Thursday, March 28, 2013

To Russia we go!

Easter is right around the corner and what am I doing you ask?

...going to Russia!

This is a true statement. I'm actually stopping through Helsinki, and then going to Russia, but I'll get to that in subsequent posts.

So please excuse the pause in posting for a few days (the British take Easter very seriously and give you both Friday AND Monday off! :D), but I will be back on Tuesday with regular posts once again.

Enjoy the cream-filled eggs, marshmallow chicks, and chocolate rabbits...and I'll be back before you know it. From the hinterlands of Mother Russia.



Visiting the Tate Modern

So, after getting the housing part settled at least for a little bit (still had some time before the movers were to come and everything would start being hectic in that way), we decided it was a good time to take a day and be tourists.

What did this translate to for our weekend? Going to the Tate Modern: one of London's biggest and most well-known museums. A museum of modern art. And free to the public (as many of their museums now are - there was a big push a few years ago to make this the case and something something, they won).

We hopped on a bus a few streets down and watched scenic London pass us by on our way there. We've decided that though my coworkers have said that the crowds on the buses may be a bit sketchier because the fare is cheaper, I dunno, we've come to like buses quite a bit. Yes, the crowd is more varied than what you would see on the underground, but really, if you score a seat on the second tier of a bus, the view really is lovely, and it's a great way to see the city. No one's bothered us in any sort of way so far, so I'm going to keep my mind open and say: buses are pretty awesome. They run pretty much everywhere, many of them 24 hours, and get to see the city (instead of tunnels). I'm all for that.

Anyway, our stop let us off right in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. Unfortunately, it being a Sunday, it was closed for our viewing pleasure, but we did get to stare at its gorgeous exterior for awhile as we made our way to the Millennium Bridge.

You may recognize this bridge from the beginning of one of the Harry Potter films...a bunch of deatheaters rush past it in a whoosh of black smoke and the bridge snaps and collapses as people run terrified off of it. It's fabulous.

I did enjoy walking across this bridge but it was funny seeing it in real life. It was shorter than I would have thought, but other than that, pretty great. Beautiful work.

Right at the end of the Millennium Bridge is the Tate Modern, our museo du jour.

It's actually a factory building that's been refurbished to become its modern museum self, and it's surprisingly large (both on the inside and the outside). Oddly though, most of this space isn't being used to exhibit's mostly empty space.

When you enter the museum the first thing you see is a cafe. To the left of that you find stairs/escalators to ascend/descend to a different floor. From there you then take a different escalator to actually get to the galleries. We weren't sure what the purpose of this was, but whoever did the floor planning of this museum should be fired. There were no easily coherent maps posted of the place (unless you wanted to pay the 1pound donation to get a map, which would have been fine but we weren't really interested in keeping a paper map after we were through...we donated money anyhow but didn't take a map).

Anyway, the works themselves were fine. The selection was varied and there was a range of paintings, sculpture, and other types of installation.

After walking around something became fairly obvious though: whoever curated the museum did a fine job (the works themselves were pretty great), however whoever did the information layout of the place should be fired. Whenever there were groups of paintings or works together, they would also put the information for these works together as well, but in no obvious formation that would let you know which information was for which work. This made you need to read or skim each of the papers to try to figure out the information for the work you were interested in, and hope you were reading the right one. It happened several times that I thought I had identified the right description for the work only to read the next one and realize that I had been mistaken. (Oh...that makes sense...*reads more*...oh damnit I was reading the wrong one! ~_~)

From a user experience design point of view, I would have definitely called the motion to fire this person. If it's unclear which information goes to what work, someone has failed. Utterly, utterly failed.

There was also the hilarious discussion amongst my family on the importance of modern art in general. As much as I love modern art (and I'd have to say I probably appreciated it the most out of our group of three), we did agree that some of these works were a bit...questionable. For example, someone in the 1970's attached a mirror to a piece of canvas and named it something. This was their "work." The information sheet attached with it (this one was in a row of works so we could actually identify that it went with it) had critics saying that it was a "bold move" and "really questioned our sense as viewers." Um...pretty sure we've all installed mirrors before. Bold move? I do this every time I move.

So I do see my parents' point that modern art really does have its limits. Especially when atonal music accompanies anything. Bleeps and blorps just make me want to giggle.

There was a great installation piece in this one room that had a little sign that said "One person at a time. Please queue. Do not touch." There was even one specific docent assigned to this piece to make sure people queued and did not touch. There were three telescope-like apparatuses set up and you got to look into each of them when it was your turn. A loud humming accompanied your viewing. What was inside you ask? Colored rings, sometimes with a number inside of them. That was it. Some of them were extremely blurry.

When my mom caught up with me after viewing this particular piece she snorted and we started laughing. I told my dad my theory about how some modern art installations are likely just social experiments to see how many people they could get to do what they say (i.e. for that piece, how many people could they get to actually queue up, one at a time, and then look into these silly machines). I've been in enough psych experiments to know...many things are not what they look like.

Anyway, the rest of our experience at the museum was similar. Some pieces were great and we saw the significance, others we sort of "hmmm hmmm"ed at and questioned who thought this was important. Basically my bottom line stayed the same: I'm sure you could write that anything is significant if you thought about it long enough. Everything is significant to someone, at some time.

And so we left after seeing everything (minus the seasonal exhibit on Lichtenstein, the artist, which you had to pay to get into). And were exhausted. Making fun of modern art is surprisingly tiring.

It was good to see the museum but I think it'll be awhile before I make it back there again. Did give me some great inspiration for my apartment though. I am guessing the British Museum will do the same thing (antiques and old things galore!).

(A photo of one of my favorite pieces from the day...just because).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

And the winner is...

Stirling Court!

My new place of living will be Stirling Court after all - offer has been accepted, looks like Don and I will be making a new future for ourselves in West Ealing.

This hilarious part of London is located in the north west, part of a quiet part of town which reminded me a lot of where I was living before, Toolo. Within 5 minutes walk is a huge Waitrose (decently middle class grocery store, similar to a Safeways/Vons back in California) and just a 2 minute walk to the West Ealing station, which is where I will catch an overground train to work. My commute will be a solid 15-20 minutes.

This is considered a dream in London. Most of my coworkers have over an hour commute one way. I decided to hell with that and I would definitely pay to live somewhere closer to work than that. Especially since we work at Paddington (literally a 5 minute walk from Paddington can't make a commute easier than that).

So there you have it. It's Quirky at Stirling Court.

Gorgeous bathroom, wooden floors, spacious kitchen. Strange electrical heating, yes, and maybe some road noise...but considering I slept through someone having a house party last night outside my temporary apartment...I don't think the noise will keep me awake.

Especially considering the atmospheric designs I have in store for this apartment.

Last apartment was designed for functional use of space and a general sense of privacy; this one will be founded off the idea of beauty from all angles, functionality, peaceful mood after the stress of the city and...well, comfort.

I learned some valuable lessons living in my wonderfully cozy apartment with Finn. Things I obviously didn't know enough about and therefore didn't plan for the first time. Things like: you will indeed miss stupid small things like chairs with backs. Having stools is a great idea from a conceptual point of view (especially when it comes to space-saving and cool-factor), but they are hell if you're trying to work while sitting on one for 10 hours straight. Lesson learned. Just bite the bullet and pay for real chairs.

So, this one will be redesigned using different mottos and ideas. Not everything will be scrapped (for money-saving reasons and just because I still like quite a bit of my stuff), but some of it will definitely be replaced and because this place is a good third the size stuff will be bought.

The hunt on the Ikea website has already started and scouting for other furniture stores is in the works.

Don, here I come. Watch out for work in progress.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bidding for a future with Don

So the bidding war had begun for Heaven on Argyle. What happened next?

Well, my representative (yes, it's wonderful being moved by a have agents to do this sort of work for you and being represented is one of those also makes you look fancier and ensures that you'll pass all of the referencing that will happen) sent our offer to the landlord and we were to wait until the landlord responded. When we went to view the place we noticed there were other people buzzing about the place so it was likely there would be competition.

And competition there definitely was.

The landlord's response to my offer? Ridiculous. He raised the price of my offer and not only threw out all of my lease terms, but asked for a two year lease with the conditions of release set for only if I am laid off or relocated.

Excuse me, what?

So only if my company decided to move me or get rid of me, could I end the lease without financial responsibility. This is the most unreasonable set of lease terms I'd ever heard of in my life. And I am a landlord back at home - I'd never do this to my tenant.

We'd heard rumors that the British rental market was highly unregulated, but to this degree? This was just ridiculous.

So we rescinded the offer. I'm not going to live under the tyranny of some ridiculous landlord. I believe in the bad juju law: if negotiations started out in this way, something is fishy. The universe is telling you that something isn't right. In my mind, negotiations are like discussions - they're places where you can have talks and reach terms on a friendly basis. No reason to hurl unnecessarily harsh terms one way or the other. It's about reaching compromise, something everyone is happy with. If you're just trying to be greedy and get only your way, well, you can go to the highway my friend.

I quit that and decided to go with my second choice. Quirky in Stirling Court. I did like the idea of being that weirdo living above a Ceramicafe. I mean come on, I am that person, after all. Ever since I lived in San Diego I've had an unfathomable love for ceramic cafes. I even brought my two best creations with me on my move abroad (yes, that's a fact - and even used them to serve company! claims on artistic talent though...).

So now we wait again. I am hoping for much more favorable terms and discussion this time around. I know for a fact this one is managed by a corporation, so that's likely going to work on my side, and this corporation works with my representative agency quite closely. So I'm hoping this all goes well for me. There will likely be some negotiation, as there always is, but as long as it's reasonable, I'm agreeable.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Official house search day

So the day for the official house search was upon us. I woke up excited for the possibilities of finding my one true rental love. I know this sounds silly, but after seeing five (sorted from hundreds) and only thinking one could be a possibility, I was starting to wonder if the horror stories of London's rental market were actually true.

I needn't have worried. Dominic, my wonderful apartment agent, had prepared an itinerary of wonders. He sent the list of places to us the night before and we were to see 14. Yes, 14.

In reality we ended up seeing 16, even though one of the ones listed had been taken off the market before we got there.

This, will be a gross summary of everything that we saw. And what the end result was. Just in case you're not interested in sifting through all of that exhausting experience; the result was I put in a bid on my first choice at the end of the day. There was definitely some hilarity along the way. And some surprises.

So, without further ado, the places I saw that day:

Candidate #1: Tiny brand new studio

The first place we saw for the day was a wonderfully refurbished studio with an all-new kitchen with all of the necessary appliances. I'm impressed to see that the British have caught onto the Japanese invention of the washer-dryer combo machines and now have them in their rentals. In any case, though this place was way too small for what I need (my large Finnish furniture would never fit in here as this place was about 24 square meters), it was a good start to the day and we all looked hopefully to the future.

Candidate #2 Fabulous sitting room

This place actually ended up being my number three choice. Its fabulous sitting room and 1.5 bathrooms plus built-in storage was enough to convince me that I could see myself living there. For whatever reason the British, unlike the Finnish, don't believe in building in storage. There are no basements for your additional crap and they don't build-in closets. I've asked several people about this and it seems everyone buys their own storage solutions like wardrobes and armoires. Oye, this was likely going to be an expensive move-in for me, but whatever.

Also the garden views were wonderful in this place, and it was quite a large space, all things considered. (Just as a side note, the furniture was removable).

Candidate #3 Heaven on Argyle

This ended up being my number one choice, and the one I put the bid on at the end of the day. Though slightly out of my price range, I was told by the viewing agent that the landlord would be open to negotiation (and had let the other apartments in the building rent for about 50quid below the asking price).

It was a stunning place - all completely renovated and freshly painted, gorgeous views of the neighborhood and everything brand spanking new. I couldn't have asked for more. It was fabulous. It even had a ridiculous jacuzzi bathtub. I had my eyes set on it from the moment we walked in.

Candidate #4 Heaven on Argyle's lesser cousin

The one I ended up bidding on was on the second floor, but there was also another apartment available in the same building on the ground floor. It was still beautiful, as it had all the same finishings and whatnot, but the layout wasn't as pleasing, it was more expensive (so even less in my price range) and though it had a gorgeous full glass view of the backyard (which you would have access to), I have no interest in tending to an English garden. So, it was ruled out.

Candidate #5 Quirky Stirling Court

This is my second choice, and delightful though it has its little faults. It's located above a Ceramicafe (one of those places where you go to paint pottery and then have it fired so you can take it home and show people that you're indeed, slightly artsy). It's also been completely renovated recently (especially it's gorgeous all-white bathroom) and has all the newest appliances in the kitchen (including one of those spiffy washer-dryers).

The drawbacks? It has single-glazed windows off a slightly busy street and has a weird electrical heating system that I would need to learn, should I live here, but eh, I'm sure I'm smart enough to figure it out. Minor details I'm sure.

Candidate #6: Stirling Court's lesser cousin

So I guess most of my top choices have lesser cousins. I've read studies that say people will choose something based on whether or not there was something to compare it to, and it seems I'm following that rule to a tee. Though this apartment was not in the same building, it was in the same complex and managed by the same company, renovated at the same time, and definitely easy enough to compare (similar floor plan, clearly renovated by the same company). And my opinion: definitely of lesser quality. Carpeted floors instead of wood, just a washer instead of a washer-dryer, and well, hideous window coverings. Thank you very much, I'll stick with my plain blinds or choose my own curtains when the time is right.

Candidates #7 and #8: The house of the Tiger Mom, units 1 and 2

This was one of the funnier situations that we arrived upon during our search day. My parents had found this one and we requested that Dominic add it to the list, not knowing so much about it except what had been listed on the agency website and some pictures. Boy were we in for a surprise.

As we were waiting for the viewing agent to show up and open the apartment for us, the owner came out of the house and introduced herself. Small petite Asian woman, seemingly very shy. She explained that she was the owner, she was living there, and that she was in the midst of renovating the house so two renters could rent two units within her house. Included would be council tax (sort of a local residency tax), water, and heating. The tenants would only need to pay for electricity and the flat rent amount.

Well, sounds like a pretty good deal.

As we stepped into the units, she asked me if I were a student or worked and I said I worked. My parents explained that the rental would be for me. She shook my hand, looked at me, and then completely ignored me. Such is the Asian way - she sequestered my mom and didn't even let her viewing agent get a word in. Deal with the mom, clearly the one who wears the pants in the family.

And wow. The units were TINY. Though they were beautifully renovated (wood floors, gorgeous bathrooms (which were designed and picked out by her husband, nowhere to be seen, with rainforest shower heads and classy fixtures)), everything else was pretty meager. Instead of putting in a normal range in the kitchen, she put a portal electric burner, assuming that someone living in a unit of that size would only need "something like that." None of the appliances had been put in (like the refrigerator, microwave, or washer) because she said people usually brought these things with them, or if they wanted, they could split the cost with her and when they moved out, they had already used them so they should just give them to her. Give her the appliances they had paid part of because they had used them. Wow.

Granted, I'm pretty sure she will find some renters because her deal is decent - no council tax payments and most of your utilities are covered, but god. It was like living with my mom...but worse. Far worse. It's like living with an aunt from the motherland that I wasn't fond of. And who wanted to know what I was doing all the time. I could only imagine what bringing guests over would be like. And to think, she's living in the same house as you.

Even my parents agreed that this was a no go. Thank goodness we agreed on that.

Candidate #9: Needing some TLC

Across the green and into a quieter part of town, there was a large house that had a unit for rent. Though the place was large and had some cool unique details, we all agreed that if the owners renovated this place it could be worth a lot more. Its bathroom needed some serious loving and well, it could be fixed up in several places. Too bad too: it had some nice bedroom storage.

Candidate #10: Still in renovation

I guess part of the problem of requesting bathrooms and kitchens that have been newly renovated is that sometimes you'll end up with projects that are still in the works. Turnaround time for construction is pretty quick here in London, so I shouldn't have been surprised when we walked into this apartment and it was only partially renovated with the promises of being done next week. The bathroom had just been completed the day before but the flooring in the bedroom still needed to be set. Needless to say it was difficult to picture what this place would look like, half-finished. Maybe I have no imagination.

Candidate #11: Tiny, cramped, cute

The next one on our list was technically a one bedroom but it was tiny. A previous viewing agent had told us we shouldn't bother because it was half the size of one of the places we had just seen. They were right. Though it was nice, I think it was just a bit too small.

Candidate #12: The opposite end of the scale

And then we went out on a limb and went to something completely on the other side: way out in the middle of Acton, not particularly conveniently located next to anything, but the development was beautiful. Large unit, beautifully wall-papered, nice kitchen, big bedroom, huge amount of built-in storage, okay bathroom (I know, I'm starting to get picky). Somehow though, the thought of walking 15 minutes (that means over a mile) to the nearest anything just seemed...odd. It was like living in any of the large communities back in college again...except nothing was nearby. And I had no car. Or friends around. Seemed rather isolating. I told my parents: if I had my person and a dog, this would be lovely. We could go out walking and stay inside and cook and watch Netflix all the time. And never need anything else. But alas, I don't live that life. So this one was out.

Candidate #13: Previously owned by British Airways

That's no joke: the entire set of flats in this building used to be owned by British Airways so their pilots and flight attendants would have a place to crash inbetween flights. This was cheaper than putting them up in hotels and it was conveniently located next to tube stations that would take them to Heathrow and other related airports, so, that's what they did. When this was no longer interesting/viable, they sold the flats to the current landlord and he took them over. He now owns the entire building and is doing with them what he will. I found the flat...uninteresting.

Candidates #14 and #15: Two bedrooms for the price of one?

When one of the viewing agents heard my price range, apparently he thought "why settle for a one bedroom when you can get two?" So he showed me two two-bedroom flats that fit pretty closely to my price range. Though the second one was already being bid on, it was mostly as an example of what an empty flat of that size would look like (it was the mirror image of the one that was available, and had no tenants living in it). Strangely the empty flat looked smaller than the one that had people, furniture, and things in it. I'm not sure how that illusion worked. Though I appreciated his thought (and really, it was an innovative idea), I wasn't sold.

Candidate #16: Romney Place in Shepherd's Bush

Yes, you read that right: Romney Place. When I saw the last place on our list I had to laugh. I said to Dominic, "If I end up moving to London to live in Romney Place the jokes will never end." And it's true, I would never live it down. Especially considering it's located in Shepherd's Bush. God the jokes would be endless.

Alas the apartment was not what I was looking for, but the details were endearing. It had crown moulding everywhere and cute little cupboards lining the living room. It also had strange secret cupboards everywhere which I thought was strange, considering it was supposed to be a purpose-built building (meaning it was built to be apartment complex, not that it had ever been anything else like a hotel, and then converted into apartments).

And that was the end of our viewing day. Exhausting. Especially considering it started at 10am and ended around 3:45pm. 16 viewings in less than 6 hours. You do the math. We even had time to stop for a half an hour lunch at Pret a Manger. Yeah, that kind of hurried.

Anyway, at the end of the day I stopped and had a chat with my advisers (the parents and Dominic) and then submitted my bid for Heaven on Argyle. The emails went out and we waited anxiously to hear what the landlord's response would be.