X, Y, Z…

X is for …X-factor

“did you watch it?” my brother Mark asked excitedly on the Sunday on our way to Greenwich.”What?” “X-factor!”

X-factor is to the UK as Masterchef is to Australia, something which passed me by again this year.

Both brothers are obsessed, with Andrew blowing off an invite to go out on the town to stay in and watch it. This is serious, as X-factor is shown on a Saturday night, the big pulling night of the week.

Y is for …You look great!

The last time I visited Ireland 9 years, I was 10 kilos heavier. I came back looking fitter, healthier and better than I did when I was 30. I got compliments even from Kitty, who has a fervent distaste for overweight people. So yes, it was nice to have nice things said about me :).

Z is for …Zoo

The London Zoo is

a) designed to suck as much money out of you as possible

b) the place where I got sunburned

c) not as large as the Melbourne Zoo

d) all of the above

If you picked d) bravo!

We spent the day at the Zoo with Pam, who had sung with Mr BG at the Betsey Trotwood, many, many posts ago, her husband and her two little girls, who were the same age as our little BGs.

The London Zoo is set in a corner of Regent’s Park, but the main entrance is accessed by crossing  a canal.

We had been warned about the cost and I can only say I am thankful for a strong Australian Dollar. However, given that every single other attraction we had visited in London had been free, it evened out.

The London Zoo is smaller than the Melbourne one, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just meant you weren’t walking so far from one end of the zoo to another to see a favourite animal.

Even so, there was enough space for the kids to run, and run, and run, with me running after Miss BG a number of times. The meerkats were a hit and the playground and rides were excellent.

It was great to see the littlies get to know each other, although Master BG was sorely put out by Pam’s eldest, who managed to outrun him in a running race. The two youngest became firm friends, and were later seen walking around hand-in-hand.

Evidence of a good day- the kids were fast asleep by 7pm and did not stir once!

So that’s it, the last of the holiday posts. It’s not as hellish as what I thought it would be (save the first plane trip over to London), and it was fun plannng outings to places that we thought the kids would enjoy.

We did a lot more things togetherand spent a lot less time on the computer, which was a good thing.

So thanks for reading. xo

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W is for…

W5

W5 is described as an interactive discovery centre. Located in Belfast, it’s like Scienceworks, only better (I can’t believe I said that) and was the only place where the kids did not want to leave. The first time we were there we stayed about four hours, the second time, about two.

Mummies and dinosaurs were great, but for the little BGs it was like an indoor play centre, mixed with kinder- fun and stimulating, with something new just around the corner.

We were lucky going in September, in that the school year had just begun and there were no school groups organised, so we basically had the place to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of grownups. There were five spaces, one of which was aimed at preschoolers, with the others aimed at primary school levels.

The preschool space had a mini supermarket (sponsored by Tesco), a Mimi Minor, a sound studio with a mixing desk and lighting desk, a mini cafe, a huge playhouse and a little castle.

The spaces aimed at older children had a flight simulator for an airplane, a giant table for building meccano (which was being used quite enthusiastically by dads, rather than kids), areas to experiment, with sound, weather, waves, wind, pulleys, animation, biology, botany…the list goes on.

We were lucky to chance upon a Wallace and Gromit exhibition which tied in with hands-on experimenting with stop-start animation. There was also a small exhibition on the building of the Titanic which was built at Harland and Wolff. With the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic approaching in 2012, the Titanic is being marketed quite heavily in Belfast.

It is a fantastic place to while away a rainy day- and as the photo indicated, we did have a couple of those…

A bit of T, U, V…

T is for Tea, of course, also referred to as Irish penicillin. I love it, but the rels take it to another level and another strength.

They like it strong, and will think nothing of putting the teapot on the stove  with a bit of heat for a few minutes to let it stew, then add a splash of milk to give it a bit of colour.

I, on the other hand, don’t. I always made sure I was the first one to get a cup from a fresh pot, as it would be too strong for my taste. I prefer it milkier- it’s quicker to drink.

My extended family have been schooled largely by my granda. When he worked at Harland and Wolff, the tea would be ready-made in huge teapots which would be warmed on a stove constantly. Drinking stewed tea became a normal occurrence in the house.

Of course you can’t just have a cup of tea by itself. Toast often comes into play, with some of the yummiest bread imaginable- the Irish fully embrace carbs. And of course there’s my favourite Club Orange :).

Underwear

My favourite souvenir to myself is to go shopping for lovely lingerie. Marks and Spencer are probably my favourite department store for this and are definitely less of the granny-style nowadays. La Senza is also really great, but it was harder to get in there with littlies in tow.

Back home, ‘it’s nice to open the (overstuffed) undie drawer and pick them out, thinking “Ooh that was from Edinburgh/Berlin/Paris/Belfast”. There are also some pieces which carry fun memories…

Ventilation

There was one interesting aspect I encountered in a couple of bathrooms, which was lack of ventilation fans. It was insane, particularly in a couple of bathrooms, where there were no windows to open, just the door. It was a particular problem in London where the location of the bathroom was adjacent to the front door which was all glass.

This probably explained the lack of power points in the bathroom for hairdryers- it was too steamy and humid for them to operate.

S is for…

Stormont

Call it  professional curiosity, call it a tax break, others would say ‘nerd alert’, but I like visiting libraries while on holiday.

My last overseas trip in 2001 involved me visiting libraries in Scotland and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. This time around, it was the Research Library at the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

No, this isn’t the library, rather it’s tucked away at the back in a couple of rooms…

It’s set in huge grounds in the suburbs, unlike many Parliaments which are stuck bang in the middle of the city. The reason for this is largely due to history (as is always the case in Ireland), when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and Belfast was established as the capital. No room in the city for a Parliament, meant locating it out of the city proper.

View from the steps at Stormont- clearly not in the city!

It being set apart from the city, and for over 50 years, also being the seat of Unionist power , meant that my family were a little puzzled for my interest to visit (they’re Green rather than Orange).

It was a great visit. The library staff were very happy to show me around and talk about what they were providing for their clients, their MLAs, and demonstrate their current awareness service, and their visits to constituency offices. Speaking to their e- Services staff, I learned that they’re facing the usual struggles with getting the Assembly’s IT department to do anything for them. What they have been doing is forging relationships with individual staff in IT rather than going through official channels to get things done.

The library is also trying to remain in the forefront of the MLA’s minds as being useful, with the prospect of looming budget cuts. Still tied to the United Kingdom, the Assembly is reliant on the UK for its funding. As a result there is a concerted push to integrate further with the European Union in the hope of getting further funding and autonomy. They are already squeezed for space, with collection spaces also designated as meeting rooms. This has forced them to embrace e-books and digitize their collections.

On the brighter side, the Assembly has been going for three years without being dissolved. This has allowed the library to employ more than a skeleton staff, and the continuity of service has meant the library staff getting to know their clients better. The interest in the EU has meant staff training and professional development in leanring how what to collect in this new area.

It is also a place in which political correctness is at its height. I was shown the Assembly’s chamber, which was upholstered in a lovely dark blue. Noticing the Senate chamber across the way which was in the traditional red (the former Northern Irish Parliament from 1921-1972 was a bicameral system), I asked why the colour scheme wasn’t green as is the case in Westminster-style parliaments. “Green is too politically charged a colour,” I was told.

I should have known.

R is for…

Rain

Let’s talk about the weather.

It was pelting when we came out of Islington station. A typical London day! I remember our welcoming committee of Mum, Dad and my brothers huddling under the trees with the kids, while we went across the road to grab the keys from Ian for our house. Despite getting drenched, it felt exhilarating to be in the fresh air after 30 hours of travel. I couldn’t stop smiling for another reason.

London was warm. It was wet., but it was 21 degrees, which coming from winter highs of 8, was delicious. I didn’t care about the rain, I didn’t have to wear four layers of clothes to go outside. The owners of our little house in Islington were very thoughtful in providing an umbrella for us, which Mum was eyeing off as she was leaving (she is very particular about her hair).

We had a couple of rainy days, but the showers didn’t last, and for the most part, we had great weather. I even felt a touch of sunburn on my neck after a day out.

It was really weird being in Ireland in early September. For a start, it was SUNNY. I felt a bit disorientated on my second day in Belfast and I’m sure it could be attributed to it being 20 degrees. And then it started raining and I felt at home again.

There is a reason why Ireland is so green- it rains…

Some of us still managed to have fun on Moya’s trampoline (I did, but thankfully noone was around to take a phot :))

Minding my Ps and Qs…

Potatoes

I’m Irish- I’m used to potatoes, but never have I seen so many potatoes eaten in such a variety of ways.

It was not uncommon for potatoes to be served in different ways at the same meal- boiled, roast, done in a garlic sauce, potato waffles, and of course the ubiquitous chip.

You will find chips with curries, with Chinese dishes, as well as eaten for breakfast as potato bread as part of the Ulster Fry.

You can buy potato bread(or potato farls)  in the supermarket, but my experience has always been the homemade variety. Here is a recipe from Allrecipes

Potato Bread

  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter

Directions

  1. In a pot, cover potatoes with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer on medium-high heat until the center of the potatoes are tender when pricked with a fork, about 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Drain, return potatoes to pot and allow to completely dry out over remaining heat. Mash with a potato masher until smooth.
  2. Place warm mashed potato in medium bowl. Stir in flour, salt and melted butter. Mix lightly until dough forms.
  3. On a well floured surface, knead the dough lightly. The dough will be sticky. Use a floured rolling pin to flatten into a 22cm circle about  5 mm thick.
  4. Sprinkle a little flour into the base of the skillet and cook the farls for 3 minutes on each side or until evenly browned. Season with a little salt and serve straight away.

However according to my mum, the best way to cook them is on a dry skillet to brown them, THEN leave them overnight, before frying them in the morning.

If you’re using leftover mashed potatoes, just add a little bit of flour, if you have added butter to the mashed potatoes when making them. Rather than cutting them into quarters, we used to get a glass and cut them into rounds.

Quality Street

It’s the whole chocolate thing I explained earlier- it just tastes better. I bought back some duty-free for my sister and some for us. Ours  have yet to be opened as I know the minute they are, they’ll be gone in a flash. Mum also bought some for sis, and was quite put out that she already had some. Meanwhile little sis is not complaining with her truckload of chocolates…

O is for…

Oyster (Card)

The Oyster Card is similar to Myki in Melbourne- except it is actually reliable.

Previous visits to London had involved a lot of walking, with the occasional train trip thrown in. I don’t really mind that, but having two youngsters and no pram meant I would be using trains and buses a lot more.

Mark organised the cards for us, with enough money on it to get us from Heathrow to Islington. We topped up the cards with a weekly Zone 1/2 ticket, which you could do from the station self-service kiosks, or go to the ticket counter for them to top it up for you.

What I liked about it was I could still use it without registering my card with my personal details- I was restricted to Pay as You Go and Weekly Travelcards (which was all I really needed) and I had multiple options for charging my card up, including asking for help from a ticket salesperson at a railway station. When you touched on a bus and at the station the light went from red to green, with an LCD display indicating the date on which my travelcard expired.

But the best thing? The kids travelled FREE. Actually that was the second best thing. The best thing was people were nice when they saw us en famille. They stood up and offered us seats on trains and buses. They smiled at the kids and were always greeted by a smile back. Miss BG ended up playing peekaboo with at least one person per train trip. Master BG’s never-ending questions in his Australian accent elicited many a grin from a wide array of people.