or death.

One famous kind of lelembut is a kemomong. Some people even enter a voluntary devil's pact with them, like for example, Brataséna, the Javanese shadow-play hero. He "once died on purpose merely because he had never been dead and wanted to see what it felt like" (Since he angered the Hindu-Buddhist authorities in his afterlife - people are not supposed to decide their own fate, that is made for them - they threw him back to the living. So no harm done).

3) Tujul: also called "children who are not human beings". These are the ones you should look out for. If people become unexpectantly very rich in a short period of time (but have a Dagobert Duck attitude), people say a tujul must have taken a hand in it.

Geertz associates these three groups of spirits with the first of the three groups that Javanese society, in his view, consist of (the distinction has been contested by Mark Woodward):

1) Abangan:
the more "traditionalised peasants and their proletarianised comrades in the towns", "traditionalised" referring to pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist and/or syncretic beliefs.

2) Santri:
historically, rich Muslim traders, today, a group of the population that practises a more orthodox version of Islam than the abangan. The term santri refers to students of religious schools and the following of the Qu'ran, Sharī‘a and Hadith. Although it is not exclusively practised by Santris, Woodward will provide us later with a textual approach to analysing the single most important ritual feast in Indonesia, the Slametan: a ritual gathering held for various reasons throughout the year.

3) Prijaji:
the distinguished elite, white-collar nobles (a long time ago, ancestry was traced back to semi-mythical kings of pre-colonial Java until the Dutch ran out of "true" nobles to employ in administration and hired others too which were henceforth also considered to be prijaji).

Woodward, in contrast, opposes Geertz's categorisation and works with a dichotomy between kejawen/abangan/animists and shariah-abiding santris. Although the Slametan "links blessing and food and extends from Arabia to Southeast Asia" (but is called differently in other countries), "elements of the Slametan derive from pre-Islamic traditions and are interpreted in Islamic terms". He says that Geertz wrongly portrays ritual meals as an animistic rather than a Muslim thing.

I will try to summarise Woodward's argument while at the same time revealing what a slametan entails:

1) What does a Slametan look like and what are the key elements?
Who's invited? The Qu'ran and Hadith specifies neighbours, kin and the poor as people to whom one owns special obligations.

For the santri, public rituals are required by Sharī‘a to define a community.
For the kejawen, the ritual transforms a pre-existing group (ie office employees) into a religious community.

Giving food serves the same purpose of distributing blessings. So even if one cannot attend a slametan (which happens more often in urban centres than in the countryside), one at least tries to send food.

The main parts of a slametan are:
a) Invocation = ujub = a speech by the host in the most formal language possible (usually High Javanese). Woodward believes there are five theologically motivated purposes:

_ link an elaborate feast with the simple ritual meals of Muhamad
_ define the recipients of blessings (depends whether it is held after a birth, a marriage, a death, before the departure to a long journey, Muhamad's birthday...)
_ specify the saints and other beings to whom food and prayers are dedicated (santris invite more Arabic saints whereas kejawen include Hindu-Javanese kings many of which are said to have been converted to Islam before they died)
_ establish the good intentions of the host (which matches Sharī‘a ritual prescriptions)
_ establish his humility (something really important in Javanese culture, I won't go into detail)

b) Arabic prayer (a common solat/sembahjang not an individual doa/donga)
The more people pray, the more blessings are distributed.

c) The Food
You are supposed to fill your plate with more than you will eat. It is rude to empty your plate as your host will look bad. Therefore, you eat a little bit and take the rest home.

2) What is the point of all this? Featuring: The state of slamet and the role of sufism and religious text
Slametan refers to the Sufistic state of slamet which derives from Qu'ranic salām which means peace or tranquility. Slamet is the social and psychological transformation of Sufi notions of peace, blessing and tranquility.
Sufism - what? Sufis hope to replicate Muhamad's experience of Allah in their own lives. Submission to God is understood by internal terms. Kejawen mysticism was influences by 12th century Ibn ‘Arabī and especially the theory of the unity of being (wahdah al-wujûd). In Javanese, wujud = human soul + Allah. The objective is not to eliminate hierarchical differences between Allah and yourself but to underscore and articulate them.

3) Implications for the debate of syncretism
OK, so what is all this debate about? Southeast Asia in general is considered to be syncretic when it comes to religion, this does not only include Islam (prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia) but also Theravada Buddhism (Burma, Thailand). Woodward accuses Geertz to present the Slametan as an animistic response to a strange religion. He says that both santris and kejawen see the slametan as an inherently Muslim ritual, even if they have differing opinions about it: The kejawen tend to see it as essential and the Sharī‘a-centric piety as a supplement whereas the santri consider the slametan as a supplementary source of blessing. It is therefore useful to remind ourselves that Islam, like any other world religion, is not monolithic and that there are differing textual interpretations within its different streams. Bla Bla Bla.

Finally, the patient readers (or sly scrollers-down) among you will be rewarded with why the pre-colonial polity is a huge drama in Hindu Bali and what the Negara state has to do with phalluses.

27 May 2007

Light me up

Today, as yesterday, the day before that and the day before that, it is raining. People say, every cloud has a silver lining but if you haven't seen the sun in weeks, that makes you seriously wonder why so many people are happy with a silver lining when they can have a golden ray of sunshine.

Seriously, ever since term 3, London has been covered in an opaque grey blanket, the sun only showing itself once a week (if at all) just to torture anyone who might have hoped in foolish glee that it is going to stick to the damn sky - just to disappear again, leaving you aching for serotonin.

Dr. Lifestyle (remember, the Gower St doctor I consulted around January when I slept so much it caused me to worry) seemed to have been right about the lack of sunlight thing, I just wonder why she didn't call SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) by its name. My point is that since this state of feeling sleepy all day, relying on coffee which alleviates that but doesn't animate your spirits and this general gloomy I-am-staying-in-today-even-if-that-sucks-to-hell mood is unbearable (no surprise so many British people migrate to the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean), I am going to do something against it.

Since I can't afford light therapy lamps, even though they surely are a damn good investment for anyone staying longer in this country, I am going to buy full spectrum light bulbs instead which despite their price (15 £) are worth the try.

24 May 2007

Dealing with Wedls

On Sunday, I had a panic attack due to my sudden change in financial situation. Was all freaking out, couldn't eat and was just about to leave for UCLH because i was so desperate. All banks etc. were closed, so was uni. I did not know where else to go.

The situation is that I might have to return to Vienna for the summer or even for the rest of my course. While the first one is a huge and disadvantageous but I guess bereable sacrifice, the latter would be absolutely inacceptable.

So I went to see my dev UG tutor on Monday even though I was really suspicious about his listening skills. However, I decided that I wanted to contact the uni just in case I mess up the exam (the UG tutor happens to be the course convenor of that class). I was afraid he would send me to my other tutor Jeff (remember, the guy who laughed at me about the expensive study packs). He didn't, though. Instead, I told him what the situation was and he said, "What do you want?" - I told him I am afraid about how this affects my ability to do my best in the exam (it is a rather economic one, so something for which I need to THINK and concentrate hard while revising) and he replied, "SOAS is not responsible for your home economics" at which I snapped, "I know!" but being shocked at this lack of sensitivity on his side. He said some other stuff too which sounded pretty harsh to me, like "Forget about it and enjoy the exam" and "This is just a mood swing! (at which I raised my eyebrows in disbelief) The examiner's board won't consider anything else than medical reasons." Do I have to inflict injuries on myself or throw myself out of the window?? This guy was certainly driving someone to do that. "Why does this happen now? Was this foreseeable before you came here?" and "Things like these happen in life, all the time. This is about managing crises." and the best of all, "So what is the worst thing that can happen? Then you go back to Austria and do your BA there!" By that point, I had semi-successfully tried to hold back crying (he had done most of the talking after the "SOAS is not responsible for your home economics"-part so I did not tell him about the panic attack just about the fact that I experience a lot of stress due to an unexpected financial situation. I was afraid to be too spiteful and "irrational" and that I will cry) but when he presented my return to Austria as the "worst that could happen" in a "what is the big deal about this" sort of attitude, I practically ran out of his office before I broke down in tears. I sat in a deserted staircase for a while until I calmed down.

I mean, I took that patronising preaching and didn't say a thing even though I found it really offensive. Who is he to tell me that life is always like that? I guess he tried to help me in some weird and twisted way but he was being really inappropriate about it.

People in this department have a very hypocritical approach to poverty. They teach about poverty reduction elsewhere in the world but won't see desperation or unequal opportunities when these knock at their very doors. This is not about figures and balances. I believe my tutor was being a male economist on this. He basically told me to get some balls and sit that exam "even if I was living in a tent". It might not be SOAS's job to sort out my home economics for me but it is their job to help me succeed. They fucking recommend and advise you to talk to your tutors about anything that potentially affects your studies in the departmental handbooks! You are not just a full-time studying machine, you are also a human being. Mood swings! He could just as well have said I was an adolescent woman with PMS!

I contacted Lauren (student union welfare and education officer) who was really supportive (it is probably more her job than my teachers but still). She actually tried to find out what we can do about the exam.

In retrospect, now that I have written the exam today (The girl that sat behind me during the exam was given the wrong question sheet. She asked the invigilator to contact her course convenor and guess who that was...) and have replayed and replayed the scene in the office over and over in my head (I just can't believe he said all these things!), I have realised that he is pretty similar to my old maths, physics and head teacher at secondary school, Prof Wedl. It seems everywhere you go there will always be a Wedl. Anyway, my point is that while you may not always like what he tries to tell you, it somehow makes sense which makes you even more furious at him. Also, Wedl was a really hardcore cliché mathematician - feelings are members of the irrational set. All is about fucking ratio. While I see that my tutor's advice might have made sense if there really was no other option, I object and believe that he could have at least tried to talk me through the options. Maybe I am expecting too much of my teachers but now that I have actually told people about it, I realise that having someone listening to you can actually be a huge relief. You know you are not on your own (what initially made me panic) and that there are people who understand your situation.