Monday 28 February 2011

Brick dust, how I hate you...

Brick dust. I’d never really given it much thought before. I never thought, hmm, bricks are made out of clay, and clay consists of really teeny weeny little particles, which, when they become airborne, can find their way just about anywhere. Fortunately, they are usually safely locked up within bricks, but under certain conditions, such as when the planets are aligned, the moon is waxing poetic, and a builder whacks the crap out of a brick wall, they can be freed – freed to sow chaos and drape their milky white sheen on all they touch.

So, yeah, lots of brick dust.

The bathroom is coming along slowly. I am slightly amazed that we seem to be sticking a toilet, a sink, and a shower into a space smaller than a Smart car. There will be no fat people allowed in this bathroom, apparently.

The back yard continues to look as if a giant mole has been digging through it, and David has removed the back part of the decking. He’s supported the now-exposed beams by smushing some concrete underneath it, between the decking and the paving stones underneath. You’d think that when they put in the decking, they would have sunk posts into the ground to add some stability, but then, you would have underestimated the general uselessness of the (very gay) people living in the house before us. Why actually spend a little more money and do the deck properly when you can do it on the cheap, make it look pretty, sell the house, and then leave it to the poor suckers who bought the place to discover you did a crap job? Stupid homosexuals anyway! (Am I detecting hypocrisy? Eh? What? Sorry, my hearing aid seems to have stopped working). Anyway, David discovered one of those little life lessons yesterday, namely that you shouldn’t mix concrete with your bare hands (did he not see the big warning labels on the bag? Sigh). And in true nerd-fashion, I have started to map out the potential new garden using Visio, so that we can get all the dimensions correct before we buy the plants and turn our back garden into something out of a garden book. (I’m sure). We all have slightly different ideas of what we want though. David has this idea that it would be great to have super-trimmed, conical shrubbery along the kitchen, where I ripped out much of the ivy. Um, yuck? I want a garden cascading over with life and greenery, making our back yard feel like a little oasis in the middle of the city. Maybe I will allow David the side area to do his stupid cones so I can concentrate on the main part. Not sure what Robin wants, b/c he keeps buggering off every single weekend to be with Prince Charming (granted, it’s not his house, but for someone with as strong opinions about plants as he has, you’d think he be being a little more proactive). I’m half tempted to do the whole thing up in orange marigolds and pink hollyhocks just for the shock value to Robin, who, like David, wants order. Ugh – gardening Nazis the both of them!

Not a lot else at the moment – just the end of winter. My itchy eyes say spring, and there are a few timid leaves peeking out, with the crocuses and the occasional daffodil… I still haven’t gone back to normal spring biking though. I almost went for a nice long ride yesterday, but got as far as central London before getting a flat tire and then getting stuck in pouring rain. Feeling slightly disenchanted with the whole thing, I went and got some lesbian coffee and chocolate cake (at a lesbian cafĂ©, not actually made with lesbians – not sure how that would taste). Anyway, it cheered me up some, then I went home to finish a business case for work (oh the excitement of it all), and go for an 8.5 mile run. Life in the big city indeed.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Treasure Hunting in the Back Yard

Well, my weekend has consisted of bashing apart concrete, digging out stumps, and then bagging them and schlepping them through the house to the front (since it's not possible to get from the back to the front without going through the house). The cement and bricks holding in the world's most sturdy laundry post is now in a 'hippo bag' in the front, along with part of the kitchen floor (figured I might as well take advantage of it being there), and the rest of the crap is in bags. I have to call the council now to get them to pick it up. Of course, due to health and safety, no bag can weigh more than 14kg, because we wouldn't want the delicate garbage men straining any part of their physiques. When I first lived here, the general idea was that if you hurt yourself, it was probably your own damn fault, whereas now, the UK has taken health and safety legislation and refined it to the point where I'm surprised we are allowed to walk down the street unassisted. Argh. Anyway, next weekend I'm going to remove an absolute shitload of ivy, and then we get to start thinking about what we actually want to put into the yard.

Amusingly, while things like the laundry pole (very old) would probably have lasted through a nuclear war, the deck, which covers much of the back, is like many of the recent additions to this house - cheap - not sure how long that's going to last. Oh well - live and learn.

Anyway, back to work tomorrow (yuck). Really really really want a better paying job, and so far, the only one that came up would involve a 2 hour commute each way. In the words of George Bush (daddy Bush) - "not gonna happen". Sigh.

Right, off to cut my hair, which has gotten excessively fluffy and is accentuating the grey (and the lack on top - boo).

Oh yeah, I forgot, the initial reason I started to write was to make the (amazing, I'm sure) observation that, unlike in most of the US, as London has been in pretty much continuous occupation for the last 2000+ years, digging in one's back yard turns into a bit of an archaeological adventure. Lots of bricks, plates, an old toothbrush, glass, bits of slate. I actually bought a screen to sift the soil - I'd prefer to be able to dig through with my hands without worrying I'm going to cut myself on glass. And there is the other problem that our yard seems to be the neighbourhood litter box - nothing like freshly turned soil to cozy up to a kitty's bottom! Oh well - I guess it will be fertile, if a bit stinky.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Fun with sledgehammers, and Iceland...

Which, of course, are two topics the just segue right into one another. (I think I spelled the correctly, but I'm too damn lazy to actually go check).

Anyway, I spent a fun-filled day in the back yard ('back garden') smashing up concrete and digging out a stump. So, we have a back yard that could probably fit several times over onto a postage stamp, and most of it is decked (badly - the wood doesn't seem to be treated, or not treated much, and it has grooves on it - I mean, really, who put grooves on a deck? They just collect crap!). Anyway, David has been doing indoor stuff, which is great, b/c I tend to hate that sort of thing (building shelves, putting together Ikea, etc.) and I've been amusing myself trying to turn the back yard into something nice. There is a small border around the back and the right-hand side where there are a number of plants. There were also, until today, two rather large posts and a treestump (there was also a Catalpa tree that I removed, as it would become way too big for the space, and was right up against the neighbour's house. I've left the olive... Oh, and there is ivy along the side of the house - the main stems are thicker than my arm, and it's covered the entire dividing wall between us and next door - removing, or at least severely trimming it back, is a later project. Right - posts. There were two posts against the back fence - one of them a metal post with a concrete base, and the other one a concrete post with a washing line attached. Enter sledgehammer. I managed to smash up the concrete base on the metal post in about 20 minutes - lots of fun, but the concrete post turned out to be steel reinforced and took me a full two hours to smash to bits, with bits of concrete and stone flying all over the back yard - I was very happy to have goggles. Why anyone would every need a steel reinforced pole for laundry I don't know. The thing was so heavy that three of us couldn't pull it out, once I dug out the base. Even after two hours of bashing it, I could just barely roll it up onto the deck. I felt a bit like I was knocking down the Berlin Wall. The tree, well, the tree had been dead for some time, but it still took a pickaxe, a spade and a saw to get out. The people living here before just sort of planted around it, and, we've discovered, that's sort of how they did most things - all looks good on the surface until you scratch just a bit...

The kitchen floor, for example - very nice, very thick tile. Of course, it's laid onto plywood, sitting on top of 120 year old floor joists, and the edges of the plywood don't match up to the joists - so, some of the tile has cracked, and when the guy putting in the bathroom took out tiles in the corner of the kitchen, more of them cracked - right along the plywood edges. Charming. Speaking of, the house is full of brick dust again. Bathroom construction guy had to break up the tile floor with a small jackhammer, and has been drilling holes through the brick wall. I hate brick dust! Give me wood dust any day... brick dust just gets everywhere - into all the drawers, under everything, around the corners of every door. And, amazingly, I seem to be allergic to bricks. Not sure how that could happen... The bathroom should be done in about 2 weeks, no thanks to the company supplying the materials. They were a month late already, and they still are missing parts.

I'm sure it will all be worth it in the end, but it will certainly be nice to have the house no longer feel like a construction site. (And I couldn't even use the guy's jackhammer for the posts - I had a look through all his tools today and he didn't leave the jackhammer - imagine...) Probably some stupid health and safety risk - I've not had jackhammer certification or something...

OK - and Iceland - (which I wrote up on the plane...) David says he will get pics up this weekend - hopefully that's true!



We arrived in Reykjavik today. A three hour flight from London, it really does feel like another planet. First thing, on the plane, is the language. Apparently, Icelandic is very similar to what the Vikings spoke, and is completely impenetrable, both spoken and written, to English speakers (or, at least, to me). Not even a clue where to begin, and with letters that died out, in English, before the Normans.

After the general chaos of London (where it took half an hour to take off) we landed at Keflavik, a very small (and very nice - parquet floors!) airport about 30 miles from Reykjavik. It seemed we were the only plane coming in at that point, and by the time we finished in duty free (four queens - these things take time!), we were the only ones left our side of customs. We were the only ones at Budget Rental car (the woman was over helping at Avis - how neighbourly), and we ended up with a nice 4wd Subaru (lots of scratches, she said, though stone dings don't count, apparently).

Leaving the aiport, we drove off into a sea of white (it was snowing) - a barren treeless landscape with random piles of lava (and equally random, tidy little wooden houses, sitting amongst the nothing). We followed our sat-nav, nearly inaudible, on surprisingly smooth and well organised roads, through a very American feeling band of suburbs (very spread out, fast food joints, etc.) into the excessively cute and human-scale downtown Reykjavik. Lots of 2-3 story, tin-sided buildings, bright roofs and no noticeable trash.

We're staying at the supposedly 3-star Leiffur Eirickson Hotel (I say supposedly b/c we're staying in a microscopic room in the attic, where the roof is so low over the beds we have to duck). The beds are each smaller than a twin. The room's air smells vaguely of mildew and the water of rotten eggs (volcanic sulfur!). Still though, we have a fantastic view of the huge concrete church and Avi is in love with the guy at the hotel reception. We had a fantastic dinner at a very local feeling Italian restaurant (screaming queen waiter - I think Avi is in love with him too). Anyway, bed now, and then off to Mt. Unpronounceable tomorrow. No Northern Lights yet, but that's OK - I think there will be plenty to do. Oh, and btw, the currency is 186 to a pound, so the prices are just stupid. My dinner was 5770 kronur tonight.


Ah well, as per usual, I meant to write every night, but was busy actually doing things. I'm writing this on the plane back, after spending very happy hours floating like a hippopotamus around the jade-blue milky waters of the Blue Lagoon - a volcanic spa on the way out to the airport. Very odd place - set out in the middle of a very moon-like (well, moon with snow) volcanic landscape near the airport is a spa, with an enormous, outdoor, geothermal pool full of sulfurous, silica-rich, milky blue water. The bottom of the pool is lava, on top of which is a layer of ankle deep, vaguely slimy, foul smelling grey gooey sand. The idea is to smear it on oneself, as it's good for the skin. Of course, it smells like rotten eggs and has the occasional clump of long hair in it (nice!), but I suppose that adds to the charm. Anyway, definitely worth a revisit - where else can you float around outside, in the water, in the snow?

I barely managed to drag my sad ass out of bed this morning. Between the sunrise at 10, the tin roof that flapped and howled with the wind, and the fact that David, for God only knows what reason, was snoriging, oh, and the teensy bed, there wasn't much sleep to be had. No matter. I still managed a very nice run along the waterfront this morning, nearly totally deserted and covered in fresh snow. I could see the dark, snow-filled clouds swirling around the mountains across the bay, and I could feel nearly along in the universe. Iceland seems to be very good for that.

Reykjavik is this surprisingly hip, tightly-knit, comfortable little bit of Europe sitting as an outpost in what really does feel like frontier. 250000 of Iceland's 300000 people live there, apparently. Outside of the centre, the city peters out into rather drab, very utilitarian, very square blocks of suburbia (mixed with the empty hulks of the end of the property boom) and beyond that - nothing - just lumpy whiteness fading away into craggy white mountains, and an often-white sky (interspersed with small, unpronounceable towns that wouldn't look out of place in Wyoming).

The people, outside of Reykjavik, anyway, are uniformly white, often blond, occasionally strikingly beautiful, but more often a bit dough-faced (think northern Wisconsin) and, well, a bit hick (but not white trash, not really). Lots of pickups on REALLY big tires.

Anyway, our first full day there, after hotel breakfast (in a room full of English tourists), we swet out east, on the main highway (I use that term loosely) out of Reykjavik, heading out along hte south coast. Much of the drive was shrouded in fog, or snow, so we couldn't see much beyond the road (which had been ploughed, but was still a bit tricky). Fortunately, though, as we appoached our destination - the coastal plain below Mt Unpronounceable (which I can still neither spell nor say) - the clouds parted and we were presented with a sheer wall of volcanic rock, a 200 and some foot high waterfall (complete with an amazing abundance of ice) and rolling, California-style hills, inside of which, somewhere quite nearby, was the eruption last April. The ground was covered with at least eight inches of heavy, sharp, jet black ash and there were earthworks going on where the road had been washed away by the melting glacier, which we could just see peeking over the top. AFter soaking ourselves in the waterspray (which turned quite quickly to ice), David, Robin and I climbed to the top of the falls (Avi was cold and went back to the car) and we stood, looking out over the North Atlantic and feeling very much at the end of the Earth.

So, we drove back to Reykjavik, had dinner at a cozy little cafe (of which there seem to be many - the Icelanders seem much better at the art of hanging out than do teh British, who tend to require alcohol). That night was our "Northern Lights Tour", which, as I suspected, was a bit of a fiasco. It was generally cloudy and the aurora forecast showed no activity in our area, but we duly boarded a bus with sundry other tourists, including a very annoying couple who seemed intent on sharing their TicTac and we drove all over Kingdom Come, with our trusty host, Bjorg, or whatever his name was, hoping that clear skies and pretty colours were just around the next bend. Hmm - long sentence. Anyway, we did stop in a field and looked at, well, the sky, for about fifteen minutes, and we also stopped out at a lighthouse on the far end of the most southwesterly point in Iceland. There was no aurora, but there were some cool old ships and we had half an hour. Most of the other people - sheeple, really - didn't stray far from the bus (including Robin and Avi), but, of course, David and I went off to look at stuff. We got caught in a sudden hail storm with gale force winds and were the last ones back on the bus, to the disapproving looks of others. Cool. Anyway, that was four hours of my life I will never get back, but at least we managed to (very slightly) inconvenience and entire busload of people, so, all in all, a good night.

The next day, when the weather was generally, to use a scientific term, shitty, we spent wandering around Reykjavik. Boy are there a lot of stores there ready to fleece the tourist, and when the price for dinner looks like it would buy a new car, it can be a bit tough to realise that, oh yeah, that translates back into a big pile of wonga in the real world as well! We tried out the gay scene, as it is, that night. (Reykjavik couldn't give two shits about say or straight, so there isn't much of a "scene", per se). We tried to find this leather bar, which didn't seem to exist, so we ended up in "Barbara", a tiny bar inside a three-story, pink-tin-sided building on the main shopping street. We walked into what felt a bit like a state park function room (with added disco ball and blinky lights) full, I think, of the entire gay population of iceland (most of them under age 20), plus two screaming queens from our flight (there and back). There was a "DJ", who seemed to be playing his high school mix tape, and, well, we all stood out just a bit. Good fun!

And then yesterday - Reykjavik god about 8 inches of new snow and they didn't exactly do a bang up job of ploughing, but, unlike England, the place didn't fall over and die. We drove out to Geysir to see a, well, geyser. The road out there was the equivalent of a state highway, which, apparently, in Iceland, means fifty miles of driving on 100% packed ice and snow, using the reflecting guideposts to avoid ending up in the ditch, and having to pull into quite deep snow, often quickly, when a car, truck or bus would come flying over a hill at top speed. I've never driven at 50-60 mph on unploughed snow and ice before - all I can say is that I am completely sold on Subaru! The geysers really did feel like they were at the edge of the known universe, and I've never had the experience of driving through a 100% white, monochromatic landscape before - not even in Minnesota, where there would be quite a number of trees.

Oh, and I should add as well, being a bunch of rampant homosexuals that we are, we managed to gym 2x as well at a very big and very well equipped gym. That's important, I'm sure.

So, it was a fantastic (though very short) trip and we all agreed we must go back. We were also quite suprised at the amount of American influence in Iceland - much more than in the UK. There are, or at least were, several very large US air force bases in Iceland, which I suppose, given the very small population, would have had a big effect. Anyway - a good time was had by all.