Category Archives: Travel

Nice zoo, bad rain, nice Williamsburg, bad curry sauce

I’m currently on vacation, which has been pleasant. We’re staying in our flat in New York, for three reasons: 1) My wife is almost eight months pregnant; 2) It’s cheaper; 3) There are still lots of things in New York that we haven’t seen yet. Tomorrow we plan to go to Brighton Beach.

Today we went to the Bronx zoo, which was a very nice day out. Once the baby’s not only born, but old enough to be interested in animals, I think we’ll buy a family membership (which lets you in for free to most animal-based attractions in New York City).

Yesterday, we’d planned to go for a walk in a nearby park that we haven’t really explored yet, but there was heavy rain, so we mostly stayed home, going out only to interview a doula and attend a birth class.

On Monday we visited Williamsburg, a rather nice bit of Brooklyn, with nice cafes and shops, and a lot of hipsters. We didn’t do any shopping, but it was pleasant to wander around a nice bit of the city we hadn’t visited before.

On our way home, we decided to visit A Salt and Battery, which seems to be the best rated fish and chip shop in New York, and is run by Brits, so promised to be fairly authentic. For about $21 we got a chip butty with mushy peas, a regular portion of chips with curry sauce, and a can of ginger beer. Everything was just like home except one thing: the curry sauce! The curry sauce I grew up with is yellowish and has a very particular taste that you won’t find anywhere but a chip shop (you certainly won’t find it in an Indian restaurant). I’ve lived in Wales, England, and Scotland, and while there’s a little variation from place to place, the curry sauce is mostly pretty similar. I’m sure this is because most chip shops buy it in powder form (although I know that some make up something similar from scratch). A Salt and Battery make something up from fresh ingredients that is red and tastes disappointingly different. This was a let-down. The authentic chip-shop-curry-sauce taste is something I genuinely miss. I don’t care if it’s made from powder—I don’t eat it for its nutritional value. Besides, I can’t believe you couldn’t make something similar fresh.

But maybe there are parts of Britain where a red and weaker flavoured sauce is typical? There certainly is all sorts of regional variation in chip-shop offerings. Comments welcome.


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Why do Brits tip waiting staff more than others?

An American friend asked today how much to tip for salon treatment (specifically a pedicure and a manicure) in the UK. Beyond haircuts I’ve never had much of what you might call salon treatment, but I felt reasonably confident in advising that a tip wouldn’t be expected. Other Brits (plus a couple of Danes) agreed. The basic principle in the UK—as in other parts of Europe—is that a tip is a reward for particularly good service, not a basic component of the server’s wages. In some countries, employers are allowed to pay waiting staff less than the minimum wage in the expectation that their staff will make up the difference in tips. This practice is illegal in the UK.

It struck me, however, that British people treat waiting staff as a special case. In particular, we tend to tip table-waiting staff about 10% as standard. I’m really not very sure why this is, but two facts seem relevant. First, I think I’m right in saying that most British people would be more likely to tip for evening meals than for lunch. Second, we’re more likely to tip in posher establishments: more in restaurants than pubs (even assuming that in both cases we’re talking about having hot meals brought to us at our table). In general, it seems that the more the meal is an “event”, the more we’re likely to tip. This leads me to wonder whether tipping in a restaurant in the UK is done at least as much as a part of the ritual of going out to dinner as as a reward to the waiting staff for their service. Going out for a sit-down evening meal is a slightly extravagant experience (you wouldn’t generally do it on a tight budget)—about treating yourself and others, and probably to some extent about displaying wealth—and part of that experience is being waited on, and rewarding the waiting staff more than required is part of the experience of being waited on and part of the experience of splashing out.

That’s my hypothesis anyway. Alternatives welcome.

Additional note: It should be noted that there are two parts to my hypothesis: one part says nothing about why we tip as standard in restaurants, merely that we continue to do so because it’s become part of the ritual of going out for dinner. The other part suggests that we tip in restaurants because paying more than required is a means of being extravagant.

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Go to Boston

I said a little in recent posts about CogSci in Boston. I neglected to mention how delightful Boston is, particularly for someone living in Manhattan. Cooler, quieter, and a more manageable size.

Go there, if you haven’t been already!

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Finding an apartment in New York City

So I’ve living in New York City for a little over two months now. I started work on 15 February and we flew over, via Iceland, on 7 February. Our first week was a little stressful, since not only did we have to find our feet in a new city, we had to find somewhere to live (for the first week, we stayed here, which was surprisingly good value). This is far from being a trivial task in New York, where the market is controlled by brokers, who—we were warned before coming—are well known for pushiness, dishonesty and for charging large fees. We were also hampered by the fact that we’re new to the country, so have no credit history whatsoever here. Oh, and we’d just found out before leaving the UK that we’re expecting a baby, which added a certain extra stress and urgency to the hunt.

We had a few things in our favour, however. First, we were looking for somewhere in Washington Heights, which is a nice enough part of the city (long past its problems in the 80s), but still not gentrified. Rents are lower and there’s less competition for apartments. Timing is also good. Winter is the slow season, and it wasn’t long after the economic crash. We’d also been recommended a broker who wouldn’t mess us about too much. And my boss was happy to act as guarantor for us. If he hadn’t done that, then our lack of a credit history might have meant us having to pay several months’ rent up front. So we were lucky. I still find it almost unbelievable that we managed to find a relatively large one-bedroom apartment, right next to where I’m working, in a week. And there was no broker’s fee. I’m sure the catch is just waiting to reveal itself…

So if you’re moving to New York from overseas, I recommend the following:

  1. Don’t agree to take an apartment (and certainly don’t send any money) before arriving;
  2. Find somewhere cheap to stay while you’re looking. It may take a little while;
  3. Ask around for advice on brokers in the area who aren’t going to waste your time;
  4. Take a careful look at any apartment you want. Make crystal clear who pays for what, how much is paid upfront to whom, and what the actual rent is (be careful of “net rent”, which means you’ll pay more than the figure quoted).
  5. Ask other tenants about the building, if you can. Is the super reliable? Are all the apartments run by the same people? Are they honest? Does it get noisy?
  6. Open a US bank account as soon as you can. This is usually quick, but transferring the money from your home country may not be (it can take up to 5 working days), and landlords tend to require cheques to be drawn on a US account;
  7. Get a US mobile phone as soon as you can (we went with Net10);
  8. Prepare to pay at least three months’ rent on signing the lease: one month’s rent for the first month, another for the deposit, and another for the broker’s fee (both deposit and broker’s fee may even be higher than one month’s rent);
  9. If you don’t have credit, find a guarantor.


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Where have I been?

I remember making a rash promise to post more on this blog and, in particular, to write a series of posts about my honeymoon. I haven’t done much of that for a while now. My excuse, as you would expect, is busyness. So what have I been busy with? Well, at the end of August I had my PhD viva, which went very well. I’m now officially Dr Garic Gymro. Then, a week later, at the beginning of September, I started a new job at the University of Stirling doing research on cultural evolution. This was only a six-month post, however, so I spent much of my spare time writing funding applications for research projects to do afterwards. Funding applications are awful. You have to put so much into them and they take so long to complete. And if you’re in academia, they’re something you have to do a lot. In the midst of these, however, I saw an ad for a postdoctoral research position in New York that was quite relevant to my research. This required only a one-page research proposal, and I wrote one pretty fast and sent it off. One three-hour skype interview later, I got the job. So we’re off to New York at the start of next month. Preparing for this has consumed much of my time. We’re off to London for our visa interviews tomorrow. I’ll try to write about that when we get back, then return to the honeymoon, and then, when we arrive in New York, start blogging about that. Maybe I’ll even do a post on viva advice.

Thank you for your patience…

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Nach Berlin

Time for the next thrilling instalment in my occasional series “What I Did on My Honeymoon”!

From Amsterdam we headed straight for Berlin, where I’d been once on a school trip, when it was still the largest building site in Europe, and where Lottie had never been before. Before we left the Netherlands, we booked three nights at a place called Down Town Bingo using Laterooms. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the accommodation (a room in a flat rather than a hotel), we didn’t get an immediate confirmation, and by the time we got on the train in Amsterdam, we still hadn’t heard back. No matter: I managed to find what appeared to be the address on Google Maps, crossed my fingers, and set off.

After a very pleasant 400-mile train trip, we got to Berlin on the evening of 23 June, when Germany were playing Ghana in the world cup. The Hauptbahnhof was correspondingly full of the noise of vuvuzelas. This didn’t help create an aura of relaxation; what’s more, a trip to an internet café revealed that our accommodation still wasn’t confirmed. Tired and hungry, with heavy rucksacks, we decided to go and find this place. Armed only with the map of Berlin provided in the Lonely Planet guide to Europe, we finally found our way to what turned out to be a very long street, with us at the wrong end of it. What’s more, the number of the building we were looking for appeared not to exist, and we didn’t even have the number of the flat. Coming to look for the place all started to look a bit like a very bad idea.

It was not, however. We were just at the point of giving up when I spied what appeared to be the right building on the corner of a side street. This explained the odd numbering. But which flat? I looked feverishly at the numbers next to the buzzers, before spotting a name I recognised from Laterooms. I buzzed and waited. We were let in by an elderly woman. I explained in German, sure that this wasn’t the place, that we’d thought this was a guesthouse, but must be mistaken. She replied that this was the right place, and that it was owned by her granddaughter, to whom she put us on the phone.

To cut a long story short: her granddaughter, Yvonne, was fantastic. Laterooms had messed up and not been in touch with her, and unfortunately the room was available for only two nights, not three. But, she announced, she had another whole apartment elsewhere in the city, which we could have to ourselves for both the second and third night for the same price as the room in this one. Not only that, but she’d drive us over there herself. So we got three nights in Berlin, in very nice accommodation, for only €150. We can’t recommend this enough.

So what did we do while we were there? Sights, museums, and parks, basically, plus a couple of bars. We recommend the Jewish Museum very highly indeed. Checkpoint Charlie is also good, though I’d been there before. The Klo bar, a kind of toilet theme bar, where the DJ makes fun of customers as they come in, and where you can buy beers served in specimen jars, was kind of fun, but somehow less interesting than I’d imagined. In general, we felt that, of all the places we went, we only scratched the surface of Berlin, and would really like to go back and scratch a little deeper.

Three days after arriving, we set off for Prague, via Dresden.

But before that, I got to eat a big sausage.

Me eating a sausage

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How our Honeymoon began: The Netherlands

This post follows from earlier post giving an account of my recent honeymoon, in which we visited 9 countries in 30 days. I hope it’ll be some use to people planning to visit any of the places we visited.

Getting to Amsterdam
The ferry from North Shields to IJmuiden is a nice way to travel. I’d used it once before, in the opposite direction, having been at a conference in Utrecht when Iceland exploded. That time I’d travelled home, with a colleague, in the cheapest cabin we could get on the King of Scandinavia; though by the time we booked, that meant a relatively nice one, with a sea view. By that point, my fiancée and I had already reserved our Commodore Plus cabin, on the Princess of Norway, for the honeymoon. Both journeys were very nice, but the difference between a standard cabin and a Commodore cabin is best described as being like the difference between a nice train compartment and a very comfortable hotel room. The mini bar and the free coffee and cakes on arrival were a nice touch. We were also impressed by the buffet we had for dinner: it wasn’t cheap, but there was a really wide selection of meat and seafood and even a reasonable (if not astounding) selection for vegetarians. The breakfast buffet was much as expected, and good quality. We took a few extra rolls and eggs to have for our lunch. All in all, in other words, a good way to reach the continent from the north of Britain.

As she dropped us off at North Shields, my new mother-in-law mentioned that she’d heard you can get from IJmuiden to Amsterdam by boat, and that it’s apparently a bit nicer than the bus. She was right. I enquired on the ferry and was told to take bus 74 from Oranjestraat (right by the ferry port) to Pontplein. From there we caught the Fast Flying Ferry (a hydrofoil), which cost €5 one-way and took about half an hour. Much nicer than the bus, and it stops right behind Amsterdam Centraal railway station. Two bits of advice, however: the ferry wasn’t exactly on time in either direction, and it was about 40 minutes late on our way back. What’s more, there was no information about why it might be delayed or when it was likely to turn up. I still think this is the best way to travel between Amsterdam and IJmuiden, but if you’re catching your ferry home, leave yourself a little time. Second, the hydrofoil goes, strictly speaking, between Amsterdam and Velsen Zuid, the latter being just on the edge of IJmuiden, so don’t be worried (as I was) that it says that instead of Amsterdam-IJmuiden.

I don’t think we were in the right frame of mind for Amsterdam. We’d submitted our PhD theses three weeks before the wedding, and then of course we’d had the wedding to prepare for. After all that, we needed a night or two somewhere relaxing to recuperate. And Amsterdam’s not relaxing. For obvious reasons you might think it would be, but it’s not. So many of the tourists are there to get pissed, stoned, and laid, and the city caters for them, crassly. What’s more, we were there in late June, in something of a heatwave. So it felt hot, busy, loud and garish. Now that’s all very well, there’s nothing wrong with it, and such places can be a lot of fun; for us, however, I think it was the wrong time for such a place. It didn’t help that, to save money, we’d been forced to choose a room in a cheap hotel called Hotel Travel, right in the centre. The room was cramped, and it was extremely noisy at night. If we were doing this again, I think we’d pay more to stay somewhere better.

Well, that’s the negative side, and as much to do with our temperament as with Amsterdam itself. In fact there were many positives to make up for it. On our first day we took a walk to the Vondelpark, where we enjoyed an ice cream and lay under a tree. This was lovely: not only was the park nice, but our route to it took us through some very nice parts of the city. If you go, do this. We also visited the Sex Museum, which was fun, and ate Belgian fries with mayonnaise, which were delicious. Do this too.

On our second day we visited Delft, which is just as delightful as we’d imagined, and a really welcome gentle relief from the frenetic pace of the capital. We spent the afternoon visiting churches and drinking beer by the side of a canal. Having returned, we spent the evening wandering through the nicest parts of the centre, which includes the red light district. And I left with the feeling, being the liberal cliché that I am, that if a country is to have prostitution (and I think that must be treated as an inevitability), then this is how to do it. That, of course, is a superficial impression gleaned from an evening wander in Amsterdam, so I make no claims for its well-thought-outedness. In any case, we then shared a joint in a fairly pleasant coffee shop, which no doubt contributed to our sense of that having been a very pleasant evening. The muffin we took home probably helped us sleep too.

There’s not much more to say about our stay in Amsterdam. I would most certainly go back, but I wouldn’t stay in the centre, however much cheaper that might be.

From Amsterdam, we caught a train to Berlin…

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