Friday, August 26, 2016

Did you know you can find some of the biggest, juiciest, most colorful heirloom tomatoes right here in London?

 I was in disbelief when I first discovered these tomatoes at one of the markets in London. Surely, they were imported, right?

Nope, I’ve been buying these tomatoes directly from two of England’s larger farmers’ market stalls – Wild Country Organics and the Isle of Wight Tomatoes, the latter being a small manufacturer that handpicks its tomatoes grown on a small island located about 3 hours southwest of London. The first company is located on a farm near Cambridge, about 90 minutes north of London, that has growing organic tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and other produce since 1988. Both companies sell their products at markets all over the city.
Since moving to London, I've discovered the London Farmers’ Markets organization online and have used the website to find the local markets in my area. So far, I’ve frequented the weekend markets in Earl’s Court (my preferred market for best prices and location), South Kensington and Wimbledon. I’ve also been to Borough Market again, but I find the market is overpriced for every day produce and better for specialty items like French and English cheeses, homemade cakes and fudge and different foreign goods.

During July and August, I’ve bought beautiful berries and cherries, colorful tomatoes, fresh herbs and salad greens, apple cider, celery, carrots, potatoes, sweet peppers and zucchini. Don’t forget the free-range chicken and eggs, fresh farm milk and some of the best lamb I’ve ever cooked and eaten! At the main meat stall in Earl’s Court, I can buy two free-range chickens for £10 (about $13USD). It’s nice to be able to talk directly with the farmers and growers about their wonderful products.
Overall, I find the markets’ prices fairly comparable and often better than the grocery store prices. Plus, all of the produce is locally grown and most of it is organic or might as well be but maybe it’s just not certified. I’d much rather support a local farmer than a giant corporation!

It will be interesting to see what happens once fall and winter arrive here. I’m hoping we’re not stuck just eating carrots and potatoes at every meal!
Basically, a week's worth of groceries bought at the Earl's Court farmers' market on Sundays.
Not pictured are two free-range chickens.

My Traveling Joys

Monday, August 22, 2016

O is for Orvieto

Orvieto is a lovely town, about 90 minutes north of Rome, that deserves more than a visit of a few hours.

Unfortunately, when we visited Orvieto in 2013, my father-in-law was with us and he’s pretty much a grump when it comes to sightseeing. I could happily spend all day wandering the narrow lanes, exploring and take photographs of the historic architecture, local markets and daily life in any town. Granted we had rented a very nice double suite at nearby Altarocca Wine Resort with an outdoor pool, so the idea was to bask in the Italian summer sunshine.

One of the main highlights of visiting Orvieto is seeing the gorgeous façade of Duomo di Orvieto, a 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Although the cornerstone was laid in 1290, construction took more than 100 years to complete.
Visitors to Orvieto are greeted by the ornate façade of the church, which was designed in the so-called Italian Gothic style which blended elements of Byzantine and northern European architecture together. Still, as so often happens in Italy, no one is entirely certain who the architect was. The prevailing local opinion is that it was a rather obscure monk named Fra' Bevignate da Perugia, but many scholars think he merely executed plans drawn up earlier by the great Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio. Whomever designed this historic structure did so wonderfully!

The cathedral soars seven stories into the sky and features internal columns made form horizontal stripes of black and white marble. The intricately-carved rose window up top is surrounded by life-sized sculpted figures set in the gothic niches.

For this month’s A-Z Guide, I couldn’t decide which “O” destination to go with – whether it should have been O for Olympos, Ortaköy or Orvieto. Hopefully you enjoyed getting a small taste of the Umbrian town of Orvieto.

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. This month is the letter “O.” 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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Even though we’ve moved four times since 2010, I have to say that moving doesn’t really get any easier with experience.

Moving house is still one of the most stressful experiences, in fact, it’s renowned as being one of life’s biggest cause of stresses, close behind divorce and bereavement. I have to wonder why we move all the time then. Luckily, our marriage has survived these four moves together, most recently to London.
Stacks of moving day boxes taller than me in London!
It’s been 11 days since the friendly Romanian unpackers arrived on time at our doorstep meanwhile the Polish truck driver showed up nearly 3.5 hours late. Apparently, the moving truck was so big he couldn’t figure out which bridge to drive under to reach us in southwest London. I frantically had to call the manager in Warsaw several times, relay bus routes the driver could follow and finally send the unpackers to get the truck. I was pissed, and even told the manager this was B.S. Until this incident, the moving company had been pretty good. Not off to a good start.

Here are a few other tips I learned from our latest expat move.

Measure Large Furniture Before You Move
After this move, I almost wish we had sold all of our American furniture before we had moved abroad six years ago. Our L-sectional leather couch has a tough time fitting through many doors. Same goes with our king size bed. However, what we had trouble with this time is the box spring for our queen size bed. This didn’t fit up the awkward-angle staircase or through the large window in our master bedroom.
Hubby sawed the box spring in half since it wouldn't fit through the window upstairs!

So on day two of our move, I went to our local hardware store to buy a hand saw and Googled how to cut a box spring inhalf. Literally! I showed our unpackers, but after examining the box spring, they declined. I don’t blame them. They didn’t want to be held liable even though I said it would be okay. Over the weekend, hubby successfully sawed through the box spring, folded it in half and we got it upstairs together. Whew!

Enlist Your Partner or a Friend
Trust me, you will want someone with you on the day of your move to either help, provide moral support or to run out and grab lunch for your starving soul. I told my husband there was no way in hell I was going to be by myself. In Istanbul, I was by myself. In Warsaw, he was home for two hours before he went into his new office. Luckily, this time, he stayed home the entire first day and helped me check off boxes or directed the movers where to go. I’m very thankful!

Learn to Downsize
Our flat, which is nearly 30 percent smaller than what we’re used to, still has quite a few unpacked boxes. The problem is we have no storage in this flat, which means we must get rid of things or buy some new storage wardrobes. Anyone want our Turkish washing machine, a large wardrobe closet or an American oak dining room table?

I tossed tons of old spices and reorganized the ones I had left.
It's all about mise en place when cooking! 
Not surprisingly rent in London is stupid expensive! In order to live in the area we wanted, we had to make some sacrifices, which means living in a smaller space and a little bit farther away from a train station. Now as I unpack each box, I must scrutinize all our stuff – like a 2002 edition of the Far Side desk calendar, years of cooking magazines, a trifle bowl, unworn high heels, etc. It does feel liberating to chuck out our unnecessary crap!

Offer Drinks to the Movers/Unpackers
Moving is a tough, sweaty job for anyone, so I always buy some plastic glasses and water. The movers or unpackers will appreciate the gesture. A little kindness goes a long way.

For Crying Out Loud, Go Out For Dinner
At the end of said stressful moving day, I couldn’t even think about cooking. We went to our local pub and enjoyed £10 burger and beer night. On day two, after spending all day unpacking my kitchen boxes, I picked up Thai takeout for us to enjoy. Even though I prefer to cook at home, the reality of having a prepared meal was much more rewarding.

Hopefully, this will be our last move for a few years. Honestly, I’m tired of moving and would like to feel like I belong to a community for once. Anyone else ever felt like this?
Most importantly, we found the bar box, which was labeled as cleaning supplies. Nice!

My Traveling Joys

Monday, August 1, 2016

Buzzing honeybees, darling crimson dahlias, pretty purple salvia and so much more!

My recent visit to Kew Gardens in southwest London included a 3-hour stroll around this gigantic botanical gardens. During that time, I maybe only covered one-fourth of these 300 acres (121 hectares). The world’s largest collection of living plants are cared for and studied here; because of this and the botanical gardens’ historical significance, the gardens were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.

Founded in 1840, from the exotic garden at Kew Park in the Richmond neighborhood of London, the gardens contain more than 30,000 different kinds of plants and the herbarium has more than 7 million preserved plant specimens. Like I said, Kew Gardens is HUGE!

The Palm House
Considered by some to be the most important surviving Victorian iron and glass structure in the world, the Palm House is quite incredible. This glasshouse, built between 1844-1848, was the world’s first large-scale structural use of wrought iron. It houses palms and tropical plants from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific islands.
Besides the tropical plants and trees, the Palm House also features a 30-foot-high walkway around the center section of the glasshouse allowing visitors to get a closer look at the tops of trees growing within the greenhouse.
In front of the Palm House on the east side are the Queen's Beasts – 10 statues of animals bearing shields, installed here in 1958.
The Hive
One of the hottest attractions at the Kew this summer is the 17-meter tall structure called The Hive, which tells the story of the honey bee and the importance of pollination. If we don’t have bees, we won’t have any food in the world!
The Hive, designed by UK-based artist Wolfgang Buttress, was originally created as the centerpiece of the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo. The Hive is constructed from around 170,000 parts including1,000 LED lights dotted around its center which glow and fade as you stand inside. This honey comb structure is even connected to a real beehive at the Kew Gardens so you can hear the constant humming of bees.

The Hive is a complete sensory and visual experience!
Kew Palace
I thought there was a separate admission fee to enter Kew Palace, so I did not go inside. However, I did walk around the palace’s enchanting gardens which date back nearly 400 years ago. The first royal residents were King George II, his wife Queen Caroline and their large family. However, Kew Palace will always be associated with the ‘madness’ of King George III during the 18th century.
Next door to the palace, you can also see the building that housed the Royal Kitchens, which has been refurbished and open to visitors for the first time in more than 200 years.
Kew Gardens is made up of so many different landscaped gardens and particular attractions that it’s difficult to see everything at once as I discovered. Luckily, since we’re now living in London, I can return to visit the Kew anytime I want. Next time, I think I’ll plan ahead so I can pack a picnic lunch to enjoy in the beautiful gardens.

My Traveling Joys

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

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