September Blues


The toughest month in London is not January or August, as in New York.  Both of those are pretty mild here, and they haven’t made me miss NYC weather, where it’s either freezing or boiling.

But September in New York is beautiful, with warm days, long, gradually cooling evenings, and perfect sunsets.  September in London… blows.  See photo above, taken out the window of my office about 5 minutes ago.

Ah well, at least we’re going to Portugal for a few days in October.


The London Triathlon 2015


In a probably ill-advised attempt to motivate myself to get in better shape, I signed up about 6 months ago for the Vitality 2015 London Triathlon. The particular event I’m in for is the Open Sprint on Saturday, May 30th, which includes a 750m swim, 22.5km bike ride, and 5km run.


I definitely haven’t trained enough, but at least I went from being able to do about 5 laps of the pool without stopping to (hopefully) the full 750m, and I’m aiming for 8:15 miles in the 5k.  And I have a new bike that I got for this race effort, a Cube Attempt.


Unlike my poorly-named Specialized Tricross that I use for commuting, the also-poorly-named Attempt has a more compact frame and more importantly, actual gears.  Aiming for a speed of around 18-19 mph, although that will depend a lot on weather conditions – during gusty days, I’m lucky if I can maintain 16 during my commute.

Anyway, one way or another, I will be diving, wetsuit-clad, into the Serpentine on May 30th, and hopefully crashing through the finish line no more than 2 hours later, setting some sort of horrible time which will be easy to beat when I recover enough to contemplate trying this sort of thing a second time.

Good Stuff About London

It occurred to me at some point that we’ve got a lot of complain-y posts about our expat experience here.  Lest anyone think we hate it here, there are plenty of good things about London and the UK as well, so I’m going to try to fire up a new category with Things We Like.  Here are a few to start things off:

Ocado Truck

1) Ocado – grocery delivery here is way better than in NYC.  Ocado has better produce, shorter and more extensive delivery windows, and generally better prices (relatively speaking) than FreshDirect in New York.  We use it every week, and it takes a lot of hassle out of grocery shopping.  It’s nowhere near as cheap as Mr Pina in Williamsburg, but it’s a huge time saver.

243 Bus

2) Buses – still not my favorite mode of transportation, but London buses are a good bit better than New York’s.  They come more often, they’re marginally cleaner, they’re more comfortable than the Tube, the upper decks have nice views, and the routes are more useful.  They can still get bogged down in traffic, and nobody likes a jam-packed bus, but they’re actually a practical means of transport here.


3) Free ATMs – most big bank ATMs are free for any customer, so despite Citi’s tiny ATM network here, we don’t wind up spending a fortune on ATM fees or scrambling to track down a particular ATM like one does in the US.

I know I’ve got plenty more, so this will be a continuing series as they occur to me.

I don’t get pubs

I just read this article on Bloomberg View about the slow decline of British pubs, and I find it bizarre.

For starters, you can’t spit in London without hitting a pub.  There are far more pubs around than any other single type of eating or drinking establishment, so complaining about their decline seems a bit ridiculous.  On Thursday and Friday evenings, every pub I pass has a huge crowd of people inside and out, more than I usually see at even the most popular bars in New York.  So clearly they’re not hurting THAT much.

The Old Fountain, the only London pub I actually like

The Old Fountain, the only London pub I actually like

Second, almost all the pubs I’ve been to have been virtually interchangeable.  A few, like the Old Fountain near our place in Shoreditch, have a more interesting beer selection than average, some are in beautiful old buildings, and many in excellent, high-traffic locations.  But generally speaking, you could leave one pub, go to another one across the street, and not know the difference.  Dark wood, sticky bar, bad cask ale, fish n chips.  Why do we need 4 on every block instead of 1?

Third, the beer in pubs is almost uniformly bad.  This I blame on three things (which I intend to expound upon in a separate post): the chain nature of pub ownership, CAMRA, and beer taxes.  I won’t go into the latter two here, but the fact that all those quaint old pubs are generally owned by big companies and all stock the same beer and food means that they have no incentive to do any better, since consumers have essentially no choice but to drink whatever swill they’re serving.  Unless they choose not to go there at all, which seems perfectly rational to me.

Finally, they’re not cheap!  A meal in a pub in London often runs me £12-18, which is a hell of a lot more than bar food costs in the States.

To get back to the Bloomberg View post, the author argues that the decline of pubs is connected to the UK ban of smoking in public buildings in 2007.  This seems like spurious correlation to me.  Let me think, what else happened shortly after that point that could be tied to commercial distress… was there some sort of global economic meltdown?  I forget.

Anyway, I’m sure that his classically small-c conservative proposal (less regulation fixes everything!), namely to allow smoking again in pubs, would provide some small boost in pub traffic, but not with the people they need.  If your growth constituency is older smokers, your business is still going down the tubes.

What I think is happening to the pubs is that people are voting with their feet.  Personally, I’d rather drink a beer in a good beer bar where they have a more interesting selection, eat a meal in a restaurant where they have better, cheaper food, and hang out with friends outdoors or in my flat where I won’t be bothered by the cigar smokers in the corner.  And I think increasing numbers of Brits (not to mention the millions of expats in the London area) are starting to agree.

Frustrations: Can’t Get No Credit

This is the balance on my Tesco credit card, the only one I was able to get in the UK upon arrival.  My credit limit is £1200.  So what’s missing here?

How about £687.29 of available credit?

The problem is this: I routinely spend more than £1200/mo, so I’ve come maxed out my Tesco card multiple times already.  Early this month, I had £687.29 on my card and was about to charge about £450 for council tax, which meant I’d be just about out of room on the card.  Since US cards have some hidden costs, I decided I’d pay off the current balance on this UK-based card so I could keep using it.

This didn’t work; the payment cleared on 3 Dec, but my available credit wasn’t reset until today (12 Dec).  This is in stark contrast to my US cards, which free up available credit within 1 business day.  Just one more instance of slower, less consumer-friendly service here, which in this case meant that I shifted spend to other cards.  Given that credit cards earn fees every time they’re used, Tesco just gave up 9 days worth of my spending that they could have easily captured.

Biking in London Pt 2: Bike Theft

I get a lot of bikes stolen.

Four since 2011, when I started riding real bikes: 2 Surly Cross Checks, 1 black Lemond, and, a week ago, a Specialized Tricross.  I’m not really that reckless with them: all have been locked to something when stolen, including the latest.  This one was locked with a Kryptonite Evolution U-lock around its (non-quick-release) rear wheel, to a bike rack next to our building, which is behind a locked gate and situated right next door to a police station.  Apparently the thief came in sometime around 2am on Sunday, Nov 16, with a wrench, and pulled off my wheel to steel the rest of the bike, along with the rear wheel from Krystal’s, which wasn’t locked to the rest of her bike.

I was angry, even though I had intentionally bought this bike at a low enough price to supposedly not be too bothered if it got stolen.  Nope, still angry.

So I spent the rest of the following week looking on Ebay (mostly via and Gumtree to see if it cropped up and also to try to find a reasonable replacement, since I didn’t expect to see it again.  But lo and behold, what did I find this past Friday?

gumtree bike ad cropped

Definitely my bike – color, model, and components all matched, in a neighborhood less than a mile away from mine, for a suspiciously low price and with a tremendously poor description.  So I called the cops, who set me up with a PS Walters in the Met Police.  He instructed me to contact the thief and set up a meeting, and then they would take it from there.

I sent the guy a text and waited.  No response for 45 minutes, but then a call from a different number.  I picked up, and a guy asked me if I still wanted the bike.  I said yes, and asked a few questions about the condition it was in.  He said the rear wheel was a bit wobbly, since it didn’t fit the bike (NO SHIT, I wanted to reply), but otherwise it was fine.  I told him I’d meet him at Whitechapel tube stop at 7pm.

Next I went to the police station on Kings Cross Road and explained all of this to PS Walters and another officer, who took my statement and explained how the operation would go down.  I won’t go into too much detail to avoid publicizing their operating procedures, but essentially one posed as me, met the thief, and arrested him on the spot.  The serial number on the bike matched, and I was able to pick it up first thing Monday morning.

The police were very helpful and professional throughout the process, and I was impressed that they would go to the amount of effort that they did to recover a bicycle, although I was told that these types of thieves are often involved in multiple types of criminal activity and that other bicycles, drugs, etc. might be found at his residence.

At the end, I’ve got the bike back – now I just have to keep it from getting stolen again.

Biking in London

Bus Canyon

I’m a pretty dedicated cyclist.  I bike to work almost every day, and I’m happy to get in a long ride with Krystal every so often on the weekends.

My commute here is about half the distance it was in NYC – 3.1 miles from Shoreditch to St James versus 5.9 from Williamsburg to Midtown – but it takes almost as long: 20 minutes on average in London against 25 in New York.  This is mostly due to the number of times I have to stop.  In NYC I could crank up S 5th, over the Williamsburg Bridge, and up 6th Ave with only a few stops while cutting across Soho and when I got out of rhythm with the lights on 6th.  In London, it’s every 2 or 3 blocks.

There are a lot more cyclists on fewer bike lanes in London, the streets are narrower and less efficiently laid out, and the traffic lights aren’t timed to allow easy flow of traffic.  I have to stop much more often than on my NY commute, and the time taken by my route fluctuates a lot depending on whether I make it through the key lights or not – it’s been as short as 14 minutes and as long as 29.

The biggest biking hazards in London are the same as in NY: buses, cabs, and pedestrians.  The buses are worse in London, due to the high volume on narrower streets with fewer lanes.  The main photo in this post was taken on my phone on Oxford Street, and is not unusual.

The cabs, especially of the Addison Lee variety, make some questionable maneuvers – one made an unannounced left turn into a driveway across my bike lane, and I couldn’t stop in time due to the rainy evening, so he knocked me sprawling onto the sidewalk.

The pedestrians are less of a problem here, since they tend to hug the sidewalks and crosswalks rather than jaywalking at arbitrary mid-block points.  The spacey ones can still be a problem, but the urge to yell at people doing something stupid comes up much less often.


My single-speed Specialized Tricross has served me perfectly well here. Sure, a real road bike might be nice for going a little faster on Victoria Embankment and the few other roads where you can build up some speed, but there aren’t many hills, so the lack of gears hasn’t bothered me much.

The main worry now is how bad the weather will get over the winter, but regardless of the rain, it can’t be as cold as last Jan in NYC!