Friday, July 22, 2016

Visiting London as a tourist is heaps of fun. However, moving to London has been a frustrating, tearful, pull-your-hair-out experience. And this is coming from a serial expat!

Moving to the U.K. marks our fourth country in just six years – followed behind Australia, Poland and Turkey. It’s been a learning experience every time. Unfortunately, the Brits seem to like rules, lots of rules, and paperwork. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Welcome to London - a city that's beautiful, busy, expensive, rainy, but sometimes fun!

Banking NOT Made Easy
On our second day in London, after waking up at 5 a.m. because of jetlag, we figured we would try to do some basic expat things like open a bank account and set up mobile phones. We walked into a HSBC in Clapham, because it touts itself as an “expat friendly bank.” After waiting a bit, we finally talked to someone and was told we must make an appointment, but the next one wasn’t available until next Saturday (nine days from then). We also needed proof of address documentation, but HSBC would not accept a letter from our current landlord (Airbnb host).

Finally, several days later, we set up our basic joint bank accounts in person at a different branch after spending TWO HOURS filling out paperwork and providing a signed letter from hubby’s office confirming our London address PLUS our U.S. passports, U.K. residence permits and original copies of hubby’s contract with salary information! I’m surprised HSBC didn’t ask us for a blood donation!

Still, after all this, we must establish a credit history in the U.K. for at least six months before we get anything beyond basic services. Heck, I think our credit card in Poland came with a 25,000zl credit line because my husband could prove his local salary. I’ve since learned that Lloyd’s Bank is supposed to be easier for expats and only requires proof of identification like a passport.

Hello? Finding a Mobile Phone Service
In order to set up a mobile phone contract, you need to have a UK bank account, which obviously we didn’t have yet. We also quickly found that phone service can be pricey. Vodaphone wanted £60 per month (currently about $78USD) for a decent data and calling plan. We ended up choosing a pay-as-you-go plan with Three because the cost is only £25 per month and includes 12 GB of data and lots of minutes.

As soon as we have that bank account, we can set up a phone contract which offers some better services.

Dreaded Jetlag
After an approximately 30-hour flight with layovers and transfers from Melbourne, we ended up with some serious jetlag. No matter if we went to bed at 11 p.m. or nearly midnight, we woke up wide awake at 5 a.m. for several days. By mid-afternoon, I needed a nap, so I slept for an hour or two and continued to live with a messed up internal clock. It took exactly a week for my body to adjust to normal UK hours.
Flying on a A380 like this one for long distance flights is much nicer than the 777, in my opinion. :)

Laundry That Never Dries
During the first two weeks in London, it rained every day, even if only a little bit. After washing a load of laundry in a shoebox-sized washer, I hang it up in our room on an old wooden clothing rack in front of an open window, which I have to open and shut several times a day because of the rain. Once I left out two pairs of jeans on the balcony to dry and left for the afternoon only to return home to very wet pants. Why don’t people have dryers? I can’t wait for my gigantic Turkish dryer to arrive in our shipment!

A photo posted by My Traveling Joys (@mytravelingjoys) on

Crowded, Busy London
After living in laid-back Aussie land for 13 months, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a crowded, urban city like London. We even visited here back in October and I don’t recall being so overwhelmed as I have these past two weeks. Trying to exit out of the Bank underground station is like Alice in Wonderland selecting the right door. And picking which platform at Clapham Junction or Waterloo is a guessing game. Eeny, meeny, miny, mo!
One of these days, I’m sure all the public transport will make sense…until a line is closed for repairs or there’s a strike, which has already happened to us.

Flat Hunting with the Devil
Well, not all real estate agents are the devil, but my hunt made it feel like it. One agent, after sending me multiple emails after one viewing, rudely told me that: “Honestly, you aren’t going to find what you want in your budget.” I replied that we would keep looking then and hung up.
London's Victorian row houses look cute from the outside, but often offer narrow spaces.
London is a massive, sprawling city, so yes, I think it’s quite possible to find a flat within your budget. However, we found we must give up the living space that we’ve been used to in order to live in the neighborhoods we wanted. We both like living in the city, so a scouting trip out to Chiswick felt like suburbia family-land to me and would have meant at least an hour commute for hubby. I said no way.

Before our move, I spent several weeks reading everything I could about London real estate and selecting the right neighborhood. I also contacted any former London friends or colleagues to ask for their advice. I looked through hundreds of flats online using main property websites such as Rightmove, On The Market and Zoopla so I could have a general idea of what and where we could afford to live. Then, I walked thousands of steps scouring the neighborhoods for “to let” signs and to see what areas I liked.
Flats move quickly in London, so you’ll want to start your search generally no more than 4-6 weeks before you want to move. For example, one flat I liked online was gone two days after it was listed. Fortunately, I found our flat only nine days after we arrived with a good agent, but then the stressful part was putting in an offer (like you do to buy a house), waiting for a response, negotiating terms, waiting for a response and finally waiting for a lease agreement that my husband-the-finance-guy had to sort out. I may have been forced to drink several bottles of Australian wine during this time to calm my nerves! 

Savoring Flat Whites
In the midst of all this moving madness, I found several local cafés that make a truly-almost Aussie-like flat white so that I was transported back to the café culture that I fell in love with in Melbourne. A flat white is similar to a latte, containing milk and espresso, but there is less milk and foam on top. A perfect flat white has a creamy, smooth mouthfeel and is decorated with some coffee art on top to make you smile. Sometimes it’s the little things that count.
Sampling all the flat whites in southwest London!
Even with all this frustration, I’m sure a few months from now I will settle into our new lives in London and be happy. (Normally, I'm not so negative.) I’ll even forget how difficult it is to move to another country – even an English-speaking one – until the time comes for us to move again.

Have you moved often as well? What’s been your worst experience?
Sometimes it's sunny in London and that's when you find a pub along the Thames.

My Traveling Joys

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

N is for Nicosia

Even four years later, I can still picture the white spring blossoms that decorated the worn cobblestone streets and smell the fragrant citrus trees we passed when we visited Nicosia in North Cyprus.

Nicosia (Lefkoşa in Turkish) is one of the few world’s divided cities with half of it belonging in Greek-ruled Cyprus and the northern half governed by the Turkish Municipality. You must pass through a passport checkpoint to cross from one side to the other. Cyprus has acomplicated history. It was part of the British Empire as a military occupation from 1914-1925, and a Crown colony from 1925-1960. Cyprus became an independent nation in 1960, but then were arguments between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots resulting in the current divided country. 

Even before the most recent turmoil, Cyprus’ history is embedded in complications. The country became a Roman province in 58 BC, was ruled jointly by both the Arabs and the Byzantines, became a target of the Christian crusades in the 12th century and was dominated by the Genoese merchants in the 14th century until the Ottoman siege and takeover in the 1500s.

Because of the island’s complex history, you’ll find remains of different architectures such as the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Sophia which became the Selimiye Mosque in 1570 when the Ottomans conquered the land. During the 50-day Ottoman siege of Nicosia, the cathedral provided refuge for a great number of people.
The cathedral-turned-mosque still looks a bit like a church to me, except for the minarets on the outside and the Islamic features of a mihrab (prayer niche) and the minbar (pulpit) inside. The building was constructed in the 13th century by the Latin Church of Cyprus, in a Gothic style resembling French cathedrals. The church-mosque’s Roman-era columns indicate the possible presence of a Byzantine church before its construction. I found it interesting to walk through the largest and oldest surviving Gothic church in Cyprus and admire the different architecture.

Thanks to our lovely Turkish-Cypriot friends we were able to explore and learn more about the divided city of Nicosia. I’d love to return someday and see more of the island!

I’m linking this post to the monthly travel guide link up organized by Fiona, a fellow Australian blogger, at Tiffin Bite Sized Food Adventures. Each month features a new letter of the alphabet. July is the letter “N.” Please pop on over to Fiona’s blog to read more travel stories or feel free to link up your own!
TIFFIN - bite sized food adventures -
My Traveling Joys

Friday, July 8, 2016

One of my favorite dining memories in Melbourne is sitting in a cozy, 90-year-old tram and enjoying a four-course lunch with my in-laws and my husband.

Shortly after moving to Melbourne, we noticed this fleet of burgundy-colored tram cars that roll throughout the CBD and into some of the nearby neighborhoods. Since hubby loves trains, he insisted that we find out how the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant worked. I was wary because this activity sounded too touristy to me. Come to find out, the restaurant is booked weeks in advance is very, very difficult to get into. We’re not talking Michelin-starred service, but the tramcar restaurant is a very unique, Aussie thing to do!
After trying for months to book a table on the weekend, we finally scored a weekday reservation during my in-laws’ January visit to Australia. This roving restaurant offers one lunch and two dinner sittings each day, 365 days a year. The menus feature modern Australian cuisine and local wines. Yay for wine!

The historic tram cars date to 1927 and actually were used for transport service around the city for approximately 55 years. The restaurant service started in August 1983 with a single tram, as amendments were required to the Liquor License Act to allow for the service of alcohol on a mobile restaurant.
Our dining experience started with an appetizer of two dips – hummus and a creamy roasted red pepper. Our server even provided gluten-free rice crackers for me.

For our entrées, three of us had the tender duck terrine wrapped in prosciutto with a wild berry relish while my mother-in-law had the pretty smoked Tasmanian salmon and avocado mousse stack with tomato salsa. Both dishes were a lot fancier than we had imagined!
For our mains, everyone ordered the slow-cooked beef served with pomme dauphinoise and red wine jus. Of course, we all had enjoyed a nice glass or perhaps two of an Australian shiraz with this course.
Finally, our meal ended with a platter of local cheeses, some from the Yarra Valley as I recall. You get three cheeses, crackers, toasted fruit bread and a quince paste. Our server refilled our wineglasses and my husband and father-in-law had some kind of aperitif. Service is pretty much like what you’d find served in business class on an airplane. Our glasses were rarely empty and our servers were friendly! Of course, there are plenty of non-alcoholic options for non-lushes like ourselves.
What’s also a bonus is that this all-inclusive lunch only cost us 85aud (about $64USD) per person. Considering the quality of food and how many drinks we imbibed, I’d say we hit the jackpot!

We enjoyed our meal and conversation so much that we didn’t pay too much attention to the views outside our window. Every now and then, I pointed out a building or sight for my in-laws as we weaved our way through Melbourne. If you really want to see the sights like the Queen Victoria Market or St. Kilda, I think it’s best done on foot.
As you can see, we're all very happy at the end of our meal.
A family photo from a different perspective.
If you’re ever in Melbourne, and even if you’re a local, I highly recommend this unique dining experience.

My Traveling Joys

Friday, June 24, 2016

Although I usually try to avoid super touristy places, I finally gave into my love of photography to recently take some remarkable photos over Melbourne.

For the best city views, simply pay 20aud ($15USD) and take the fast elevator up 88 floors to the top of the Eureka Skydeck88. For months, I believed the cost wouldn’t be worth it, but I was wrong. You can’t get better views than this unless you live or work in one of the CBD’s skyscrapers or pay a few hundred dollars to take a helicopter ride over the city.

Located in Southbank along the Yarra River, the building dominates the city’s skyline as Melbourne’s tallest building and stands out with its 24 carat-gold-plated glass windows on the top 10 floors. The Eureka building – named after the Eureka Stockade in the 1850s – and its Skydeck offers not only views of the city but also out across Port Phillip Bay and the Bass Strait.
An aerial view of Melbourne’s CBD as seen from the Eureka Skydeck.
I arrived shortly before sunset so I could catch the rosy and fiery orange shades light up the evening sky. If I would go again, I would take advantage of the Skydeck’s Sun and Stars ticket option (5.50aud extra) which allows you to return twice on the same day or within two consecutive days.

To the west, I watched the sun set over the Yarra River, the Docklands and the Crown Casino precinct. I did have to fight my way to a clear window space so I could take photos.
Looking out over the CBD, you can see the historical Flinders Street Train station (bottom left) and St. Paul’s Cathedral across from Federation Square.
The only problem with shooting through thick glass windows is dealing with glares and flashes from other people’s cameras. In fact, I felt like I was able to get better photos with my Samsung phone because I could set the lens right up against the windows. If you want good nighttime photos, it’s best to bring a tripod to set your camera for a longer exposure.

The spire in the bottom left hand corner is on top of Melbourne’s Arts Centre, oddly kind of looking like an Eiffel Tower! Federation Square, what is considered one of the ugliest buildings in the world, is located on the left side of the Yarra.
In the top right hand corner, you’ll see a stadium called the Melbourne Cricket Ground, more commonly known as the MCG, where we've watched three footy games.
Looking out to southeast corner, here’s a view along St. Kilda Road and the Royal Botanic Gardens at night.
Chaos or home?
After taking nearly 200 photos over 2 hours, I left the Eureka Skydeck feeling a bit happier. Living as an expat in Melbourne hasn’t always been easy this past year, but these stunning views reminded me how lucky we’ve been to call this place “home” – at least for a little while.

My Traveling Joys

Monday, June 20, 2016

While friends in the Northern Hemisphere constantly post photos of themselves beachside or barbecuing, I’m rugged up in a coat, scarf and hat. It’s officially autumn, well technically winter here Down Under.

Oddly, Australia likes to celebrate the change of seasons on the first of the month. For example, June 1st meant we officially heralded in the winter season.  Meanwhile, friends in the Northern Hemisphere will be celebrating the Summer Solstice today on June 20th – the longest day of the year. On September 1st, we’ll mark the first day of spring while you “Northerners” celebrate fall.

I first started seeing signs of autumn in Melbourne back in mid-April. The leaves do start changing color even though the city has many native trees that do not drop their leaves or change color. But when the city’s numerous parks and gardens do turn, there’s something magical about the vibrant reds, yellows and browns adorned throughout the city’s streets.
Take a stroll along the Yarra River or through the CBD or Fitzroy Gardens. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it to the Botanic Gardens yet, but I understand the autumn display here is quite wonderful.
Now, even in the middle of June, I’ve found plenty of color around the city to photograph. However, I will admit that are rainy, cold, crappy days have started setting in for good, I’m afraid.
Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy is one of Melbourne's most popular parks with its large footy grounds and bike trails.
In case you haven’t heard, Melbourne has a reputation for having “four seasons in one day.” I quickly learned this is true. Be sure to always carry a cardigan, scarf, umbrella and your sunnies (sunglasses) with you no matter what the forecast says! I’ve been left in the rain on several occasions when I thought surely the blue skies wouldn’t turn on me, but oh yes, they will. Trust me!
Blue skies can be quite deceptive!
This autumn, we've been lucky to sit outside on several weekends and enjoy a pint along the Yarra River.
Just dress in layers (and more layers) and you’ll be prepared for pretty much any situation that Melbourne’s autumn can throw at you.
St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne.
On a nice autumn day, you can rent a boat at the Studley Park Boat House. 
The many shades of autumn in Melbourne. This time in the Malvern/Hawthorne neighborhoods.
An autumn sunset in Melbourne.

My Traveling Joys

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