Thursday, March 31, 2016
As if to compensate for our day of fun on Tuesday, yesterday was the opposite -- Income Tax Day.
As I've mentioned before, as American citizens, we're required to file income taxes each year with the IRS, even though we no longer live in the country. We are not, however, required to pay the IRS, because I pay taxes here and our income falls below the amount of foreign income we're allowed to exclude. Nor do we get any kind of refund. So it's really just an exercise in paperwork.
Every year I find myself wrestling with the same issues -- how to show my earnings on one line and then fill out the Form 2555 or whatever it's called and show those earnings as excludable foreign income. I have to document all the days I spent in the United States (keeping a blog helps in this regard!), and then this year, I had to turn around and do the same for Dave. (We filed jointly -- a first!)
It took me all morning but I did finally get everything settled. H & R Block, whose online tax prep software I was using, passed the return with flying colors. And then, weirdly, the IRS wouldn't allow us to e-file because the number of days stated on one line (for our housing exclusion) didn't match the number of days stated on another line (for income exclusion). I'm getting into the weeds here, but I thought I was supposed to deduct the days we spent in the states from our income exclusion, but not from our housing exclusion -- because, after all, we pay rent every day of the year, whether we're here or not. And perhaps that's incorrect. Anyway, in the end, I just changed both figures so they match. From all I could tell, it didn't make a difference.
I e-filed. Boom. Finished.
I know I say this every year, but taxes are ridiculously complicated. I mean, if I have this much trouble with them -- a college-educated (but admittedly mathematically inept) professional with no bipedal dependents -- imagine how daunting they must seem to anyone with less education and more kids. It's absurd.
Anyway, thank God that's over. Off to Liverpool!
(Photo: Pedestrian barriers stacked in West Hampstead.)
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
In our vacation quest to catch up on some London activities we haven't yet had a chance to enjoy, Dave and I went to the Sky Garden on Tuesday morning.
The Sky Garden is an enclosed indoor garden and cafe at the top of the relatively new building first nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie, and then (after reflections from its glass windows melted plastic parts of cars on the street) dubbed the Walkie-Scorchie.
Indoors there's no sign of scorching. The multi-level Sky Garden is full of tree ferns and other plants, all looking quite lush and healthy.
This is the view that greets visitors when they come off the elevator. Wave to The Shard!
Morning turned out to be a great time to visit -- the light was quite dramatic. Dave and I had reserved a table at the Sky Pod bar, where we had pastries and coffee. (Dave indulged in a bloody mary as well.)
The view was not bad.
After we ate we stepped out onto the terrace, which offered a blustery panorama of the Thames. The architecture does amazing things with sunlight -- aside from melting cars, I mean. (And actually, in all fairness to the building, that problem has apparently been fixed!)
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Dave and I barely left the house yesterday. We walked up to Homebase (our big-box home and garden retailer) to get some flowerpots shortly after lunch, and Dave seized the moment to buy still more plants for the garden. He got a tomato plant and some annuals for the hanging baskets, which is fine.
We didn't take Olga specifically because we were afraid the dog-walker would arrive while we were gone. But then, as the afternoon wore on and 3 o'clock became 4:30, we began thinking the dog-walker wouldn't come at all. And then we realized -- it's Easter Monday. A holiday. Hence, no dog-walker.
Don't worry -- Olga still got her walk. I took her out myself.
We took a taxi back from Homebase, since we were lugging big flowerpots, and when we pulled into the driveway we met one of our Russian neighbors from upstairs. She asked us about a chimney in the corner of the house and whether we ever used it. We had no idea what she was talking about, so I asked her to come inside and show us where it is. Turns out there's a chimney flue in our bathroom, of all places -- but it has been so altered over time that it doesn't resemble a chimney anymore. So no, we don't use it. Apparently they're going to do some renovations upstairs (great!) and they want to remove that flue. We told them to call the landlord!
This apartment has been chopped up and reconfigured so many times that it scarcely resembles its original layout. And none of the fireplaces work, as far as we know.
Anyway, as the neighbor came inside, I suddenly saw our flat with objective eyes -- the unmade bed, the muddy dog footprints on the floor, the breakfast dishes in the kitchen, the unscrubbed bathrooms. The veils of warmth and homeyness fell away, and I thought, Jesus, what slobs we are!
I spent the evening cleaning.
(Photos: Buddha on our bedroom mantelpiece with my two bracelets, which I wear occasionally. A friend from the Zendo I attended in New York gave me the one with the skulls, and the brown glass one I bought in Singapore.)
Monday, March 28, 2016
Well, my plans to walk Olga yesterday turned out to be ill-advised, at least in their timing.
We had our normal walk in the early morning, and that went fine. We found a shisha lounge in our neighborhood that seems to be remodeling or going out of business, and was trashing its comically cheesy artwork. No, I did not bring it home.
But then, about 11:30, we went for a long walk on the Heath. The weather forecast called for rain about 2 p.m., so I thought we'd be able to get there and back with no problem. But weather in England is a wildly unpredictable affair, and no sooner had we reached the Heath than it began to pour, and then hail. For a minute or two we were pelted with BB-sized grains.
I had an umbrella, but Olga immediately bolted for the shelter of a cluster of holly bushes. She only came out when the rain lightened up.
As it continued to drizzle we took a quick spin through Golders Green Park, where I thought we could find shelter, but the minute we reached a bench with a roof over it, the rain stopped...
...and before we knew it, the sun was out again and we were back to normal.
I think Olga enjoyed her walk, even with the bout of bad weather. I'm telling myself that, anyway. She certainly needed a thorough bath when we got home.
In the afternoon I Skyped with my dad and stepmother, who I hadn't spoken to in a couple of months, and they seem to be doing fine. And in the evening, Dave and I watched "The Danish Girl," which we really enjoyed. It was replete with the kind of gray, severely Protestant architecture and decor that I'd expect from early 20th-century Denmark, and it beautifully captured the conflict of the main characters at a time when transgendered people weren't even known to exist.
This morning, it's windy and blustery as all get-out. Katie has arrived!
Sunday, March 27, 2016
I woke up around 3:30 this morning and the moon was shining brightly through the windows in the living room. I could even see the Big Dipper in the sky above the patio. "Oh, good," I thought. "It's clear. I can walk Olga later today!"
And then I went back to sleep and when I woke up again -- it was raining.
Life on an island.
I hope for Olga's sake that it tapers off and we can get out and about, because she spent all day inside yesterday, poor thing. It was drizzly all afternoon. The forecast doesn't look promising, though.
Meanwhile, Dave and I have been on a mission to catch up on some of the Oscar-nominated movies from last year. On Friday we saw "Spotlight" -- a good old-fashioned newspaper movie, right down to the shots of rolling presses at the end. (What will convey that wonderful sense of finality, of a job accomplished and a wrong exposed, in future journalism movies? Somehow hitting the "publish" button on a Web site just doesn't have the same sense of majesty as watching those bales of papers come of the presses and get trucked away to all corners of the city.)
Last night we watched "The Big Short," which was fascinating and depressing at the same time.
Tonight's film may be "The Danish Girl."
And then tomorrow we're bracing for more bad weather, at least in certain parts of England -- another named storm, this one called Katie. I'm not sure how Katie will affect us here, but it's supposed to wallop the South Coast.
Owing to the weather, we're not going to Oxford after all. There just doesn't seem to be much point in hopping on a train -- especially with the dog -- to walk around a strange city in the rain. We're thinking we'll put it off until summer.
I am, however, making my trip to Liverpool on Thursday, when things are supposed to clear up and Dave has to work briefly. Yesterday I made train and hotel reservations and booked a Beatles-related tour. Penny Lane! Strawberry Fields! I hope to see some non-Beatlesy things too, but I'll only be there for about 24 hours, so we'll see how much I can cram in.
And now, I'm seeing some blue sky out the window! Time to leash up the dog!
(Photo: A clearly annoyed cat, surveying me and Olga from atop the day's newspaper delivery.)
Saturday, March 26, 2016
We had a spectacular spring day yesterday, sunny and bright and warm enough that I didn't need my jacket. Olga and I seized the opportunity to go to the Heath.
On the way we detoured through the Hampstead churchyard and visited the artist John Constable, who would no doubt have done glorious things with all the bright spring daylight.
We also stopped in Hampstead so I could take a picture of the somewhat campy sign for this posh boutique. I've always gotten a kick out of it.
At the Heath, we saw our first bluebells of the season...
And tiny new leaves were emerging on the trees.
But while some trees were coming to life, others were succumbing to age. We found that this huge old tree had collapsed on top of the bench where the guitarist sometimes sits. You can barely see the bench amid that tangle of branches. I certainly hope neither he nor anyone else was on it at the time. (There's no evidence to that effect.)
Olga found more evidence of past fallen trees. She also drank out of that puddle. (Ugh.)
A little dog named Merlin tried its best to play with Olga, dashing and darting and running circles around her. (I know its name because its owner was futilely calling to it, trying to get it to stop.) Olga was completely disinterested. She only wanted her Kong.
And we found another bit of history on a remote muddy path. Who knows how it got there? I brought it home and added it to my collection.
A perfect start to Spring Break!
Friday, March 25, 2016
Here's the latest display in the window of one of our neighbors. You may remember the peculiar ceramics on view there previously. They've now moved on to masks, apparently.
Yesterday morning, when I went in to work, I was aware that it was Thursday -- but I completely forgot that it was our last day of work before Spring Break! That realization didn't come to me until I was sitting at my desk -- woo hoo! How this snuck up on me I'm not sure. But yeah, we're off today and all next week.
It's going to be a mostly domestic vacation. We may take a couple of day trips, but for the most part we'll be staying home and working on projects around the house. Some of these I've already begun: When Dave was in Doha last week, for example, I cleaned out the kitchen pantry, where I discarded petrified oatmeal from 2012 and found that we own six open packages of couscous. We're in a similar situation with arborio rice and icing sugar, and don't even get me started about bags of flour. (And multitudes of different kinds of flour -- all-purpose, bread, whole wheat, etc.)
I also need to organize our spice cabinet. It is tightly packed with little jars, and we can only see the front phalanx. Everything behind that is lost in the shadows. Dave has the unfortunate habit, when he's cooking something, of simply buying whatever spices he needs, rather than rummaging through what we already have -- so we have duplicates of many things. I think we need a spice rack of some kind, even though Marie Kondo makes fun of them and says they're dust collectors.
And of course there's gardening to do and my journal-transcription project to work on. I will not lack for activities!
I did some spring cleaning at work yesterday, too, throwing away everything in the library Lost & Found bin. I adopted a couple of items: an ugly but functional ivory-colored umbrella and a plastic tupperware-type container. But everything else -- mostly plastic reusable water bottles, many of which have been there since early last fall -- went in the trash. All that plastic -- sigh.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
I was out walking Olga a couple of weeks ago when I noticed one of our neighbors was throwing away several geraniums, roots and all. They seemed perfectly healthy, so I grabbed them from the neighbor's yard waste bag, brought them home and potted them. We're already being rewarded with blossoms!
Another street find was this large lavender plant. It was sitting in its pot next to a trash can in a park. Boy was it a pain to lug that thing home. It's pot-bound so I think we'll put it in the ground.
Some sad news about our snakehead fritillary, which I photographed just last week. The squirrels ravaged it a few days later. This is what was left. I put the flowers in a vase, and gathered up the remaining bulbs and any pieces that were still whole and replanted them, putting shards of old flowerpot around the base to protect them from another raid. But the jury's out on whether it will survive.
On a happier note, our grape hyacinths are blooming like crazy. I love these things, even though they're pretty much weeds. We have loads of them in the flower beds and I've forbidden Dave from digging any of them up, which drives him crazy.
Inside, the hyacinths that our friends Adam and Tim bought for us are blooming. The house is full of their heavy, sweet scent. (And the squirrels can't get to them!)
And finally, I did move the amaryllis to our dining room windowsill, where they are out of Olga's reach and hopefully will finish their blooming cycle. You can see how I staked up that flower stalk on the right, hoping it will recover from Olga's recent rampages. As I wrote earlier, it looks like we're getting only two flower stalks this year, so I hope they both make it!
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
I feel like I ought to say something about Brussels, but really, what can I say? Having just been there a few weeks ago, the attacks make me think back on that day, on my explorations of the city and the people and places I encountered. I thought of my super-angry, super-secretive assailant, and whether he could have been involved in this plot, or one like it. You just never know.
When I walked through the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, I was just a block or two away from where Belgian police captured the Paris bombing suspect last Friday.
I don't have any answers. They are above my pay grade. I do wonder if Europe will have to tighten its internal borders and restrict the free flow of people between its member nations. That might help at least keep tabs on potentially dangerous individuals and their locations. You hate to think that we need to surrender some of our own freedoms to fight terrorism, but we're doing it every day already, taking our shoes off at airports and walking through metal detectors at countless public venues. An obligatory stop at an international border doesn't seem so far-fetched.
We don't yet know who the bombers were, but I think this nonetheless shows why it's essential to control and organize the flow of refugees out of the Middle East. I'm not saying refugees perpetrated these attacks -- in fact it's unlikely -- but we have to know who's here, at least as much as is possible in this era of potentially forged documentation and scant available public records. I'm all for helping refugees, but it has to be done in an orderly fashion, and it has to be a global effort -- not one that falls solely on the shoulders of Europe.
As an only tangentially related aside, I mentioned that Dave was in Doha, Qatar, last week with a student group. Apparently Qatar is a dry country, so alcohol was not easily available -- in fact, at the airport, the guards confiscated alcohol they found in passengers' luggage. It's apparently very safe overall and Dave said his group had a good time, but he wasn't impressed with such restrictions. When he got home the first thing he said was, "We're having pork and wine for dinner!"
(Photo: A tile mosaic of an alligator in a doorway in Soho.)
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
I came across this fun little Citroen while out walking Olga over the weekend.
"This is not a car...it's a living artwork."
With a sticker of Asterix and Obelix on the back trunk, it's clear that this car is owned by a Francophile.
I just put some food in the bird feeder and I'm watching a trio of pigeons who are so fat they can't even bring themselves to eat it. They're just sitting on top of it, eyeing the food protectively. Every once in a while a jay swoops in and steals three or four peanuts before flying away.
Olga is still doing battle with the amaryllis. This morning it was knocked over again. I'll be amazed if the flower stalk survives long enough to bloom. Clearly she went after some creature outside the back door last night -- probably a fox or a squirrel.
Monday, March 21, 2016
Yesterday was quite a whirl of activity. Dave came back from Doha, I was scheduled to meet our former neighbor Chris for an afternoon of photography in Soho, and I had to take Olga out for an excursion.
Knowing I was going to be doing lots of walking with Chris in the afternoon, I couldn't face the idea of taking Olga all the way to the Heath. So we went instead to Kilburn Grange Park, which is much closer. We don't often go there because it's not very large, but there's a big open space where Olga can chase her Kong (while ignoring all the other dogs who are trying to play with her), so it serves our purpose.
I met Chris at 3 p.m. at the Photographer's Gallery in Soho, where I promptly spent £35 on a book of New York photos that we then had to lug around with us all afternoon. We walked through Soho and down to Trafalgar Square. We found a dead pigeon lying in front of a big, beautiful mural, and that made for some photographic moments (top).
Remember this flags-of-all-nations chalk mural? It's a regular feature at Trafalgar Square, were I photographed it a few months ago. Apparently at the end of the day the artists are required to remove their chalk creations -- or so this guy said.
In the evening Chris and I met his wife Linda and we had dinner at a Vietnamese place. It was good, but I really just wanted to get home, since Dave arrived in the late afternoon. I couldn't get away until almost 9 p.m., and by the time I got home he was in bed. So I've barely had a chance to hear about his trip. We didn't time that very well!
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Just to show you that we don't always demand idyllic wilderness on our outings, here's another walk the two of us often share, on a paved path that runs alongside the train tracks here in West Hampstead. It's a grittier, more urban environment, and although Olga still stays alert for squirrels, the main scenery is litter.
There are, for example, tennis balls...
...and soccer balls (or footballs, as they're known here)...
...and rugby balls.
Olga would normally love to play with these toys, but they're behind a fence so she can't get to them.
Then you have all the other trash, from conventional litter like rolling papers...
...to larger, less conventional items like baby strollers (here known as pushchairs)...
You just never know what you'll find.
I occasionally hear complaints about the quantity of trash on the streets in London. My personal theory is that this is due partly to the dearth of public trash cans in many areas. In Manhattan, there's a trash can on practically every corner, but in London, they can be few and far between. (And often, they're packed so full it's impossible to squeeze in another bit of rubbish.)
I'm told this absence of trash cans stems from the IRA bombings in the '70s and '80s, and maybe they're still seen as a terrorism threat. All I know is, as long as there aren't trash cans available when people have waste to discard, it's going to wind up on the street -- or alongside the railroad tracks. (Granted, you couldn't fit a pushchair into a public trash can, but you know what I mean.)
Of course, even with trash cans, New York still has its share of litter problems. I don't mean to hold it up as an example of golden perfection.
Anyway...Olga and I like this walk. I find the litter weirdly interesting.
Saturday, March 19, 2016
I'm a bit fuzzy-headed this morning, having been to a wine-tasting event at a colleague's house last night. She knows a guy who -- for a fee, obviously -- will come around with ten different wines and all the required glassware, and put everyone through their paces. In our case, we tried four whites, four reds and two British sparkling wines. There was no spitting. And yes, we talked about swirling the wine in the glass, and the "nose," and tannins, and all the different tasting notes of citrus and vanilla and blackberries.
But it wasn't at all stuffy -- in fact, we got a bit loud and silly. It's a fun way to have a party, actually. You'd think nine teachers would be well-behaved in a learning environment, but not when alcohol is involved! (Maybe not ever.)
I stumbled home to find that Olga, sometime during the day, had damaged one of the two amaryllis plants that has sent up a flower stalk this spring. The amaryllis sit in a pot at the garden door, and my guess is a fox or squirrel went by outside and she went ballistic. So the jury is out on whether that flower stalk will survive.
(In fact, this is the first year that all four of our amaryllis aren't blooming. I guess they need a rest now and then!)
And now, I really must do my French homework.
(Photo: A former jazz club in West Hampstead that has been closed for several months. From the way the sunlight is passing through the building, it looks like it's completely gutted inside. The signs say the building has been sold, but we've seen no obvious indication of what's moving in next.)
Friday, March 18, 2016
Someone planted these crocuses on West End Green, near our flat. They're a bit too regimented for my taste -- wouldn't they have looked better scattered randomly? But still, they brighten things up.
I take Olga to West End Green on many mornings before work. It's a tiny little triangle of a park, but enough for her to run around a bit. The downside is that someone -- a restaurant, or one of the bakeries -- discards their old bread there. They throw it out for the birds, and if I'm not careful it winds up in Olga. And it's always the oldest, moldiest, most craptastic bread possible. A few months ago she had a bonanza day when she found about 50 stale bagels lying in the grass. She downed two of them before I could get a hold of her.
When I lived in Morocco, the Moroccans had a thing about "respecting the bread." They would never throw old bread in the trash. Instead, they'd set it out in the street, on the theory that someone or something -- donkey, goat, dog, maybe even a hungry person -- would eat it. I suspect that's what's going on here, too.
There are signs in the park asking people not to feed the critters. But then, there are also signs telling people to keep their dog on a lead, and lots of people (ahem) violate that rule too.
Anyway, I slept late this morning! But then I was up late last night, watching movies and reading. I watched "Midnight Cowboy," a perennial favorite, and finished the book I was reading, "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe," a good YA novel about two teenage boys coming of age and figuring things out -- but with a somewhat unlikely ending, I thought.
And have I done my French homework for class tomorrow? No.
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Back in October, my dad and stepmother mailed me a birthday card. But they sent it to our old address in Notting Hill, the apparently vacant (according to the neighbors) apartment where we used to live. I have long wondered whether any of our valuable mail has been piling up there, on the floor beneath the letterbox.
Well, on March 4, my dad and stepmother got my birthday card back, with a handwritten note on it that said "Please return to sender -- no longer at this address."
So apparently whoever has access to the apartment now has sifted through the mail on the floor. That's good to know. Dad and June resent the card, and I received it on Friday -- and to be honest, I thought they'd already mailed me one, so I didn't miss its absence.
My brother had an interesting idea about Olga's recent bout of wooziness. He asked whether she was exposed to exhaust fumes during her extended period in the dog walker's van. I think that is a very good question. I sent the dog walker an e-mail suggesting it as an unlikely possibility, sort of as an aside, so in case there is a problem I can rest easy that I've done something about it! He hasn't responded -- maybe he's insulted, or maybe he's checking it out. Who knows.
I keep realizing, in little bursts of disbelief, that I haven't yet done our American income taxes. I really do need to get that show on the road. Even if they're going to fund a Donald Trump presidency, which I still refuse to believe. Despite the apparent insanity of American primary voters, I still think Trump can't win in the general election. A certain segment of the populace obviously responds to his bullying, incendiary rhetoric, but I think most people see him as, at best, clueless, and at worst, a potentially dangerous reactionary. I hope I am right. Otherwise -- apocalypse!
I saw a kid at school yesterday wearing a Kasich shirt. An interesting choice, I thought.
Bravo to Obama for moving ahead with his SupCo nomination -- a centrist with past Republican support! I can't wait to see how this unfolds.
(Photos: Top, a house on my walk home from work. Bottom: A snakehead fritillary, a new addition to our garden.)
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
First of all, thanks for all the concern about Olga. It's great to be reminded that so many people care about our dog!
You'll be glad to know that she seems fine. I got more detail from the dog walker about their reasons for running so late on Monday -- apparently there were a series of driving-related delays and, on top of that, mistakes by a new driver. Because the walkers take several groups of dogs out in succession, any delays stack up throughout the day and affect the schedule. He said Olga spent about 30 extra minutes in the van at the end of the day.
At any rate, she seemed more or less OK yesterday -- a bit slower in the morning than usual -- and she slept heavily again last night. Now, today, she seems right as rain. Whew!
He suspects she ate something, and that's my suspicion too. It's strange how it never affected her digestion, though. That seemed to be working just fine through this whole episode. So who knows.
Dave left early this morning for a school music trip to Doha, Qatar. He'll be back on Sunday, and Olga and I will have some home time to ourselves. Dave is a homebody who doesn't often leave the house in his spare time, so it's unusual for me to have extended periods here alone. I confess, I'm kind of looking forward to it!
(Photo: An old pub amid the modern architecture of Southwark, on Sunday.)
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
We had a bit of a scare with Olga last night. She came home from her walk very late -- about 6:30 p.m., which is unheard of. (She's normally home by 3.) Her walker blamed the delay on bad traffic and an accident, but in retrospect it seems unlikely that would take three and a half extra hours. Unless the accident was theirs. So who knows?
Anyway, the scare wasn't from her lateness -- it was because almost as soon as she got home she began acting strangely. After her typically bounding greeting, she got up on the couch and began nodding like a heroin user. Her head would sink and she would quiver, and the light seemed to hurt her eyes -- she was blinking strangely. She couldn't seem to fall asleep at first, but finally she curled up and we put a blanket over her, and she did sleep. Dave and I went to bed at about 10, and I had to go get her from the couch when I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and bring her to bed.
She's asleep at the foot of the bed now, as I write this. She seemed a bit more normal this morning, for the brief moment she was awake, but I won't know for sure until I walk her before I leave for work.
I was worried she'd gotten into some poison or hazardous food, knowing her habit of being a canine vacuum cleaner while out and about. But Dave thinks she's just exhausted by the disruption to her routine this weekend -- the visit from Adam and Tim, plus her long walk Sunday. If that's the case, I have never seen her so tired. Is our dog already showing her age?
Speaking of Adam and Tim, they left yesterday around noon for the flight home. Last night I cleaned up the house and today I'm shlepping sheets and towels to the laundry, on my way to work.
(Photo: Funky architecture in Southwark.)