Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blue Skies

There's a stretch of Colville Road a few blocks from our flat where the houses on both sides of the street are white and blue. They look especially great against a blue sky -- so when we got a break in our springtime gray weather yesterday afternoon I seized the opportunity for some quick snaps while walking Olga.

Not particularly skilled photos, but when I have the dog tugging her leash it's all I can do to snap something with my point-and-shoot!

Olga and I did scout out more interesting coal holes yesterday. Stay tuned tomorrow!

Meanwhile, life around here consists of more sub work, more walking the dog, more housework, more reading. I finished my Iris Murdoch book, "The Sea, The Sea," which was good but one of the strangest books I've ever read, with a real anti-hero as the main protagonist. He basically kidnaps and holds captive his high school sweetheart, whom he runs into by chance after having not seen her for decades, and somehow thinks this is OK. Thinks he is saving her, in fact. Perhaps the book is meant to be a study in delusion. In any case, it was exceptionally weird.

We have a handyman coming today to hang some pictures. It's kind of ridiculous we have to hire someone to do this, but we don't own drills or anchor bolts or any of the other things needed for such a job. So we contract it out. It's the American way. (Or is do-it-yourself the American way? I'm never sure.)

I considered going to a British Museum show of Ice Age art, but the earliest I could get an admission ticket is next Monday! Who knew the Ice Age is so popular? Are we mentally preparing for climate change? In any case, I'll let you know next Tuesday what the art is like.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Coal Holes

Ever since we moved to Notting Hill I've been noticing what look like small manholes in the sidewalks, adorned by an array of unusual covers.

The holes, about the size of a dinner plate, are called "coal holes," and were made to provide a clean method of delivering coal into the basements of Victorian and Edwardian houses. Coal cart drivers could pull up on the street and load the coal directly into the hole, rather than traipsing it through the house leaving dust and smudgy footprints.

A pretty ingenious way to make something as filthy as coal a bit cleaner!

I don't know whether these holes are used for anything now. But they're all over the place, and I can't help but admire the decorative covers, which are objects of fascination for certain devoted fans.

I've noticed two in particular that are very unusual.

It turns out there was a public art project not too long ago to install decorative coal hole covers in parts of Notting Hill, carrying poems by well-known writers. This one is by Michael Holroyd:

This streetwise area
is dedicated to all
of Notting Hill

And here's one by John Heath-Stubbs:

your head, passer-by, and
peruse what you see
With some danger from passing
Not to mention incontinent sparrows and
Here is a long, thin thing coiling around -----
It isn't a centipede, but an unrhymed poem -
Free verse at that! What is it there for -
Only to prove what a cultured place
This town of ours is -- isn't it?

Apparently there are a few other poetic coal holes in the neighborhood. Now that I've seen the web site for the public art project and the accompanying map, I know where they are. I will report back with a second post! (I know you can't wait.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Olga and I took a long walk through Kensington yesterday, wandering once again past the mysterious hat store. There were different hats in the window this time -- or, as I said before, not really hats but "fascinators." These looked a bit like someone's geometry lesson.

You can't quite tell, but the one on the left is made with postage stamps. Personally, I'd go for the sea urchin.

After our walk I left Olga in the apartment while I walked down to the Grand Union Canal to photograph some graffiti I found there yesterday, and to run some errands (like buy dog food). When I got back to the flat I was dismayed to see that Olga had not fallen asleep as I'd hoped, but rather perpetrated all sorts of mischief like eating our mail. Fortunately snail mail these days is never very useful or valuable.

I'll say it again: That dog. Good grief.

I don't have much to say about the Oscars this year. We didn't watch any of the ceremony -- just read about it the next day. We did like "Argo," so I don't have any complaints about that, though I'm surprised it rose to the level of best picture. I'm mystified by Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook," but that's because I haven't seen it. She seems fairly lightweight and the movie looks like a run-of-the-mill rom-com, but there must be more to it. I guess we need to check it out.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Noodle Explosion

Dave shook me awake in the dark wee hours this morning. He was sitting up in bed, merely a silhouette.

"We've had a little explosion," he said, unfurling his right hand for emphasis like a Roman candle.

I was instantly awake. When it's 1:30 in the morning and someone says "explosion," you pay attention.

"Do you remember her noodles?" Dave said, gesturing at the dog, who was lying between us -- also wide awake now and wagging her tail in happy expectation of going outside for a walk.

I said "Yeah..." even though I didn't. Noodles? Did we buy noodles for the dog? And then I thought, maybe he's trying to tell me the dog exploded. Maybe she'd been sick, or made a mess in the house.

But no, he said, it wasn't that.

"I don't understand," I said. "Did she get hold of the package?"

"Maybe," he said.

I looked at him, increasingly certain that this entire conversation was not reality-based. "Are they on the floor?"

"Maybe one or two," he said. "Just pick them up."

Then he glanced at the clock and said, "Yeah, it's only 1:30." And he lay back down and was soon snoring again. The dog was soon snoring too.

I, however, was awake and laughing helplessly, as quietly as I could. Noodle explosion?

(Photo: Uncle Tom's Cabin on Wandsworth Road, near Vauxhall.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Vacancies and Mysterious Art

Yesterday I took the tube down to Vauxhall, south of the river, and walked west on Wandsworth Road to Battersea. It was a good day for photography, cloudy with diffused light. It was also freezing cold, which was less ideal, but you can't have everything.

Once again I found myself interested in blank shopfronts. Were they empty? Or was something still going on in there behind those curtains?

Sometimes there was still a sign indicating the space's former use. Hopefully Kam moved on to greener pastures. (Those little white flecks are snow flurries, by the way!)

I made my walk even more complicated by popping in to a charity shop early on and finding a nicely framed, signed art print for £5, which I could not pass up. I wound up carrying this framed piece of art, about two feet square, for the next three hours! It's called "Adam and Eve," by an artist named Christina Cordero. (Perhaps this and this Christina Cordero? My print is from 1988, which would have been the start of her career. Unfortunately I don't have a photo to post.)

Anyway, I had a good long walk, and then I caught a bus from Battersea Park over the Chelsea Bridge, thinking I would change to the tube at Sloane Square for the journey home. Of course, the tube wasn't running, so I wound up taking the bus all the way -- ultimately far more convenient because it dropped me about two blocks from our flat!

Last night's two movies: "St. Elmo's Fire," which I find a pure blast of nostalgia, having seen it in the theater while a freshman in college; and "Arbitrage," with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. "Elmo's" is not the best, most convincing film, but it reminds me of a time when I was still looking forward to graduating myself, and having my own apartment and my own life. Seems so long ago!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

American Beauty

This is a Moroccan restaurant about a mile from our flat. I keep thinking we should try it -- after all, I lived in Morocco for two years and I love Moroccan food. But we just haven't made it over there yet. We all get in a rut, don't we, going to the same comfortable places over and over again? Last night Dave and I went to dinner and once again it was the pub across the street. (On a 35-degree night it's hard to beat across the street.)

Nothing very significant is going on around here. I worked a lot yesterday and then, yesterday evening, I turned off the phone and closed the computer and I have vowed to keep it closed until I go back to work on Sunday. (My work computer, I'm talking about.) One of the dangers of working at home is that you could easily find yourself working all the time.

I took Olga over to Latimer Road yesterday morning for some graffiti photography. We've only done that outing twice but she already seems to know what's expected. I loop her leash over a fence post while I take pictures -- always with her in my sight -- and this time she sat and waited for me to finish, occasionally issuing a plaintive little mini-bark. (She almost never barks.) She didn't stand up and strain against the leash like last time, though.

Last night we watched "American Beauty," which has to be one of the best movies ever. Not only is it technically great, with terrific writing, performances and camera work -- it's got a sort of Buddhist twist, with the idea of letting the beauty of the world flow through us, rather than trying to hold on to it. Or seeing beauty in ugliness, like the famous "dancing bag" scene -- non-duality, yin and yang. The magic of the ordinary. The dangers of festering repression and anger. I find it an incredible film.

Oh, and the blog Shit London used one of my photos! Click for some irreverent humor.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jaws of Death

Yesterday I took Olga back to the pet store to get her a halter, rather than a collar. She pulls forward on her leash so much that we were afraid her collar would injure her throat. So I found a padded pink-and-black halter that's not too embarrassing, and just as I was paying for it Olga bit through her leash. So I had to buy a new leash, too. At least it happened there, inside the store. Timing is everything.

I also bought her a Nylabone chew toy, which some of you recommended for their durability. You'll be glad to know she's already managed to work tiny fragments off it, but they're so small I can't imagine they would stress her digestive system if she swallows them.

This dog. Good grief.

I have been eating, sleeping and breathing substitute teachers all week. Between the standard winter flu bugs and all the spring activities coming up, lots and lots of teachers are calling in sick or planning absences. I have been incredibly busy -- and I haven't had a chance to leave the house for any photography. I hope to get out today or maybe this weekend. (It's also been freezing -- today's high is 37ยบ F.)

I have been taking Olga on some long walks, just to keep her energy levels manageable and get myself some exercise.

Last night we watched the movie "Chasing Amy." I remember seeing it when it came out in the '90s, and thinking it was great. Now it seems awfully overwrought -- all those histrionics about relationships and sexual exploration. I guess it's a young person's movie!

(Photo: A garage in Wandsworth, last week.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Return to Sender

A few months ago, my friend Mary asked to buy a signed copy of my latest photo book, "Streets of Britain," for her daughter, who is apparently an Anglophile. Because she wanted it signed, I ordered the book from the publisher, signed it, and mailed it to her in Georgia. She sent me a check in return.

The book was supposed to get there in time for Christmas. But at the end of January, Mary wrote to say it had never arrived.

I was really upset about this, because each of those books costs about $70 (in hardcover). I wondered what to do. Should I give Mary her money back? Or was it her loss that the post office mislaid the package?

I finally decided to refund her money and take the loss myself. She is my friend, after all. But before I did, I asked her to wait just a few more weeks to see if the book turned up.

Lo and behold, yesterday it came back to me in the mail. It was marked "unclaimed" and "return to sender." Perhaps the post office in the states failed to notify Mary that it had arrived, or perhaps she just never picked it up. In any case, at least it wasn't lost.

Today I'm going to mail it to her office (with tracking), in the hopes that this time she will receive it. The downside is that each time I mail this book, I spend £18! It doesn't seem right to ask her for the money, but at the same time, I only make $5 on each copy. So this is turning out to be an extremely unprofitable deal for me.

Oh well. I'm writing it off as the cost of friendship and getting my work out there. I should just be flattered that she wants my book at all.

These are the kinds of complications that arise when you get into business deals with friends!

(Photo: I found this deflated birthday balloon on the sidewalk near our flat. The note attached says, "Good by balloon -- Love, Ethan.")

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Back to the Land of Adults

I survived my encounter with the first-graders. Whew! I'm glad that's over.

Of course they were all adorable and they asked surprisingly good questions. As I think I mentioned yesterday, they're doing a project that involves interviewing people from the school community. I was there to give them some tips on how to conduct an interview.

I'm never sure how sophisticated I can get with little kids, but I firmly believe you can't talk down to them. So I covered everything from simple pointers like making eye contact and not interrupting to keeping information in context. (That was a trick to explain.) Then I had them interview me, and I did a role-playing game with their teacher in which I made interviewing mistakes and asked the kids to tell me what I was doing wrong. I'm not sure whether they absorbed it all, but at least they were attentive and they seemed to have fun. There sure was a lot of giggling, which is always a good sign.

It's funny how quickly things can go south, though. While I was telling them about being a journalist, I mentioned how I sometimes had to go to crime scenes. "Was it scary?" one kid wanted to know. It could be, I said, particularly at night. One little girl then volunteered that people get drunk and have fights at night in the street below her window. "What does 'get drunk' mean?" asked another girl.

Oh, yikes. Get me out of here.

One of the teachers asked me to tell the kids about my family. So I mentioned my partner Dave and our dog, as well as my family back in Florida. Only afterwards did I think, "Did I just come out to a classroom full of first-graders?" But fortunately the school is very positive and affirming on that front, and the kids didn't seem to register it. They just wanted to know the dog's name.

I actually spoke to four different classes, and that did get a bit tedious -- giving the same talk four times over. I also had a bunch of other work to do at the school, and yesterday was wildly hectic for other reasons too, so by the end of the day I was exhausted. I came straight home and had a gin & tonic, which I managed to accidentally inhale into my sinuses! Let me tell you, gin burns when it goes up your nose.

(Photo: A wall in Golders Green, Sunday.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Today I have an assignment that is taking me way out of my comfort zone. I'm going to talk to three classrooms of first-graders about journalism and interviewing! I'm oddly terrified about it -- more terrified than I would be if they were adults or high school students, I think. At least then I'd know how to talk to them. I still have to sit down and figure out what I'm going to say, and I'd better hurry because my first class is at 10 a.m.

Apparently this relates to an assignment the students are doing. They've been given video cameras and are interviewing people in the school community, asking some specific pre-determined questions.

I shouldn't get too nervous about this, because I've had to do worse. Once, when I was just out of college and working at a newspaper in Central Florida, I dressed up in a foam alligator costume and went onstage at an elementary school in Auburndale, talking about newspapers. I don't even remember what I said. Because the alligator costume had a big foam snout, using the microphone was awkward. I remember one kid in the audience yelling, "Why do you talk out of the side of your mouth?"

Oh, Lord. At least today won't be that bad. I hope.

(Photo: An HDR shot of a large tree just off the high street in Hampstead.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Golders Green

We just finished the third season of "Downton Abbey" on iTunes, and I think the show may have jumped the shark. I just don't think I can stand to watch all the mourning that's about to ensue. I may seriously be done with it. And that's all I'll say, in order to avoid spoiling the experience for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.

I took a walk through North London yesterday, from Belsize Park to Brent Cross, through Hampstead and Golders Green. Hampstead is a bit boring for photography, I think, being quite ritzy -- the high street is full of retail chain stores and just doesn't have much character. But other parts of the walk made up for it, and I got some good shots overall. I even accidentally found the former home of Evelyn Waugh -- it looked like a standard North London house, not something you'd expect the author of "Brideshead Revisited" to inhabit. (Where are the hot footmen?! Oh, wait, I'm thinking of "Downton Abbey" again.) The weather was really nice, with strong, bright sunshine.

February break has come to an end at school, so this morning Dave is back at work -- and I am too, fielding calls from teachers who are out. A week passes quickly!

As I expected, yesterday's salvaged bag of books yielded nothing I want to read. Which is probably just as well, so I'm not faced with the moral dilemma of whether to keep something for myself. I'll take the bag back to the thrift store today.

(Photo: Golders Green, yesterday.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Books and War Talk

I keep finding bags and boxes of books outside the charity shop next door. I take Olga out for her morning walk and they're sitting on the sidewalk, completely unprotected from the elements and from pilfering passersby. One morning I brought a box home because it was beginning to rain and I didn't want them to get destroyed; I brought another bag home this morning because it's Sunday and the shop doesn't even open until tomorrow.

Will I pilfer them? Absolutely. It's my fee. But if this bag is anything like that previous box, there won't be anything worth keeping. Self-help and John Grisham -- there are a lot of questionable books out there.

Dave and I had Chris and Linda, our neighbors, over for drinks yesterday evening. I'd anticipated an hour or two, a few cocktails. Well, we wound up talking for four hours, working our way through a round of tonics and three bottles of wine. Thank goodness we had some yummy cheese puffs that Dave made with pate a choux, as well as some cheese and crackers and olives -- because that became dinner.

Chris is a funny character. No matter what the topic of conversation, he winds up talking about World War II. I guess the English, particularly Englishmen of a certain age (Chris is 70), are understandably fascinated by that period, as England was so frequently a direct target of Axis bombs and then endured years of post-war rationing. Chris said he holds his parents' generation in great regard for their sacrifice -- it's that "greatest generation" mentality we hear about in the USA. I pointed out -- cynically, perhaps -- that World War II would have been filled with its own ambiguities and atrocities if it were as saturated with media coverage as today's conflicts. We always think of World War II as a righteous war with clearly drawn lines of good and evil, but goodness knows both sides killed their share of innocent civilians. War is never clean, and rarely righteous, though I agree war against Hitler made more sense than any conflict since.

Yesterday seemed a bit spring-like. The temperature was moderate, and people were out in the cafes and enjoying the sunny afternoon. One of our amaryllis bulbs is sending up a new bud, though the other three are still dormant.

(Photo: Near Clapham Junction, last week.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hampton Court Palace

Writing yesterday's post got me motivated. I thought, "Why am I writing about not planning a day trip instead of just planning a day trip?" So after posting I immediately went out on the web and figured out how to get to Hampton Court Palace, a vast complex of palaces and gardens west of London.

Hampton Court is said to have been the favorite home of Henry VIII, and I've wanted to visit there for many months. It's about half an hour by train from London Waterloo. Dave and I left Olga at home -- we bravely decided doggy day care wasn't necessary!

The older parts of Hampton Court had very interesting and ornate chimneys. Lots of them, too. Visitors can see the Chapel Royal with a replica of Henry VIII's crown, the dining halls, various residential apartments belonging to a series of monarchs, and the palace kitchens.

The kitchens were huge -- as I suppose they'd need to be if you're going to be butchering animals and whatnot. We think the tools above might have been used for smoking meat, but we weren't sure. Everything was cooked over open fires in immense fireplaces -- big enough for an animal on a spit.

One of the gardens features a series of sculpted creatures holding small flagpoles. This one looked like something from the Island of Misfit Toys.

A later section of the palace, started by William & Mary in the 1680s, has a completely different appearance and faces onto a large rear garden.

The garden is planted with distinctively trimmed conical yew trees. The pathways lead to a series of ponds, including one called the Long Water that runs through a fenced hunting ground occupied by a herd of fallow deer. In fact, we saw some deer drama...

When we first walked to the Long Water, we saw a deer swimming in circles in the middle, entirely submerged except for his head. He was all alone, with all the other deer standing on the shore watching. It was like he'd lost his mind.

Some other visitors told us that he'd been running at top speed and hit his head against a tree. He then plunged into the waterway. We watched for a while,  and though he moved to shallower water he didn't try to climb out. In fact, we went away for an hour or so, touring different parts of the palace and eating lunch, and when we came back the deer was still standing in the water. I think he had a closed-head injury.

Maybe he was just trying to avoid becoming a trophy on the wall of the palace's Great Hall?

Dave and I explored the gardens, where the crocuses were blooming purple and gold in the grass, before returning to the train and heading back to London. Olga behaved well during our absence, and it did me wonders to get out of town and see something I've long meant to see.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Any Day, Every Day

Dave and I took Olga on a walk yesterday up to Trellick Tower, so I could photograph the latest graffiti in the courtyard, and then over to Golborne Road so we could pop in to the fishmonger. Dave wanted some sea bass for a recipe involving baking whole fish inside a crust of salt. He wound up buying two red snapper instead, and last night he tried this technique, which looked like baking two white pillows. It worked really well. The fish were great.

Olga is a complete nut on her leash. She runs this way and that, wraps herself around my legs, eats bits of detritus off the street, and strains like she wants to tear off into the sunset at 100 mph. And God forbid she should see a pigeon -- she rockets ahead and just about takes my arm off! However old she is, this dog still has a lot of puppy in her. I pull her back and try to keep her walking at a reasonable pace, but I also let her indulge some of that inner puppy. She is a dog, after all. I'm hoping that as she gets a bit older some of the craziness will subside. (In other words, I want the problem to resolve itself with no work on my part. That's realistic, right?!)

I had hoped we'd be able to take a day trip this week, since Dave is off school for February break, but I would have to organize it and I just haven't had it in me. (Dave would just as soon stay put.) I did find a place to take Olga for doggy day care, but beyond that I haven't done anything. Maybe today I'll get motivated.

Consequently, that's pretty much life around here at the moment. No great excitement!

(Photo: I was walking Olga the other night when I came across this dramatic spray of shadows on Portland Road in Notting Hill. I went back to photograph it later, without the dog!)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hearts in Covent Garden

When I went to Covent Garden on Monday to buy our new computer cables, I came across this huge glittery display. The British Heart Foundation was raising money by selling little metal hearts, which buyers could write a message on and lock to these wire-framed letters with a red padlock.

Some people wrote messages to their partners or their families. Some wrote to their hometowns. (The Heart Foundation provided Sharpie pens for writing purposes.)

People were having fun posing for goofy photos in front of the letters.

And yes, it's silly, but I succumbed. It was only £3, and the gays needed to represent!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

28 Bus To Wandsworth

I had a little adventure yesterday morning -- I walked to a bus stop near our house and hopped a bus bound for Wandsworth, a borough of London south of the Thames. I thought it would be fun to just ride along, see where the bus took me, and then get off at the end and have a wander with the camera.

I almost never ride the bus in London. I always opt for the tube instead. Buses tend to be slow, their routes convoluted. In fact I almost forget they're available -- sometimes when I'm on a long walk and my feet are killing me, I think, "Geez, I could just hop on the bus." But then I never do.

But when you don't have anywhere specific to be, at any specific time, a bus ride can be interesting -- all the people and shops streaming past the windows. This one took about an hour, with one agonizing period of being stuck in traffic in Kensington. Then, when I got off in Wandsworth, I walked a few hours more, along some of the main thoroughfares and across Wandsworth Commons, where the dog walkers were the only people out on such a chilly day.

When I finally hit my limit with the cold -- it was about 35˚F -- I popped into Starbucks and used my Christmas gift card to get a coffee and granola bar, a welcome break for my frozen hands. I also bought a couple of novels from the £1 table at a used book shop.

Ultimately I got some good photos, so I was happy. I used a combination of overground train and tube to get home, and came walking up Pembridge Road just in time to meet Dave headed in the other direction, off to a lunch meeting with a coworker. I spent the afternoon with Olga, content in our warm house.

Last night, Dave and I went to dinner at a place down the street called Bloody French. We thought it was adequate, but we got to bring our own bottle of wine (no corking fee!) which brightened things up. Oh, and I forgot to mention: On Monday night we went to see "Hitchcock" at the Electric Cinema, a landmark old movie house on Portobello Road. It's almost ridiculously opulent -- patrons sit in red leather armchairs with pillows, ottomans and cashmere blankets, and there's a full bar. There are even "beds" for customers who'd prefer to watch the film from a horizontal position. Dave has vowed never to return to any other movie theater.

(Photo: Wandsworth, yesterday. I almost never see a functioning CD store any more. I used to spend hours and hours in used record and CD stores...but iTunes really IS a lot easier!)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Apple Cables and Mr. Swiss

Well, the water seems to have finally stopped flowing from our broken main. There's still a hole in the street, but at least they've managed to dam up the Portobello river. We haven't received any notices about boiling our water, as is de rigueur in the U.S. when there's a water main break. I'm still not 100 percent sure this was a water main, though. I suppose it could have been a storm sewer. Who knows.

Olga has developed a worrisome tendency to bite through electrical cords. She's done it twice -- once with a cable that connected my computer to our television, and once with the power cord for the computer. (Maybe she's trying to tell me to get off the computer!) We're finding ways to stash the cords in inaccessible places, rather than running them across the living room rug where they get tangled up with her blanket and her Kong toy.

Meanwhile, yesterday, I had to journey to the Apple Store for some replacement cables. First I walked to the mall in Shepherd's Bush, which isn't far from our flat. But of course the Apple Store there didn't have the cables I needed. So I hopped on the tube and went to Covent Garden, where I found what was required at an insane price. This dog is proving to be expensive.

Finally, and completely unrelated to anything else: Does anyone remember Mr. Swiss restaurants? They were fast food joints housed in A-Frame buildings, specializing in ice cream and burgers. There used to be one near my hometown in Florida, and when I was a kid my family would occasionally stop there for ice cream. As I recall it vanished sometime in the late 1970s. Well, I was recently added to a Facebook group about my hometown, and someone posted a photo of a Mr. Swiss menu which I later learned was taken from Flickr. (Hamburgers for 30 cents!) That led me to do some research on the company -- I never realized it was a national outfit. I thought we had the only Mr. Swiss in the land. But no! If you're interested, this account of the company history is pretty fascinating.

(Photo: A couple yesterday in Shepherd's Bush, spotted on my fruitless mall outing.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Water Main

Yesterday morning, when I took the dog for a walk at about 5 a.m., I was surprised to find a river of water flowing down Portobello Road -- well, maybe not a river, but at least a small creek. It was enough to make one of the shopkeepers put plastic bags over his shoes as he set up his outdoor displays. It was bubbling up from the sidewalk and from cracks in the street just outside the driveway to our apartments, and it had no odor, which made me think it was coming from a broken water main rather than storm sewer. (Though we have had rain the past few days.)

The problem had obviously already been discovered, because there was caution tape strung all around the unstable parts of the sidewalk.

I went about my business and didn't go out again until late morning, when I was surprised to find the water still flowing. More caution tape had been erected, but by now the water had undermined the sidewalk into our apartment complex, leaving a topsy-turvey collection of concrete slabs, and had formed a huge puddle of sediment in the sunken playground area.

I asked one of our neighbors why the water company, Thames Water, didn't have a work crew on hand. She shrugged. "It's Sunday," she said, like it was the most normal thing in the world to let a water main break just linger all day.

And linger it did. The water flowed and flowed, all afternoon and into the evening. Occasionally more caution tape appeared. Our water pressure dropped precipitously. Finally, after dark last night, I heard some guys with heavy equipment busting up the street, and I went out briefly to watch as they began working.

This morning, though, the equipment is gone, there's a small pond in the street surrounded by traffic barriers and the water is still flowing, flowing, flowing. It might be flowing slightly less than it was. But there's still a lot of repair to be done. And then someone's got to rebuild our sidewalk and clean out the playground. What a mess!

I am bemused by the utter lack of urgency with which the problem was addressed. I can't help but wonder why a work crew wasn't on the scene within hours of the break. Flowing water is an incredibly destructive force, as anyone who's ever seen the Grand Canyon knows!

(Photo: Completely unrelated, a photo of the side of the terraced Alexandria Road housing estate near St. John's Wood.)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Books along the Trail

I finished "Wild" -- the book I mentioned yesterday about the woman hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail. I liked it, despite my ambivalent feelings about the author, Cheryl Strayed. But I really, really liked one thing she did. At the end, she listed all the books she'd read while hiking the trail (and burned or traded along the way, to reduce the weight of her pack). I can totally relate to that -- how important those books were to her, and how listing them, acknowledging their influence, allowed her to pay them some respect.

When I was in the Peace Corps -- the closest thing I've had to a comparable extended period of roughing it -- the books I read were a critical part of my experience. I will never think of my years in Morocco without also thinking of "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" and "The Agony and The Ecstasy" and "Lonesome Dove" and many others. (Living out in the sticks, a long way from the Peace Corps library in Rabat, I chose to read the longest books I could get my hands on!)

Come to think of it, books are a critical part of the experience wherever I am. When I think of almost any book I read, I can picture where I was when I read it. I read "Gone With the Wind" in my sixth-grade classroom (much to the annoyance of the teacher). I read "The Silence of the Lambs" in my apartment in Winter Haven, mostly in that old nubbly chair in the corner. I read "Cujo" perched on top of the dryer in the laundry room of a rented condo on Longboat Key, where I was staying for a week with my family. (Everyone else was asleep. It was the middle of the night.)

Two of the books mentioned in "Wild" intrigue me. One is called "The Ten Thousand Things," a book by Maria Dermout set in Indonesia. I'd never heard of it, but I ordered it on Amazon yesterday. The other is "The Novel" by James Michener. I have never been much of a Michener fan, though my mom read many of his books -- when I was a teenager I tried to read "The Covenant," but I don't think I got more than halfway through, and probably a lot less than that. Now I'm wondering whether I should give him another try. I'm not wondering enough to buy a Michener book, though. Maybe if I see one in the used book shop on the £1 shelf.

(Photo: Near Upton Park, East London)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Saturday Stuff

A day of odds and ends!

-- I am reading the best book: "Wild," by Cheryl Strayed. I know some of my readers have read it because they've mentioned it on their blogs. I literally cannot put it down. It's a combined memoir and outdoor adventure story about a woman who's been through some rough patches (and, it must be said, made some poor life choices) hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo. The interesting thing is, I'm not sure how much I like her, but I still love the story. It makes me want to hike and camp myself! (If I do, I'll have to do it solo, because Dave would never go for it.) It's really about the transformative experience, the personal purging that goes with dropping everything and striking out on something new. Having done that several times, I can relate!

-- Have you seen the news about horse meat creeping into the ground beef supply in England? It's been all over the news here. Beef or beef products purchased from suppliers in Ireland and on the continent have been proven to contain some degree of horse meat. In one case, it was nearly all horse meat. Personally, I haven't been too upset about this, even though we buy ground beef. I don't particularly want to eat horse, but is it really all that different from eating a cow? Frankly, I'd rather make lentils.

-- Here's our little avocado plant, complete with some fresh growth for spring. It came through the winter just fine. When the weather warms up I hope to put it out on the balcony so it can get some outdoor time.

-- And finally, here's the shopfront whose evolution I tracked in a post a couple of weeks ago. Looks like they're finished with it now. I think it came out pretty well, and I'm glad to see they kept their potted bamboo, though they have pushed it off to the side.

(Top photo: Notting Hill, last night.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Good Review

As of this afternoon, it's February break at school -- which means I don't have to round up substitute teachers for an entire week! I won't have to contend with that sinking feeling when the phone rings at 6:05 a.m. (Or even worse, 7:05 a.m.) And I'll be able to watch a movie in the evening without risk of interruption. What luxury!

I had my six-month review yesterday, and my bosses are happy with my performance. So I guess I'll stay gainfully employed. Always a good thing.

I did have an opportunity to take a photography walk yesterday. I took the tube up to Kilburn and walked south to school, where I had my review meeting. I also got a discounted lunch at a nearby cafe, courtesy of a gift voucher we received at Christmas from one of Dave's students (or maybe from the school itself, I'm not sure). The voucher was for £7 and my lunch was £11 -- so I still had to shell out some shekels -- but it was a treat nonetheless. I even got a cinnamon bun for dessert.

It's the little things, you know?

When I got back home yesterday afternoon Olga was fine, but all the throw rugs in the apartment were in a pile in the living room. She'd built herself a nest! We've already learned we need to close the bedroom door when we leave or she drags our shoes around the house. We think she likes them because they remind her of us, but we may be flattering ourselves.

(Photo: On Pembridge Road in Notting Hill, yesterday.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Escape to East Ham

I finally got the heck out of the house yesterday for a long photo walk. I've been hesitant to go and leave Olga alone, but I have to do it sometime, and she's been fine the few times we've left her before. Besides, I was starting to feel a little trapped. An escape was in order.

So yesterday I took the tube to Leytonstone, in far east London, and walked from there south through Upton Park to East Ham. (Yes, there's a West Ham, too.) After ruthless editing, I came away with about 19 good shots. I tell you, nothing restores my soul more than getting out and walking around and taking pictures. Nothing.

It wasn't even particularly good weather. At one point it started raining, but I just popped into a little mom-and-pop cafe and had a viciously hot, milky coffee (for 80 pence, less than a Starbucks!) and by the time I was done the rain had stopped.

When I got back home again I talked to my mom on Skype -- she's stuck in income tax hell, preparing taxes for clients of a large national accounting firm that shall remain nameless -- and in between did some work and walked the dog. A good day.

I'm sure you've heard the news about the British House of Commons passing a gay marriage law. There's been some controversy about it, but far less than one would expect in the United States if such a law were proposed. It's refreshing to live in a place where these discussions are handled with such civility. Nobody has been marching in the streets with signs bearing ugly slurs or admonitions about sin -- at least, not that I've seen.

Personally, I'm not a huge advocate for marriage -- I'm happy with civil unions, as long as I have the same rights as a married couple. It's the equality I want, not the "married" label. (Some argue that you need the label for true equality, but I don't buy it.)

The U.K. already has civil unions, and Dave and I are already recognized as a couple in England by virtue of our civil union in New Jersey. That's why I was allowed to immigrate to the U.K. at the same time that Dave moved here for work. So at least in our case, the question appears settled, and hopefully no further action is required!

(Photo: Yesterday near East Ham.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Japanese Restaurant

I call this "Self-portrait with dog, in the window of a Japanese restaurant." Ha!

I've actually been casing out this restaurant for a while, trying to get a photo. It's such a quaint little place, with the plants and those cartoon kittens in the window. Usually cars are parked in front, blocking the view. But yesterday, when I walked past with Olga, a woman was sitting there in her SUV, the engine running, looking as if she might be about to drive away.

I circled the block and came back, but the woman was still there. I circled the block again. Olga didn't seem to mind the extra walking.

Finally, having returned a third time to find the woman still there -- but the car behind her gone -- I knocked on her window and asked her to back up so I could take my photo.

She obliged, but her SUV was so big that its nose stuck into the frame anyway. I also got some really terrible reflections in the window, which I rather clumsily removed with photo-editing software.

Bottom line: I need to keep casing the joint.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mundane Monday

Yesterday's veterinary hell wasn't as hellish as I expected. It turns out Olga may have a slight infection, but the inflammation around her stitches is just that -- inflammation. The stitches are probably still intact, but the area is swollen because the sutures pulled at the surrounding tissue as the dog ran and jumped and rolled around in the park on Saturday morning.

The solution is antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicine and less running and jumping. Not more surgery, which is what I feared. Hallelujah!

(I promise I will not make this blog all about the dog. It will not be a dog blog.)

Otherwise, yesterday was fairly nondescript. I went walking in the neighborhood and managed to shoot a few photos, despite Olga tugging at me. I also did some work for the school and got more caught up on reading. An uneventful Monday.

Last night, Dave and I went to a dinner for his coworker Lorraine's birthday. It was one of those restaurant scenes where there's a long, narrow table and the people at one end can't talk to the people at the other end. But c'est la vie. How else would everyone get seated?

(Photo: Yesterday, in the 'hood.)