Saturday, October 27, 2012

Crystal Palace Park Run

This morning, I pulled myself out of bed nice and early to do a little race-- a 5K run that doubled as a start-of-season run test to establish training paces and heart rate zones. Or, as I knew it would be....a reality check, showing me just how far I have to go.

I didn't have the greatest of expectations for this 5K. I'll be honest, in the past three weeks, while trying to adjust to living abroad, I haven't done a great job with the little things. I've been living a pretty spartan existence in a basement apartment with just a microwave and a coffee maker. I spent a couple weeks eating a lot of Tesco pre-made meals.... not quite performance food. The sodium and preservatives and all that stuff finally caught up to me earlier this week, when I started absolutely craving quinoa and kale. I know, I know, craving quinoa and kale? When has that ever happened to me? Answer: never, and I think it's a huge indication that my body actually needed some real nutrition. So on Wednesday, I looked up the London Whole Foods locations, plotted myself an hour+, three-change Overground train/ Tube journey (during rush hour, good thinking, Amanda) and headed into Kensington, desparately seeking quinoa (and also keeping an eye out for Will and Kate, no luck on that one).

I desparately needed this meal
I also stopped in at Harrod's the famous department store. Did not buy anything-- spent all my $$ at Whole Foods!
Aside from crap food, there's been beer. Probably (definitely) too much beer. I have very noble plans to cut the alcohol, and soon, but it just hasn't happened yet. Part of it is due to, unfortunately, straight up loneliness. Living in my basement apartment, and not knowing a soul in this town (OTG headed back to the States last week), means that sometimes I just need to be around people. So I head to the pubs, so as to not be alone. The pubs here truly are neighborhood gathering places for people of all ages and backgrounds. They're friendly and fun and have events (trivia, poker, live bands, etc.) planned every night. It'd be a huge faux paus to be in a pub without a beer (seriously, I saw a pregnant woman the other day with a pint of beer and a glass of wine). So, I sit in the pub, sometimes with a book, sometimes with my iPad, sometimes I talk to people, sometimes I don't, but I always have my beer. It's good for happiness. Bad for 5K performance.
 I also just wander a lot and find things. Like these stone dinosaurs in the local park

And really, British pubs are quite a lot of fun. I have met some very interesting people. On Thursday night, I hung out in a local pub that I knew had a very rousing game of pub trivia. I was adopted by one of the teams, comprised of two British gentlemen in their early 60s, when I started offering up help on some of the American questions. Paul and Stephan ended up being two of the most interesting individuals I've met so far. Friends from university, they were both well-dressed, incredibly smart, but also very funny. Paul was actually on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire 10 years ago, losing on the 64,000 pound question (about Michael J. Fox movies) when he refused to use his lifelines. The pair of them could speak more intelligently about American politics (and even Chicago politics!) than 99% of Americans. And their occupations? Paul drives a tram [cable car]. Stephan drives a bus. I think these are both post-retirement jobs, but was a fascinating view of a different culture where people are not defined by their careers. You can be incredibly intelligent and educated and drive a bus...and be happy with that. I like it. I also liked the several beers they bought me....again perhaps not the best prep for a race in 36 hours.

Anyway, this was supposed to be a race report. So London has this amazing thing going called Park Runs. On Saturday mornings, in dozens of parks around the city, there are FREE 5K races. They're well-organized, electronically-timed and generally awesome. I went to the one in Crystal Palace Park but there were about 5 others within 5 miles that I could have tried. These races are incredibly popular. There were maybe 100 people at this race, with one guy doing his 100th race (and a few others doing their 50th). Tons of people had on kits from their local running clubs (running clubs mean something and are actually competitive here). They all looked really fit. I wish there were things like this in the U.S. I remember a similar event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a weekly 2.5 mile race around Fresh Pond that has been going, non-stop, since 1973 (I did it once when I lived there). But I've never heard of anything like it in Chicago and that's a shame.

The finish chute and some of the finishers
So how much can you really say about a 5k? I woke up, bundled up (temperatures were in the mid-30s) and headed over to the race. I'd scoped out the course the day before, confirming what I'd suspected after running in this park a few times.... it was hills, hills, and hills. No flat, at all. Starting with a 3/4 mile climb. Ouch. But I warmed up and reminded myself over and over and over again not to overdo that first mile.

I took this picture of the sun because I hadn't seen it in three weeks. Don't worry, it clouded up and rained a couple hours later.

More typical London weather. But a cool view of London from my 'hood.
At the start line, I got a little round of applause for being the only person in the crowd doing my first Park Run, and then we were off. A very fast-looking woman darted to the front, and I let her go, trying to conserve energy for the first, uphill mile. Another, even faster-looking woman passed a half-mile in, and she was hauling. I let her go, too, trying not to let myself get worked up about it. And then we hit the 1 mile split, and it was slow.

A little secret....I'm scared of 5Ks. There's a HUGE mental block, I think stemming from my first ever 5K, during high school cross-country, when physically something very bad happened (still somewhat of a mystery) and I ended up doing a Julie Moss-style, run-but-kind-of-move-backwards stagger for the last 200 meters, collapsing across the finish line, and wavering in and out of consciousness for a good hour afterwards. I was never the same after. It doesn't take too much for me to mentally check out in a 5K. Something so little as a girl passing me like I'm standing still at a half mile in, or seeing a one-mile split that's slower than I want, consistently makes me throw in the towel and have myself a little pity party for the rest of the race. It's happened time and time and time again. Even as recently as last spring.

But, both of those things (getting passed, having a bad 1 mile split) happened today, and I didn't throw in the towel. Instead, I stayed rational, focused, and engaged in this moment, telling myself that negative thoughts weren't productive and instead, I needed to figure out what to do to start moving quicker.

In the end, I did start moving quicker. Each mile was faster than the mile before it. I've never done that in a 5K before. Granted, the terrain of the course helped a bit, but still. It's growth. Mentally, I held it together. No mid-race temper tantrums or pouting. And, I kept pushing, and racing (with a guy pushing his kid in a stroller, I killed him on the uphills, he smoked me on the downhills) all the way to the end. These things all seem minor, but for me, they're huge.

I maintained third place woman, overall. My time ended up being nothing to write home about, but not horrible. Pretty in-line with how I usually do when I haven't done a 5K in a while and am rounding into shape, but not doing a good job of taking the little things seriously. So now, it's time to start focusing on the little things... eating decently, drinking less, prioritizing recovery. This stuff is hard when I'm home, even more difficult now, when I'm moving from place to place, not able to cook, and having a hard time establishing a routine. But I didn't sign up for this trip, while concurrently training for an Ironman, because it was going be easy. I just gotta do it, no more excuses!
I scoped out the course the day before and found this random little maze. I have NO sense of direction but thought it'd be fun.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood....
Mo Farah's a legitimate celebrity here. As are the Brownlees. This pleases me.
This sign (seen it everywhere) also pleases me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Being a Sponge in Oxford

On Sunday evening, I sat down, looked at my schedule (let me tell you, it's a full calendar I'm keeping these days), and realized I had absolutely nothing, no workouts, nada, planned for Monday. So I went ahead and bought myself a train ticket for the morning and headed on over to Oxford (about an hour outside of London) for the day.

Oxford is, in one word, stunning. This is the quintessential university town --- dominated by large, gothic, Hogwarts-esque spires (parts of Harry Potter were filmed here), students on bicycles whizzing by on their way to class, eccentric professors with tattered blazers and disheveled hair making their way across the street with large stacks of papers under their arms.

In a way, although they are very architecturally different, Oxford reminded me a lot of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived for three years. As I stood outside the various Oxford colleges listening to the leader of our walking tour describe each building's historical significance, I emphathized with the poor students pushing their way through the camera-wielding crowds. I remember in law school, walking across Harvard's campus, and being a bit put out and bewildered by the tourist groups. What could be so interesting about THIS? It's just a school! And don't they know I'm just trying to get to class? So yeah, now I'm on the other side.
I spent the afternoon just wandering around, soaking up the feel and atmosphere of academia. I sat in a restaurant and eavesdropped (subtly) on the two professors next to me, discussing their views on the modern welfare state. I looked, somewhat longingly, at the textbooks the students were carrying. I heard them complaining about their most recent exams, and in a way.....I was jealous.

I know I talk a lot about beer and running and manatees other mundane ridiculousness on here, but there was a time, not that long ago, when I was a total egghead. I absolutely loved college. I know a lot of people say they love college because of the drinking and the parties and the football and the freedom, and yeah, I liked that stuff too, but mostly, I fully enjoyed the classes. I fancied myself a budding academic. I found an area of scholarship that enthralled me (international development economics) and I read everything I could on the subject, got an internship at the World Bank, took every class I could find that was even remotely related, forged strong relationships with my professors, wrote a ridiculously long thesis on sovereign debt relief, just dove in head first.

In hindsight, I should have continued down that path. Instead, I applied to law schools, got into Harvard, and despite not being sure that I really wanted to go to law school, I couldn't convince myself to turn that slot down.

Once I got to Harvard, it took me all of two days to have a crisis of confidence. I looked around, assessed the pedigrees of all my classmates (fancy prep schools, Ivy-league undergrads, Senators' kids, etc.), and determined that I was the dumb one. Before we'd even started classes, I'd decided that I didn't measure up, that I was average at best. So I did what was expected of the average students.... get through the classes, stay quiet, get decent grades, then go work at a big law firm with all the other average (yes, I realize this was a relative term) students. I gave up on my interests in international development, figuring I had nothing substantive to contribute. And, during law school (and after), I never had anything even remotely resembling the passion about learning that I had in undergrad.

The point of all this.....

My trip's about fun, but it's also a lot about figuring out what to do with myself. I say I'm not "looking for myself," but that's kind of a lie. I am. But as much as I wish I'd have some great epiphany, in reality, I'm not going to find the answers overnight.

I did a group bike ride the other day, and had a great talk with one of the other riders. I've found that while Americans have been generally supportive of my sabbatical, its the Brits who truly get it. For them, to take a year off to travel is completely normal and understandable. "Sensible, even" (as my riding friend said). It's a cultural difference.

Anyway, my new friend had a great view on things. He says that we're all a bit like sponges. No matter how strong we are as individuals, when we are put into some sort of institutional framework, be it school, or a job, or whatever, like a sponge, we start to mold into whatever it is we're trying to fit into. We get squished and crushed and re-shaped into a new form. It's just the way it is.

But, he said, when you remove yourself from that situation, you start to gradually revert to your original form. Decompress, if you will. It may take weeks, it may take months, it may take even more than that. But eventually, it'll happen, and the original sponge shape will return.

The image kind of hit me. I started my leave three months ago. And getting back to my original form has been slow, to say the least. I spent a couple months thinking as little as possible. I just didn't have anything (other than my training) that interested me mentally. It worried me.... have I really become this boring? Is triathlon really the only thing that engages me enough to devote my mental energy? Is this it? It this what I was looking for? For someone who used to truly love learning, that seemed scary.

But's just a process. I'm getting back to my original shape. It'll come. It's just taking a while.

On Monday, in Oxford, I made a big step. I think I was inspired by the university setting. I popped into the Oxford University Press bookstore, where they sell all the academic books they've published. I started browsing around, and found myself drawn to the economics section. I found a book called, "Overcoming the Developing Country Debt Crisis." That was exactly my area of interest, ten years ago, before I told myself that I wasn't smart enough for it.

I took the book down, a bit intimidated at first, but sat down, opened it slowly....and immediately found myself completely engrossed. It was tough reading -- it was a very academic text and a lot has happened in this area since I stopped paying attention. I had to read slowly. But an hour later, I was still completely into it, and I ended up buying the book. I kinda can't wait to read the rest. I'm maybe becoming a nerd again. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

I don't know what any of this means, what effect this has on my journey or my life or anything. I just know that sitting there, reading that book in that university town, I felt different. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was truly THINKING again. It felt good. It felt like me. I'm still not back to my original shape, but I'm getting there. Slowly but surely.

Someday, I'll be a real sponge!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Belgium, Part Deux

And now, Part Two of the Belgium review.

Aside from the OTG antics that made my little mini-vacation so memorable, there was lots to like about Belgium, itself.

First off, it was beautiful. The country is situated smack dab between France and The Netherlands, and per OTG, Brussels looks like what would happen if Amsterdam and Paris mated. I haven't yet been to either of those cities, but I'll take her word for it. I do know there was a distinct half-Dutch/ half-French vibe to the city, with every street sign, train sign, etc. showing both the French (Rue de...) and Dutch (Straat) translations of the street name:

Of course, I do not know Dutch, and have about three words in French (please, thank you, hello). OTG was slightly better with the French since she took it in high school (but she reminded me that she really didn't go to classes very often those last two years, so she may have missed a lot of vocabulary lessons). Generally we struggled whenever we weren't in the touristy areas. My three words of French weren't of much help, even less so when I panicked in the line of fire and consistently mixed them up, greeting people right off the bat with a "thank you," and saying "hello" when, for example, receiving change after a purchase. At times my brain, knowing we had switched into foreign language mode but not being very good at all in that mode, defaulted to Spanish, and I know at least one bartender found it strange when I asked (in pretty lousy Spanish) for "dos cervezas, por favor."

We spent two days in Brussels and one day in Bruges, a beautiful little canal town about an hour away by train. Here are some pretty pictures. I can't really identify a lot of the sites by name because we didn't travel with a guidebook or map. Instead we just wandered around, turning down streets that looked interesting, taking note of cool looking buildings, and then moving on.
More Bruges. We did play tourists long enough to go on a canal boat ride
Aside from that, and completely coincidentally, Brussels turned out to be a fantastic place to go running (always a plus, in my book). I've struggled to find good, quiet running routes in London and spend most of my time along busy streets, breathing in exhaust fumes and stopping every 15 minutes to figure out where the heck I am. Not so in Brussels. The city is ringed with "forests" and we were very lucky to book a hotel with lovely running trails right out the back door. Trying to get in all of my workouts while traveling is stressful; this was an ideal situation that just fell into place.
Forest #1
Forest #2 (the next day, when the entrance to Forest #1 was closed)
And Belgium is (like most European countries, so far as I can tell) a place that loves its food, its beer, and its football. When we first arrived in Brussels, we were somewhat puzzled by all the men, clearly enebriated, that were wandering around in kilts. Turned out Belgium and Scotland had a big soccer match that evening, and for whatever reason, the Scottish fan base was huge and clearly enjoying its own Belgian tailgate. It was a bit like randomly wandering onto a Big Ten campus a couple hours before an (American) football game.
Crazy Scottish football fans
As for the food and beer, well, we had to sample the local specialties (chocolate and waffles). We would have been rude visitors if we hadn't!
There may have been a few beers, too, but I'm beginning to realize that my blog is making me look a bit like a lush, which is not the case at all, so I'll refrain from posting yet more beer pictures.

Never mind, who am I kidding. Here's another beer picture. I may be training again, but it's still sorta the off-season, right?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bruxelles with OTG

Earlier this week, I spent a few days kicking it in Belgium, taking a little mini-vacation from my actual vacation. If you don't have much of a sense of Belgium (as I didn't), let me just say.... Belgium is amazing.

Bruges canals
I traveled to Brussels with a friend from high school. When it comes to the internet, she likes to stay anonymous for her own personal (and absolutely understandable) reasons, so I'll respect that and just call her OTG (for Off The Grid). OTG's been living in London for a while, completing a graduate program, and needed to go to Brussels to pick up a refund from some Olympic tickets or something or another, so she decided to make a little holiday out of the visit and I decided to tag along.

Central Brussels
OTG's pretty much one of the funniest people I've ever met, always has been. I spent three days laughing so hard I almost had about 27 asthma attacks and tore my stomach muscles. She's a unique combination of smart and driven, with a huge dose of not giving a shit. And she somehow always seems to get herself into those types of perilous situations that make for the best stories afterwards. This trip was no exception.

I'll write more about some of the things we saw in Brussels and Bruges later (and I'll thrown in a few random pictures here and there), but for now, there were a few absolutely unforgettable highlights.

Getting Locked in a Thai Restaurant

We left London on Tuesday morning at o'dark thirty (actually 6 AM). After taking the train, finding our way around Brussels and to our hotel a little outside of town, and then getting in a run (me) / nap in a lounge chair (her), we started to head back into the city at 4:30 PM, realizing only when we passed a small Thai restaurant that we hadn't eaten in about 11 hours. So we decided to hop on in and grab an appetizer.

The Thai restaurant looked pretty much like a converted house....very cute, small dining room with apartments in the floors above. We pushed open the door and saw several tables set for dinner, but didn't immediately see any employees. We ventured further in, shutting the door behind us, calling out "bonjour?" a couple times, before realizing that the restaurant was empty and closed.

Where we almost spent the night
So we turned around to leave, only to discover that we were locked in. The place had one of those European doors where you need a key to exit, and while we'd somehow managed to get in without a key, there was no hope of getting out. No back door, no windows that opened, nothing other than an empty kitchen that was a bit cluttered but smelled really quite good.

So we freaked out for about 20 minutes, wondering just how long we'd be stuck in this restaurant. We saw a phone but didn't know who to call. We contemplated breaking the windows, but realized we weren't skilled in breaking and entering (not intentionally, anyway) and figured we'd probably end up badly hurting ourselves. For a while, we resigned ourselves to spending the evening in the restaurant, started looking through the kitchen and the freezers, and considered whipping up some pad thai.

Then we did one more full-fledged search, found a set of keys that had been hidden by a pile of papers, and managed to escape from the restaurant. What a great start!

Public Pool Swimming

Before we left for Brussels, I casually mentioned to OTG that I might like to try and find a pool and get in a swim workout at some point during our trip, if she was alright with that. I know spending half of a day traveling to and from a pool in a random, off-the-beaten-path part of town isn't everyone's idea of fun vacationing, but turns out that OTG is just about the perfect traveling partner for me. We both prefer just wandering around new areas to museum hopping, and she was actually quite excited about tracking down the local pool and swimming.

Typical Brussels neighborhood
OTG and I were both on the swim team in high school, but she was much, much faster than me. But she hasn't been in the water for quite some time, and had to scramble to find a swimsuit. After a bit of hunting, she found a plain black speedo that she was fairly certain she'd borrowed from her sister at some point. Some might call her suit "modest." Others might say it was better suited for her grandmother. All she needed was one of those rubber swim caps with flowers that have a strap around the chin. I would have laughed at her the moment I saw it, but I didn't need to, because she was laughing at herself quite enough for the both of us.

Our 33 meter pool. This picture makes it look nicer than it was.
I was, of course, wearing my most flourescent Dolphin Uglies suit. Think, bright lime green, purple, and blue in a nauseatingly active pattern. You know, like every other triathlete out there, trying to counteract the grim boring-ness of thrice-weekly, solo swim workouts with cheery, colorful apparel.

If you forget your swimsuit, you can buy one out of a vending machine for 15 euros
The pool we found was, oddly, 33 meters long. I've been in many a strange pool, but this is the first time I've encountered a 33 meter pool. It took some fancy math, but I figured out how to convert my workout. It meant doing some 198 meter swims instead of 200s, 66s instead of 50s. This highly amused me and OTG. "OTG," I'd say, "I'm going to do a set of five 198's. Care to join me?" And she'd just laugh, and respond, "Nah, that's a bit aggressive for me at this point. But I'll just do some 132s in the meantime." Swimmer humor.

After my second 66 of a set of 12, OTG stopped me at the wall. "Amanda, I in no way want to make you feel uncomfortable, or like you've done something wrong... but when it comes to fashion at this pool, one of us has completely nailed it, and one of us sticks out like a sore thumb." I had a look around, and she was absolutely right. The granny-cut black swimsuit she'd found was spot on. Everyone, young and old, was wearing modest, plain color one-piece swimsuits. I looked like a total clown in my flourescent swimming nightmare. Embarrassing.

After completing my 3,046 meter workout (I made that up), we cleaned up, had a beer or two at the full bar that overlooked the pool (did I mention how much I love Belgium??) and walked the long way back home, through neighborhoods and forests. Exactly how I like to travel.

Post-workout beer at noon? Yes, please.
OTG on Chimay
If there's one thing Belgium does well, it's beer. And Belgians love their beer. Twice, OTG and I hopped into a gas station on the way to the subway station to grab bottles of water at around 10:00 AM. And twice, we saw a group of not-degenerate guys huddled around a table in that gas station, drinking beer and chatting about the day. No big deal.

Wall of Beer
Anyway, Wednesday night, we found a fanastic, not-too-touristy pub near central Brussels, and stopped in for a beer. It started raining (typical), so we hunkered down for a while, finally heading out several Chimays (her)/ Leffe Blondes (me) later.

OTG in real life is hilarious. OTG after several Chimays is extra chatty, extra "snacky" (her term), and extra random. We walked down the street, in search of some special sort of Belgian french fries that we'd heard about but never actually found, and she launched into a beer-fueled soliloquy the likes of which I've never seen. Of course, I am a bit of a jerk and realized that she was in rare form, so I followed along, laughing, and recording her quotes on my phone. It went something like this:
  • "Oooooh, this is a cool....whatever the heck this building is. Doesn't appear to have french fries. Let's move on."
  • "I would have been an awesome cavewoman, by the way."
  • "What is with this jeans shorts over black tights thing? Don't get it." [seen this style all over's coming to the U.S. soon, if it's not already there]
  • "We came to Brussels and I tried the chocolate. It was completely overrated. I'm really excited about the fries, though."
  • "Did I tell you I actually once cut the the head off a chicken?"
  • "Oh, there's Pizza Hut! I will give up all my travel morals for a single slice of pizza. If they have pizza by the slice, I am in."
  • "It concerns me how attractive I find men in kilts."
  • "God, I would kill for some pad thai right now. But not as much as some gravy french fries. Let's keep looking."
  • "Really, I think what I really want to do is be an architect. Or just buy a farm on a hill and build an art studio and just do art all day. Or maybe I'll go into art policy. I don't actually know what art policy is, though. Do you?"
  • "I wish they made diet beer that had no calories and tasted delicious and got you drunk. That would be amazing."
  • "Wait, you know my younger brother has six toes, right?"
  • "Tomorrow, as far as I am concerned, our priorities are 1) sitting on a boat on a canal; 2) beer; and 3) french fries."
Needless to say, I laughed so hard on that trip home that it didn't even bother me that we never actually found french fries. OTG seemed to get over our failure, too. She found Pringles, instead.

More on Belgium, later!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Cool and the Uncool

Cheerio, mates! Day 8 for me 'ere in jolly ole London. (That sounds pretty convincing, right?)

The other day, I was talking to my mother (for free!) over Skype, and she asked me a simple question, "so do you like it there?" Of course, as with all simple questions, there's not really a simple answer. I'm very happy to be in the UK and enjoying just observing and living life. But there's things I like and things that I like less (or at least, things I haven't grown to like) about my experience so far. So I'll let this post be my own little meandering view on what's cool about my life right now, and what's, you know, uncool.

COOL: My neighborhood. It's got funky shops, every kind of restaurant you can imagine, diversity, streets lined with pubs of varying levels of formality, beautiful green spaces every couple miles. It sneaks up on you, this place. Things just pop up out of nowhere. Like the massive park I discovered on my run the other day. Or the little pub that I hopped into for a pint, only to find that they had a rousing game of pub trivia planned for the evening. I love pub trivia. Nerd alert--- in a former life (law school), I was a loyal member of a pub trivia team that can only be defined as a dynasty, the "New York Yankees of pub trivia" if you will (the Quiz Master made up that one). For three years, we didn't miss a trivia night and we almost always won. Never mind that I was BY FAR the dumbest member of the team; I had crucial knowledge of pop culture, the best penmanship, and friends who knew I would never, ever forgive them if they replaced me with a smarter player, so I managed to hold on to my starting position for three years.

The beer culture in London- also COOL
Anyway, the pub trivia in the bar outside of London was cool, too, and brought back all sorts of memories. I didn't play....didn't have enough confidence in my British trivia knowledge, but I will. I definitely will.

UNCOOL: The hills. That lovely, leafy neighborhood that I somewhat randomly selected is also incredibly hilly. My apartment is on the top of a giant hill and I can't avoid the hike. My running routes have taken on a whole new level of difficulty and, just from walking, I'm sore in places I didn't realize I could be sore. This Chicago flatland girl is strugglin'.

COOL: My cycling training centre, Cadence Performance. Oh my God, I have found my happy place. I go there to ride, then often stay for a while in their cafe, reading their British triathlon and cycling magazines and drinking coffee. The guys there are friendly, helpful, and perhaps a little mischevious, as they persuade me to do rides on the Tacx trainer that are perhaps a BIT agressive for this point in my season. Like the other day, I was pretty much Triple Dog Dared to do the famous Alpe D'Huez climb. On the Tacx trainer, with its video simulation that speeds up and slows down according to your pace, it seemed real, and I hauled ass to get up that hill, enjoying the "views," and hanging out just below my threshold pace for more than an hour on a day that was supposed to be easy. Oops.

"Riding" the Alpe D'Huez.
COOL: The British passive-agression/ guilt trips. Maybe passive aggressive is the wrong term, but the Brits have this highly amusing way of getting you to behave in a certain manner by reference to other people and the effect your behavior will have on them. It seems the Great National Fear is inconveniencing others, and rules are not stated, they are suggested, with reference to the effect following or not following them will have on everyone else's convenience or happiness. This sign is a perfect example:

You do NOT want to cause an inconvenience for everyone else.
I talked to someone who was at the Olympics this summer, and the announcer said something like, "the athletes would be very appreciative of your willingness to not use flash photography." I enjoy this very much.

COOL: Fun British phrases. I've been Minding the Gap like no one's business. I alight at the train station near my home like a boss. Brekkie is still my favorite meal of the day, although in an effort to save a few pounds, I've been eating porridge in my flat a lot. It's the same language but it's so very different, and I love it.

Brekkie To Go
UNCOOL: British phrases that I just don't understand. Or can't pronounce. The one that's thrown me off the most is "are you OK?" This is just a casual greeting in the UK, akin to "how's it going?" or "how are you?" In the U.S., "are you OK?" seems like an actual, substantive question that one would ask only if there's a suspicion that the other person is not OK. So it confuses me when people ask me if I'm instinct is to get all defensive ("what, do I look like something's wrong?") Such an American...

Similiarly, I bypassed the brekkie in the photo above because I just couldn't figure out how to pronounce 'buttie'. I bet it would have been yummy. My fear of looking too much like an idiot American is holding me back.

COOL: Transportation. I'm a public transit snob (read: I hate public transit). In the last year I lived in Chicago, I took the train, oh, three times, and that was when my car was in the shop. But London's rail, subway, and bus system is pretty excellent. Good coverage, clean cars, etc., etc. I get lost, a lot, but that happens in any big city. In a way, that's part of the experience, right?

But that said.....
UNCOOL: Lame hours. The public tranport would be so much better if the trains ran past midnight. Or, for that matter, if the pubs stayed open past 11:30 PM. Or the coffee shops opened before 10 AM (it seems, doesn't it, that being open early would behoove a caffeine selling establishment?). There are obviously exceptions, but there's some funny hours being kept in this, one of the world's largest cities.

UNCOOL: Weather. I am freezing all the time. When I started planning my trip, I had no intention to be any place that wasn't warm. I said I was chasing an eternal summer. That's changed, and I'm here in the UK with temperatures in the 50s, mostly. Somehow, it feels much, much colder, all the time. Maybe it has to do with the frequent rain. Of course, all my warm clothes were in storage, and I completely underpacked. I don't want to buy a new coat, I'm only here for three more weeks, so basically I just pile all my clothes on top of each other until I look like I gigantic marshmellow. Hot!

Which leads me to:

COOL: Heated towel racks. These are amazing. I have access to a washer but not a drier, and since I wear pretty much all my clothes every day, I'm doing a lot of hanging things to dry. Except I have absolutely no space for actual clothes lines or racks. The towel racks do the job and make my clothes toasty before I put them on. It's like a big ole hug, every time I go to get dressed.