From door to door, we’re knockin’ for change

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When I left off on my last post I was down in Exmouth visiting my mum, and after hitting publish (and waiting for my team of proofreaders to spot all my typos – thank you!) we decided to pick a random film to stream together. After a random browse we ended up watching/slating The Outfit, a ‘psychological crime drama thriller’ (supposedly) set in 1950s Chicago and starring a fairly tedious English tailor (who insists of being called a cutter, not a tailor, but I’m not playing along) who monologues a lot.

I had much more emotional investment in The King of Kong, a quirky 2007 documentary which Katie recommended about one guy’s attempt to challenge for the world record Donkey Kong high score. The reason it’s so gripping is because although this man – a maths teacher named Steve Wiebe – comes over quite well, almost everyone else from the 1980s arcade gaming world seem like absolutely terrible people. They’re either cheats, sycophants or sanctimonious self-appointed referees, and you’ll want to chuck barrels at the lot of them.

Next time: lay more eggs
Next time: lay more eggs

The weekend after Devon I went up to see Oliver and Abi in their new house, albeit before they’ve really moved in for real. This meant we were a bit short on pens to our Wingspan scores, hence the silverly splodges, but I enjoyed my first ever game (despite losing badly) and wanted to record my performance so that I could discuss it with Wingspan experts Katie and James the next day. Saturday evening also included a walk around their shared garden/lake area – complete with majestic but sadly fallen tree – and a ton of tasty tapas at their local tapas place.

The next morning, after staying the night, I headed up to Cambridge to enjoy a stroll along the river and pub lunch with Peter Mandler. It was a stunning summer’s day and we were both in cheerful spirits, especially with Labour’s pledge to end the tax break on private schools generating some public discussion on a topic which is dear to both of our hearts. (In case you think I sound complacent, a few days later – after watching the first debate between Sunak and Starmer – I had a genuine nightmare that the Tories won another term unexpectedly and woke up in cold sweat.)

As part of the summer birthday season™, my mum also visited London and took me and Tash out to see Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York). This is a delightfully fun and uplifting musical romcom in which a naïve, perennially optimistic (but also somehow wise and grounded) Brit, Dougal, lands in New York for his estranged father’s wedding and is very reluctantly shepherded around by his future step-mum’s siter, Robin. Both performances were excellent, and a couple of the songs have since entered heavy rotation on my Spotify playlists. Tash and I did have a few quibbles about certain plot details, which resulted in elaborate WhatsApp discussion threads and me reaching out to every New Yorker I could think of to clarify key details about Flatbush in Brooklyn.

I also had a really great time at our work summer party held at Lord’s Cricket Ground, although you won’t be surprised to learn that I did not opt-in to the ‘cricket taster experience’ and stuck with the beer & Pimm’s taster experience instead. Aside from being able to be outside in the sunshine, the other big benefit of throwing a summer party rather than a Christmas do is that staff could bring their families, and it was really nice to see lots of kids running around and playing together!

Partying at the photobooth at the eviivo Summer Party 2024
Partying at the photobooth at the eviivo Summer Party 2024

Last weekend I made my penultimate pre-election trip up to Scotland to see Randi and get stuck in to a full weekend of canvassing. I know I’ve said this before, but it really is so rewarding to talk to voters on the doorstep, especially when they’re genuinely undecided. (On the other hand, it’s significantly harder to efficiently whip out leaflets and post-it notes in the pouring rain, and given that it’s June I think we’re due for some relief.) I can now also say I’ve been to the famous National Mining Museum, albeit only for a quick bite to eat at the café between sessions. Randi and I also took an evening off to go to the pub 😀

Reunited!
Reunited!
I am really going to miss spending time here
I am really going to miss spending time here

I’ll be back in Scotland soon for the election itself, but in the meantime I was delighted to be joined by Angela and a very enthusiastic Conor for some local leafletting duties, during which I tried to explain the concepts of unions, elections and MPs to a six year old. I may not actually be the most qualified person to do this, because I also managed to mess up my own postal vote by posting the two envelopes separately rather than together! Thankfully, the Electoral Commission has a whole flowchart which explains how they compensate for idiots like me, and the nice woman at Lewisham’s electoral services confirmed that I haven’t accidentally disenfranchised myself.

In my defence, I was actually just excited to vote on my birthday, but my decision making was impaired after a really lovely birthday evening with Tash in an outdoor pub garden followed by outdoor pizza garden. She very kindly came to Forest Hill after work bearing cake and gifts and word puzzles, adding to the birthday puzzles which I’d already received from Katie in the morning. Suffice to say I’ve made good progress but have still not completed them all…

I voted* (*incorrectly)
I voted* (*incorrectly)

And finally – yesterday was the Doctor Who season finale, and I’ve absolutely loved the twists and turns this year. It was also a bit surreal – but very sweet – to have Beth and Stewart message me as they caught up on each episode too! I’m can’t wait to watch it all over again with Randi post-election. In the meantime, today I also spent a very happy afternoon catching up in Abbi and Rob’s garden: basking in the sun and drinking wine while Rob spoilt us all with an assortment of delicious burritos and accompaniments. I always feel slightly bad visiting a professional chef (it’s not as if I’m expected to product manage for guests) albeit not bad enough to stop coming. Thank you both!

It’s unexpected election season! On Wednesday, at 12.18, Randi messaged me with “okay ppl are saying an electin is going to be called” and from then on the nervous atmosphere inside our flat grew and grew until Sunak’s rainy announcement outside Downing Street made it official that evening. (Dear Americans: you have no idea what kind of emotional rollercoaster you’re sacrificing by sticking with fixed election dates.) Now we’re off! Obviously this election is about the country, but it’s also the unexpectedly early culmination of a major subplot of our lives over the past year. In short, Randi will be in Scotland for the rest of the campaign and I’m going to include “REMEMBER TO WATER RANDI’S PLANT” in capital letters in this opening paragraph in a desperate attempt to remember it.

Back in the misty pre-election days of early May, the big family news was that Tash and Cormac had returned from their world travels! So I had a lovely Early May Bank Holiday afternoon catching up with Tash, starting with a haggis toastie lunch (just to further the Scottish theme, albeit at Deeney’s café in Leyton) before continuing at the pub opposite. That Saturday, my mum gathered the whole family for her newly-traditional ‘Birthday Season Kickoff Meal’ which – following a ranked choice voting mechanism which some of us slightly gamed – was held around a lazy Susan at Pearl Liang in Paddington.

The cast of 2024’s birthday season
The cast of 2024’s birthday season

That evening, Katie and James stayed at ours for a bumper evening of Doctor Who and Eurovision, the latter accompanied by Randi’s incredibly tasty halloumi fajitas which were a big hit. To start with Eurovision: as usual, the semi-finals had inexplicably booted out some of the best songs, but nothing compares with Europe’s desultory reaction to Finland’s Windows95man. Sadly, I guess people simply don’t share my nostalgia for old operating systems. On the other hand, this was the first time in a while where I thought the actual winner deserved it. Switzerland wasn’t my favourite, but it was a good song and a good performance.

More importantly – Doctor Who is back! Yes, the space babies in the opener were creepy, but the second episode was much better and Steven Moffat’s Boom was exceptional. It always takes a little while in my brain for any new Doctor to mentally click into place as The Doctor, but this time around – without doubt – the definitive moment came as Ncuti Gatwa perched precariously atop a landmine on Kastarion 3. I’ll remember this one for a while.

Randi checks up on Labour's 1945 campaign
Randi checks up on Labour’s 1945 campaign

Last week was Randi’s birthday, but (fun fact) one year + one week ago it was also Randi’s birthday, and that’s when Reema had gifted us a voucher for cocktails and cake at Cahoots London with a one year expiry date. Due to all of the London/Scotland hopping we’d struggled to book a lot, but thankfully Randi remembered just in time and we enjoyed a great afternoon at this meticulously WW2/London Underground-themed bar. (To demonstrate the power of psychological expectation: I was genuinely thrown into confusion when my cocktail served in a tea cup wasn’t hot.) Thanks, Reema!

At the start of the Penicuik-Dalkeith Walkway
At the start of the Penicuik-Dalkeith Walkway
I repeat: this used to be a railway!
I repeat: this used to be a railway!

For Randi’s latest birthday, I travelled up to Midlothian so that we could walk part of the bittersweet Penicuik-Dalkeith Walkway together. The route is a beautiful nature reserve, but at the same time it’s yet another example of a former railway killed by the Beeching cuts, and by rights this should still be a railway. The 1960s robbed us of a lot! Still, it is a very nice walk, from which we eventually veered off to visit Rosslyn Chapel.

Built in the 15th century and now a bona fide tourist attraction (probably because The Da Vinci Code filmed scenes here), Rosslyn Chapel was on our list because Kirsty gifted us a voucher for tea and cake here. (We’re very easy to buy presents for, clearly.) But after enjoying our afternoon treats on the visitor centre’s sunny balcony we did appreciate our visit to the actual chapel, in large part because of the entertaining stories about its deranged stonemason. According to legend, this guy was so enraged by his apprentice’s superior stonework that he smashed his skull with a mallet.

While this story might not actually be true – in the sense that there’s no evidence whatsoever that it happened and it’s almost certainly made up – it is true that one of the columns is significantly more impressive than the other one. So, draw your own conclusions. And talking of murder: during this trip we were also made encouraged to watch Channel 5’s documentary Murder in a Small Town on the horrific killing of a Scottish teenager in 2003, for which her boyfriend was convicted under somewhat ambiguous evidence. Frustratingly, however, the documentary also simply ignored a lot of obviously pertinent facts, casting some doubt on the idea that the My5 streaming service (which is terrible, btw) is really the best way to uncover miscarriages of justice.

We did really love the walk
We did really love the walk
Outside Rosslyn Chapel
Outside Rosslyn Chapel

The following evening, Kirsty and Roger very generously took us to dinner in Edinburgh to celebrate Randi’s birthday, followed by drinks at the bar of The Scotsman Hotel. This is a beautiful Edwardian building formerly occupied by the newspaper back in the days when newspapers could afford beautiful Edwardian buildings. Oh, and after much cajoling encouragement we also finally spat on the Heart of Midlothian too. It was a wonderful night. Finally – as usual – on Sunday I slipped away from this world to go watch classic Doctor Who with Katie and James. This time it was the turn of 1979’s The Power of Kroll, which has an abysmal reputation amongst Doctor Who fans but was actually not terrible. And now Katie and I have an excuse to chant “Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!” at each other.

Back in London, I’m very excited that after years of procrastinating, Randi and I finally got our act together to fix our garden. And sure, by ‘fix’ I mean we asked Angela’s incredible friend Pierre to de-weed everything, followed by a not-very-subtle “so, how difficult would it be for you to lay turf as well…?” and before you know it we have an actual lawn! I will save the triumphant photo until the next post – once it grows in a bit – but we’re already looking forward to cosy post-election lunchtime picnics.

Happy birthday mum!
Happy birthday mum!

Finally, after parting drinks in central London on Thursday night, she went up to Scotland while I headed down to Devon to spend the long weekend with my mum for her birthday. (In fact, I’ve commandeered her desk to write this very blog. It’s a great desk!)

Yesterday we celebrated her birthday with a long walk along the coast from Sidmouth towards Exmouth, although it should be noted that neither of us have a stunning sense of direction and spent part of the walk going the wrong way along a road away from any coastline. Still, it was a stunning day, and in the evening we toasted getting back to Exmouth eventually with a delicious dinner at The Chronicle.

Once we found our way back to the clifftop walk, the views were lovely
Once we found our way back to the clifftop walk, the views were lovely

The next six weeks are going to be hectic, even at a distance. But we’re on our way. Let’s go!

Fun fact: on 27th April, this blog turned 20 years old. It started on Blogger, which shockingly still exists, albeit presumably only because there’s still an active email thread bouncing around Google trying to figure out exactly which team owns it so that they can shut it down. April 2004 was only two months after Facebook launched (for Harvard students only), two years before Twitter and six years before Instagram. It was, in other words, before everything turned a bit rubbish, and my stubborn determination to keep this thing rolling forward has been a great insulator from social networks over the years. Even if it is just a very inefficient way of writing a diary. Onwards to the next 20 years!

Of course, in 2004 I was still in secondary school, and a few weeks back I got to nostalgically relive the secondary school experience by signing up for a project and then leaving all the work until the night before the deadline. This was part of a Sense About Science project to crowdsource ratings on the quality of government publications – which is about the coolest sentence I’ve ever written – and as a result I now have random nuggets of information in my head fighting to get out about both leasehold reform and Universal Credit’s Work Capacity Assessment. Fortunately neither of these topics came up when I had dinner with Andrew and Bonnie a few Fridays ago, but we did stay up so late discussing theological differences between Protestantism and Catholicism that I had to crash overnight in their spare room. (And yes, this is the kind of engaging content which has kept this blog going for so long. You’re welcome.)

Other highlights of April included being invited to Conor’s birthday party in Mayow Park – where I was delighted to discover that an updated version of Punch & Judy is still going strong – although this was also where I discovered that Randi and I have been pronouncing the name of Chandos pub totally wrong all of this time. (We still prefer our version, though, and are sticking to it.) I also finally got a chance to watch What We Left Behind, a really lovely retrospective on the making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 1990s. I loved watching this with my dad growing up, and it was his joint favourite Star Trek (along with The Next Generation) so it was a little sad to hear that the cast and crew always felt a little unloved and unappreciated compared to their sister shows. We loved you!

Hard at work with a clipboard
Hard at work with a clipboard

The really big thing last month, however, was Catherine & AJ’s long-awaited visit to the UK. Randi and I were both very excited to see them and took the week off work, starting in Edinburgh and then migrating down to London midway through their stay.

Well, I say “took the week off work” – this was mostly true, but Randi did force them to canvass with us in Bonnyrigg on Sunday afternoon before a very lovely Midlothian dinner with Kirsty and Roger in the evening. Through this process I discovered that having an adorable two-year old with you on the doorstep is a great way of melting the ice.

Our classic late-night British TV watching gang!
Our classic late-night British TV watching gang!
Up on Blackford Hill
Up on Blackford Hill
Katie set me this "stand up from a sitting position" challenge and I couldn't resist
Katie set me this “stand up from a sitting position” challenge and I couldn’t resist

Other holiday meals in Scotland included the classic Dishoom dinner (where I bullied everyone into trying the Liberty Punch with me) and a trip to the excellent Makars Mash with Katie and James, which I am desperate to return to so that I can work through all of the mash potato varieties.

We also visited Edinburgh Castle (which I’ve done before) and the Botanic Garden (which I hadn’t – and it’s free!) in addition to lots of nice walks and – as you’d expect with a two-year old – sampling the quality of many different playgrounds. I also got in trouble for teaching the next generation how the on/off switches work on noisy Fisher Price toys. I regret nothing.

Exploring Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle
Exploring Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle
Another photo from the recurring Water of Leith Walkway series
Another photo from the recurring Water of Leith Walkway series
Wandering through the gardens
Wandering through the gardens

Wednesday’s train to London was significantly enhanced by loading up with a plentiful selection of wine and cheeses for the journey, so we were well-fed by the time we arrived back at our flat. Catherine and AJ had stayed with us back when we lived in Tulse Hill, but this was the first time they got to see our Forest Hill home in person and Randi and I had spent weeks strategising about how much of the local area we could plausibly show them over a few days. In the end we managed to pack in a fair amount! From morning cardamon buns on the High Road to the playground at the top of Blythe Hill, the Waterlink Way, the Horniman Museum and Gardens (including the aquarium and petting zoo!), the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and the Perry Hill pub, we covered a decent amount of our South East London slice.

Ordering every single vegetarian dish at Padella
Ordering every single vegetarian dish at Padella

We also had a two year old’s birthday to celebrate, for which we turned to the ultimate birthday destination of all time: the London Transport Museum! Having clamoured around the buses (she really liked the UK’s buses in general) we stocked up on gifts from the glorious shop, although TfL have not yet released official merchandise for the new London Overground line names so – clearly – I will be back.

That evening we also celebrated with a classic Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake, which went down well with everyone. Other meals in London included sharing every single vegetarian dish on the menu at Padella (no regrets) and an evening at the Mayflower pub before an evening walk along the river to Tower Bridge.

Randi tests the zip wire at Blythe Hill
Randi tests the zip wire at Blythe Hill
Exploring the aquarium at the Horniman Museum
Exploring the aquarium at the Horniman Museum
Strictly speaking, the dinosaurs were less fun than chasing after the birds
Strictly speaking, the dinosaurs were less fun than chasing after the birds
Concentrating on the irons
Concentrating on the irons

On Sunday, Catherine and AJ’s friend Mark had managed to get us all tickets to West Ham vs Liverpool, so we set off for Stratford for only my second in-person football match (PE excepted). On the plus side:

  1. The inherent pessimism of Forever Blowing Bubbles is genuinely charming.
  2. It was only £6.50 for a pint, which is much less than the outrageous markup I was expecting.
  3. The guy seated behind us offered an excellent running commentary – not only about the game, but also useful contextual information about West Ham’s woes (“moving to this soulless urban hellscape”, “not having anyone with strategy” etc.) and, as a bonus, the improvement in his previously fractured relationship with his father.

On the other hand, the atmosphere was more ‘weary resignation’ than full-blooded enthusiasm, which I guess is in keeping with the song. And it was a 2-2 draw, so the whole thing could have been written off from the start.

(Here ends Dominic’s match report.)

After the match we wandered down to Victoria Park, which surely must win the award for the most expensive and impressive children’s playground of the week. The next evening, on Catherine and AJ’s last night in London, we met up with Mark and other friends in a pub in Leytonstone: the good kind of pub, with space for kids to run around while the adults talked about football or (in my case) learnt super-interesting things on non-football topics like universities, organ donation and GP funding reform. (Still no opportunity to slip anything into conversation about leaseholders or Work Capacity Assessments, though.)

That’s probably enough incoherent rambling for now – I’d hate to get burnout and fail to deliver on my “another 20 years” promise. Although, in closing:

  • We very much enjoyed watching the Science Fair documentary together, so thanks to Katie for the excellent recommendation!
  • I was very much creeped out watching the BBC’s Why Planes Vanish: The Hunt for MH370 on my own.
  • I am hugely relieved at Sadiq Khan’s re-election, and that my jitters about the polls were wrong. The fact remains – as both Catherine and AJ agreed – that Sadiq’s text layout choices in the London Elects candidate information booklet were… questionable. Call us next time. (Congrats also to Count Binface for defeating Britain First – this does make me proud.)

Time for the traditional rubbish first-few-months-of-the-year blog! You know the one: where most fun activities still take place indoors, sans Christmas decorations or scenic summer vistas, so instead I need to keep thinking of different synonyms for “I had a drink with…” to keep the blog going. Oh well. You can follow Tash and Cormac on Polarsteps instead, if you prefer.

Drink #1 (in this narrative, at least) was actually a mimosa with Kira over bunch several weeks back in Dulwich Village. Drinks #2, #3 , #4 etc. were a few days later on a wonderful night out with Matthew, who I hadn’t seen for years and years! In return for my willingness to hop over to Ladbroke Grove on a school night, he crafted an excellent local pub crawl for the two of us, during which we caught up on the last decade or so, apologised unnecessarily for weird things we both said when we were 17, rehashed our mind/body debate from the Brent-Eton summer school (I’m still right) and started a whole new battle on the merits of the Central line. It was a blast.

Me and Matthew!
Me and Matthew!

Later that week I also hung out with current/former colleagues Klaudia and “three schwas in my name” Vanessa, which – as you can tell – descended unexpectedly into some really quite delightfully nerdy linguistics chat. Usually you can immediately spot people’s eyes scanning for the exit when I say something like “Guess what I learnt from a YouTube video on rhotics!” but this was the perfect group for such matters.

Randi missed all of this, just like she missed my spontaneous outing to Morden and Morden Park (the perfect place to stride across a muddy field while listening to a hypnotic 13 minute-long BBC News countdown theme remix, since you ask), but she was back in London the week afterwards in time for Caroline and Josh’s dinner party. Caroline and Josh are basically the only couple we have left who are still committed to the classic ‘invite a bunch of people who don’t know each other’ dinner party concept, and it’s great to be able to freeride off their hard work by meeting a bunch of interesting new people all at once. (Including someone who worked for my aunt, which briefly made me nervous.) Oh, and the food was delicious too!

A weekend later we finally hosted Alix, Adam and Austin at our flat – they have been very slow and nervous about venturing south of the river – and devoured Randi’s incredible smoked salmon frittata before enjoying a walk up Blythe Hill. Many thanks to Austin for being a legitimate reason to see the cool playground up there! My mum has also stayed with us a couple of times recently (despite fierce competition from a plethora of London options) and we all had a lovely evening together in our local fancy Italian, Nonna Maria, where my mum was delighted that her Italian is still good enough to pick up rude words on the menu.

Pointing forward to the obligatory Scottish portion of this blog post
Pointing forward to the obligatory Scottish portion of this blog post
After a shaky night before, Katie recovers her powers of Dominion
After a shaky night before, Katie recovers her powers of Dominion

Last weekend I joined Randi in Scotland for an extended weekend trip to celebrate Kirsty’s birthday! As you’d expect we celebrated in the traditional way: canvassing sessions, fondue, a Randi-made chocolate birthday cake, haggis cigars and a three-part Channel 4 documentary on the 1984 miners’ strike. (Clarification: haggis cigars consist of haggis in spring rolls, and are not smoked.)

On Sunday I had my usual day off from door knocking for another classic Doctor Who session with Katie and James. After a long break, we decided to return to Tom Baker’s ‘Key to Time’ season with The Androids of Tara, a jaunty low-stakes adventure set in a medieval society which just happens to have electro-swords and androids thrown in. Despite a lacklustre ending this was pretty pacy and fun for most of the story. It probably peaks at the point when the evil Count Grendel’s poor, loyal servant Lamia – a lovestruck peasant who is also the local expert on androids – is mercilessly killed off by a stray shot and completely unlamented. #teamLamia

I’m really not sure when I last saw my American cousins David and Ginger – quite possibly as far back as 2016! – so it was very exciting to see them again on Monday night after we had trained back to London. Randi and I notched up another Ottolenghi restaurant with a meal at NOPI (such exceptionally tasty food) before taking them to A Mirror: an extremely funny play-within-a-play political thriller set in a heavy censored, totalitarianish state. I loved it, partly because it was just so enjoyable to watch, but also because it had a more sophisticated take on politics and art than your bog standard 1984-inspired dystopia. (Side-note: I recognised one of the actors – the electrifyingly charismatic Jude Akuwudike – from last year’s Immersive 1984, where he played a very similar role. My conclusion is that Akuwudike is not, in fact, an actor but rather a genuine totalitarian bureaucrat who has simply slipped through the gaps between worlds.)

I feel a little bad about all of this because all of the preceding paragraph was originally Alix and Adam’s plan for themselves. Unfortunately for them, work got in the way and so Randi and I were the happy beneficiaries of their beautifully-crafted evening. Sorry! On Thursday night we also took advantage of our Chicago friend Karol being in the UK for a wedding, so were lucky enough to get to host him in London for a night and fill ourselves to bursting at The Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe. Oh, and talking of weddings: congrats to Jess and Adam, whose beautiful ceremony was admired by all the Selfs on the livestream today! I hope Katie packed her speech with enough Scottish-themed jokes.

Finally: Portugal! Last weekend, Randi and I popped down to Lisbon to join Mike and Melissa for our first trip of 2024, and – given the comparative warmth and sunshine compared to London – treated it as a summer holiday even though all of the Portuguese locals were walking around in heavy duty coats as if it was cold. (Seriously, the receptionist at our hotel was genuinely concerned about my welfare in a short-sleeved shirt and asked her colleague to check up on my welfare/sanity the next day.) From our perspective it was lovely and sunny!

Just look at that blue sky
Just look at that blue sky

After arriving on Friday night – and admiring the efficient metro ride from the airport, naturally – we spent Saturday morning wandering through Lisbon’s gorgeous cobbled streets in the vague direction of the Alfama district. In the same vein as London’s double-decker buses, Lisbon is clearly very proud of their little yellow trams which manage to weave up and down the narrow hilly streets. Later, after coming close to passing ourselves off as Mike and Melissa to their Airbnb host, the four of us took a less magical (but still very good) modern tram to a fancy restaurant for dinner, at which I very much enjoyed my ‘private pie’ in addition to duck rice.

As an aside, we also became very fond of the ‘intern’ working at our hotel whose duties included staffing the little rooftop bar. He didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his duties – most notably asking Melissa if she wouldn’t mind opening our bottle of wine as he didn’t know how to – but he won us over with his apologetic charm and constant refrain about his difficult internship. Wisely, he was not trusted to run the hotel’s breakfast.

Welcome to Portugal!
Welcome to Portugal!
Together at the Rossio
Together at the Rossio
"Hello new blog cover!" - Katie
“Hello new blog cover!” – Katie
Lisbon essential #1: my very first pastel de nata!
Lisbon essential #1: my very first pastel de nata!
Lisbon essential #2: Mike and the adorable tram
Lisbon essential #2: Mike and the adorable tram
Melissa, Mike and Randi on a less adorable tram on Saturday night
Melissa, Mike and Randi on a less adorable tram on Saturday night
Up at the Moorish Castle in Sintra
Up at the Moorish Castle in Sintra

The next day we took the train to Sintra, a town about 45 minutes away which is a major tourist destination thanks to multiple palaces and natural parks. We were there for the hike to the Moorish Castle, originally built in the 8th and 9th centuries and later taken by the Christians during the Reconquista. It felt like the absolute perfect time to be there – great weather for exploring and beautiful views, but not so hot or crowded that it was ever uncomfortable. At one point someone behind me did complain about the lack of a railing, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest that she take this oversight up with the Moors.

All together on our €5 train ride
All together on our €5 train ride
Mike & Melissa bought a spacious apartment in NYC
Mike & Melissa bought a spacious apartment in NYC
Randi bought a tower
Randi bought a tower
The quite magnificent castle
The quite magnificent castle
The quite magnificent views from the castle
The quite magnificent views from the castle
I thought this was very silly so had to do it
I thought this was very silly so had to do it

Rather than heading straight home at the end of the weekend I had already had the glorious revelation that a fair few of my colleagues at work are based in Porto, so it was of course totally legitimate for me to take the train up there on Sunday night and invite myself over to work from their office for a couple of days. Huge thanks to the team there for hosting me and generously acceding to my eccentric requests, including asking Vitor to record the Portuguese pronunciation of the letter R at the beginning of words to confirm Randi’s mind-blowing discovery of how different it is to the Spanish R. (R is a tricky letter anyway. Honestly it’s best to avoid pronouncing it at all where you can.)

One last picturesque Lisbon street shot
One last picturesque Lisbon street shot
Behind-the-scenes of silly public selfie machine
Behind-the-scenes of silly public selfie machine
The "we've committed to this style and we're really going for it" architecture of Lisbon's Oriente station
The “we’ve committed to this style and we’re really going for it” architecture of Lisbon’s Oriente station

My journey to Porto was incredibly smooth – both the long-distance train and the impressive Porto Metro once I arrived – and I was only momentarily thrown by the weirdness of the ticket inspection on the Portuguese railways whereby they aren’t interested in seeing your ticket at all, but rather your ID (in my case, my passport!) under which you booked. It’s a little odd that you can travel across the entire Schengen area from country to country without any border checks, and yet it’s harder to be incognito on a train from Lisbon to Porto!

I’m hesitant to say too much about Porto because I was just working from an office most of the time, and so I had to demur when eager Porto residents asked me to compare it to the capital. I was very excited when the team agreed to take me to have Francesinha for lunch: a “strange cheesy bread cheesy cheese thing” which Steve at work issued as a warning but I took as an absolute must-do. A dish native to Porto, the name means ‘little French woman’ for some reason and is clearly a hangover cure, served with chips and an optional egg. It was delicious.

A hangover cure without hangovers with Renato, Andre, Paulo and Vitor
A hangover cure without hangovers with Renato, Andre, Paulo and Vitor

On Monday night my teammates Vitor and Paulo kindly took me down to the historic centre so I could get a little flavour of the historical tourist bits, although being authentic residents they didn’t actually know the names of the famous buildings we walked past. I did love the amazing walls of the central train station, but was not as much of a fan of the scary Dom Luís I Bridge which I refused to venture very far along. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine bridge, but I was maybe starting to identify with the woman back in Sintra who wanted more railings.) After surviving the bridge we did the obvious thing while in Porto and shared some glasses of port together, which I wasn’t sure about but very much enjoyed. Perhaps this will finally move along the bottle of port which has been sitting in our kitchen ever since Beth and Stewart lifted it from a hotel room in Cambridge.

"The world's fanciest McDonald's"
“The world’s fanciest McDonald’s”
My fleeting glimpse of Porto by night
My fleeting glimpse of Porto by night

My final reflection on Portugal – other than that I loved it, and would definitely go back – is that I quickly formed a deep affection for the café owner on the route between my hotel and the office. Randi had already admired the Portuguese culture of standing together socially at the bar, sharing a morning coffee, and after coming to terms with my need for tea he seemed genuinely concerned that I wanted it ‘tomar’ – to go – in a lonely Anglo way 😉

This isn't Portugal - this is Brockley Brewery!
This isn’t Portugal – this is Brockley Brewery!

But wait- we’re nearly a month into 2024, so let’s quickly catch-up on pre-Portugal events. Similar to last year, Randi spent New Year with Catherine and AJ in Chicago, while this time I hosted Oliver and Abi at mine for New Year’s Eve along with Sarah and Kat. Kat turns out to be a massive fireworks fan, so after watching the central London display on TV there was a sweet moment when everyone came up to our loft bedroom and took turns standing on the bed and sticking their heads out of our loft windows into the night air to try and catch a glimpse of other fireworks nearby. We also played more Cobra Paw and Bonanza, a bean-themed card game which was delightful.

After a respectful number of bottles had been drunk, and successfully convinced Oliver & Abi to stay overnight before going home in the morning, I spent most of New Year’s Day up in North London with Andy and Bonnie. After a hearty pub lunch, we enjoyed a muddy walk through Highgate Wood during which I was genuinely shocked by Bonnie’s ability to instantly recall intricate plot points from any Agatha Christie novel. Definitely a Mastermind specialist subject.

Other January adventures included a wonderful Saturday in West Hamstead with Josh, Anna and Cora (after which I accidentally stole Cora’s cat – sorry!) and the successful execution of a paid deep-clean for our flat. I mention the latter because, embarrassingly, it took so much longer than expected that the company ended up calling me with a tone of “we haven’t heard from our cleaner in hours… is she alive?”. But she did an amazing job, and our taps were so shiny that I sent Randi a photo of my face reflected in them before ordering a pizza, eating it straight from the pizza box while sitting on the floor of the living room (too terrified of touching any surfaces in case I ruined them) and then going straight to bed so that Randi could still enjoy the results of the deep clean when she arrived back the next day.

Randi and I also had an impromptu walking day one weekend through Wandsworth Common and on to Battersea Park, finishing at the reopened Battersea Power Station luxury shopping centre thing (I expect they don’t like it being called a ‘shopping centre’) which I hadn’t seen inside yet. It is very cool, although we just admired the architecture and didn’t actually buy anything. We also had a very fun pasta-based outing with Reema and Esther and have also officially started watching our next series – The Bear – so I look forward to telling you what I think about it in 2028 when we finish. (I joke: we’ll try to move faster, since Randi has a temporary Disney+ subscription just for this.)

Throwback to New Year's Eve Cobra Paw
Throwback to New Year’s Eve Cobra Paw