Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Who has the most cellulite of them all?

Me, if Sunday's sojourn in the Virgin Revivals lounge at Heathrow is anything to go by.

We staggered off the overnight, turbulence-heavy flight -- exhausted, fingers stiff from clenching the armrests in fear, and eyes red-rimmed from incipient hysteria -- and made our way over to the lounge. The showers? Were fantastic, but that cannot be said for the overly bright lighting and huge mirrors, which combined to reveal that my upper thighs were not only bruised from pulling my wheelie case along miles of Heathrow corridors, but had acquired the texture of boiling porridge -- spongy, grey, and lumpy. Why? Why would anyone design a lighting system that reveals all your flaws when you are at your most vulnerable? Lumpy thighs, wrinkles like the San Andreas Fault, and undereye shadows worse than anything seen on the local junkies. My mirror at home casts a far more flattering picture, thanks in large part to the thick layer of dust that coats it. And the clever folks at the gym have used very soft, nay dark, lights in the changing rooms and minimized the number of mirrors, meaning that you can only see other people's flab and not your own -- a far more satisfying prospect.

Coincidentally, that morning's Sunday Times contained an article that touched on this very subject -- the evil that store designers do with lighting and mirrors in their changing rooms. This article stuck a chord, reminding me of one of my worst shopping experiences in recent years (if you're a woman, you'll know that shopping trauma is frequent, ongoing, and inevitable). I went to the Bijenkorf, the only department store in Amsterdam, to buy a bikini prior to a trip to the delightful resort of Sitges. Big mistake. They stocked nothing in a cup size larger than a B, and the changing rooms were white, dusty, and had a single flourescent strip light overhead. The result? Not only the dreaded (and dreadful) quadraboob, but my chest looked like a map of the Rhine and it's tributaries -- bright blue veins showing through pallid winter skin to terrifying effect. After weeping into my mobile to the poor boyfriend who was out shopping in Doncaster and could do nothing but offer comforting words, I headed over to my favorite Japanese shop on the Zeedijk to buy crockery -- that always fits. You'd think that stores would want to make their changing rooms as flattering as possible so that women would buy clothes rather than leaving suicidal, but no; designers have rejected the option of installing candles or faux candlelight in the store, preferring the unforgiving blue-white strip light.

So, two thumbs up to Virgin for the showers; a thumbs down for the lights -- and a plea that they install dimmer switches so that other women need not suffer in the same way. And a hearty recommendation NEVER to go shopping for bikinis in Amsterdam: It's burkhas on the beach for me from now on.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Aren't they gorgeous! And just $58 from DSW at Downtown Crossing -- that's €47 or, even better, 32 of your British pounds!


Thanks for the tip, Cathleen - you rule! Posted by Picasa

This is the final boarding call

It's very unnerving to arrive at Boston airport and hear your friends and their family being paged twice for final boarding on their (different) flight back to Amsterdam. I've spent the subsequent 12 hours wondering if they made it. Guess I'll find out tomorrow when Bill does/does not turn up for work.

Bill/Beth: If you're reading this (in Amsterdam), let me know: I'd like to sleep tonight.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

"We'll be safe for now -- thank goodness we're in a bowling alley"

I've now done the treble: losing at 10-pin, duck-pin, and candle-pin bowling. However, the best part of losing at candle pin bowling at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plan was watching highly skilled 10-pin bowlers suck at and get frustrated by the seemingly random pin falls. Skill clearly counts for little -- the funnest kind of sport!

And apparently bowling is more aerobically effective than other activities. Not sporting activities, clearly, but activities like watching TV. Or sleeping. I wonder how it compares with darts, the other "sport" you can play while drinking beer and eating nachos?

Full of (Boston) beans

On my first business trip to Boston more than five years ago, I was persuaded to visit Legal Seafoods -- and was mightily disappointed. The restaurant had been sold to me as "the best seafood restaurant evah!!!" and yet the pint of prawns I had left me distinctly underwhelmed. Admittedly, I had been spoilt my experiences of seafood in Spain, particularly in the tiny Galician restaurant close to my brother's flat in the centre of Madrid. So when colleagues suggested that we revisit Legal Seafood for lunch yesterday, I was apprehensive. But what a difference six years makes! The restaurant is bigger, lighter, more appealing; the clam chowder was rich and creamy, with a good sprinkling of black pepper; and the popcorn shrimp was fabulous. Of course, the company was fabulous, too.

In fact, all the food I've had while here -- other than the usual dreary conference food -- has been great. Be it brunch at the Miracle of Science with it's blackened breakfast potatoes or the vast platter of Middle Eastern dips and flatbread at Zuzu's or the piedra with scallops at Dali's, the food has been fresh and "flavorful" -- a word I'd normally avoid using but that is highly appropriate here. And the drinks have been equally enjoyable; mojitos at Middlesex and the Madras Martini at Sidney's were strong but highly quaffable, and both came with some of the spiciest wasabi peas I've ever had.

The meals have been a revelation. When I first came to the US in 1990 -- and even in 2001 -- most food seemed bland and underwhelming. Perhaps it's the result of nearly five years of Dutch food (where the culinary peak is mashed potatoes with kale and a boiled supermarket sausage); perhaps my taste buds have grown used to the food of a nation that declares mild Indian curries to be "te pittig" (too spicy). Or perhaps it's the headlong rush into middle age that has dulled my palate and left me appreciative of milder fare. Either way, I can't wait to check out that gourmet paradise, San Francisco, later in the year.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Turn left or die

Oh, how the other half live. Or more accurately, travel. Today, I experienced the glory of the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow – and I am spoilt for good. First, the haircut – free, of course. Then, the wonderful mushroom lasagna, washed down with a beautifully prepared cosmopolitan. Also free, of course. A slice of white chocolate cheesecake with a berry compote? Why not -- it’s free, you know! Cheese and biscuits from the deli counter, a cup of green tea, and a plundering of the selection of newspapers and magazines: GQ, Tatler, Vogue, Hello, and OK? Free, free, free! However, there were no famous people in there. I want to see famous people when I’m in posh places, goddamit!

And an upgrade would have been nice, but (for once), I’m not complaining.

Isn't she lovely?


While I've spent the past 4 months training my Nintendogs, my friends and all-round top people, Clive and Pippa, have actually organized themselves enough to get a real dog. Although Emmie isn't a puppy, she is adorable -- and will be doing handstands and back flips in Stoke Newington in no time! Posted by Picasa

Friday, January 20, 2006


Every country has them -- people who let the side down. Who undermine the values that their countrymen hold dear. Who challege the status quo. Who go against the grain. Think of Judas, Charles I, the Rosenbergs, or Lord Haw-Haw (go Google them, ignoramus).

Readers, I know one such Dutch traitor. A man who spits in the face of Dutch tradition. A man who is super-friendly, great fun, and a real pleasure to be with. Who delights in making friends with lonely expats and welcoming them into his social circle. Who is prepared to read a blog that frequently criticizes his compatriots -- and finds it entertaining and (gasp!) accurate. Indeed, he is the only Dutchie to whom I've given the address of this blog.* And today, he left my place of employment to take up another job.

Jeroen: good luck and stay in touch! You, sir, are a scholar and a gent.

* It's not that I'm scared of voicing my opinions, but the Dutch are really, really tall!



Vacant tourist No. 1: "Gee, hon. Look at all those cute old houses. Let's stand here in the middle of the street and admire them."
Vacant tourist No. 2: "Yes, let's. And while we're standing here, I'll gesticulate wildly with my bag and attempt to knock over any passing cyclists!"

Enter Norfolk Dumpling on her bike, at speed.

Norfolk Dumpling: "Get out of the *&*&%&!!!! road, morons! And watch what you're doing with that *$*#&## bag!"

And . . . cut!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I must admit that the pressure of finding something irritating about my life that I could blog about (which immediately strikes out work) was beginning to get to me. As I cycled home, I even contemplated a post about two things I like about the Netherlands -- the library on the Prinsengracht and the natuurwinkels (health food stores) -- but felt that I would be undermining my reputation as a whinger and moaner. But then it happened! I had browsed the natuurwinkel on the Elandsgracht, registered mild outrage at the cost of the tortilla wraps but dismissed it as unblogworthy, and then taken my place in the queue at the till. As I reached the front, a tall thin man with a beaky nose and glasses (you know who you are, scum!) handed his goods over my head to the checkout assistant without so much as a "by your leave"! I was staggered! This was a violation of the sacred (British) rules of queuing -- indeed, a hanging offence in many a supermarket in my native land! I stared open-mouthed at him, and he must have sensed the "WTFness" emanating from me, for he said (loose translation follows): "I was ahead of you in the queue but I had to get an assistant to get me some organic beauty products so I left the queue but now I'm back and you have to wait while I'm served." Note the total lack of apology or even a "Would you mind terribly . . ."!!!! Too gobsmacked (and ignorant of Dutch) to shoot back "If you leave the queue, you lose your place, asswipe," I could only comfort myself with the thought that this would make an excellent post.*

Seriously: This bloke would have been lynched if he'd tried this in the UK. But now I come to think about it, it's not uncommon to see a lone basket ahead of you in a supermarket queue, acting as a place-saver whilst its owner heads off to pick up those extra goods. And don't get me started on the people who reach the front of the queue, watch all their goods be scanned, and then -- AND ONLY THEN -- get out their money/cards to pay, do that slowly, and then -- AND ONLY THEN -- start to pack their damn bags. Don't they have anything better to do with their time than waste (my) time at the supermarket? Given the high percentage of adults on long-term sick leave in this country (I think there are more "disabled" people here than in Cambodia after the reign of the Khmer Rouge), apparently not.

If only looks could kill.

*Blogging: turning me from a bitter, frustrated individual into a bitter, frustrated individual with a voice.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Zwaarte Piet?

The Dutch fondness for caricature Negro figures is somewhat disturbing. I have no idea why this figurehead sits above a drugstore, of all places. Can anyone enlighten me?

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A passion for fashion

While out "Trinny-and-Susannahing" my friend Jessica, I came across this: Frankly, I would have been shocked if it hadn't been on the 70% off rail. (You can't tell from the picture, but the grey material on the arms was actually lace!)

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

O Tompopo, why hast thou forsaken me?

Or, why aren't you open already?

Another Saturday afternoon, another stroll along the Harlemmerstraat to see if the new Asian food store that's been lurking on the corner for months has actually opened yet. My heart leaps as I see lights on, a huge assortment of tempting goodies on the shelves, and yet . . . the door is locked. A notice suggests that it will open on January 21. Bummer. I don't understand why Dutch shop outfits/refits proceed at a snail's pace -- Bagels n Beans took months to open up a tiny store (shame they didn't spend that time working out how to serve more than one person at a time). There must be some kind of tax break available to small business owners who can't actually be bothered to open up their store and make money by selling goods. Which I can understand, I suppose; if you've invested time and money in figuring out how to get a tax break from the Belaastingdienst, you're going to want to make the most of it -- hey, that's how I feel about my 30% ruling!

I'm reading: The Lord Peter Wimsey short stories by Dorothy L. Sayers
I'm making: Date and oat squares
I'm watching: The last two episodes of Rome, followed by Family Guy

Friday, January 13, 2006

Never book a dental appointment for Friday 13th

While waiting at the dentist's for my crown to be built -- three times, as it happened, but that's a whole other blog entry -- I was forced to endure Dutch daytime TV. It's as bad as I would have guessed. Aerobics routines from the early '80s? Check. Bad role-play on how to cope with domestic violence? Check. Three Dutch women who called themselves "Dutch Divas," looked like pre-op trannies, and performed an out-of-tune medley of "Making Your Mind Up" and "Waterloo"? Check check check. These women had clearly never met a bronzer they didn't feel compelled to slather on; the lead singer was clearly the sort of woman who was an attention whore in high school, always putting on shows with her stumpy fat friends so that she looked more attractive; and they (clearly) couldn't sing or dance! God knows what the booker was thinking when he/she scheduled them. A favor to a friend? A wind-up? Total desperation?

Worse than having my teeth filled? In this case, most definitely!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Norfolk Dumpling needs a life

I just caught myself punching the air and cheering when Buster took his second consecutive victory in the Championship level Agility Trial in Nintendogs. That, combined with my previous post, tells me that I need to develop some interests that don't involve puppies I'll never touch and people I'll never meet.


Team Aniston or Team Jolie?

Yesterday's announcement of the future spawning of Hollywood's Most Attractive Couple Ever!TM is the perfect start to the new year for those of us who spend our days trawling the Net for celeb gossip. Forums, blogs, and magazine sites are awash with commentary: Will it be the prettiest baby ever? How will Maddox cope with having to walk everywhere? Is Jen devestated? A cold-hearted bitch for a) not having Brad's babies and b) not rushing to congratulate him publically? Will she announce a retaliatory pregnancy or wedding with Vince? Endless columns filled with speculation, rumour, and half-truths, all filtered through the light of bitter, oh so bitter, personal experience.

I love it! Despite a slight favoring of Aniston in this affair -- Jolie's charity-driven saintly image pisses me off, Brad is vacuous beyond belief, while Jen has truly lovely hair -- I'm declaring myself for Team Snark! Long may this celebrity firestorm continue!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reasons to be cheerful

Yoga classes have started again! While I will never achieve the grace, serenity, and tanliness of my excellent teachers, Sandra and Leo, I have become somewhat bendier in the three years I've been attending. Plus, the warm glow of smug righteousness that comes from attending class on a Saturday morning feels very good! If you're in Amsterdam, check them out.

Pizzas from da Portare Via on the Leliegracht! This tiny take-out joint has a proper wood-fired oven and makes the most fabulous thin-crust pizzas, with just the right amount of topping. We had them last night as the main component of the birthday dinner. Of course, they don't take PIN or telephone orders and they don't deliver, but they are well worth the wait.

New content! Thanks to the inability of Dutch TV channels to properly schedule and show American series, we buy DVDs on Amazon.com and watch them on the big screen. We're currently halfway through CSI Season 5, Arrested Development Season 2 is ready to view, and today's shipment included Battlestar Galactica Season 2*, Family Guy Volume 3, and The Barchester Chronicles - starring Alan Rickman as the wonderfully smarmy Obidiah Slope. Yay!

And I've got one of the "eruptions of chocolate" I made yesterday left over - what more could a Norfolk Dumpling ask for?!

* ETA: Apparently it's Season 2 Part 1 - I really don't want to upset the geeks on this, hence the edit.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Jackson One

Hurrah! Dumpling Towers is now a two-blog household. That's what 4 hours at Las Vegas airport with Wi-Fi access will drive one to do, apparently. Luckily, The Jackson One made it back from rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tom Cruise and Marg Helgenberger (CSI!) in time to have his birthday cake and eat it. Happy Birthday!

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A nice cup of tea?

How is one supposed to take Earl Grey tea? Do you add milk? A slice of lemon? Nothing? I have a box of Earl Grey teabags that I’m working through as a way of eking out my precious M&S ultra-strong one-cup bags, and it’s just not cutting the mustard (to use a wholly inappropriate metaphor). If you add milk, you end up with this distressingly murky, pale liquid; nothing at all, and it tastes unpleasantly like the cheap Pickwick’s teabags so revered over here, which contain nothing but floor sweepings from a factory next door but one to a tea factory. Steeping it for longer just results in a stewed, murky, pale liquid. In the past, I’ve added a teaspoon of Earl Grey leaves to a pot of Darjeeling, so that you just get a hint of bergamot, but this is time-consuming, messy, and unbearably pretentious.

This cup of tea is disgusting. I think I’ll just have to bribe a UK colleague to mule over some decent stuff ASAP.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Here's one I took earlier

For the past few days, the sky has been a solid grey -- not the heavy yellow-grey that indicates snow, but a dull grey that blocks out the light and flattens everything. So here's a photo from earlier in the week to cheer me up. From this angle, you wouldn't think we were in the middle of a city.

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Zen and the art of . . . ironing?

While working through the pile of ironing that had accumulated during the week, I realized that I am, essentially, a solitary person. I'm not sure if living with another self-sufficient person has developed this or merely revealed it; either way, I don't feel any great need to be with or talk to people (other than my co-mortgagee). I have periodic spates of social activity, but I wonder whether these are largely to prove that I can do it - have friends, throw parties, engage with the world around me. In fact, I have a great week in Boston lined up for later in the month, with nearly every evening booked with different friends (a shoutout to Cathleen, Darcie, Jess, Amy, and Erin!) - which is a sad reminder that I have more friends in a city I've never lived in than I have in the one in which I've spent the past 4 years. So maybe it's the place that has encouraged this enjoyment of solitude, the result of living in the center of the largest city in the most densely populated country in Europe. And tall, loud people at that -- always shouting "Dooi!" at each other from a great distance and smoking. That's better -- yet another reason to blame the Dutch for my state of mind!

The repetitive nature of ironing also led me to ponder where I'd like to live next. Somewhere remote, Northern (we don't "do" hot weather and bugs), angry seas providing driftwood for fire on the beaches. A simple stone building with whitewashed walls -- an almost monastic decor (Pawson-esque, ideally). Of course, there are a few more detailed prerequisites: broadband and satellite TV access; scheduled weekly deliveries from Waitrose and Amazon; an excellent local pub that offers a quiz on Tuesday nights; a top-notch chippy; and a delicatessen with an extensive selection of Asian foodstuffs -- this is a middle-class idyll, after all. It seems unlikely that I am going to find any of this within easy reach of the M4 corridor and Silicon Thames Valley. Time to start buying lottery tickets again.

I'm listening to: Party shuffle on the iMac. Muleskinner Blues by The Cramps doesn't exactly support the meditative state I was in. Time for some Aphex Twin.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Baby, it's cold outside

Luckily, this lentil and sweet potato soup was waiting for me when I got back from a hard morning's shopping. It's topped with onions and sweet potato strips, fried till crispy and sprinkled with chilli oil for a little extra kick.

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Throwing them across the room with great force

No, not children or government officials this time, but novels. More specifically, two novels that have really pissed me off in the past few months. With the first one, I should have known better. I'd just finished reading "Remains of the Day" and wanted a palatte cleanser before moving on to "The Plot Against America" -- something light and fluffy, with jokes and a happy ending. Ah, "The Man from Perfect" by Andrea Semple! Looks just the job!

Andrea, Andrea, Andrea. I'm thrilled for you that you've published two other books. Now, take some of the money that Piatkus gave you as an advance and buy a decent grammar primer. Turn to the pages on personal pronouns and learn the difference between subject and object. "Me and James went to the park" is wrong. It's "James and I went to the park"! It's not difficult - take out the "and James" part and read the sentence and then CORRECT IT! This is bloody elementary English, but if you feel that even this is beyond you, hire a decent copy editor who can correct the myriad examples of this basic mistake that litter your book (and also pick up the spelling mistakes and unclosed punctuation). Christ! Heat called this "painfully funny" -- at least their adjective was spot-on.

However, Andrea's grasp of plot was pretty good and her characters developed nicely, unlike in "Eleven Minutes" by Paulo Coehlo. "Can Maria, a beautiful Brazilian working for a high-class escort agency in Switzerland, move beyond the meeting of bodies to a meeting of minds or even souls - to a place where sex itself is sacred?" Gah! Paulo, if I wanted the classic male fantasy of the happy hooker who falls in love with her rich, handsome client, I'd have rented Pretty Woman - at least it has some decent shopping scenes. This book is just infuriating. I read it with mounting astonishment while on holiday -- "Surely he's not going to have her fall for a client? Who loves and accepts her? And who's young, good-looking, and a hugely talented artist? That would be so cliched! So trite! So Hollywood!" Unbelievable.

Philip Roth: I'd better enjoy The Plot Against America and not find any glaring grammatical errors or there'll be hell to pay.

Friday, January 06, 2006

My righteous ire is raised again

So, off I trot to the British Consulate to pick up my new passport. But wait! What's this? They've changed their opening hours since I dropped off my application form 2 weeks ago. They're no longer open 9-12 and 2-3.30, but 8.30-1.30 instead. AAARGHGHGHGH! Couldn't someone have mentioned this to me when I handed over 107 euros and my form and they told me it would be ready for collection after January 4? A simple "By the way, the opening hours will change at the start of the year" would have been really helpful!

While this was frustrating, it probably wasn't as frustating as the experience of the man ahead of me in the queue who was trying to collect a new set of papers. Apparently, he needed to download the forms from the Internet first - the fact that he has no Internet connection and minimal English and that most government sites are a bloody nightmare to navigate even if you are Net savvy and fully fluent is, apparently, of no concern to the British government. Bastards. This poor man, who'd traveled from Arnhem on a bitterly cold day, remained impressively calm in the face of his rejection. Whoever you are, I salute you.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

O Christmas tree!

Cycling in the bitter cold to work this morning, I was confronted with the sight of tens of discarded Christmas trees lining the pavements. They looked somewhat forlorn, shedding their needles while still wearing their tinselly finery - rather like a woman on the lash, slumped in the gutter vomiting with smeared make-up and torn stockings.* It strikes me as strange that the Dutch are so quick to bin these trees; normally, they are keen to practice the local art of kerbside recycling - picking out serviceable items from the rubbish. I've seen books and records, scratched cupboards, fuseless appliances, and even sodden mattresses being collected by the avaricious Cloggies, strapping the items on to their bikes before wobbling off with their treasure. I was somewhat surprised to see that the old bin I placed out this morning hadn't been picked up by the time I had got my bags together and bike out; true, the top didn't shut properly and it had a large dent in it from the time a few days earlier when I'd drop-kicked it across the kitchen in a fit of pique, but it should have appealed to somebody.

By the way, was mine the only primary school in the 1970s that made its pupils sing "O Christmas Tree" to the tune of the Communist anthem, "The people's flag"? (Or did the Christmas tree hymn come first, and it was those damn Ruskies that co-opted the tune?)

I'm watching: CSI: Original Flava, Season 5
I'm reading: The Remains Of The Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I'm listening to Employment by the Kaiser Chiefs
I made: fudge, marmalade cake, and chocolate cake for our party
I'm making: Nigel's pumpkin and red lentil soup for dinner, only with sweet potato instead of pumpkin.

*This is what happens when you read "fine" literature before blogging.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Little lethal weapons

Apart from a mild reaction to lanolin, the Norfolk Dumpling suffers from just one allergy - to children. As a result, only one child has ever entered through the sacred portal to our abode. Until yesterday, that is. Two feisty moppets battled past the cauldrons of boiling oil and armed guards and entertained us for several hours. I learnt a lot in that time. For instance:

1. Any object, no matter how harmless-looking, is a potential weapon. Alex could give Alias' Sydney Bristow a run for her money in terms of using whatever's at hand to take down an enemy. Most impressive was his creation of the Fiery Draught Excluder of Doom by twirling a 2-meter long piece of red non-flame-retardent material across a table of lit candles.

2. If you place a button at toddler-level, they will push it. Children really do understand technology better than their elders. Who knew, for example, that pressing the glowing orange switch at the base of the hi-fi unit would shut down said hi-fi AND Wi-Fi AND answerphone AND iMac? Beyshen did.

3. Chocolate is bad, mmm'kay. Flushed cheeks, dilated pupils, overexcited chatter, and a casting of off inhibitions and clothing. No, not a bunch of London ad execs "powdering their noses" at an office Christmas party but toddlers hopped up on chocolate cake (home-made, of course). "Little dudes, that chocolate was some of South America's finest product -- 60% cocoa solids! You want the chocolate cake? You can't handle the chocolate cake."

4. TV is a force for good. After the initial sugar rush (and who knew that could last an hour?), I scanned the shelves of content for something child-friendly. Dismissing most of our anime as too disturbing, even for adults, I settled upon Shrek and switched on the projector. Within seconds, Alex and Beyshen sat transfixed, happiness writ large across their chocolate-smudged faces. What did parents do before this wondrous invention? Apart from beating their children and sending them up chimneys? Oh . . . right!

5. Contraception is the only sure-fire way to childproof an apartment.

I am nothing if not fair, though, so I should give you the chance to read of the perils of parties from the parents' perspective. Check out my talented friend's excellent blog at amsterdamom to see what she has to say!

PS: The party she blogs about was not my party -- that apartment is far more upscale than mine! But it could have been.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Manchester town planners: So much to answer for

So, that's another large Northern city crossed off the list. We did Leeds in June last year, so that leaves Liverpool (shudder) and Newcastle (shiver) to check out. First impressions were not good. It took just 45 minutes to drive across the moors from Doncaster to Manchester - my apologies to all those drivers stuck behind me on the A628, but it was dark, the road was very twisty, and I hadn't driven for more than a year - and it then took another 45 minutes to negotiate the tortuous one-way system that took us within 20 yards of our hotel and then swept us onto a dual carriageway heading to Birmingham. I'm surprised that the giving and following of road directions isn't cited in more divorces. Anyway, my savage brow was soothed by an excellent lobster bisque and rocket salad in the Brasserie at the Malmaison, the Dr Who Christmas special (yummy David Tennant!), and a good night's sleep. On Boxing Day we headed out to experience Manchester. And Starbucks for the first time in 6 months.

It's not the most attractive of cities; despite the IRA's "architectural remodelling," the Arndale Centre is still pretty ugly, and sits alongside some fairly dreadful 60s tower blocks. It seems that very few cities escaped the blight of these concrete monstrosities, complete with urine-soaked underpasses. However, there are some impressive redbrick Victorian buildings, the town hall with its giant Santa and modernist Christmas tree was fab, and Urbis was very cool. There seems to have been little attempt to fit new buildings into the existing environment though - Selfridges and Harvey Nichol's both dwarf the attractive low buildings around the Cathedral. And the plentiful apartment buildings, many under construction, repeat the pattern: converted Victorian industrial warehouse next to 20-story glass tower. I was surprised by how compact the city centre was (we walked round it, out to Salford, and back) in just 2 hours.

Would I live there? Certainly - as long as I can have the gorgeous 3-bedroomed cottage on Stenner Lane in Didsbury. Anybody have half a million they can lend me? I'll pay it back, promise. Great city and within easy reach of fab countryside - with real hills.