Friday, 30 April 2010

Staycation (Part 1)

Source: Business Week

I was sat at work two days before setting off for Portugal with Mrs S and the girls when a colleague came in and pointed out that we might not be travelling after all thanks to the cloud of volcanic ash drifting toward the UK from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. In my usual, news-oblivious way, I hadn't heard anything about it. 'Don't worry,' he said, seeing my look of concern. 'It should be clear by the time you're flying.'

My colleague's news awareness alone was of course not the same as being able to see the future, and by the time our flight to Portugal was scheduled to leave – 8.25 on the Saturday morning – the punitive restrictions on UK airspace had already led to our flights being cancelled, but only after a day of nail-biting concern as to whether we'd have been notified of the cancellation the day before, or whether we would be among the mugs you saw on TV waiting anxiously at the airport for interminable hours anticipating news that wouldn't come; the idea of doing that with two toddlers couldn't have filled me with more dread.

By the end of that Friday evening, Mrs S had already scoured the web and booked alternatives for our break. A day later than we'd been scheduled to depart for the Algarve, we were on our way to Canary Wharf for two nights at the
Radisson at New Providence Wharf.

The Radisson New Providence Wharf is a hotel that we've become very familiar with, having stayed here – both with the girls and without – numerous times over the past couple of years. A suite here provides very good value for money for the amount of space you get – a main bedroom, a lounge with fold-out sofa bed for our eldest daughter and plenty of room for a travel cot for our youngest.

Canary Wharf
Source: MJA Smith

As with any stay in London, the hotel is largely just a base from which to go exploring, and that's exactly how we treated it this time around. Within half an hour of having checked in we were sat in Jubilee Park (above Canary Wharf Tube station), gazing up at the sleek glass curtain walls of the office buildings and eating a picnic in the sunshine. From there, a Tube ride to Baker Street and a wander to Marylebone High Street where we browsed the Conran Shop and Mrs S and Daughter#1 bought bits and pieces from Cath Kidston. A sleeping Daughter#2 and I sat in the Garden Of Rest opposite, a small oasis of tranquillity amidst the clamour of nearby Marylebone Road.

Further down Marylebone High Street Daughter#1 and I bought old postcards of London and a book called Pen Paper Pause by Richard Watkins at a pretty store called
Caroline & Friends, before purchasing Lauren Child books in Daunt. Daunt, an independent bookshop, has a beautiful stained glass window on the back wall and a great range of travel books in the gallery upstairs and basement. While Mrs S and Daughter#1 hit the Little White Company shop, I found a rare Inspiral Carpets 12" single in the Oxfam next door. It was an afternoon of turning up such treats.

Daunt Books
Source: MJA Smith

From Marylebone High Street to Hyde Park, escaping the touristy clamour of Oxford Street in favour of Wigmore Street, though still finding ourselves crossing Hyde Park Corner along with everybody else. It was no surprise that the park was busy with the obligatory sunbathers and footie-playing lads, given that it was a warm Spring Sunday afternoon. The girls ran about while we had a much-needed rest. Again missing Oxford Street via a walk along Grosvenor Square, we caught the Tube from Bond Street back to Canary Wharf and had a poor Wagamama experience in Jubilee Place, including Daughter#1 barely eating, me throwing food down my t-shirt and after 20 minutes of waiting, the discovery that the waiter had forgotten to order my yasai chilli men; when it finally arrived it was so spicy I fully expected to pass out eating it. But he did deduct it from the bill.

The following morning we walked from the hotel to Canary Wharf and had breakfast in
Kruger at Cabot Square; it wasn't cheap and the service was a bit off, but the food was nice. From there we caught the DLR to Island Gardens to pass under the Thames using the Foot Tunnel into Greenwich. The lift was working on the North bank, but not the South, which meant I had to lug our buggy up the stairs – I lost count of how many there were after about forty, but the burly lift operator on the North bank reckoned gruffly there were 'about 'undred'.

We hadn't been to Greenwich before, but it lived up to all the expectations we'd built up from people who had told us about it, and, if we hadn't had plans for the afternoon, I'm sure we'd have stayed there for longer. Instead we made a beeline for the park, had a drink at
Cow And Coffee Bean and let the girls have a run around in the kids' play area. As if dragging the buggy up the steps from the Foot Tunnel wasn't exhausting enough, pushing said stroller up the hill to have a picnic at the top very nearly did me in, but it was worth it for the views across Canary Wharf and the City alone.

That afternoon, we took the sleek and graceful
Thames Clipper to Bankside Pier and visited the fifth floor of the Tate Modern, figuring that the displays of Cubist, Vorticist and Futurist art would appeal to the imagination of two toddlers, and were proven correct. Daughter#1 loved the Warhols, Ruschas and Lichtensteins, whereas Daughter#2 gravitated worryingly close to the sculptures until a packet of raisins persuaded her back into her stroller.

Ed Ruscha 'The Music From The Balconies', 1984
(c) 1984 Ed Ruscha

We headed back to the hotel via the Cafe Rouge at Hays Galleria, which is a reasonably safe bet for kids' food, and Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge with a stroller from the South Bank requires a lengthy detour along Tooley Street, which is almost as long as the walk across the bridge itself. But it does offer some great views along the length of the bridge.

On the Tuesday we schlepped across to Covent Garden and were there before things really got underway at 10.00. With the sun shining and few people around (compared to normal), such parts of the West End are so much more alluring than they are at busy times, giving you space to appreciate the architecture and elegance of the area without constantly bumping into other people engaged in either the frenetic act of getting somewhere or just ambling about cluelessly.

Fopp logo
Source: Fopp website

We passed Kiefer Sutherland on Earlham Street en route to
Fopp. Fopp used to be an independent record shop until it went bust and was salvaged by HMV. The Earlham Street store has kept the Fopp branding, and also the more liberal-minded approach to its stock compared to its more universal parent. I bought CDs by Brian Eno and Television; for Mrs S it was Grizzly Bear and Ed Harcourt. For Daughter#1 it was just fun to look at the CD cases and picking out the ones she liked the look of.

A dash back across the Jubilee Footbridge to the
London Eye brought us sharply into touristville, but mercifully our pod on the Eye was almost empty. Mrs S and I had been once before, on a cloudy Autumn morning. On this April Tuesday it was bright and sunny – and plane-less, naturally – which allowed for far better views than we'd had before. The experience of seeing the whole of London laid out was only marred by Daughter#2's insistence on tearing around the pod and having a major terrible toddler tantrum; the two combined caused me to experience vertigo for the only time in my life so far.

London Eye<
Source: unknown

So, that concludes part one of our unexpected staycation in the UK, and a trip to London that included more traditional (child-friendly) tourist haunts than I'd normally elect to go to. Okay, so it wasn't as relaxing as Portugal would have been, but that's to be expected when you go to London.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


Coffee beans

I have given up coffee.

I've had intentions of doing this before, and have managed a week at best. In total I have drunk coffee routinely since I was thirteen, or twenty full years out of my thirty-three. That's a lot of stimulant.

Except that my consumption was never excessive, and in comparison to other people was positively non-existent. I'd go so far as to say it was lightweight, wimpy. I can probably think of no more than three times where I've drunk more than three cups of coffee in a day; latterly, since I started commuting into the office from my home in Milton Keynes, a decent cup of coffee was required just to get the day at work started. Just one, mind. This is contrast to people I met recently in Geneva, who would drink five or six espressos in a morning just to be able to face the day. For me it was a milky americano at about 7.30, occasionally followed by another toward the end of the morning if the day was proving especially draining.

Coffee has on occasion done some strange things to me if I stepped outside of that one, maybe two cups a day range. I recall drinking two huge lattes in a café in Colchester that was trying to capture the whole Central Perk-esque, relaxed and convivial vibe of Friends. That was at about 10.30 in the morning. Despite not having anything else caffeinated for the rest of the day, thanks to that injection, I was still awake at 3.00 the next morning. And that's the thing that was most surprising about the event that led to my withdrawal from coffee; usually, coffee would have an effect on my head, not my body. I'd come away from a strong coffee feeling light-headed and not really 'with it'.

I read an article in Esquire last year detailing the negative side of coffee drinking but despite being worried to death by what it had to say, and despite a concerted effort to start drinking coffee every other day, I failed miserably. But still I never stepped outside that one or two cups a day range.

And then, a month ago, I went round to my parents' house and had a cup of Joe; nothing too hardcore, just from a jar. And then I went home and found Mrs S making one, so I thought I'd have another, again just from a jar. I wouldn't normally have two cups so close together, but I didn't think it mattered. Remember that two cups in a day, even if they're close together, isn't in any way excessive.

So it was a surprise to me that from the moment I finished that second cup, at about 11.30 that Sunday morning, through to when I went to bed, twelve hours later, I'd endured half a calendar day's-worth of heart palpitations so relentless and intense that I thought I was either having a heart attack or about to witness my own heart break free from the confines of my chest and bounce about all over the floor of my house like some sort of psycho Space Hopper. I was petrified, and couldn't see that coffee alone had prompted this feeling.

I don't know how I was able to sleep, but I did. However, when I woke up for work at 5.00 the next day those racing palpitations were still there, so I decided to call the doctors and get an emergency appointment. By the time I got there, my heart felt almost normal again – typical – and I was just left with an equally-worrying tightness in my chest.

I told the doctor about the coffees of the day before, at which she nodded sagely, doing that semi-sympathetic, semi-patronising smile medics are so adept at, and as she explained that caffeine had likely provided the trigger, I felt stupid and sheepish. And just as I was about to slope away apologising for wasting her time, she asked me if I'd been feeling stressed recently.

The answer was that I had. A week or two before that Sunday I'd experienced some of the most frantic, busy and stretching days at work I've ever endured. She said that the coffee may well have been the trigger for the palpitations, but that the stress had provided the conditions for my body to react differently than it would normally have. The trigger for the trigger if you like.

I was genuinely surprised. Up to that point I thought I'd managed stress in my life reasonably well. The impact of that Sunday was to make me rethink my approach to complexity and uncertainty generally, and I've (mostly) been more calm and balanced since then; more like how I've been told I appear on the surface perhaps, less internalising problems. In addition, I decided to give up coffee. Completely. Cold turkey.

A month later I haven't been tempted once to order an americano at all; not once. The physical effects I experienced that Sunday prompted such a fear of what something seemingly so innocuous could do to you that I just needed to cut it out completely.

So there you are; that's why I'm no longer drinking coffee.