Monday, April 26, 2010

Auntie Shirley's Birthday in Weymouth

On Friday, April 23rd, Sid, Sonia and I hopped in the car and headed down to Weymouth again. This time it was to celebrate Auntie Shirley's birthday and hopefully see the honeymooners, Charles and Gemma, back from Mexico. Thanks to the volcano in Iceland, they ended up staying three extra days at their all inclusive resort south of Cancun and it didn't cost them any more money...not bad really! They were not due in until Saturday midday so that Friday night, Shirley, Sid, Son and I had a nice dinner and then headed to one of the local pubs, the Spice Ship, to celebrate St. George's Day. This is essentially England's national holiday for celebrating their country, yet it isn't actually a day off of work for most people. A bit of a difference from Canada and many other countries. I have to admit that Canada Day, on July 1st, is one of my favourite days of the year.

The place was fairly packed and soon a band humourously called "The Crack" started playing (were they plumbers during the day?!?). We had mixed reactions in our group, Son liked them, Shirley warmed up to them and poor Sid just could look past the lack of timing between the drummer and the bassist. We raised a glass to my grandfather, Shirley's dad, who would have been 95 today.

We opted to check out the other local pub, the Springhead and it was a more sedate yet well decorated atmosphere there, definitely an older crowd. I had fun trying to find the equilibrium point with a helium balloon and the plastic St. George's flag hanging from it so it would float gently around the place...unfortunately it helped in throwing off Sonia's equilibrium!

Celebrating St. Georges' Day:

On Saturday morning, Sid and I headed out to the Wessex golf course for another round (we had played here with Brad and Matthew a few weeks prior). Having been to the driving range a few more times since the last round, we both felt confident we could knock a few strokes off of our last showing. Well did we ever, I ended up shooting a 42 and Sid a 47. Last time we were out I think we were 60 and 58 respectively...I even parred 2 holes! The shot of the day was Sid's though with a spectacle chip in from 23-24 yards out...what a beaut!

The honeymooners did arrive around 2pm and we sat outside in the sunshine catching up on their last few weeks. They had had a fantastic time. That evening, Charles' mom Leslie and his sister Kate came over for a coronation chicken dinner followed by a fire in Shirley's new firepit (although the inaugural fire was the night before). Many drinks and many laughs...very fun evening!

Sitting around the fire:

Charles and his mom Leslie:

Sunday was officially Auntie Shirley's birthday so we began with a gift opening once Shirley had returned from church. This was followed by a lovely roast beef lunch and then Sid, Sonia and I had to get on the road back to Aldershot. On the way back we stopped to take a look at a campervan. Not bad...but I hope to see one or two more before I pull the trigger on this one.

Opening presents:

The newlywed couple back from their honeymoon:

Another great weekend...Happy Birthday Auntie Shirley!

Don't Bank on the Banks in England

Before leaving Canada, a friend suggested to me that I consider getting an HSBC bank account as they are quite a global bank. Great idea. So I went to the local branch, explained my situation and I was told that I couldn't open a Euro currency account in Canada and that I would have to wait until I was in problem. These days it is usually simple to obtain money in our ever shrinking global village, usually through bank machines. A couple of years ago, I was able to withdraw money in Nepal, how cool is that?!? When I backpacked through Europe after university, traveller's cheques were still the way to go but they've fallen out of the mainstream so they aren't really an option any more.

Once I arrived in England, I set off confidently to HSBC to try and open a bank account. Well, it turns out it's not such an easy affair. I need to be a permanent resident and that obviously doesn't fit in with the wandergliding motif. I then tried going to a building society, which is somewhat like bank...but no go. My aunt suggested a joint account with her or my cousin but I seemed to continuously get the run around. Eventually HSBC said I could get a joint account but I would have to keep it active for 12 months and it would cost me £8/month (of course the bank needs to make some money off of me).

Okay, maybe I can just survive with using bank machines and just taking out more money than I would like to at any given time but I would need to minimize the number of $5/withdrawal charges I get. However, I am trying to buy a campervan to live in for the summer, so how will I purchase this vehicle from a private citizen? I looked at money transfer companies like Western Union and even online ones like PayPal but their rates are pretty high.

I decided to call Visa in Canada and see what they would suggest. "You should be able to go into a bank and use your Visa card to withdraw as much as you want provided you go to a teller Mr. Underwood." Sweet, that's the ticket. On my cousin Sid's recommendation, I wandered down to HSBC to see if this truly was the case...but no, rejected again. I tried Lloyd's, NationWide and a couple of other banks and building society's but no one would oblige. One bank even suggested I go to a foreign exchange place and although the woman there was much more helpful than most of the bankers, she explained that she could give me anything but British Sterling...that's the whole point of a foreign exchange! I tried my luck at the post office...nope. Finally I went to the last bank I hadn't tried, Barclays, and a woman there was quite helpful and tried contacting some higher up Barclays' office, their computer system was down so after almost half an hour of waiting, she suggested I come back the next day, which I did. At first the manager wasn't in so I was told to return in an hour, which I also did. By this time, the manager was in a meeting so I waited almost an hour until one banker, a cute one at least, interrupted their meeting to quickly ask about my situation but I was denied. As the locals would say here, "Sod it!".

I decided that my only option seemed to be to go to a bank machine everyday until I had enough money for a campervan. Thankfully I have been able to withdraw £300 from my debit card and £300 from my credit card but with a $5 charge on each each time!

As the final got ya, bank machines here only spit out £20 and £10 notes. You can imagine the wad I have accumulated having withdrawn £2400 so far. So after doing one of the withdrawals of £600, I went into a bank to try and exchange them for £50 notes. "Do you have an account with us sir?" "No!", I responded, finally getting a bit aggravated, knowing what was coming next. "Well I'm sorry, but we can't exchange that for you." Okay, I can understand about their worries of money laundering and counterfeit issues but if I can show a receipt that I just took the cash out of their bank machine...don't you think logic should prevail?!? Well, I guess looking at how the banks of the US, UK and many other European countries have contributed massively to this latest recession...why would I have thought any different!?!

My big wad o'cash:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Farnham Beerex

On Saturday, April 17th, Sid and I met up with Matt & Carolyn, Jeff & Eve in Farnham after taking a short train ride to get there. The plan was to go to the Farnham Beerex on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky (and still no plane contrails....this is an unprecedented closing of the UK airspace). Once inside the hall, we received our ½ pint beer glasses and then purchased £10 worth of tickets. The ticketing system seemed to be designed to confuse the average beer drinker. All beer festivals I’ve been to before have used a ticketing or token system and one token gets you one sample, well not here. Beers ranged from being 12-14 tickets; however we received 4 big strips of tickets with two 5s and ten 1s on each so you had to tear off the appropriate amount. Well before I’d clued in on the 5s at the top of the strip, I gave the whole strip plus a couple ripped off another one to a vendor and therefore spent 24 tickets for one worth 14...and I was completely sober! Never mind, after a couple beers in the inside area where an octogenarian driven jazz band had started up, we walked outside to enjoy the beautiful sun in a jam packed courtyard. After each beer, Jeff had one of the beer guides which listed each brew and had a happy, straight and sad face beside it so he took our evaluation. There was also a cider section but I didn’t venture there after having a small taste of one of Matt’s. I thought it tasted like it could power a small rocket into orbit!

The outside courtyard:

The first session of the Beerex (the one we were in) ended at 3pm. I was impressed how nice and friendly all of the attendees were. Afterwards we walked to a nearby park where I introduced Sid, Matt and Jeff to my chungee (no bad thoughts now!)...the chungee is a Nepalese version of a hacky sack made from a cut up bicycle inner tube. We were pretty sad at it but it was fun nonetheless...until one kick blew the thing apart! Thankfully we were able to pick up the pieces (thanks guys & Carolyn) and put it back together. That’s it, off to a pub! First stop was the William Cobbett where we sat out in the back and thankfully in the shade. Then it was on to The Mulberry where again we were able to sit outside. We met up with some other friends there, Paul and Bex. Paul was quite entertaining that’s for sure, thanks for the laughs Paul.

The park:

Heading to the Cobbett:

A Jeff sandwich:

The awkward turtle came out more than once:

We caught the train back to Aldershot and then hopped a stone wall to get into Matt and Carolyn’s complex. I made the mistake of hopping the wrong wall and found myself by a parked city bus and then had to repeat the jump in the proper direction. We hung out at their place for an hour or so then....come on, guess...yes, another pub, the main watering hole for this group, the Garden Gate. Some other friends were there: Claire and Dave, Glenn & Ana. We enjoyed a few more and then eventually stumbled home.

Finishing off at the Garden Gate:

Needless to say it was a super fun, yet marathon day...thanks fellow beer lovers!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Friday Night Fun in Aldershot

On Fridays both my cousin Sid and his girlfriend Sonia get off of work around lunch time (thanks to working a bit longer the rest of the week). This Friday, Sid and I walked down to a pub near the local football pitch called The Crimea with Sonia joining us later. We enjoyed a couple of pints on some picnic tables while continuing to enjoy the contrail-less skies.

After some dinner back at home with Carolyn, we walked down to the Funky End for a drink or two. Later that night we ventured to a place called the “Shiva Lounge” which was located just above a small grocery store called the Co-op at which we frequent for those small items that run out or that we forgot on the last big run to Tesco’s. This lounge was obviously a hotspot for the local Nepalese population. There are a fair number of Nepalese people in Aldershot which, being an army town, happens to be the headquarters for the Brigade of Gurkhas. When I was in Nepal in 2007, I remember hearing the stringent and incredibly difficult sets of physical and mental evaluations that the candidates would undertake to be recruited by the British Army. Those who succeeded would leave their families behind and live overseas but would earn up to 10 times what they typically would at home. Thankfully in just the past few years, the British government changed their policy and now allows the families of these soldiers to also relocate to England.

It was a fairly large room with a traditional band and fully costumed up dancers on a small stage at the front...quite a sight and I felt transported back to Nepal. I couldn’t help but look around in admiration and awe at all of the Nepalese men, knowing that these guys are la crème de la crème from a nation where I’ve seen a 50 year old woman carry not one, but two paragliders up a steep hill (about 85 pounds) wearing flip flops! I also couldn’t resist using what little Nepalese I could remember so I asked a number of gentlemen: “Namaste. Tapaiko nam ke ho?” (Hello. What is your name?) And I would respond when asked back “Mero nam Dave ho.” It definitely made me some friends...or at least I thought it did. They probably got a kick out of my dancing too...but when in Rome!

Monday, April 19, 2010

My "Work Week"

During the next work week (well, work for everyone else ;) I concentrated on searching for a campervan, researching insurance options and catching up on my blog. I was successful in finding a company called Down Under Insurance that specializes in providing automobile insurance for Aussies, Kiwis and even Canucks that are planning to tour around Europe for the summer. The cost is going to be around £400 for 6 months coverage which is pretty steep considering it is just 3rd party coverage. I wonder how much more it is since I had my vehicle roll over thanks to black ice back at the start of February...oh well, not much I can do about that. I did find a few VW campervans in London and planned to see one if not both on Sunday.

Sid, Sonia and I did head out one evening to the driving range to hit some balls. I was able to pop 4-5 of them 200 yards to the back fence, however I was also able to hit the roof of the shelter and almost clock poor Sonia on the head!

Settlers, Boot Fairs & Parrots Playing Pool

The taxi arrived at 6am to take the St. Croixs to Heathrow on Saturday, April 10th. It was sad to see them go as we had had a great visit. After a few more hours lie in, Shirley, Sid and I got on the road to drive back to Aldershot (yes, back and forth, back and forth). Back at Sid and Son’s, we opted to go out for a drink at Brewer’s Fair pub which was next to the hotel that Sarah and Brad stayed at in order to be able to sit outside and then hit Tesco’s for some groceries on the way back. We ended up buying a fair amount of food and beverages but with four of us, we were able to make it back. That evening we played Settlers of Catan, a fun board game (or kind of board game). Shirley did eventually get the hang of it but it probably didn’t help that we’d all had some drinks by that point.

Playing Settlers of Catan:

Auntie Shirley left the next morning back to Weymouth while Sid, Son and I headed off to a Sunday morning boot fair. I hadn’t experienced one of these yet. In a parking lot, people drive their cars in, open their boots (trunks) and flog anything and everything. It cost a mere 30p (50 cents) to get in although those selling their “booty” pay 6-7 pounds. The main thing that we were on the hunt for was a putter to add to Sonia’s golf club set and we did find one that only cost £1.50! Good deal. It was fun walking around and checking out the myriad of items up for man’s junk is another man’s treasure!

That Sunday afternoon we walked to a pub near where Sid, Sonia, Dave & Claire used to live together. Dave and Claire just got engaged so congratulations were in order. We went to this specific pub as another friend of theirs, Laura, was taking on a 12 hour ‘pool-a-thon’ to raise money for a kids’ charity. She was dressed up like a parrot and the deal was that if you lost your game against her, she would perform a special parrot dance for you. We stood out on the patio for a bit, enjoying the sun and then Sid took on the parrot. It was looking good for him at first but then Laura caught up only to sink the cue ball while sinking the 8...the dance was on! After the pub, we wandered across the road where there was a playground and we all got a bit juvenile for a bit. Some of the spinning contraptions seemed kind of dangerous actually (at least for a group that had just been in the pub for a few hours!). Sid’s still sporting a bruise a week later that he got on his upper arm that to holding on to tight while being spun! Following that session, Claire and Dave later came over for dinner, some Wii dancing and archa-wii (nice one Claire) and thanks Sonia for a lovely risotto! Another fun Sunday in England!

Congrats Claire and Dave!

Sid starting off well:

Sid's evil opponent:

Women's bobslide:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rachel's Birthday!

Friday, April 9th was my niece Rachel’s 12th birthday! She got to choose the activities for the day and also what would be on the menu for dinner. First order of the day: pirate mini-golf (or crazy golf as they call it here). We had 2 foursomes and I was in the first one with Rachel, Sid and Julie. The course was pretty decent with a lot of great pirate decorations and even some informative signs about Captain Blackbeard’s escapades. Rachel was on a tear most of the time and conversely Julie, who’s normally a pretty competitive mini-golfer (or whatever activity she’s doing) couldn’t find her game. In the end, Rachel had the best score of everyone with a -2 overall. I finished 2 strokes behind her at par, good enough for 2nd place.

The St. Croix kids:

The birthday girl in action:

Interesting technique Julie:

Some scary pirates:

Me and my sister Julie:

We went back to Shirley’s place for a late lunch of some yummy homemade soup and then Rachel got us motivated to walk down to the beach. It was a lovely day, and a lovely idea. I chucked a football around with Matthew, Rachel and Emma for almost an hour while the other adults had a drink on a nearby patio. We joined them later and we all had a good laugh watching this couple trying to pull a jet ski out of the water. It must be a new toy for the guy. Ah, people watching, always fun.

Walking to the beach:

Chucking a football around:

That evening’s dinner was Chinese food order in. It was quite yummy and a hit with everyone. Sadly this was the last dinner with the St. Croixs as they were flying out the following morning.

Happy Birthday Rachel!

A Round of Golf in Weymouth

Following our excursion to London, it was off back to Weymouth to Auntie Shirley’s house. Sonia would have to stay behind as she was back to work so it was Sid, the three kids and I road tripping back south. Julie and Brad arrived within five minutes of us on the train. They had seen the play “Blood Brothers” the night before in London and fully enjoyed it. I believe it was the first time that they were both away from their kids! Poor Shirley had cleaned her house while we were away but all of a sudden she was inundated again, although by only seven of us this time.

Tired Londoners:

The boys decided to try our hand at a round of par 3 golf. Matthew had never gone before and Brad maybe twice or three times. Thankfully the course we went to was a pretty forgiving one with few trees, perfect for newbies. Surprisingly we actually found a few more balls than we lost. A highlight was me hitting the pin on the 8th hole for a possible birdie but it didn’t go in. Sid, having paid attention, eyed up his chip and put it in! Jazzed by this, he got the only par of the day on the last hole and beat me by two strokes. Twas a fun, albeit slow, round.

Matt swingin':

Sid on the edge:

The Tower of London

On April 7th, Sid, Matthew, Rachel, Emma and I headed in to London. Thankfully Rachel was feeling better today as it would be unfortunate for her to miss her first chance to visit such a great city. We planned on catching the 9:34am train from Aldershot, the first one after the rush hour traffic (which makes the tickets cheaper). We were a little late getting out of Sid’s flat so Emma and I left first with the intention of buying the tickets for everyone. The plan worked. No sooner had we purchased the tickets, the train arrived and the other three ran the last 50 meters in order for us to board the train just in time! It was a 45 minute train ride in to Waterloo station.

We first wandered out to the London Eye and then along to Westminster Bridge, crossing over it towards the Houses of Parliament and good ol’ Big Ben. We hopped on the tube at Embankment and headed to Tower Hill, where our first stop of the day was the Tower of London. Sid and I tried to impress upon the kids the age and history of this place. The main building, the White Tower, was constructed in 1078....over 400 years before Columbus even set sail to America! As we exited the tube station, Emma remarked to me that she wondered if we’d run into Gemma and Charles. “Of course not Em, they’re in Mexico” I replied. “Well, maybe they didn’t get on their plane” she retorted. Highly unlikely, but I thought that there was a slight chance we could run into her parents as they were in the city...but also very highly unlikely and I didn’t want to mention it as I got the impression that both girls were a bit homesick for their mom and dad the night before. I was to be proven wrong, while queuing up to get our tickets, who came along but Julie and Brad! We chatted briefly, took a few pictures together and then they were on their way and we entered the Tower.

I introduced the kids to Tube Surfin':

Meeting up with Mom and Dad:

After some sandwiches in slightly dodgy weather (a bit of rain), I prepped the kids for the hour long Yeoman Warder guided tour we were going to do. I’ve been to the Tower before and this is a highlight. These Warders are ex-military from England or any Commonwealth country who have served at least 20 years and reached a rank of sergeant-major. They really bring the place to life and do it with great knowledge and a sense of humour. Many of the prisoners would be taken to Tower Hill, just outside of the Tower to be publicly executed, however, only after their portrait had been painted if they were of noble descent. One of the stories they tell was about a man (can’t remember the name) who was beheaded and as typical of the day, they chucked his head on a stake, paraded it around the streets and then planted it on London Bridge for all passers-by to see, and be warned. Well, suddenly someone realized that they had forgotten to paint his portrait so they hastily retrieved the head, had a doctor sew it back on his body and gave a painter 24 hours to do his thing!

Sid, Rachel and Emma heading to the Yeoman's tour:

The tour:

Matt by the White Tower:

Following the tour, we decided to queue up to see the Crown Jewels. These are the real deal, not fakes. The second largest cut diamond in the world, the Great Star of Africa, is mounted on one of the crowns...very impressive. So was a massive gold punch bowl that is capable of holding 144 bottles of wine!

Lining up for the Crown Jewels:

The White Tower was next and it is set up more like a museum now rather than the prison and palace it has been in the past. Most of the artifacts are suits of armour, swords and other weapons. It was cool to see a couple of King Henry VIII’s suits (who by the way had two of his six wives decapitated here). When he was young he was fully into jousting until he received a leg wound that never properly healed and hence he became a behemoth man of over 300 pounds (granted he was pretty tall). But the most impressive suit is the biggest one on display in the world. They’re not too sure who wore it but it was a man who was 6’8! If you saw this knight coming towards you...”Run away! Run away!”

King Henry VIII's armour:

A fierce defender of the Tower:

The large suit of armour:

Emma taking care of business in the White Tower

We were all a little weary from all of the standing and walking so after the Tower we headed to a pub to grab a drink and a little bite to eat. That re-energized us for the next stop, Hamleys, a gargantuan toy store with 6 floors, something for everyone. Across the street from Hamleys was a Ferrari store so Matt, being a 13 year old boy he is, had to go in. Sid took him there while I went with the girls into Hamleys. Matthew has had his eye open for cool cars since he’s been in England and tries to snap pics of them. Sid recounts that as they were standing in front of the 2007 Formula 1 champion Ferrari car, Matt insisted he look at a photo of a Ferrari he had taken in a parking lot earlier in the day on his 1” digital camera screen! Sometimes you can lead a horse to water but....

Matt about to get chomped, note the Ferrari store in the background:

Emma waiting for her strange balloon:

Starving, we found a Pizza Hut in Leicester Square and after a bit of a wait, we were satiated and we took the tube back to Waterloo and then trained back to Aldershot. It was a tiring but full day and I think the kids fully enjoyed it (seeing as they asked to go back the next day!). Thanks London.

Heading to Aldershot

On Tuesday, April 6th, Sid, Sonia, Julie’s kids (Matthew, Rachel & Emma) and I headed up to Aldershot. The plan was to spend a couple of nights there with a day trip into London. This would be the first time for my nephew and nieces. Meanwhile their parents, Julie and Brad, were going to train to London and stay a few nights in a hotel, catch a show and do their own thing. My other sister Sarah, her husband Brad and daughter Brenna had already left to go back to their home in Phoenix. We had two cars heading up to Aldershot so the girls hopped in one and the boys the other. It’s about a 2 ½ hour drive.

Once in Aldershot, Sonia and Rachel headed out for a bit of shopping while the rest of us headed to the bowling alley for some serious 10 pin action. It was Emma’s first time bowling 10 pins and she tried various techniques to optimize her game. We had the gutter guards up too so that definitely helped our scoring. Later Rachel showed up but after bowling a few frames she wasn’t feeling too well so Sonia came back to take her home. That night we watched the movie “Shark Tales” and then it was off to bed...big day tomorrow!

These are not the droids you're looking for!

Rachel and Emma:

Matt getting serious:

One of Emma's styles:

The Day After

On Easter Monday, the day after the wedding, it was Uncle Jimmy’s 65th birthday and Charles’ nephew Barnaby’s 3rd. Everyone congregated at Auntie Shirley’s house around noon for a lunch and some gift opening....oh, and some Easter egg hunting. I received a call at the house early in the morning about quickly hiding some chocolate eggs in the garden. My niece Emma and her fellow bridesmaid and niece of Charles, Charlotte, went hunting. They had difficulty in finding the last chocolate and even with the help of Uncle Jimmy and the hider himself, it still took us about 10 minutes to find it!

We had a cake for Jimmy and later on another cake for Barnaby coupled with a catered lunch that Shirley ordered in. A few of us were even brave enough to get back on the beer train! Soon Gemma and Charles were on their way to London where they would stay overnight in a hotel before jetting off to Cancun for their honeymoon. They had a “Just Married” sign on the back of their car thanks to Mia and someone had also attached some empty of which Charles managed to run over while backing out of the driveway. It was an even nicer day than the previous one so some of us headed to the park to throw the American football and Frisbee and kick a football around. It was a great way to burn off some of the toxins, get a bit of sunshine and have a few laughs. A nice post-wedding day.

Uncle Jimmy receiving gifts:

The reluctant birthday boy:

The spread:

They're off!