Surviving my first German sauna

I spent an exceedingly pleasant birthday weekend in Berlin last week. Friday morning to Monday evening was not nearly enough to take in the whole experience, but despite historic sites all around me, I spent more time in the sauna than any other place.

Let’s rewind.

We were staying in the Hilton, which has a delightful spa area next to its pool. While we could have spent the weekend schlepping from one tourist spot to another, I opted for a bracing walk in the Tiergarten, a visit to the DDR museum and an inevitable wander past Checkpoint Charlie.

But each day we spent there, I spent at least two hours in the spa. It was just the relaxing experience I needed – despite a few initial hiccups.

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Photo stolen from the Hilton website – no cameras allowed!
For a start, rules are rule. As this was a German hotel, swimsuits were forbidden in the spa area. This was separate from the pool area, but also open to both genders. So yes, a mixing of male and female guests, all in their birthday suits.

This was a first for me – every time I’ve had to shed my clothes for a sauna or onsen, it’s been men-only. Seeing some (gasp!) naked ladies was shocking for all of about…ten seconds. After that, flesh is flesh. Honestly. None of the Germans there seemed to give a toss who looked like what.

But I had to make it difficult for myself.

After an initial quick tour of the facilities with one of the super-friendly hotel staff on Saturday morning after breakfast, I went back down after changing out of my clothes. Wearing my shorts and t-shirt, I followed another guest into the men’s changing rooms.

As promised, there were lockers available, beyond which were some showers and then the spa area and pool. I slipped into my swim shorts, went for a shower and wandered into the pool area. Assuming I could get some towels out there, I was quickly directed back out to the reception area to pick one up there.

I’d broken one of the other rules. You need to sign in to collect a towel.

Shrugging, I wandered out towards the pool’s reception, but stopped off at the entrance to the spa. Like the entrance to the changing rooms, it had a card-key area. I thought I’d test my card and went back to my locker to get my room key. This – of course – didn’t give me access to the spa.

So I went out to the reception area, after locking my locker. The door to the men’s changing rooms closed firmly behind me, just as I noticed there were no staff members at reception. So I was locked out of the changing rooms, wearing only a wet pair of swim shorts.

And some burning cheeks.

Honestly, I made fewer faux pas on my first visit to a Japanese onsen.

After wandering around for a couple of minutes, I found a member of staff who let me back into the changing rooms and gave me a couple of towels. I was so grateful for his help, I forgot to ask about the spa and its ‘broken’ card reader.

So after leaving a few moments to pass before going back out to him – I didn’t want to appear completely clueless – I had to have the entire process explained to me.

It turns out (famous last words), access to the spa section was at an additional cost, unless you had Diamond Status with the Hilton hotel chain. Which I do. So I had to a) prove it, using the card on my iPhone, stored in my locker and b) be escorted (like a naughty child) to the spa door and instructed on how to use the new access chip which was now strapped to my wrist. With a nod to the MASSIVE sign explaining it was a ‘textile-free zone’, I was left to my own devices.

This entire episode took no more than ten minutes, but it was stressful as hell. I had images of being locked out and having to go upstairs to the main hotel reception to ask for help. Just like one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself sitting a past school exam, except you haven’t studied. And you’re naked.

Just me?

Moments later, I was sitting naked in a sauna full of people, gasping for breath. It was essentially the hottest sauna I’ve ever experienced. Seriously. And I’ve been in Finnish, Swedish, Japanese and Korean saunas. It was (literally) breath-taking. I broke a sweat before taking my seat (after carefully placing a towel beneath me! Again, the rules).

Truly, after a quick look around in the dim sauna interior, I basically forgot I was effectively surrounded by hot, naked men and women. All I could think of was the heat of the air searing the inside of my nostrils and the pounding of my heart in my chest.

Every movement around me seemed to send a waft of boiling air in my direction. Sweat poured from every pore in my body. I continued to gasp. I looked around, but everyone else seemed to be taking it in their stride. Sweating buckets, obviously, but nobody seemed to be gasping like me.

My pulse was now throbbing in my head and I lasted all of ten minutes before having to leave for a cold shower.

Wandering towards the beautifully designed shower area, I saw you could choose from a variety of shower styles and temperatures. I over-estimated my temperature and my staying power and shrieked when the ice-cold water came down on top of me from the ‘tropical rain’ shower. Thankfully, I was alone at the time, all other guests snug in either the sauna or one of two steam rooms.

But I just know they heard me. I know it.

Anyway, the steam rooms were also a delight, but you don’t know pain until one of the drips of almost-piling water falls from the tiled ceiling and lands on your nethers. I quickly realised why all the men sat in there cross-legged and quickly adopted the same technique.

Life’s too sort for third degree burns to the scrotum.

The most fun between treatments was to be had as I rested on the cold marble benches, sipping some lemon water. I watched as new guests arrived and guessed their nationality.

Essentially, I played “Spot the Brit”.

British guests wandered in, reeking of uncertainty and fear. They would look around the spa area, holding their towels around them for dear life and after a few moments of whispered panicky “You go first”, “No, you go first”, they would drop their towels from their bodies and go into the sauna. For about two minutes. They’d then emerge gasping, much like I had, and seek out some cold water. And shriek under the same shower.

Rinse and repeat

By now, of course, I had adopted an air of familiarity with the whole place that was disgusting even me. Leaning back with my cold water, weighing up whether more time in the sauna was really good for me, I watched a couple of English guys come in. They had their towels gathered tightly around them, looked around uncertainly and then saw me, sitting confidently in the buff.

Towels unwrapped with a flourish, they walked into one of the steam rooms, but came out immediately, looking shocked. It had been full of women and by the looks on their faces, they though they were in the wrong place entirely!

I nodded at them and whispered “It’s a spa for men and women”. Honestly, they looked like they’d never seen a breast in the wild before. Or maybe they’d never seen so many at the same time. We weren’t, if I’m honest, short on breasts. The guys wandered sheepishly into the sauna, for an inevitable roasting.

So. I went all the way to Berlin and basically spent hours and hours sweating with strangers, in almost complete silence, drinking heaps of water and showering myself cold again.

And it was glorious.

Self-conscious Brits and Americans aside, nobody make a big deal of the nudity rules. Except for when an particularly well-endowed guy walked – no – strutted into the sauna. He turned a few heads. Male and female. No cameras or phones allowed in the sauna, obviously – but it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

He leaned back, legs spread like was about to undergo a waxing, smiling to himself and obviously very, very aware of the attention he was getting. Personally, I felt a confusing mix of disgust, admiration and jealousy.

Mostly the latter, if I’m honest.

The place was scrupulously clean and well ordered. Everyone followed the rules, (nearly) all the time. People sat on towels. They washed down the seats in the steam room. They kept their voices down to a whisper at all times. The silence even continued into the changing rooms, partly because I think everyone was too exhausted to speak.

Or, in the case of the English guys, too traumatised by all the German breasts they’d seen.

With practice, I managed to stay in the sauna for up to about 20 minutes at a time. Not impressive, I know – but I’ve never felt heat like it! Each day, I left the spa feeling an incredibly mixture of exhaustion and enthusiasm. I was glowing, even after several freezing showers and smiling like a very chilled out cat that got the cream.

(However, the health benefits of the sauna were almost certainly undone by the time we spent in the Hilton Executive Lounge each evening. But that’s for another post.)

That was my first German sauna experience and I’d definitely go back for more. If only they were all so clean and well-organised.

Enjoying Dun Laoghaire in the sun

I’m in Dublin for work right now, staying here until Thursday night. And lucky for me, I get to stay in the town where I grew up, Dun Laoghaire, which is south of the City. 

I landed to a surprising – but welcome! – amount of winter sunshine, so as soon as I’d unpacked and organised my hotel room, I headed out to walk the pier and enjoy some sunshine, while it lasted. 

Walking the pier was really a Sunday afternoon tradition when I was growing up here. And the crowds today showed that it’s still a popular venue for a walk and a natter. The town has changed a lot since I grew up here, but the coast is relatively unchanged. The pier still faces out towards Dublin Bay and you can follow the path along the coach to Sandycove – so I did!

I walked the length of the pier in record time, so took it a little easier as I made my way over to Sandycove and its Martello tower. And amazingly, despite the cold, there were some people swimming in the sea at Forty Foot. Colloquially known as the ‘Gentlemens’ Bathing Place’, Forty Foot was always known for all-year swimming and a contingent of gentlemen who preferred (and were allows) to swim ‘sans shorts’.  

I came back to my hotel via the new library, the Dun Laoghaire Lexicon. Its striking design is very different to everything around it, but I think it’s fabulous. I know it divided opinion, but I think it makes a bold and confident addition to how Dun Laoghaire faces out to the sea. 

Sun a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon. I love coming back to Dublin, especially when I can combine it with work. Now to catch up with some old friends and (hopefully) something to eat. 
 

A tale of two check-ins…

I’ve just checked-in to my hotel here in Dublin and had to share this…

I got a taxi out from the airport and had a surprisingly nice chat with the driver, considering we were discussing Brexit and Trump. We both felt a little helpless and both agreed that focusing on the sunshine was probably more productive, at least for today!

I realised when I got to my hotel that I was probably a little early to check-in and decided I’d only ask to leave my suitcase with them, so I could go for a walk by the sea (I’m staying in Dun Laoghaire, south of the City Centre). 

But I was checked in by the nicest, friendliest Brazilian girl, with whom I had a great chat about coming back home, how London compares to São Paulo and what Dublin is like for a Brazilian. 

We laughed, smiled and treated each other like humans. I got a free room upgrade, so I’m now in an executive room overlooking the sea. 

However, the woman checking in to my right had come from the US and was pretty much berating the staff member who was trying to tell her that her room wasn’t ready. I thought that maybe if she’d started with a smile, or a ‘hello’, the encounter might have gone so differently. 

But, no. As far as I know, she’s still waiting for her room and probably silently fuming at how she felt she was treated. Meanwhile, I’m in my room, admiring the sunny views over Dun Laoghaire pier, have unpacked and am planning a nice walk in the unexpected sun. 

I’ll also be leaving an excellent online review of the hotel, in the hope it goes some way to cancel out the negative one she’s inevitably going to leave. 

Food and exercise: another accountability update

I’ll raise my hand right now – this has not been a good week. In fact, it’s been such a ‘not good week’, that I’ve avoided weighing myself so I don’t have to see the harsh reality. The plan has been somewhat abandoned for the last five days or so.

Don’t worry, I’m not ‘get the paramedics to remove the door to get him to hospital’, but I’ve hardly exercised and ‘treated’ myself to food that was off the menu since before New Year’s day.

For (greasy) example, I had a blow out on Papa John’s pizza on Thursday evening. This was on top of failing to get my arse down to the gym, even with the pleasant prospect of an hour in the sauna afterwards.

Not only that, but I had the leftover pizza for lunch on Friday. Talk about adding insult to injury.

It’s very easy to fall back into bad habits and this week’s cause was pure workload and logistics. Lots of early starts and running about the place made healthy breakfasts more difficult, while exhaustion in the evening made it so much easier to get something delivered.

Oh. And that includes last night, when we used Deliveroo to bring us something tasty from Wagamama. On the upside, it was such a disappointment, I’ll never do it again. Some things travel well – pizza being one of them. Chicken katsu curry is never the same having been on the back of a delivery bike.

Plus – and I know this, having had more than my fair share of chicken katsu curries at Wagamama – the recipe for deliveries is…different? The breaded chicken was bargain basement stuff and the curry sauce tasted like it had some straight from a packet. It was like a Tesco Own Brand version of the meal. An insult to all the amazing versions of katsu curry I’ve had in Japan, too! 😁

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Anyway…all this has left me feeling distinctly sub-par and eager to get back into healthy eating and exercise. I’m lethargic and bloated, feeling very different to the last four weeks – so I can only blame the change in diet.

Tomorrow I fly to Dublin for a business trip that lasts until Thursday night. It’ll be tough to eat as healthily as I’d like, but I’ll bring Huel bars to avoid snacking or unhealthy (but oh-so-delicious) hotel breakfasts. I’m also going to be staying five minutes’ walk from the sea and so will make sure I get some nice walks and/or runs by the sea front built into my days.

And maybe next Saturday I’ll have a weigh-in and see how it’s all going.

Maybe.

We need to talk about Trump

Let’s start with some first principles: Trump is literally not my president. I didn’t have a vote in the election, as I’m not an American nor do I live there. And yes, I know exactly how it feels to have foreigners tell you what they don’t like about your country or your government.

And I try to avoid doing both, because lately the UK is no shining example of tolerance and love. Or even logic, due to the catastrophe that was the Brexit vote. ‘People in glass houses…’ and all that.

I also try to avoid overloading this blog with commentary on current affairs, as it can be quite divisive. I tend to keep that for debates on Twitter. Or over coffee, in person. So if you’re disinterested by this topic, feel free to skip to the next post.

That said…

That said, America appears to have appointed a narcissistic, unstable, petty, ego-driven, volatile and self-confessed sex-offender as president. I emphasise appointed as Trump lost the popular vote and the American electoral system still managed to get him into the White House.

And America may well have doe so in the past. Nixon was not dissimilar to Trump and I’m sure every president since has leaked their own preferences, biases and irrational needs all over the Oval Office. But, I think the difference is that they were surrounded by advisors and officials who could set them straight and ensure no damage was done to the office of the President by a temporary office-holder.

So let’s be clear: I don’t believe US Presidents are automatically examples of grit, determination, logic and wisdom as soon as they win the election. They’re human, just like you and me.

The difference here is we have an outlier on most aspects of human behaviour and attitudes in the White House, who has chosen to surround himself with similar outliers. Or extremists, if you will. People whose views on humanity, society and equality are as far to the right of any spectrum as you might find.

In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, I read a veritable chorus of commentary asking for us to ‘give Trump the benefit of the doubt’, telling us ‘the office will impact him’ and that we should ‘take him seriously, not literally’.

We’re just over a week into the Trump Presidency and I’m not going to keep quiet any longer. Yep, he’s not my president, but America is no normal country. Its decisions impact the rest of the world and as we can see, his executive orders thus far have done just that.

He has succeeded in offending and alienating his to closest neighbours with continued inflammatory talk of the ‘wall’ with Mexico and by instigating a ban on entry to the US by citizens (even green card holders and those with joint-nationality) from a selection of mainly Muslim countries. Except, of course, those where he has business interests.

You see? He is quite literally implementing the campaign slogans and it’s only a week into his term. Christ on a bike, what else is he going to do?

He has failed to share his tax returns or to formally divest himself of his vast and complex business affairs. He’s running the White House like a members’ club, giving jobs to friends and family, no more qualified to hold such important offices than you or I. And in some cases, probably less…

This is fascism in action.

Think about it. He’s pretty much mirroring what every nationalist dictator in history has done. He’s promised to rebuild the country, he’s blaming ‘others’ for the downfall of the country, he’s attacking the very system of government he’s supposed to be leading and he’s spreading lies and disinformation about allies and political foes alike. People don’t know what to believe and they’re afraid. He’s using his executive power to implement a nationalist agenda before our very eyes.

He and his administration announced their Muslim travel ban on Holocaust Memorial Day, while also refusing to specifically mention Jews in their press release. It’s like they’re waving their intolerance in our faces and laughing about it.

I’m scared.

I’m not worried that someone whose politics I disagree with is in a position of power. I’m worried that such an unstable and intolerant person has their hands on the levers of power, is busy making new enemies and has the military power to end life on earth.

And to all those American commentators who vilified me on Twitter with their talk of systemic ‘checks and balances’: where are you checks and balances now? Your system of government and electoral method has let you down, allowing a grotesquely in qualified man to take over your country and set it back at least a decade in just seven days.

Now let me tell you what this isn’t. This isn’t me issuing a blanket condemnation of all Americans, or even all the Americans who voted for Trump. Looking at Brexit, we can easily see why angry people use a vote to make a point, without a thought for the consequences.

I’ve been to the US enough times to know that it’s as varied in terms of people as anywhere else. It’s full of talented, thoughtful and broad-minded people. People who more frightened of this development that I could ever be. They’re out there right now, protesting at airports.

What I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t politics as normal. This is one of those times where people need to set aside political differences and stand up for what’s essentially right. Banning and abandoning people purely on the basis of their religion is not government-as-normal. It is fascism.

Our own unelected Prime Minister not only held Trump by the hand in public, she also invited him for a state visit to the UK later this year. This gives him legitimacy and is nothing more than a futile attempt to build some kind of relationship with Trump to offset the economic damage that will come with the kind of ‘hard Brexit’ May is pushing for. She’s emphasising trade and cooperation over human rights.

I’m embarrassed for the UK, especially as countries all around protested the travel ban openly. People need to know that this is not what the majority of people in the UK believe, no matter how appallingly the Prime Minister has behaved.

Remember also, that this is the woman who, when Home Secretary, had trucks drive around areas with suspected high number of illegal immigrants with a ‘Go Home’ message written on the side. And that after fawning over Trump, she flew straight to Turkey to sign an arms deal with a similarly unhinged nationalist clown.

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If Trump comes over here, I’ll be out there protesting his presence, his behaviour and his anti-human stance. The man is a charlatan, a bigot and unfit for office – any office. His past behaviour marks him out as singularly unfit to be President and no seal of office or plethora of officials or machine of government is going to change my mind on this.

He’s had his chance and he’s blown it.

Who’s with me? Who’s going to protest in London if/when he flies in?

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs coming to Canary Wharf

While out for a walk this morning, I noticed that there’s a new coffee shop coming to Westferry Circus here in Canary Wharf: the brilliantly-named Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. I’ve only visited one of their outlets, the one around the corner from Liverpool Street. If memory serves, the coffee was delicious – but I was in a rush.

I’ll check them out once open and will of course report back here. It’s a short walk from my apartment and could be a new Saturday morning routine hangout, if they don’t mind me hanging around the place…

Again, what a superb name for a coffee shop!

Winter blues: Craving the sun on my skin

Right now, I’m looking back on December a little wistfully. According to my (unreliable) memory, December 2016 was a lot milder and drier than January 2017. The last couple of weeks in London have featured some really bone-chilling weather and, despite the facts of the matter, I don’t see any longer ‘stretch’ in the evenings.

I miss the sun.

I know many people in this part of the world will be thinking something similar right now. But a conversation with a friend earlier this week really brought it home to me. Turning my face up to bright sunlight and sitting still in its rays is one of my most favourite things. I’m really impacted by my physical surroundings, for better or worse, and sunshine is something I’ll always move towards.

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Soaking up some sun on the last day of our visit to Tokyo, November 2016.

After spending time in the sun, I feel a wonderful mixture of recharged and relaxed. It’s like I’ve been literally ‘topped up’ by the solar energy and given a boost, but also a calming pat on the head.

Getting some more sun has been a priority for me over the last year. I mean, what’s the point of being your own boss if you an’t take off and soak up some rays when the weather’s good? Last year’s travels to Spain brought it home to me – the sun is good for me, I feel better when lying in the sun and so, I shall get more of the sun.

Every time I catch a glimpse of sunlight recently, I’m brought back to the long weekend I spent in Sitges by myself. Prepping for a few days of work in Barcelona, it was the perfect opportunity to unwind, lie on the beach and be alone with my thoughts.

In between my thoughts, or the occasional few minutes reading something on my Kindle, there was nothing by lying back and feeling sunshine on my skin, listening to the waves hit the shore and remember to occasionally roll over to avoid getting burnt.

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The utterly gorgeous Platja des Balmins in Sitges, Spain. In quieter times, last year. 

I also found some fellow travellers on that beach. People who spent the day there on their own, doing nothing but lying back and relaxing. They weren’t kicking footballs about, playing music or making noise. It seemed like they were there for some quiet appreciation of the sunlight and warmth – and, of course, to work on their tan.

We exchanged brief conversation from time to time, acknowledging each other’s solitary status and looking after each other’s belongings when one of us decided to take a dip in the sea to cool off. There was a mutual appreciation, I think, that we were here for the sunshine, in as pure a form as possible.

A couple of local people looked at me with a kind of sadness when I explained I live in London. “You must be so happy to see the sun” neatly summarises their response. “Yes,” I replied, grinning like I’d won the lottery.

And it’s not all about getting the chance to go ‘au naturel’ on a naturist beach. Yes, that’s nice, as I especially dislike seeing tan lines on my body. And swimming in a warm sea unencumbered by shorts is addictive once you start.

But also because sunbathing naked is my version of going against society’s grain and doing something most people won’t. My token act of rebellion each year. But you can’t do it everywhere, no matter how many World Naked Bike Rides are organised. And I don’t want to feature on the front page of the Evening Standard or be added to some kind of police register.

No. As the photo above illustrates (taken by @FrankDJS in Tokyo last year), I’ll sit in the sun whatever the temperature and whatever I’m wearing, just to turn my face up and close my eyes for a few minutes. To absorb a little sunshine and feel that little bit more energised.

So now, in the middle of a very cold and damp January, I’m craving sunshine and a solar recharging of my batteries – both physical and psychological. I won’t get to a beach until April, which seems very far away, so I’m hoping upcoming business trips to Barcelona will allow for the odd coffee in the sun. To tide me over. And I’ll sit there, eyes closed, face upturned and relaxed, just letting it wash over me.

In the interim, I’ll have to make do with long sessions in our apartment building’s sauna, frantically pretending the heat is coming from above and that I’m on a quiet, sunny beach.

Planning for Japan: 2017

It looks like we have a bit of an itinerary for this year’s trip to Japan! To avoid overloading ourselves with too many destinations, we’ve narrowed it down to splitting our time between Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa.

I’d like to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass and arrange some day trips out of both Tokyo (Mt. Fuji, maybe?) and Kyoto (Arashiyama and its marvellous monkeys!). Last year’s visit to the snow-monkeys of Nagano reminded me how much I like to watch primates at play – always mindful of the slim chance they’ll attack an idiot tourist who gets too close, while I capture it all on camera.

Kanazawa is brand new to us, so I’m looking for how to enjoy it and not over-commit to venues and activities.

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Kanazawa Station

This morning’s win was finding a new (to me) onsen to visit in Tokyo. It looks amazeballs and very, very luxurious. Over the years, I’ve experienced onsen ranging from the very basic to the quite modern and interesting. Every one of them has been a pleasure, one way or another. And seeing as we’re unlikely to every replicate the onsen experience here in London, I’ll rely on my brief visits to Japan to take advantage of the facilities.

I may also get another item off my bucket list by arranging a brief stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before we fly on to Osaka and then bus it to Kyoto.

Let me explain: I’m only human. After 14 hours on a plane – even going First Class – I need a shower, some clean clothes and a lie down. This will make the onward legs of this outbound journey so much easier. And I’ll be less likely to act like a toddler needing a nap by the time we get to Kyoto.

I’ll be honest – I’m also thrilled at the thought of staying in a quintessentially Japanese capsule hotel. It helps that I’m hobbit-sized and have no fear of shared bathing facilities. I’m also aware of how much my mental state is dependent on adequate sleep along with the extent to which jet-lag utterly rips my wellbeing to shreds.

Hotels are arranged for Kanazawa and Kyoto, while we look for the best possible bargain in Tokyo. I don’t think we’ll get the same awesome free upgrade at the Hilton again (but you never know), though Tokyo isn’t short of excellent hotels. It’s all about getting something central and close to a Yamanote Line station.

I tell you what, though – you can tell Sterling as taken a hammering when you check Japanese prices online. But who knows what state it’ll be in come September – maybe we’ll experience another rebound and Tokyo will once again seem cheap compared to London.

Maybe not. Though I’ve realised that the best things about Japan are the experiences, not the shopping. Even though I seem to do quite a bit of the latter every time I visit 😁

Sunrise in Canary Wharf

I snapped this photo on my way to work yesterday morning, looking down the dock at Canary Wharf towards the new Dollar Bay building.

The sunrise was amazing, so while walking, I grabbed my iPhone and snapped a pic before turning left to go and catch the DLR. I was worried that Dollar Bay would spoil this particular view, but actually, I think its silhouette adds something to the landscape.

The sunrises have been superb in London over the last week. It almost makes up for the biting cold and arctic wind.

Almost.