Jean's Blog of Trip

Sunday 8 June 2014

I am sitting on the verge of a park area on the south embankment, overlooking the Thames river. There are two street shows going on to either side of me, far away enough that I cannot see past the crowds but close enough that I can hear the music and the cheers. One looked like a guy throwing knives when I walked past, and the one I have not got to yet looks like acrobats. It is a warm sunny day and almost everyone in London seems to be out and about enjoying the lovely day.

It is difficult to believe that I was in Johannesburg last night. It seems like forever ago. The flight was uneventful and I did manage to get some sleep (intermittently). This morning I was collected by an older English man - tiny. In fact, he reminded me a little of the one guy from the two Ronnies! He drove me through different parts of town into the city. He couldn't drive along the Thames as he had planned to do, as there were some road closures.

At the hotel I was given my day room so that I could shower and change and sort myself out. I spoke briefly to Terry and at about 10am (London time) I went down to reception to tell them they could collect my bags and put them in my real room later. The guy who checked me in wasn't there and the other lady had long queue so I didn't get to ask where to go to catch a tour bus. I walked out of the hotel and tried to find information at one or two bus stops, but could find nothing. I came across Monument station but even there it was difficult to figure out which train to take to where... So I exited the other side of the station and looked at the monument. A short stroll later and I was on London bridge. I took some photos of what I thought might be The Shard (I later confirmed that it was). I then went into a coffee shop (Pret a manger) and bought a cappuccino, asking the lady how best to get to the London Eye. She told me to take the train to Westminster. So once my coffee was finished I made my way back to Monument station.

Buying a ticket was a challenge - not knowing what to do at the machine - and there is no alternative. Eventually I worked it out after stepping back and waiting for the queue to go so I wasn't under pressure! But I still couldn't find anywhere to use a note so I landed up using my card to pay £4.70! From there it was relatively simple - onto the platform, onto the train and off about 5 stations later. As I came out of Westminster station I noticed that the London Eye was on the other side of the river, but that I was at Westminster pier with various options to cruise on the Thames. That led to a change of plan - a river cruise first. I walked down, bought a ticket and went to the waiting dock area. I hadn't been there very long when a little old lady came and sat two seats away. She asked me a question and we started chatting. She is visiting from Perth. When we boarded and went on the top deck, she suggested I sit next to her at the back, but I moved one row in front so that we were both sitting on the side of the boat. That way it was easier for me to take photos. We introduced ourselves and I learnt that her name was Anne (Val would be proud of me!)

The cruise started with a view of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (they are right next door to the station too). We cruised past the London Aquarium, the London Eye and then a whole host of tourist attractions - The Royal Festival Hall, Cleopatra's Needle, the back of the Savoy Hotel, under Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, Tate Modern (which is an old power station), St Paul's Cathedral, Shakespeare's Globe, Southwark Cathedral, HMS Belfast, London Tower Bridge and the London Tower. We also saw the Oxo building and the Millennium bridge (a footbridge that the locals call the wibbly-wobbly bridge). It was funny to go under the London Bridge too as I had stood to the side of it taking photos this morning! I also saw many old and unusual buildings including the old Billingsgate fish market.

Some of the sights were easier to photograph on the return cruise as I was on the wrong side as we went out. When we got back to the pier, Anne and I walked across Westminster bridge and looked for somewhere to eat. Because of the crowds we were forced to go to a very busy McDonalds in the Aquarium. We each bought some lunch and then found a table at which to eat, looking over the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I then said my goodbyes and made my way to the London Eye. There was a long queue and I was able to buy a ticket, but I can only join the queue at 16h00 or later. I went to the free 4D show. It was amazing. I felt like I could touch the gulls - when they weren't trying to take me out! I have now walked along the bank and decided to sit for a while and type this up. The sun has faded a little so I am ready to go walkabout (I still have 40 minutes before I can go back and queue). Of course, because I said that the sun has come out again.

I can't believe it but I am sunburnt from my day in London!!!!! Well, bye for now...

Tuesday 10 June 2014

I eventually joined the queue for the London Eye. It was long but took 50 minutes, which was 10 minutes less that they said (good management of expectations!). Despite the hanging around and queuing, it was worthwhile - stupendous views. Terry keeps reminding me that I am "scared of heights" but somehow the capsule makes you feel more secure! I then successfully backtracked to my hotel where I found my new room, luggage waiting for me, and unpacked and had a shower to cool off my very hot and burnt skin. Luckily I have some Aloe Vera lotion so I am putting it to good use.

Neil met me at about 7pm and we went out into the City streets, but it was really quiet and not many people around due to not many places being open. So we walked down to Monument Station and decided to make our way to Oxford Circus. That involved a walk to another platform and we think we walked back past the hotel while we were underground!!!! When we got out at Oxford Circus we walked down Oxford Road and all the shops were starting to close up (8pm close we think). But as far as food was concerned we saw McDonalds and street food. We walked a way but then decided that we should start looking for another street. Neil knew that Wigmore Street was one down, so after a quick foray in the wrong direction we made our way down and found a lot of tourist type restaurants in the side street we had chosen. We eventually chose an English pub. We both drank soft drinks! Mine was orange and soda - different but nice. Neil had Cod and Chips while I ate Scampi and Chips (with lots of peas). At least we can say we had a pub meal while in the right place to do so.

We walked back to Oxford Street and caught a bus back to Bank Station. It was nice to be above ground and see the sites, particularly as it was only dusk by that time. We drove through West End (seeing all the adverts for shows), Soho and Chinatown, amongst other suburbs. We also drove past Trafalgar Square with the fountains lit up in color. From Bank Station we walked back to my hotel and then Neil made his way back to the station to take a train to the next stop, St Paul's Cathedral. When his office booked his accommodation, the hotel we agreed to stay in (close to office) was fully booked. So he is with the same group but a little further out.

Yesterday (Monday) we met at 8h30 and made our way to the office, stopping off at a Pret a Manger for breakfast. It was cheaper than breakfast at the hotel and probably nicer (good coffee for sure). From there we went into the office building and up to security where I was issued a visitor's card for my stay. We then went down to the 4th floor where we are based. We had a morning of meetings with various Accenture staff and then we made our way to the Duck and Waffle for lunch with Madeleine from Lloyd's. What a lovely lady. The restaurant was great. We shared plates of food: special goats cheese and tomato bread, special salad with baby beet root (yellow in color), aubergines with naan bread, stuffed dates in bacon, fillet carpaccio with truffles and pollack meatballs (fish). Dessert was cheese and biscuits for Chris/Madeleine, an apple/toffee pudding for Neil and Pistachio macaroon with chocolate mousse and cherries for me. The restaurant was on the 40th floor with 360-degree views of the City around us. Even the lift was glass and on the side of the building - it moved really fast (so tummy felt the ride!)

The afternoon was spent with more Accenture staff. Two of them had joined only 3 weeks before - one from Barclays and one from Citi Bank. So, they could give us insights into how things had worked there.

We then met the MD of Financial Services at Accenture and he took us by taxi to a French Restaurant (Le Pont de la Tour) in the Butler's Wharf Building on the side of the Thames. We had an outside table, which luckily was under cover as it rained while we ate. I chose from a Menu du Jour - duck salad (which was like carpaccio), Sea Bream with Asparagus and a pineapple gallette with pistachio ice cream. Joy had scallops, lamb rack (two chops really) and dessert (I cannot remember exactly what), and Neil ate asparagus, lamb rack and chocolate mousse. Our view was of the London Tower Bridge. As we left, we walked along the Thames and made our way up to the bridge in order to catch a taxi back to the hotel.

I am now sitting in my room on Tuesday, and must go down to meet Neil in a few minutes...

Tuesday 10 June 2014 (cont.)

We had breakfast at Caffe Nero today. There is one inside the reception area of the building where we are working (30 Fenchurch Street). Neil just had coffee, but I had a small toasted sandwich and a blackcurrant yoghurt.

Our plans for this morning include two meetings here - one with Accenture and one with Fjord. We then have lunch with Joy, Alex (from Moven in New York - I met him in Joburg a couple of weeks ago) and a gentleman from the Bank of Ireland.

Our first meeting is in 30 minutes (I could get used to these late starts! Michael, I found a place that keeps your daily hours.... :-)

Got to go and do some work, quickly.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Well, life has been quite hectic and it is all I could do to keep up on Whatsapp!

I attended my meetings on Tuesday and then we went to lunch at the Oxo Building. The restaurant was on the top floor (8th this time) but we were on the balcony, overlooking the Thames. This meant we were in the direct sun and it was really windy too. So, guess what? Yep, more sunburn! I still today have a very pink nose that is about to start peeling and a peeling forehead! Lunch was lovely - I ate squid for starters followed by a tuna steak with samphire, something I have heard them talk about on TV but never eaten before. It looks like baby asparagus tops, but very fine. The highlight though was the meeting and discussion. There were in fact two gentlemen from the Bank of Ireland and we had a really good discussion. After lunch, we caught a taxi to the RBS building. We were early so we wandered around M&S. It is amazing how like Woolworth's it really is, but the variety in terms of choice is just so much greater. We also killed some time having coffee and a pastry while we were there - our dessert. The meeting with RBS went really well too. Everyone is so generous with their information but equally keen to hear from me. And really happy to maintain contact going forward.

From RBS we made our way to The Fjord offices just off Soho. When we got there we found that the gentleman who was meeting us had gone to the Accenture building in the city. We waited for him and once finished we made out way to Oxford Road where I looked at Clark's for some shoes I had seen in a magazine (to no avail). We also had a look at John Lewis, but we both found it too much. There were products everywhere and not much space to move around. We didn't know where to go for what and found no one was really looking to be helpful. We eventually made our way back out onto Oxford Street and moved back towards and past Oxford Circus, before turning off to Soho Square. We wandered down the street (Firth) looking for a sushi restaurant that Joy had recommended. We were about to give up when we looked back and saw it just off the road in a side street. We shared a platter of sashimi and one of sushi, and I had some tempura prawn nigiri (Neil does not eat shellfish). I ate a crab nigiri and a scallop nigiri, both new for me but really good. After our dinner, we made our way back through Soho, part of West End and Chinatown until we got to Trafalgar Square. It was 9pm already but still light. So we were able to take some photographs. We then caught a bus back to Bank Station and walked to my hotel.

Our day on Wednesday got all turned about at the last minute, so our first meeting of the day was 11am in Camden Town. We met as normal and went into the office, before going out to look for breakfast. This gave us an opportunity to wander through Leadenhall Market, which was apparently used to film Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. We had breakfast at a little Italian-style bistro. I must add at this stage that at all the restaurants we ate at we had not yet been served by anyone with an English accent, all foreigners working there. In this one, the manager was definitely English. His accent was broad and gave him away.

After breakfast we made our way via tube to Camden Town and found the building that Fitbug was in. The lady, was expecting us to call, but Neil had not been sent her number. We then walked with her to a coffee shop nearby, where we had a good chat. We then walked down the high street looking for a bus stop as I thought it would be nice to be above ground and see the sights. We had over an hour before our next meeting. Bad mistake - traffic in the day is much more than at night and the bus stops every 2 minutes. So we were actually 15 minutes late for our tour of the innovation design centre at Accenture. It was a great tour, but we then had to rush down to our floor for 2 meetings - one with a guy from Fjord and another with a guy from Accenture. Neil rushed out and grabbed us a light lunch so that we could at least have something to eat.

After the meetings we made our way via the tube to Oxford Circus and walked down Regent Street until we found the Burberry store. Compared to John Lewis it was laid out in a much more open and extravagant fashion (the prices showed that too!) We looked at a few things but mainly watched the customer interactions. Customers were asked to sit in order to make their purchase, the POS being brought to them. The consultants all had iPads. We were up near the shoe area and decided to ask the consultant there about the iPad, explaining that we were from a bank and looking at their customer experience. She explained that they used the iPad to access their catalogue, their stock records and their customer profiles. Neil picked up that she had a South African accent so I asked her if she was from SA and it turned out that she came from Plett. She was so excited to find that we were from SA that she got someone to cover for her and gave us a tour of the rest of the store, including the VIP section with the runway collection. When you take an item into the change room, there is a second mirror that reads the RFID chip in the label and shows the item on a model and either on the runway or being made. She thinks it has some disadvantages as people see the model wearing the outfit and sometimes think it doesn't look as good on them! She even looked Neil up on the customer profiles as he had bought something for his wife at the airport two years ago. And there he was - details of what he had purchased, where and when, and for how much. We were impressed.

From there we made our way to Piccadilly Circus and down to the tube. We caught a very crowded tube to a station where we had to switch lines. We walked through to the other line, but the train was so full that we could not get on. We also realized that it was well after 6pm and we had a reservation for 6.45pm (and Chris was meeting us there) so we went above ground and found a taxi. It was a good move as we got there just before we were due. The restaurant was a special treat arranged by Neil for me - Granger and Co. He knows I am a big Bill Granger fan and this is one of two restaurants he has in London. We went into the restaurant which was really light and airy. The waitress was English! We hadn't been there long when Chris arrived, telling us that she was hungry as she had missed lunch. We decided to share 3 small plates - fresh goat's cheese, tarragon, dill, chilli and flatbread, Korean fried chicken, iceberg lettuce, spring onion and chilli sesame, and bass ceviche, grapefruit, avocado and sesame. They were all delicious. I then had sticky chilli pork belly with spring onion salad, Neil had tea smoked salmon, green tea noodles, samphire, daikon and soy mirin dressing and Chris had yellow fish curry, spiced butternut, jasmine rice and cucumber relish. We all enjoyed our meals. We ended off with coffee (tea for Chris) and she and I ordered blueberry, lemon, mascarpone and gingernut cheesecake. It was served in a glass, rich but not too sweet and really delicious. For me, it was all a wonderful experience. We caught a taxi back to my hotel, while Chris made her way home.

This morning I was up early (after a restless night). I had to pack up as it was our last day in London. I checked out and then waited for Neil. Although we had walked to the office each day, we decided to get a taxi to help with the luggage. It was a mission enough just to get it into the building and up to the 4th floor! We sorted out a few things and then went to the coffee shop where I had fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. Wilma was on her way to us, but we realized that she had a problem on the highway from the airport (where she had stayed in a hotel upon arrival the previous night). So, Neil gave her the address for Vodafone in Paddington and re-routed her. We had to rush down to find a taxi and make our way through the traffic to Paddington too. Fortunately we got there at 10am as planned but we had to let the guy from Accenture know that we wouldn't get there as early as he was expecting us. It was lovely though as we passed various landmarks, including The Dorchester Hotel and Buckingham Palace. Our meeting with Vodafone was really good. Afterwards all 4 of us (including Mark from Accenture who coordinated the meeting for us) caught a taxi back. Wilma's suitcase had to go into the front so that we could all fit in the back. We went back past Buckingham Palace and the streets were crowded with tourists for the changing of the guards. We could see a little of it from the vehicle.

On our return to the office, we grabbed a quick lunch and then made our way to a video conference with Accenture, Dublin. We had a good, if quick chat, and we will schedule some more time to talk to them once we are back in SA. The one assistant who had been helping Neil organize things was waiting outside with two taxis for us, so we grabbed our things and dashed down. Our luggage went in one taxi and we went in the other. It took us the better part of 90 minutes to get to Heathrow. Daytime traffic is a killer!!!

I am now sitting on the plane to New York, typing this up. One adventure is behind us. I really had a great time in London. We managed to see many people and do a lot of other things too. We were spoilt with food and venues. In fact, I was full before my main course even came tonight (and that was without eating the soup that was on offer!) We also did a lot of walking. Neil has an app and we walked over 10000 steps almost every day - today being the exception (maybe that is also why I was not as hungry).

And now we start our next adventure - New York!

Friday 13 June 2014

I am sitting in bed in a hotel in uptown New York - it is quite surreal. We have arranged to meet at 9am today after our long day yesterday, but there was an announcement and beeping just after 6am!! The announcement said that this is not an "alarm"! But in reality it was, because I was now wide awake. So I have been catching up with work notes and emails while sitting comfortably in my bed. The room is tiny - just enough space to move around the double bed and fit in a desk. Bathroom is compact (shower only) and wardrobe is short and small. But I managed to fit everything in when I unpacked last night. Because of exchange rates, London was close to double in cost what this is (deceptive really, because once all the additional taxes were added they were close to the same price!), so I suppose it is only fair that the size of the room is close to half or what we had! No complaints though. Like London, the bed is comfortable and the sheets silky smooth percale. Still no safe in the room though, and yet in SA you would find this in almost every hotel. It is all a matter of context.

On that subject, I thought I would share some thoughts. When I was buying tickets for the London Eye on Sunday, I saw signs for the bathroom. So, after successfully purchasing the tickets, I made my way to the large amenities (I seem to be fixated on size this morning). As I went to wash my hands I heard a mother saying to her daughter that the hand dryers must be here somewhere as she can hear people using them. When I was washing my hands, I was curious about the odd shaped tap - water spout straight out as usual, but with appendages either side in an outer V-shape. My curiosity led me to look for something to say what they were - and lo and behold, they were the hand dryers the mother was looking for. They were not separate up against a wall, being queued for. I had a similar experience on Monday at the Accenture offices. I went to the bathroom, washed my hands, dried them with the paper towels provided above the basin but then could not find a dustbin anywhere I looked. Until I realized that there were neat holes cut in the counter between all the basins. I had found my dustbins! Context again.

On a more personal note, the one thing that was obviously different everywhere in London was the toilet paper. It is thick and feels different. It is not that it isn't soft. It is just that every time you happen to see or touch it your brain registers and you react to the difference. Now that I am in New York and the texture is more like home, it just brings emphasis to the "foreign" nature of what was used in London.

Well, time for me to stop philosophising and start greeting the world. A nice hot shower will start the day well. It isn't that I didn't sleep well, I did. But the noise factor makes me think of when I used to live in a flat on a street corner in Port Shepstone many years ago. Then it was sugar cane trucks, here it is trucks beeping, police or other sirens in the distance and many unfamiliar sounds. I am sure I will become oblivious to them in a couple of days. It gives me a new appreciation of how quiet the streets of London City were at night (they certainly made up for it in the day though!!!!)


Tuesday 17 June 2013

New York was amazing and we seemed to be on the go all the time. I am now in San Francisco and I have just woken up. It is just before 7am, but I only got to bed after 1am due to the transfer from New York (and on New York time that was after 4am so I was completely shattered). I am staying in the Marriott here so I have a nice large room, by comparison, a bath (amazing how you miss what you don't have) and a safe (something we take for granted back home).

But let's go back to New York...

As we started our day on Friday, it was raining. Neil and Amantha had organized a vehicle to take us around so that we could do our customer experience mystery shopper tour. But the first order of the day was breakfast. So we hopped in the vehicle and asked the driver (a gentleman called Izra who hailed from Columbia originally) and he pointed to a cafe two doors down! So, it was back into the rain and into the cafe. We all chose bagels with cream cheese (we were in New York after all!) and we grabbed that and our drinks to have in the vehicle. I was the first in and then we started worrying about the others as no one else came out. I wondered if I had missed some tables they had decided to sit at in my rush in the rain, but decided someone would have come out and called me! Instead Amantha had spilt her coffee on the floor, creating her own experience. To all accounts, it was not the best one of the day!

Our first stop was the flagship Apple store. Wow! It is like a glass basement warehouse. Light and airy, lots of "helpers" easily identified by their blue T-shirts and name badges. There are tables with products. The brochure ware on each product is on an iPad and there are tables for training, for business consultation, for workshops, for everything... The employees were friendly and helpful and we were given plenty of information as we asked questions of different individuals. It was definitely our best experience of the day.

We then drove to Nike Town on 5th Avenue. As a shopper this was quite something but it certainly lacked in the experience department compared to Apple. Our trip then took us to Time Square, and the Disney Store. This was also a good experience. You were greeted on arrival and made to feel welcome. The music, the products, the entire ambience felt familiar, like you had been away and were coming home. We actually did buy something here. Neil's wife is expecting twins in Sept/Oct so I bought him a Pluto, Wilma a Goofy and Amantha Mickey and Donald. It is our contribution to their nursery!

We then made our way to Union Square and a Citi Bank branch. An assistant manager stepped forward from the greeting counter and once apprised of what we were doing, took us on a tour of her branch. She was really open and friendly and could not have been prouder of her branch or her bank. Wilma and I even gave her some business - we traded our left over £ for $ - and had a chat to the teller while we were at it.

We wandered out and across the road to Whole Foods. Gee, we could do with one of these in Joburg! There was just so much choice. Amantha was in her element - she is vegetarian and also does not eat eggs or aubergines (allergy). My three fellow travelers had pizza, while I had Vietnamese spring rolls and 2 small tarts (one blueberry, one cranberry and lemon). I also bought a salted pretzel for us all to share (again when in New York...). I drank a beetroot based vegetable/fruit juice while the others drank different versions of iced tea.

We asked our driver to stop at Wall Street. He dropped us off and we walked down a block (which was not open to vehicles). He picked us up on the other side. From there we made our way to a PNC branch (another bank). One of my colleagues had seen them before and she raved about them and their emotional engagement. But our mystery shopping experience was not good. The staff member who spoke to us was great, but he had to ask permission to do anything and his assistant manager was sitting in her office and did not come out, despite him going in a couple of times to speak to her. Wilma saw her come out once we had left the branch!

We then made our way back to the hotel. Izra drove us past Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro bridges. He was really great. He found what we needed, lent us his umbrellas (the rain stopped by mid morning) and generally was friendly and informative. Once back at the hotel, we took half an hour to do some personal things and then met to do a debrief of our day. Once finished, we decided it was time to go to dinner. Amantha had found a Turkish restaurant. So we took a taxi there and had a good dinner. I ate some crispy calamari followed by baby lamb cubes on aubergine purée. Amantha had phyllo "cigars" filled with feta and a salad. Neil had a different lamb dish and Wilma had a stuffed chicken breast (from what looked like a monster chicken!) The portions were huge so I did not do both dishes full justice.

On Saturday we all met in the lobby at 8am - an early start for us! We made our way via taxi to the Port Authority bus terminal and bought tickets to Woodbury Commons. We dashed upstairs and were among the last to board the 8:30am bus. Neil stayed behind and wandered New York (he did 22k steps!) and the ladies went Shopping!!!!

Woodbury Commons is a complex about an hour from Manhattan with all sorts of shops, including designer stores at sales prices. I bought some handbags from Tumi and Guess, and I had a great time buying birthday presents. I think I am almost up to the end of the year in my gift shopping! Wilma was shopping for her children and husband and Amantha bought for family and herself. I also bought some perfume and scarves for myself. We caught a bus back at 2:30pm, getting back to our hotel just before 4pm. We made our way up to our rooms to relax until our planned meeting time of 6pm.

When we met in the lobby, we had all dressed up a little for our Broadway experience. The theatre, Gershwin, was also on W 51st Street, the same street as our hotel. So we walked down past Times Square and into Broadway. Wilma found an Italian restaurant right next door to the theatre. Because we had no reservation and they were really busy they told us that they could not accommodate us until later. We told them that we would go and see if we could eat somewhere else and come back if not, as we had theatre tickets. She asked us please to wait and spoke to the manager. They asked us to wait and found us a table. We were very pleased as we had a wonderful meal.

We shared a bottle of Californian Chardonnay, Canyon Rock. It was delicious. Neil had Melanzane Parmiggiano as a starter and Amantha and I shared a salad with pear and blue cheese. They made her a special vegetable risotto, while the rest of us had pasta. Neil had fettuccine with feta, etc., Wilma had fusilli with chicken and broccoli and I had linguine (brave, I know) with clams, scallops and prawns. It was delicious. We then each had a cappuccino - the best we have had so far on our trip! We finished at the perfect time to go to the theatre, where we had wonderful seats, slightly left of stage but in the first set of chairs (row N). In fact there was a walkway right behind us. The show was amazing. The quality of sound and the talent superb. This was definitely the highlight of New York!

On our way back to the hotel, we saw a small crowd standing at the back stage door to Radio City Hall. We waited too (like sheep following the crowd) and eventually found out that Aretha Franklin was being awaited. After a while though, and many other people exiting, we gave up. Our hotel was only a couple of hundred meters away and my room faced the street (10th floor) but I didn't hear her come out (or the cheer accompanying it) before I went to sleep.

Sunday was a very different day. We focused more on sightseeing. We started by taking a taxi to the port authority where we caught the free Staten Island ferry. This took us past the Statue of Liberty and the return trip gave us another view. We had decided that as we only had a little time we would see rather than visit. This applied to the museum at Ground Zero too (luckily, as there was a very long queue to get in). We walked from the port authority to Ground Zero where we could see the Freedom tower, the museum and the actual 9/11 memorials. It was very moving. While we were there Neil's slip-slop broke, so we made our way back to our hotel so he could change his shoes, before walking to Nike Town for some quick purchases. Amantha met us there. She had left us at the port authority and gone to see a temple that she really wanted to see.

We then had lunch at a mozzarella bar, called Obika. It was great to just sit and relax for a while. We then decided to walk to Central Park, but managed to get ourselves turned around and walking in the wrong direction. When we eventually realized this, we hailed a cab and drove to Central Park - it took $5 to get back to where we had lunch and a further $2 to get to the park! We had a horse and carriage ride around a section of the park, before making our way into the park proper. We wandered for a short while and then sat on the grass in some shade enjoying the atmosphere. We walked a little further and crossed over into another section of the park where we found a park bench and ate ice lollies while listening to a lady playing the violin. It was a lovely relaxing interlude and good respite from the heat of the day.

Neil decided that he was going to walk back to the hotel, while the rest of us took a taxi to 5th Avenue Saks. Amantha then went her separate way to do some shopping. Wilma and I went to look at Saks for a handbag for someone else, before making our way back to the hotel via H+M (clothing store). There we took some timeout to catch up with various things. We met at 7pm and then went looking for some New York pizza. I had looked up some pizza restaurants near Time Square and found that they all seemed to be on W 44th street, so we made our way down there and found Carmine's but it was really full and had a long queue of people waiting so we went on to look for another one. We hadn't gone much further however when we found Guy's American Kitchen Bar (Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame for those in the know) and decided on a change of plans. They could accommodate us downstairs. I ate pulled pork sliders, Wilma and Neil had hamburgers and Amantha had vegetable pasta. We had a lovely meal. We walked back via Broadway and Times Square so that we could take some photos at night and then made our way back to the hotel. We noticed that Aretha Franklin was appearing at Radio City Hall for a second performance.

Monday morning meant packing up and getting taxis to Fjord's offices. We got there so early that there was no one at the office! So we went into the bakery next door and had some breakfast. By the time we were finished we could go to the offices. We had a conference call with a company from Florida, time to do some admin and a meeting with Jesus (Spanish gentleman), from Fjord. We then caught a large vehicle that could fit both us and our luggage in order to go to the airport. Amantha was flying United earlier than the rest of us. The rest of us flew Delta but Neil was economy class as there was no space on business class.

It was a long flight and we got to San Francisco airport after 11pm. By the time we got to our hotels it was after midnight.

Today we went to Umpqua Bank in the financial district. We had a planned visit which included a tour of the store, which was undertaken by one of their staff members, after we had been greeted by the store manager. It was a wonderful experience and very different from most other banks. Afterwards we spent time experiencing the customers/community area and we then had a conference call with head office in Portland, Oregon. We were half an hour early for our appointment so we used that time to get breakfast at another bakery down the road. It was lovely to just have some oats and fresh fruit!

Once we were finished at Umpqua we caught a taxi to the Caltrain station and headed out to San Jose, about an hour or so away. There we caught a taxi into town and went to visit the Tesla store. It is quite strange to find a car "dealership" on the high street next to Gucci and Tumi! But what an experience. We were encouraged to play with the interactive design screens and to also climb into the electric vehicle and experience the interior. It was incredibly spacious and well constructed in terms of design.

We walked down the street from there and found The Cheesecake Factory where we had a very late lunch/early dinner (it being nearly 4pm). Neil and I ate a South West Chicken sandwich, Amantha had nachos and Wilma had a salad. The portions were huge, but everything was delicious. But no space for cheesecake! We managed to chase down a taxi which took us back to the station and we caught a 5:23pm train back to San Francisco. It became really full, but it did not stop at every station en route. Nonetheless it was 7pm before we were back at the Marriott. We are all exhausted so we decided to take time to catch up and have an early night.

So I have had a bath and I am not going to finish this mail, so that I can finish my reading in preparation for tomorrow's session.

I am sure that I will sleep well tonight. I can hardly keep my eyes open...

Tuesday 24 June 2014

I cannot believe that I am on the plane and on my way home, or hope to be soon. It is 20h41 Atlanta time, and we were supposed to take off at 19h33! We seemed to be delayed in takeoff and the pilot told us that we were 3rd in the queue and would takeoff in 5 minutes. A minute later he was back telling us that we were returning to the gate as we have someone on board who is too ill to travel. We are now stationary at the gate, waiting to be refueled. The passenger has left. A good start to my return trip! Added to that I am not feeling great myself - sneezing and runny nose!

But let's go back to my last mail. It was Tuesday evening and I was on my way to what I hoped would be my best night's sleep - but that didn't allow for the electric busses that came around the busy corner I faced on to! On Wednesday morning we all met at the Marriott and decided to do breakfast there, having a Marriott experience. It was quite disappointing and Wilma and I both started to be a little irritated by the fact that beyond the room, nothing was included in the cost. We had to pay for wi-fi access, the water in the room was charged as extra (not from a fridge either) and breakfast was expensive for what we got. I think the Marriott needs to rethink some of its customer values.

We then made our way via taxi to the Fjord offices. The view from our meeting room on the 7th floor was great, so I took some photos of the buildings, the plaza area and the steep Powell Road with tram lines and some trams. I also took a photo of Geary Road's "red carpet" for taxis! We had good sessions with Fjord, including a teleconference with Helsinki. One of their team members, Grace, also came in to do some "experiences" with us. The first was TaskRabbit, which is a website where you post something you want done and then let it be bid on. She posted for someone to clean their fridge that morning but got no takers and still had none by the time we left the office later on (we all agreed that their office fridge must have quite a reputation!). We were lucky enough to be at the office on the one day of the week that lunch is supplied and, even better, it was sushi! So we all enjoyed our lunch, before experiencing another website pulled together by "shoppers", i.e. someone would go to a supermarket and buy your list of goods. The list was of items needed for the office, and before we left for our session with Wells Fargo, the groceries had been delivered.

Our last experience for the day was Uber. But, unusually, it was not a good one. There is nowhere on the app to say how many people there are and we had a black town car that "rules" said could only take 4 people and we were 5 - and on a deadline. Not being able to wait for a SUV, we made a mad dash across town to the Wells Fargo offices, where we were warmly welcomed and spent a good two hours plus with Mark, the VP of Customer Experience (with over 11 years experience). What an amazing session! Shelley introduced us and then left us with Mark, saying she would see us the following day. Mark shared ideas, exhibits and generously offered us contacts to interact with in the future.

From Wells Fargo we walked to Columbus Avenue and then started our trek through Chinatown and North Beach. There were plenty of Italian restaurants on either side of the road in North Beach, but we decided to go to the Wharf and have the famous clam chowder and sourdough bread. Since our hotel was en route, we stopped at Trader Joe's (a local supermarket that scores well in the customer experience rankings) to buy water - no more rip off from Marriott! Wilma and I also stopped at CVS to buy some cream for a friend and then made our way to our rooms. We met about 30 minutes later and then walked to the halfway point between the two hotels. We walked down towards the Wharf and found plenty of restaurants boasting clam chowder. It was cold and windy so we chose one that looked bright and cheery. When we walked into the restaurant we had chosen though, Alioto's, I thought we had made a mistake. It was dark and seemed to have very few windows. But we were shown to a staircase and we climbed two floors to a more airy room, where we were seated at a window with beautiful views of the wharf. The only problem was that it faced west - something I only know because of the setting sun which necessitated that the blind be closed. Wilma and I both had a cup of chowder and followed this with a small salad - a Combo Louis in my case (lettuce, olives, prawns, bay shrimp and crab meat) and a sliced avocado salad with prawns in the case of Wilma. Due to the large portions, we were pleased that we had only ordered small ones! But we both thought our food was delicious! Amantha was also glad she had ordered a small salad. She had a Caprese salad, with half an avocado on the side and a portion of mashed potatoes. Neil ate a pan-fried sole, which had already been filleted (much to his surprise). We all enjoyed our meal. Amantha has the hardest time though. The restaurants here don't worry too much about vegetarians and the fact that she doesn't eat eggs makes the obvious choice of pasta a difficult one. As we finished our meal,  the sun had dropped enough that we could open the blind and enjoy the view and the sunset.

We then made our way out onto the Wharf. It was really windy and cold by then. So after taking a few pictures of Alcatraz in the distance, we hailed a cab and took a longer drive out to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were very blessed with our choice of driver. He happily took us to view spots where we could take photos of the bridge - one on either side of the bridge. One thing that should be noted at this point though is that, despite the fact that it is summer in San Francisco, it is cold! In fact, it was all we could do to get Wilma and Amantha out of the car to pose for a photograph!! Once we had seen what we wanted to see, we suggested that the driver drop us at a Starbucks between our hotels, near the tram station, but he indicated that this closed at 6pm. He thought there was another one close to the Marriott that closed later so he took us through some lovely suburbs of fancier houses and to a Starbucks. This stayed open until 9:30pm so we had 15 minutes to get and drink our hot chocolate and coffee (Neil). From there we walked to our hotels for an evening's rest (again disturbed by all the street noise unfortunately).

On Thursday morning we all met at the Marriott and took a taxi to 600 Guerrera Street, to the Tartine Bakery. We were lucky - there was no major queue so we walked in and placed our orders. I had cappuccino and a gougere the size of a bread roll. Wilma had coffee and a ham and chard quiche. We sat together at one table for two. The cafe itself was relatively full. Neil and Amantha sat at another table (apartheid!) and they both had pain au chocolat with cappuccinos. We all enjoyed our experience. Thanks, Val.

There has just been an announcement that they will have to remove the passenger's luggage and that they are still waiting for a refuel, so we will be here for another 30 to 40 minutes...

Getting a taxi to the office took a little more work, we had to call for one. But it arrived much quicker than indicated and we got to our destination - the Accenture offices. Here we had a full day workshop discussing (and practicing) different service design methodologies. The attendees were the four of us, the two people we had met the day before (Shelley - the instructor - and Thomas who was in my workgroup) and some staff from Fjord. It was a good day.

We walked to North Beach to an Italian restaurant recommended by one of the staff members. First though, we checked that they had pasta that was not made from eggs. They did! So we settled in to enjoy a really early dinner. Neil had Melanzane Parmagiana, Amantha had pasta with an Arrabiata sauce, Wilma had ravioli and I ate Ciuppino Bianca (basically a seafood stew, with crab legs in the shell, prawns, calamari, clams in their shells and mussels in their shells). My food was delicious (a little heavy on the garlic which wasn't a problem until later that night!) and the others all enjoyed their food too. We then walked back to our hotels where we planned to pack and have an early night.

On Friday morning I met Wilma for breakfast at the hotel - fruit and bagel for me, coffee and fruit for Wilma. Amantha joined us for some coffee. Neil had already left for the airport and should have taken off while we were eating breakfast (I later discovered that his flight was delayed so he had not taken off he was desperately trying to reroute to LAX where he could catch a plane to Atlanta to get him there in time to connect with his flight home!) Wilma and Amantha went to catch a taxi to go to visit Uber. I went back to my room to finalize my packing. After checking out, I found a taxi to go to the airport. I did however have a little time to spare, so I got the driver to take me down Lombard Street and we also drove across Bay Bridge to Treasure Island and then back, finally making our way to the airport.

The domestic terminal at San Francisco is fairly basic. There were 8 gates, a few shops and chairs. No business lounge. So I sat down and decided to do one thing that I have not done much of since I have been in the States - read my Kindle! I continued to do that once I had boarded the plane too, sneaking a few 15 minute naps when my eyes felt heavy. I must add that Business Class was also fairly basic, old fashioned seats without even foot rests. But they did feed us - I had a hamburger.

Hooray! We are now airborne. It is just before 21h30 and we have taken off. What I did do after the last announcement was take out my "American phone" and call Lyn (she is the only one still awake!). She will email Terry. The one good thing, as I told her, is that I have managed to read 33% of a new book, started only when I got on the plane!

Back to Friday evening... I arrived safely, although we were forced to sit on the Tarmac for 30 minutes after landing as there was another plane still loading at our gate (I've just realized that I have not had very good luck with Atlanta airport!!!) I eventually found the train to the domestic baggage claim and found my bags (on a carousel with about 7 other flights - so very congested). I think they were the first to come off the San Francisco flight! I called Lyn who was worried about me and she came from where she was parked to pick me up. We made our way home where Rob was waiting for us. Lyn had come to fetch me as Rob had just got in from his 4 hour commute from Charlotte. We were also greeted by all the cats: Libby - the largest of them all is a pretty grey with other markings, particularly on her face; Lei - black and white, a tuxedo; Jasmine - a really pretty grey with black markings; Logan - the darkest of the lot with lots of reddish markings; and the only male, Manny (grey with white). We sat chatting, and drinking camomile tea (Rob and I) until it was almost midnight.

Saturday morning we were up reasonably early and we made our way out to do some shopping and run some errands. We popped back to the house for a while in the afternoon and then went to finish our shopping! It was then time for a shower and change before we went to meet Lyn and Rob's friends, Mark and Karla, for dinner.

We had dinner at Sip, a restaurant with an interesting concept. You can order wine as sips, half glasses, full glasses and by the bottle. This allows you to taste different wines before choosing what you want to drink. I tasted a Chardonnay from New Zealand, Lyn had a Riesling from Germany and Rob had an Italian sparkling wine. We settled on the Riesling and shared a bottle. Karla and Mark tasted red wines and then each ordered a glass of the one they preferred. Dinner was similarly interesting. We shared small plates. We ate lots of different things - truffle Papas Fritas; panko crusted avocado; Hawaiian ahi tuna tartare; local foraged mushroom flat bread; beet citrus salad (some of the beetroot was yellow!); and grilled garlic bread with chardonnay gorgonzola fondue. These were all selected from the abbreviated happy hour menu at a discounted price. Once this was over, we ordered from the main menu and then we had: carnitas tacos; hand rolled gnocchi, in a creamy sauce with sundried tomatoes; crispy pork belly, with grits; and flounder with wraps. It was all delicious. The two couples shared the bill and we then made our way to Alpine Bakery for dessert - my treat. Lyn had a millionaire's slice (recommended by the waiter), Karla had a slice of cake dipped in chocolate ganache, Rob had an Oreo cheesecake, Mark a fruit cheese cake and I had a blueberry cheesecake. We enjoyed this with coffee and tea. But the portions were so large that we all boxed up at least half to take home. Karla and Mark came back home and we all sat chatting. Once the visitors had left I put the kettle on and Rob and I had our camomile tea. It was nearly midnight again before we went to bed, and both Rob and I had not slept too well on Friday night.

Sunday we had a later start. I slept really well. So did Rob. In fact, Lyn only woke him just before 10h00 as we were meeting some other friends for brunch. We went to The Cheesecake Factory. I had a Californian omelette which was really good. But I have now been to two of these restaurants and not yet eaten cheesecake! We did some shopping after breakfast (still looking for a few things to take home) and eventually made our way home. Rob packed up then and left for Charlotte. Lyn and I sat for a while and then went to fetch her prescription and get some groceries for dinner and breakfasts.

We then changed for her to go to the barn for a lesson on Tech, her horse. First she brushed him down and got him ready for his ride. I fed him some peppermints and then some sugar cubes before she put the bit in his mouth. We then made our way to the training ring. Her instructor, Danielle, had family visiting. So her mother, sister and two nieces, stood with me (I had a chair but didn't stay sitting) while Lyn had her lesson. Tech was very interested in a new mare who was in the paddock behind where we were. After the ride, she washed him down and fed him some carrots (she shared with the other horses too). She took him out to a paddock and I took photos of him rolling around. She says he usually rolls in the sand so she was really pleased when he chose the grass for a change. We stayed while the nieces helped groom a mini horse. When we got home we showered (even though her lesson was at 18h00, it was crazy hot) and changed into pajamas. Dinner was sushi and olives, followed by cherries. We then watched 3 Days to Kill, a DVD she had hired, before making our way to bed.

Monday was a work day for both of us. I had a breakfast of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Lyn went to the office as usual and I waited for my pick up at 08h30. I noticed that my driver was early so I locked up and left earlier than planned. My limo was a black Lincoln town car. I had a good day with Verint. Dave had come to the office (he usually works from home) and Oren gave up most of his day to share his expertise. They had also flown in their own internal VP for customer experience, Nancy. In fact, she and I had lunch together at Cabernet (Rob and Lyn tell me it is a fancy, expensive restaurant). We both had burgers for lunch! The day ended far too soon and I was later than scheduled, having kept my driver (a different one) waiting. He took me home and the cats were really pleased to see me. It wasn't too long before Lyn was home too. We had some cheese and biscuits, and then went to the mall. Macy's had a sale and Lyn bought some shoes, dresses and tops. After she had found somewhere for me to spend money too (!!!), we made our way home. I had a nice cup of camomile tea and then we made our way to bed.

This morning we had a lazy start. I packed and Lyn slept in. We then went out to Marietta (where they used to live) to find a shop for me. On our way back we stopped to get tissues (my nose had started running) and headache tablets for her. We also stopped at a restaurant called Olive Garden for unlimited salad, soup and breadsticks. I added some roasted asparagus too. We both drank Limonata (Lyn - strawberry and passion fruit, me - lime and kiwi fruit). It was a lovely meal. Lyn lay down and rested while I finished my packing. I then had a quick shower and changed, before we made our way to the airport.

And now I am back where I am - typing to you while eating dinner. It has been a long time away from home, but it has also been very rewarding from both a work and a personal perspective. I enjoyed seeing Lyn and Rob (it was more than 3 years since I last saw her) and getting to know the cats. But now I am ready for my own bed, and eager to see Terry and the dogs...

Hopefully I will get some sleep after dinner. Goodnight