Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blwyddyn newydd dda -- Happy New Year!

2010 has been an eventful year. It's hard to believe that in January I was just beginning the research to apply for my U.K. ancestry visa. And now I'm in Wales.

This is a short post as the library's almost closing and I'm getting hungry. The libraries are closed around January 1st for several days as they were around Christmas, so the next post will be in 2011.

No special plans for New Year's Eve. I was supposed to have tomorrow, New Year's Eve day off, but am working instead. That's OK, but it will definitely mean a quiet New Year's Eve. That's OK too, because New Year's to me is best as a quiet, reflective time.

I have big expectations for 2011. I hope to make several easy day trips around Cardiff by train and bus to spots like Bath and possibly the West Coast of Wales. My brother and his family are planning a family bike trip to Ireland in May, so hopefully I will see some of them then. Also, at some point, Paris beckons -- and Amsterdam ... and ...

Europe, so close and yet so far.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nadolig Llawen (Merry Christmas)

Merry Christmas from Wales!

After an eight-day stretch of working I am off for two days, work Christmas Eve day and then off Christmas Day. Definitely sleeping in tomorrow, or as they say here, having a 'lie-in.'

Today the hotel had a very nice turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and roast potatoes for the day staff at noon. It was quite festive with Christmas tunes and flashing lights and our supervisors, dressed as Santas, served us. I was impressed. It's been a long time since a workplace of mine has followed through on the spirit of the season. Dinner was a bit rushed (for me) as we still had rooms to clean afterwards, but nonetheless, it was quite nice. And that is not even our main fancy dress gala, which takes place at the end of January at another major hotel.

The U.K. is being hamstrung by consistent cold and snow. Our hotel had a group of 40 cancel yesterday. Cardiff received about six beautiful fluffy inches a few days ago, but the country isn't used to it. No one has shovels, salt, or snowploughs so everything has ground to a halt, a week before Christmas. But the snowfalls here have been picture-perfect with the snow clinging to the trees. I have realized that despite the cold and wet feet, the snow makes me deliriously happy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

nativity play

On the pedestrianized Hayes in downtown Cardiff, in the midst of the shopping arcades and across from the large shopping centres, a rather grand but laid-back building is easy to pass by. It is the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Chapel and, like many churches I've seen here, doesn't fit the traditional bell tower image -- though those churches abound as well.

This chapel often has signs out front advertising choral groups, which sadly, I haven't heard yet. But this Christmas season, they've done something that I think is rather remarkable. Every day until early evening volunteers have been putting on a nativity play every forty minutes, 20 minutes long, rotating through six teams of players inside a makeshift theatre. The wise men, very grand in velvets and cloths and a life-size camel puppet stand in the Hayes and simply let people know when the next performance begins.

I attended it one night after a long day at work. Sitting on wooden benches in a semi-heated room, the simple story unfolded with the actors in pantomine and a voice telling the story. It was very well told, admirably acted and performed, with large puppets used imaginatively throughout. I will probably attend it again. It is welcoming and refreshing with no preaching, no philosophizing and no quest for funds -- a reminder of the reason we celebrate Christmas.

I haven't regularly attended church in a long time, and in Toronto, I only went into my neighbourhood church to light candles on special occasions. But I grew up Catholic with all the pomp and majesty of beautiful ritual. At my flat in Cardiff I regularly get free flyers from churches and congrations in the area and last weekend attended a Carols by Candlelight service at Highfields Church down my street. Again, a non-traditional church in my view, it is situated in a solid imposing structure that looks like an old union hall to me, but apparently was a former Presbyterian church, and now seems to be an open congregation.

I had walked by that building before and seen people in the lit rooms, gathered for I didn't know what, at the time.

The Carol service was a very pleasant experience shared with people of all ages and several nationalities, reminding me how churches build communities and communities build churches.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

watchin' the telly

I wouldn't be able to live without my TV. Simple as that. After work, and because I live on my own, it's the perfect way to unwind. And British TV is both superb and mingboggling ridiculous.

I've never had cable, and I believe some of the shows I'm watching have been available in N. America for years, but they're new to me here on the free channels. I particulary enjoy the shows which show couples buying houses and flats in the U.K. and in Europe such as Relocation, Relocation and A Place in the Sun: Home or Away? It's amazing how many people have so much money. Also amazing how much more the British can get for their pound in Europe.

Grand Designs tracks people, many architects, but not all -- as they build their dream homes. (People with even a LOT more money.) This show is fascinating for the trials these people put themselves through as well as the logistics of doing a show over a span of several years. The homes and struggles for the most part are inspirational -- sometimes headscratching -- and in many cases true works of art.

Coast is an amazing show highlighting the coastal areas of Great Britain and Ireland. Fascinating, well done and beautifully photographed with Scottish historian Neil Oliver an engaging host.

Corrie Street celebrated 50 years on the air last week. The Manchester-based soap outdid itself with a week-long celebration of all things Coronation. I won't be a spoiler here. In N. America the show is more than a year behind. Prepare for changes next year, Canadian audiences.

And, lots of cooking shows, Simon Cowell and remarkable talent on the X-Factor, multiple quiz shows that are really platforms for multiple comedians, and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here -- which I can't watch (I tried), but is very popular.

Carry on.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tiger Bay

On Sunday, a rather frigid day, as winter has struck Wales and the U.K. with a hammer blow, I walked down to Cardiff Bay as I hadn't been there in awhile and it is one of my favourite places.

I wandered into the Pierhead Building, a striking, imposing red brick structure on the waterfront and encountered a little museum that answered a lot of my wonderings about the building and Cardiff's industrial past.

Before shipping and coal collapsed and before the Bay was rebuilt as a stunning tourist destination the Docks and the area surrounding it were known as Tiger Bay.

I remember that name from an old British film with Hayley Mills that I saw as a child, one of the first of the wave of British gritty 60s films which also included A Taste of Honey. Those movies, in black and white, reeked of grey, industrial Britain. I only realized a few years ago that the Tiger Bay in the film was a real place, part of Cardiff.

The museum had first-person recollections from a vast number of Cardiffians and Welsh, but the ones I found most striking were from two men.

One, a man of colour, spoke of the 'heaven' that was the Tiger Bay in which he grew up. Everywhere were sailors and merchants from the four corners of the Earth, and anywhere you went you could hear people talking in their various native tongues: Chinese, Spanish, Welsh, English. Many of the men settled in Cardiff and, as the man said with pride, "All of our grandmothers were Welsh girls." Families, he said, were like rainbows, and he wished he could show you the Tiger Bay of his youth.

Another man, a Somali, told a sadder story. He spoke about how hard it was for the Somali sailors away from home, often only able to bath once a week, staying in squalid conditions and spending all of their money on clothes, just to feel good.

Tiger Bay has been demolished and the area gentrified, but the sense of it still tugs and pulls, not unlike the tides on Bristol Channel.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wayulles, Wayulles, Wayulles ...

A couple of weeks ago I went to my first rugby match -- ever -- at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Fantastic!

I wasn't planning on going and had walked to the city centre to just be around the buzz and heard a scalper 'buying and selling' tickets on the street for the Wales-South Africa game. I knew they averaged £65, but it was a glorious sunny afternoon and I didn't know if I'd get a chance in the near future to try and see a game.

"How much for a ticket?"

"How many do you want, luv?"

"Just one."

He showed me a ticket for £65.

"Make me an offer."


"I thought you would give me a serious offer!"

"Sorry, I just thought I'd give it a shot," I said, shrugged my shoulders and walked away.

"Luv." He called me back. "Because I like you, you can have it for £30."

I still wasn't sure, and walked away again, thought about it for two minutes and decided it was a pretty good deal.

"I'll take it," I said.

"I thought you would."

Right on the centre line, only 14 rows from the field, only three seats away from the entrance the players use to come onto the field. It was a single ticket too, as I was surrounded by people, which explains the great price I got on it.

Live sports in an arena can't be beat. The stadium holds close to 70,000 and there were about 58,000 on hand. As well, games are not blacked out here, so the game is available live at all the pubs and in people's homes on television.

Red and green, the Welsh colours everywhere, dragons painted on people's faces and the Welsh flag draped over shoulders. People wear giant yellow daffodil hats (the daffodil is the national flower). Before the players enter the arena, large flames shoot up high at points around the field, like a dragon's hot breath. I can feel the heat in my seat.

The game is crushing and fascinating. Wales leads handily by half-time and when they come back, it is as if the two teams switched in the dressing room. South Africa takes the game by mere points with Wales on the verge of breaking through again in the final minutes.

I don't know why anyone would play this game. It is brutal. It makes N. American football players look overprotected with all that padding they wear. But it is fascinating and requires passing and throwing skills from nearly all the players (as well as an ability to give and take crushing blows.)

After the game, the hordes step out into an early clear evening, with a pink sunset blushing the sky. The stadium is downtown and everyone spreads out through the streets, hitting pubs, stopping at cafes and restaurants, filling up on some street grub. I head for some chips with curry sauce, the perfect food on a cold night, and eat it sitting in the city centre.

This Saturday, Wales meets the much-anticipated New Zealand team, the leaders in rugby.

And that's the last International game until the Six Nations teams play in the New Year.

Wayulles, Wayulles, Wayulles ...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

workin' hard for the money

The jury is still out on whether or not my room attendant job is going to pay the bills.

Be kind to your chambermaids, folks. This is one tough job.

Since beginnning about six weeks ago, my body has been dealing with one adjustment after another. Of course, much of this has been due to my weakling status as a longterm desk jockey, but also the job is physically demanding and time expectations and conditions challenging.

I haven't stepped on a scale recently, but I am pretty certain I've been losing any flab I had.

Sore shoulders and arm tendons at first, followed by a left thumb that almost stopped working (from flipping pillow cases), followed by tightening back and ab muscles, followed by hands that cracked raw and bleeding from linen changes. Throw in a few head colds on top of this and the picture isn't very pretty.

On the bright side, my knees are taking on shape again and I am more flexible than I've been in years.

The time and pay restraints are challenging. Yesterday and today are the first two days I can say I finished within my time frame -- that is, approximately half an hour per room. For the first month I was getting paid for 6 hours work a day (as part of 'training'), but since that time I get paid by the room. Twelve rooms = 6 hours work: if you take longer than that time, you only get paid for the 6 hours. It has generally been taking me 1 to 2 hours longer than the goal, so I have been technically working for free to finish my rooms. Apparently others in the past have had the same problem getting their times down, and one co-worker, who is speedy now, says it took her six months. (It won't take me that long.)

The problem, as I see it, is that management treats all rooms as equal, when obviously they are not. Some rooms have one double bed, others two doubles; rooms visited by business clients are barely used while rooms used by families with children or partiers are obviously well-lived in. A stayover room needs cleaning and making the bed(s), while a checkout requires cleaning as well as stripping the bed(s). Add to these time restraints the necessity to restock your trolley (up to four times a day) and hunt down evasive supplies, waiting for service elevators and a daily staff meeting and the half an hour required per room is actually cut down to about 15 minutes.

Stripping and changing the beds is still a challenge. I am getting close to half an hour on the more difficult rooms.

But on top of the time and physical challenges, I'm not sure the hours I'll get will be enough. When I interviewed for the job I was told it was 30 hours a week, 6 hours for 5 days, with the possibility of going full-time. But the room numbers fluctuate. It is near Christmas and on some days, like today, I only had 8 rooms to clean (only four hours pay). I was just told yesterday I may have '4-5 days off around Christmas' (though I'm working Christmas Day). Many of the women have been at the hotel a long time and the camaraderie is actually excellent. Management has not been totally upfront about the terms of pay or hours, but on the other hand they are very fair, keeping lines of communication open.

It's a challenge on many levels, and one I'm not completely averse to, but the money concerns will ultimately decide if and when I find something else.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

setting up house

I have been in Cardiff two months and two days. I have been in my apartment (flat) almost three weeks.

I'm still awaiting a five-week paycheque (due next Friday!) and living off savings, sticking to a tight budget. But the area of Cardiff I live in -- Cathays, which is primarily a student and immigrant area -- makes this relatively easy.

My flat is furnished with the basics: kitchen table and chairs, fridge, washing machine, stove, couch and chair, bed, bedside table and wardrobe.

Nicky Harris, on my first day in the flat, took me to a giant Tesco's -- a bigbox store -- for some cleaning basics and cooking and eating basics: pot, pan, silverware, a few dishes, a mug, some towels. The Harris' were also very generous in providing me with some bedding and later, a T.V., a DVD player and more pots and pans.

Here in the U.K. there are no Salvation Army, Goodwill or Value Village stores, but rather hundreds of little charity shops. In many areas every fifth shop is run by a different charity: cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, hospices, etc. These all sell second-hand goods at very cheap prices, so I have been able to go in and pick up extra bowls and pans relatively easily. I've also been able to pick up a few jigsaw puzzles at these stores for only a pound each and was able to buy a camping table on sale that works double duty as an eating surface and puzzle area.

Canadian Tire or Home Hardware should open up shop here though. It is very difficult to find basic hardware necessities. It took me several days of scouring the City Centre and my neighbourhood before finding anyone who sold such a thing as a broom. Scores of garbage bins -- garbage bins of every shape and colour for inside your home -- but no brooms or dustpans.

Because there are many Middle East, Southasian and Polish shops in my neighbourhood I have been able to buy vegetables, grains, breads and spices at prices even cheaper than the larger stores -- and in many cases, better quality. I also have a local butcher. Butcher shops here are so quaint -- a la Coronation Street, the butchers dress up very fine in white.

Many of my clothes are still packed in my suitcases though. Once I get a little extra cash, I can make the trip to satisfy small furniture needs in style -- IKEA awaits.


Before I attended Sparks in the Park last Saturday, I watched my first rugby game -- partly on television at home and the last quarter at my packed neighbourhood pub.

Saturday was the start of the Internationals with the Welsh playing a team from the Southern Hemisphere each Saturday in November at Millennium Stadium here in Cardiff. Last week they had a turn against Australia (whom they took a gallant run at but apparently haven't beaten very often), this week it will be South Africa, and the following Saturdays the Welsh will play against Fiji and New Zealand.

Rugby has always been a mystery to me and the most I'd seen anything of it before last week was in the film Invictus about Nelson Mandela and the South Africa rugby team. In that film even it seemed to just be barbaric, slow-motion muscle against muscle in the scrums. So, it was quite a surprise to me to find it an exciting game to watch, especially when the teams would pass the ball back across the width of the field, man to man. I'm afraid I got hooked with an early toss.

The fireworks were in the City Centre at the Castle, only a block from Millennium Stadium, so I walked through the Centre after the game. What a great buzz. What a vibrant core. Much of the centre is pedestrianized now and one of the main thoroughfares has huge flags of the participating rugby teams hanging from lampposts.

In February is another series called Six Nations (not the same as the Canadian aboriginal Six Nations), which includes European teams.

I would really like to see one of these games live at the stadium.

sparks in the park

Standing in a muddy field, watching fireworks on a cold, damp November evening is not quite the same as sitting on a waterfront in July as the sky dazzles.

I paid my £8 last Saturday and tried not to freeze as the early children's fireworks went off, blowing smoke directly into everyone attending. Then, great anticipation as the two-to-three storey high bonfire was lit, with a mock Guy Fawkes in a chair at the top.

More smoke. Lots of smoke for about five minutes as the damp wood refused to burn. Finally, the fire wizards got the bonfire to start to quiet cheers and handclaps.

The big fireworks display was still 45 minutes away and I faced a half hour's walk home, so I decided to leave and possibly watch them on my walk back. I was shocked to see that in the time I had been there (little more than an hour) the crowds had quadrupled, so that there was little empty space in Coopers Field behind the Castle. Literally hundreds of people stood in lines zigzagging across the width of the field waiting at the fast food outlets.

At the entrances to the park, hundreds more approached, with lines more than a block long and four-to-five people thick. I was glad I was leaving and have no idea where all those people were going to stand.

Imagine the Detroit-Windsor Fireworks with paid admission and everyone arriving within half an hour of the show ... hard to imagine. Walking home I faced groups of ten and twenty walking towards Coopers Field and definitely felt as if I were going against the tide.

I'm assuming there must be a great deal of emotional attachment to this cold, November tradition that as a visitor is lost on me. Guy Fawkes/Bonfire night necessities: Good dry wellies and lots of woolen accessories.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

bonfires and winter wonderlands

There is a huge fireworks display and bonfire under preparation to light up the sky within Cardiff Castle grounds on Saturday night.

Sparks in the Park will celebrate what the Brits call Bonfire Night. Unfortunately this is not free, but unless it's pouring rain I do plan on attending.

As November begins its grey march, workers in the city centre have been quietly placing lights here, there and everywhere. Every day on my walk in to work I notice more strings, more domes and geometric shapes. They are not lit yet. I think they may be waiting until the Winter Wonderland launches next week at the City Hall.

Even now, unlit, they dangle like fine lace overhead. Inside some of the covered Victorian and Edwardian arcades, elaborate upholstered decorations take on the form of velvet lampshades. There is an anticipation in the air, all the more mysterious because there is no Christmas music playing.

The shops inside the City Centre malls are decorated and people are everywhere among the golds and reds and blues. It's refreshing to see all the colour and light and not be blasted with all the repetitive, competitive sounds of Christmas carols. I'm sure the music is coming, but music here is treasured, so I'm hoping -- and expecting -- it will be measured and showcased in wonder.

death junction

My new apartment (read: flat) is located just off Crwys Road in an old part of the city. It is very near a five-street intersection called Death Junction.

My former host Mr. Harris informed me that this moniker has nothing to do with vehicle/pedestrian fatalities, which I had readily assumed, but is known as such because it used to be the site of the Gallows Field.

The present Cardiff City Market site in the City Centre used to be the gaol and the prisoners were taken to the hanging grounds (a good half hour walk away) to meet their ends.

Friday, October 29, 2010

toronto woes

Bad news from T.O. this week.

Going against its brave ambitions to be a world-class city, Toronto voted in red-neck councillor Rob Ford as mayor this week. Unbelievable -- and sad. The Torontoist sums up the situation well, revealing a deep divide between the city's core and its outlying areas.

And, I was shocked to find out on Facebook that almost 10 people who I worked with on the national free dailies have either been fired or quit in the month and a half since I left. I'm hoping more left on their own accord than were let go.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


I have the next two days off (Sunday and Monday), after 6 days in a row at my new job.

This morning was the first day I've felt as if my body was adjusting to the newness of 'manual' labour. Surprising, as yesterday, Friday, was a crazy, marathon of a day. I'm still officially training and only on half the eventual expected workload, but yesterday I barely stopped to catch my breath.

One hundred and seventy rooms out and one hundred and seventy new arrivals -- almost a complete turnaround. I only had 6 rooms in six hours. There can be a lot of lost time finding low supplies, waiting for the service elevator, etc., contacting supervisors or maintenance about wayward irons and bedside lamps. The departures require complete bedstrips which involve a mammoth struggle fitting a floppy down duvet into a queen- or king-size coverlet. I am determined to master this bewildering process of the duvet.

Fortunately this week I am off Sunday and Monday, other big check-out days.

I find this whole cleaning process strangely comforting. It takes me back to my childhood. With every tucked bed sheet I can hear my mother explain to me about 'hospital corners'. With the flapping of every clean pillowcase, I can hear my mother telling me how the zipper should go in first, so it doesn't show.

Every room is like a visit with my mother. Something I certainly wasn't expecting, but something very nice indeed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

on working street

Third day under my belt as a room attendant at a large international hotel chain in Cardiff.

Today was an easy day, but Monday, with the Ryder Cup lasting an extra day, was quite busy -- and I'm sure today's ease was an exception.

So far I am liking it. I'm sore and tired, but in a good way. Using many muscles I haven't had use for in a long time. The people are quite nice. Working with primarily women from the U.K., Poland, Latvia, Thailand, Morocco and a few other countries I'm not aware of yet.

My pay is a pound more than I thought -- making £6.60/hr -- almost a pound over minimum wage. Our lunches are free and supplied by the hotel's kitchen. So far, even with kitchen rejects, it's been very fine dining. Downside: apparently it is standard practice in the U.K to only get paid monthly. Ouch! We get paid on the third Friday of each month. I should be getting paid for this week in next week's pay, but after that I will be waiting five weeks for the next pay. Double ouch!!

The hotel is in Cardiff's city centre, at the end of one of the major pedestrianized walkways, part of which is known as Working Street. I love that name. I say partly known because streets here have the discomfiting habit of having five names --  with every change in angle the street receives a new moniker.

The section I believe is called Working Street is smack dab in the centre by the Cardiff Market and Hayes Island (a landmark eatery) and there are always construction workers and market workers and delivery people making their way along the granite walkways. People in this city seem to be happy doing whatever their job entails, whether it's sweeping the street or lugging parcels or arranging sweaters in a retail store.

I'm happy to be a part of it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

three weeks and two days

Whoa, time is zipping along. The first two weeks in Cardiff seemed like an eternity, but this last week has flown by and it's October already.

Great news on the job front! I have been hired as a casual room attendant (I'm afraid the term 'chambermaid' was long ago deemed sexist) and begin Monday morning at 10 a.m. This is a great relief. The job is for 30 hours a week, usually from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The supervisor said it could easily and quickly lead to full-time as well as other opportunities within the international hotel chain.

I worked as a waitress/chambermaid for a summer while in university at a Muskoka resort and actually enjoyed cleaning rooms (to my surprise -- and probably to the surprise of anyone who knows me). The work is engaging, not too repetitive and one works on one's own for the most part. It's also more physically engaging than sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and frying my brains and eyes until my head is a vast wasteland. I don't plan on giving up fried brains but the change is needed and should be good.

This job may pay most of my rent, if not all of it, and will definitely ease the outward flow of savings. The hours are nicely situated to enable me to possibly work part-time somewhere in the afternoons or evenings as well.

And one of the great secrets to not feeling like a sad waterlogged piece of flotsam in the rainy streets of Cardiff is: dry feet. I finally dug out my watertight shoes yesterday from packed luggage and I'm now a happy little duck.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ryding along ...

Spending most of my days in the Penarth and Cardiff libraries, trolling job sites and sending out resumes and applications -- primarily in the hospitality and media fields.

Ho hum.

Some days are more promising than others.

Tomorrow morning I have an interview with an international hotel for a position as a casual chambermaid. This could be a very interesting career change and I'm hoping it goes well.

Yesterday I had the followup for my eye 'casualty' surgery and all is 'looking good' so I'm pretty happy about that. Doctors just want to check it again in six weeks.

And as the sun breaks through the clouds, bonnie Prince Charles (Prince of Wales) is set to be in Cardiff tonight at Cardiff Castle and later Millennium Stadium for a gala concert for golf's Ryder Cup in nearby Newport.

Cardiff's own unforgettable Dame Shirley Bassey is set to perform as well as the amazing Ysgol Glanaethwy Choir

Friday, September 24, 2010

two weeks and two days

I've only been here two weeks but in many ways it seems much longer -- mainly because of the intensity of trying to get so many things going on so many different fronts, and of the relative newness and strangeness.

Yesterday was a good day for things coming to a settling point.

I received confirmation from the letting agent that my application to rent the one-bedroom flat has been approved! Yeah! Double yeah!! I will likely be signing the agreement next week and move-in date is mid-October.

Also, after repeated failures, I was finally able to log into my banking account in Canada from the library. I was afraid I'd have to do telephone banking -- which is OK -- but it's much nicer to be able to see things and move them online. The site kept hanging up on me, but I found an alternate way.

Also found the time to explore my phone plan a little more online. It's quite expensive (I think) to call locally and ridiculously cheap to call N. America. Strange but true!

Excellent news on the issue of the possible costs of my recent health crisis: after searching the National Health site yesterday it sounds as if the treatment I received will be covered!

I've begun the job-search process in earnest and found an excellent site for the hospitality industry and will be sending off resumes today for several positions -- everything from chambermaid to spa reservationist.

And, for some fun this weekend! A former Metro News co-worker from Toronto is in the U.K. on holiday and making a side trip to Cardiff and Liverpool. He will be in the city tomorrow and I will have the chance to show him around.

On Sunday, cheese and more cheese at The Great British Cheese Festival

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

flat hunting

Saturday I paid an estate agent £200 to hold a one-bedroom flat for me. Getting an apartment here is like buying a house. It seems to rarely be done directly with the landlord and involves a middleman known as an estate agent.

That £200 is non-refundable if they refuse my application and aren't happy with my credit check. Even after going to the trouble of getting an account set up over here before I came, and having savings deposited, I have no credit background in the U.K. and with the 'economic crunch'-- as one agent called it -- agents and landlords seem quite leery about getting stiffed for rent. Add to this the fact that though I have savings, I don't have a job yet.

Before I paid this fee the agency assured me, after doublechecking with the agent, that there would be no problem with them approving the application. The secretary said the application approval would likely take 2 to 3 days, so I will call them tomorrow for an update.

The flat (apartment) is very nice -- and a very good price for the market -- though still quite a bit more than I was originally hoping to pay. Last year when I was in Cardiff the estate boards had much more on offer and at lower prices. I asked one agent why there was such a shortage and he said most renters are staying put and renewing their leases rather than going through the initial (costly) process again. Also, because of the 'economic crunch,' the agent said there was a freeze on building, so no new places were coming on the market.

The flat I'm interested in is going for £450 a month. On top of the basic rent is a council (city) tax of about £70 and the cost of utilities, which people tell me will probably be no more than £50 a month. So a £450/month flat is really about £575 a month.

Besides the estate agent's fee there is a bond fee for any damages incurred during your stay (basic minimum contract is six months -- after which it goes month to month.) The bond fee is similar to our last month's rent, but is returned to you when you leave if they are happy with the flat's condition. The bond fee for my hoped-for flat is £500. So the initial outlay is close to triple the original rent.

Basically I will be paying montly rent close to the same outrageous price I paid in Toronto, but wages here are half. So far I am convinced I can make this work, even working part-time (with supplements from savings). There are jobs in the hospitality and care industries. I can definitely make it work six months, during which time I can look for somewhere else if need be.

The average one-bedroom is going for around £485/month and most are VERY small. The flat I've seen is charmingly laid out and has double-glazed windows, so the heat is more likely to stay in. I was just going to link to the flat online but see it has been removed -- which is a very good sign my application is going through.

It has been quite time-consuming looking for a flat. Once it is a done deal I can focus solely on finding work. The move-in date is mid-October and before I laid down the deposit I checked with the Harris' (who are lettting me use their guestroom) to see if this was OK with them. I had been hoping to move in some place by the first of the month.

Both Paul and Nicky have told me that they figured I would be at their place one to two months when they offered their lodging and that mid-October was fine. Their generousity is sincere and moving and I owe them for life.

eye casualty

I  thankfully have been blessed with good health for years, and continue to count myself very blessed after the last few days.

Late Monday afternoon I found myself having emergency laser eye surgery in the eye casualty outpatient clinic at the University of Wales. All appears to be well now -- thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and several guardian angels -- though the doctor informed me that if I had waited another two days my retina most likely would have become detached.

Late Saturday night I experienced strange flashes of light when I went to bed and at first thought it was some strange dancing reflection from outside. The next morning I awoke with multiple floaters in my left eye. There was no pain and my eye appeared fine from the outside. The floaters lessened as the day went on, but by Monday they had  returned and I vaguely knew that flashing lights were a symptom of something serious.

I found myself in front of an eyeglass shop in Penarth, where I am staying with my friends, and went in to find out if they did eye tests. The lady there said they didn't, but after hearing my symptoms, said I should be seen that day by someone. I went to an optician she recommended, about a block away, but they didn't seem too concerned and gave me an appointment for Wednesday.

After a quick trip to the library I realized the situation was serious and returned to the first lady to see if there was someone else in town with whom I could get an appointment. She called another optician who saw me immediately and who then set me up to go to the eye casualty clinic at the University of Wales hospital in Cardiff. This was shortly after 3 p.m. and they wanted me to be there -- clear across town -- by 4 p.m.

Nicky, my hostess, and whom I hope to call a friend, was able to pick me up and get me there with moments to spare. By 5:15 I had undergone a 10-minute laser treatment that 'welded' the retinal tear in my eye.

No pain, no eyepatch, no dark glasses, no restrictions whatsoever: a followup appointment next week and a warning that if I saw 'curtain' coming up on my eye to get in immediately.

I went in again yesterday as I was still experiencing some strange light (though static and not flashing). Another doctor checked me out, said everything was healing well, and that what I was seeing was the location of the original tear.

Yesterday morning I went and thanked the guardian angels in Penarth who came to my aid so easily and quickly.

Not sure what this is going to cost me monetarily. I've landed in the grey zone: haven't applied to register with a doctor yet (was waiting for a permanent address) and haven't begun working, so I am fairly certain I'm not covered. I had to pay £20 for the original eye test; no mention of coverage or billing from the hospital yet and I'm not going to ask. I may get something after the followup test, or in the mail.

The doctors here don't call themselves 'Dr.' and don't wear lab coats. Rather disconcerting. The opthalamogist who 'welded' my eye goes by 'Mr.' Gareth Lewis.

Nicky says if they called themselves Dr. or wore lab coats here, people would think it was pretentious. Perhaps, but I find the lab coats and title rather comforting. But thank God for Mr. Lewis' skill with a laser.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

confusion on the left

It is amazing how relatively simple things can send your cozy world into chaos.

From cars that drive on the other side of the road (making a half-awake pedestrian crossing hazardous to one's health) to making change with unfamiliar coinage (especially without my eyeglasses) -- adjusting to life in the U.K. is, well, an adjustment.

The oven in the kitchen of my hosts is on an unfathomable system. In fact, I can't even find it on wikipedia at the moment. Most of their appliances need to be turned on twice -- once at the electrical source -- then again (actually a good idea -- though I had forgotten and momentarily thought I lost the usage of the top of the stove.)

Besides the drivers, pedestrians and cyclists use the opposite side on walkways and paths -- and even the escalators are reversed.

Tonight I'm attempting the washing machine as my hosts have wisely gone on a week's holiday.

Not quite as perplexing as Alice's journey through the looking glass. Gradually, I suppose, the 'curious' and 'curiouser' will become the familiar. Or will the familiar become 'curious' and 'curiouser'?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

rainy days

It was bound to happen. After all I'm in the U.K.

After three sunny visits to Wales in the last three Septembers, the grey rain has begun.

I haven't been taking any new photos -- have job and place-to-live concerns taking priority -- but there are good shots of Cardiff from my original blog. Please check here:

I've tried to import them, but the blogger tool only seems to import text. More on Wales at these posts:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hi ya!

I am midway into my fifth day in Cardiff, Wales -- or as the Welsh say: Caerdydd, Cymru.

The idea to move here began four years ago with a press junket to the U.K. during which I fell in love with this country.

Now I'm down to the nitty-gritty of finding accommodations and a job (or jobs) in a tight market.

I have been blessed to have the very gracious hospitality of the Harris' -- Paul, Nicky and Cari -- who have offered me a guest room in their house in nearby Penarth as I get settled. I cannot deny that amid all the excitement and newness I have fleeting episodes of panic.

But mostly, I am feeling optimistic and grateful.

Since my arrival, I have steadily been greeted by people in cafes and shops with 'Hi ya! Are you alright?'

The latter question has made me wonder if I am looking shellshocked or in need of urgent care, as everyone seems genuinely concerned with my condition.

Only this morning have I realized that this seems to be a common usage, similar to our 'how are you?'.

I am good, thanks, but have never been quite sure if I'm 'alright'.