Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Sick of being sick

Ok, so I blogged too soon. Turns out this vile flu is something of a keeper. I am still marooned at home, unable to even face the thought of my morning commute to work let alone an entire day in a noisy office. I'm exhausted but unbelievably bored. I have watched more Friends episodes than a person who isn't a student should. I have watched the comings and goings on my street from my window, been driven nuts by the huge howling dog across the way, and been driven nuts by the people digging up the cobbles two doors down.
In the last week I have not worn any make-up, worn anything more dressy than tracksuit bottoms or left the house more times than I can count on one hand. Venturing out, I have made it as far as the news-agent or high street, then felt shattered and had to head home. I have not ventured north of the river in almost ten days, and it is killing me!
The quietest street in London, complete with oh-so-well-timed roadworks

Not that Putney isn't a lovely place to live, but it is quiet when it is the only entertainment you have. Oh so quiet. Things I usually hate about London are things I am now longing to feel strong enough to face. I actually miss my usually interminable commute, with my half-asleep morning bus-rides and my frustrating evening crawls back home through Fulham Road's ever-changing array of temporary traffic signals. I miss the feeling at the end of the day when I leave the office and realise I am free for the evening. I long to be able to face shopping without feeling faint at the thought of having to tackle aggressive, healthy flu-free people. Frankly this thought is the worst of all. Even heading out to get a coffee - currently the greatest achievement of my last 10 days - can be a daunting process. (And I would greatly like to thank the woman, three children, two scooters and a large buggy, who made it such a chore today. Nothing like screaming, clattering and yells of "Come and eat the nice croissant, Tommy" to help a thumping headache.)

Out here it is easy to forget that I am even in London. Without access to my everyday landmarks, I might as well back in the village I grew up in or back at university in the North East. No Number 14 bus, no slow trail along Knightsbridge. No horrifying crossing of Hyde Park Corner and no quiet wander through the Burlington Arcade, past the trays of beautiful, coloured macaroons in Ladurée. I haven't pounded the pavements with my head full of fabulous songs from my iPod in ages. I haven't received my usual cheery wave from the old man who runs the Italian cafe near my office on my walk home. In fact, I have had no interaction with anyone apart from the Accidental housemates and my immensely kind family members who have braved catching swine flu to come visit me. And it is these encounters and these small things which make me smile everyday that remind me I live and work in London. And these are the things to which I am truly dying to get back. So if I have to be well enough to work before I can see them again, surprisingly, I am actually looking forward to embracing the daily grind once more, just to be part of the city again. (And not as part of the prestigious "Swine Flu Sufferers of London" club! Maybe I'll found it the next time I'm off work...)

Friday, 17 July 2009

You filthy swine (flu)!

London has given me many things for which I am hugely grateful; continual education, freedom and independence, friends, a job. All really wonderful things to get out of a place, but the city's latest gift I am less than thrilled to have received - swine flu. Yep, London has made me seriously ill, and not just in an exhausted-from-burning-the-candle-at-both-ends kind of way.
Banned from the office, lest I spread my germs among my colleagues, I have been garrisoned in my house, miserable in my coughing, sweating and shivering. By day two of what I was fervently hoping was merely a cold, I was forced to call my doctor, who again, expressly forbade me to enter his place of work and infect his other patients. Diagnosed over the phone, prescribed Tamiflu, which had to be picked up for me by a disease-free "flu buddy", I could have been going through this process anywhere. Or could I? It is highly likely that I would never have caught this delightful flu de jour had I lived almost anywhere else in the UK; except Birmingham and Greater Glasgow, which are apparently also centres of flu concentration.

So it is a large concentration of people which, unsurprisingly, causes the rapid spread, and risk to the average citizen. Why then are Mancunians not dropping like flies? Or the citizens of Liverpool, Bristol or Newcastle? Are they simply more hygenic, or do they have better immune systems? (I find this hard to believe having spent one of the grubbiest weeks of my life doing urban geography fieldwork in Liverpool, and having eaten in several of Newcastle's less salubrious food-purveyors.)

Maybe the secret is in their public transport systems? London's tube, bus and overground rail networks are notoriously overstretched, and under-ventilated. The average tube carriage is the perfect breeding-ground for germs, and offers optimal conditions for transmission as well; warm, airless, and when filled to capacity, offering tiny leaps for a virus from one hot body to another. I was coughed and spluttered all over by one deeply inconsiderate soul on the bus; for half an hour he hacked over his riding companions, never once covering his mouth with anything - he thus remains chief suspect in the infection investigation. People are still remarkably thoughtless about preventing the spread of this disease; the city has yet to unite under this particular threat. Oh terrorism, sure - we'd report our nearest and dearest for leaving unattended baggage lying around. Tube strikes, we are as one in complaint the very millisecond we are inconvenienced. Yet a disease, which the inflammatory media are already screaming may cause up to 65,000 deaths, leaves us horrifyingly blasé. The 65,000 deaths are of course deeply irresponsible melodrama but this disease should be treated with a little more respect, and the risks which it presents duly noted.

Having been infected for nearly a week however I can report that it may be swiftly recovered from. Only about 24 hours of that week were unbearably unpleasant, the rest merely inconvenient. If in doubt take Tamiflu, stay in bed (I know it's boring!) and catch up on your film-watching. As I did, indulge in a little rant about selfish newlyweds who inconsiderately honeymoon in Mexico before blithely bringing home an unwanted wedding present for the entire nation. Now I've had it, however, I will be free to sit back and watch as it mutates throughout the year, smug in the knowledge I was hard enough to kick swine flu in a couple of days.

Although I don't think I will go so far as to get the t-shirts which are already out there for sale. Ah, the world we live in today. Forget producing a vaccine which will immunize us against the disease, we'll just give everyone "My parents went to Mexico and all I got was this lousy swine flu" t-shirts. These are worrying times. In the context of a disease, as any problem, lies its solution, and until we realise that this is a serious medical risk, not a business opportunity, we're in for a seriously long, unhealthy winter.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Whole Foods: land of organic soya milk and blueberry honey

There are certain areas of London where inhabitants are as oblivious to the financial turmoil enveloping the world as a snail wearing headphones and dark glasses is to the large green wellington boot of fate. Horrifying amounts of cash are still being splashed across Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, and in that unpleasant mecca to monetary vulgarity, Harrods. Luxury goods still fly from designer shelves, and restaurants which charge diners laughable amounts for a tiny dollop of pea ice cream and a single prawn are still packed. Should a Fendi-clad, AmEx-flashing darling however develop a conscience and realise that thrift is the watchword of the day, there is still an option for those who are too precious for Tesco or Sainsbury's; Whole Foods.

Across London there are now 5 of these food superstores for the rich and pretentious, exported from the US, which is where I first experienced the wonder of Whole Foods. In America everything is bigger and better. Tomatoes are redder, fatter and rounder, steaks are the size of chopping boards, a cupcake could feed a small family. I adore the adventure of food shopping in the States; nipping out for milk is a half-day's activity. And now us Brits can enjoy a similar experience without the transatlantic flight. You can merely pop along to High Street Kensington or Soho and indulge all your extravagant grocery-shopping desires.

Meeting a friend for a wander around the Kensington store was both educative and mind-boggling. High-ceilinged room after high-ceilinged room, filled with beautiful shiny vegetables (I swear they must polish them), carefully flour-dusted loaves, and aisles of organic baby-food, British eco-charcoal and handcrafted chocolates. We entered past an adoring crowd of shoppers, gripped watching a man demonstrate a horrifyingly expensive juicing device, and were rendered speechless (and covetous) of the staggering range of chocolate brownies in the bakery hall. Vast cakes, delicate tartlets, bread of every variety imaginable, even huge purple meringues, which I found strangely bewitching.

Besides catering for the standard obscenely-wealthy customer (freshly-made pistachio butter and rare truffles of the non-chocolatey variety), Whole Foods also provides for the horrifyingly lazy. If the beautiful ingredients on offer are too much of a challenge, there is an amazing array of ready-made food, and even half-prepared meal ingredients. You can buy ready-mashed potato, both hot and cold. Pre-cooked sausages you simply have to warm through, pots of cream with added strawberries, tubs of ready-mixed custard, even diced onions for those too anti-kitchen to lift a chopping knife.

Searching for a gift for that eco-friendly yummy mummy friend of yours? Why not buy her some baby clothes made of hemp? Or the world's first fair-trade basketball? If you're feeling really flush, maybe some exclusive beauty products made from all organic ingredients - all in microscopic square pots for the same price you might pay for a decent pair of shoes. The store is evidently designed with the yummy mummy in mind. The elevators are vast (I have seen smaller industrial lifts), purely so more than one buggy can fit in at a time. Plus who else would have the time to spend wandering the aisles in search of £30 green tea bags? A weekly shop in this place would take a full day's commitment; you simply couldn't have time for a job as well! For us normal people, Whole Foods, is like a museum of affluence and culture. A stunning reminder of how, not the other half maybe, but at least 1% of the others, really do live. A place to aspire to shop, or simply to remind yourself (when you're broke and trying to justify buying a new handbag/expensive dress/takeaway dinner) that there is always someone spending more extravagantly than you.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Accidental Drinks: The Absolut Ice Bar, Mayfair

Aren't we all glad that terrible hot thing called summer has passed? Phew! Two weeks of moderate warmth during which we collapsed on tubes, sweated in the streets and whinged about the lack of air conditioning in our offices. In countries where they have such proper weather as standard, citizens would've probably reached for a second jumper. Here in London the most shockingly scanty and inappropriate attire appeared; items you would no more wear on a beach than to the office under normal conditions. Fans were fought over and window seats on buses provoked horrifying skirmishes.

Nestled in a Mayfair side-street however, some Accidental friends and I have found a refuge for the sweaty Londoner, or even the severely lost polar bear. Absolut Ice Bar (and here I will leave the corporate prefix, sorry Absolut), lurks in a corner of hidden Heddon Street, just of Regent Street. On entering "Zero Below" there is a standard-looking restaurant and bar, nothing remotely different from any other bar in the city, but move towards a strange doorway to the back however and a rather different drinking experience waits. In front of a set of plastic drapes, creepily similar to those concealing entrances to butchers' store rooms or abattoirs, stands a man who looks a little like a wardrobe master from a production of Dr. Zhivago. Sizing up drinkers in a second he hurtles large blue, hooded cloaks over their heads, pulling the fake-fire trims up around their surprised faces. All are ordered to stuff their fingers into matching blue padded mittens which makes it pretty tough to do anything which requires the use of one's fingers thereafter.
Wander through the ominous plastic curtain, and you find yourself in a chilly bunker, a collaborative effort between a vodka company and the famous Scandinavian Ice Hotel. Currently the Ice Bar is carved into a "factory concept" bar, full of vast icy cogs and wheels, flashing lights, big red Do-Not-Touch buttons and hazard signs. Every 6 months however, as is possible with an interior scheme made entirely of water, the bar is remodeled with a different theme.
Due to the extreme chilliness visitors to the Ice Bar have to book timed tickets in advance, but the booking fee includes the hire of the delightful blue cloaks, one's first cocktail (Absolut vodka-based naturally) and also one's first ice glass. Everything truly is made of ice, except the barmen who looked as if they'd formerly mixed cocktails for Scott on his last Arctic expedition. The Accidental chums and I lined up for our cocktails, picking the ones with spiced apple juice mixers, attempting to warm ourselves up by any means possible.

To avoid any tricky bottom-adhering-to-ice moments the bar is standing room only. Huddled in a group (conserving body heat!) we sipped our undoubtedly yummy cocktails and stared around at the flashing lights and the stunningly large amounts of, well, ice. Other drinkers clustered similarly, taking chilly photos with bare fingers, before rushing to put on their furry gloves once more.

Our allotted 45 minute timed slot was certainly enough (indeed the clipboard wielding woman on the door praised our stamina as we left!), as was the single drink in its hollowed-out icicle receptacle. After comparing who had the hottest lips, i.e. who'd managed to melt away the most of their ice glass, we all burst back out of the enormous fridge to have our cloaks ripped off us by Zhivago's valet. Blinking in the sunshine, and comparatively boiling heat, we headed off in search of a nice warm meal, as the thermometer continued to rise.

Absolut Ice Bar (31-33, Heddon Street, Mayfair, London) - for ice, icy drinks and shiny blue shell-suit cloaks!

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