Tag Archives: shopping

A visit to Twinings Tea Store

10 Mar

I’m trying to remember when my love affair with tea started. Perhaps there’s just something in the British air that makes one crave a cuppa. I certainly didn’t come here liking tea. But slowly it’s grown on me.

I think it started a few years ago when I got on a workout kick. I wasn’t running yet, but I was doing Jillian Michaels videos. Either she or a random internet stranger suggested drinking green tea before a workout. If you google “green tea workout” or “green tea health benefits” you can convince yourself that green tea is some cure-all magical elixir of the gods (but then again, if you get deep enough into Google, you can convince yourself that anything is — or isn’t). So I bought some Twinings green tea on sale at Sainsbury’s — mango and pineapple flavours, because I had to ease myself into it. Slowly I went from only drinking it cold loaded with sugar, to drinking it hot with honey, to drinking it hot or cold multiple times a day with stevia or whatever-the-green-tea-equivalent-of-‘black’-is. Soon my two-box collection of tea expanded into 4 boxes, then it spilled out from its designated shelf into its own cupboard, and before I knew it my tea collection was taking up two cupboards in my kitchen.

I had a problem.

When we moved into our new flat with a smaller kitchen, I told myself my collection could only take up one cupboard, so I couldn’t buy any more tea until there was an opening. Even drinking 2-4 cups a day, there was no way I was going to get through it all. Surprisingly I’ve kept to my promise, and I get a little thrill every time I finish a box. Though what follows is always the hard part: what new flavour to get?

Twinings tea store to the rescue!

Whenever I need to bring tea back to friends or family in the U.S., I go to Whittards or Fortnum & Mason — fancy pants shops that scream (or rather suggest in a polite, but posh way) “London.” I’ve never been to Twinings’ store because you can buy Twinings tea in all the supermarkets and they even sell it in some U.S. supermarkets. But then I discovered the Twinings Tea Shop on the Strand had something all the other fancy pants shops didn’t — pick ‘n mix tea. (Translation: individual bags.) I didn’t have to commit to a full box of tea that would take up valuable shelf space and may not even taste good (like the M&S Christmas tea I bought last year. There’s a reason it was less than £2 for 40 bags. Luckily I found a far superior Christmas tea at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, which may just be one of the most random places to find quality Christmas tea. But I digress.) The individual Twinings bags were 15p each with a minimum purchase of 15. I bought 20 for £3, which is slightly more expensive than a full 20-bag box at the supermarket, but the variety makes it worth it.

twinings pick n mix

Twinings’ shop is also worth a visit just because, according to Wikipedia, it’s London’s longest-standing rate-payer, having occupied the same premises on the Strand since 1706. Another fun fact: Twinings holds the world’s oldest continually-used company logo. ::the more you know::

They had some expensive fancy-pants loose leaf teas, but also a lot of the same tea you can find in the supermarkets cheaper. I saw a guy buying just two boxes of the new fruit infusions and I wanted to tell him, “You know those are half price at Tesco right now,” but maybe he was buying them at the store for the experience, and the coveted fancy shopping bag (which I totally got too — 20 little tea bags could easily fit in my purse, but the shopping bag had gold ribbon handles!).

twinings strand bag

Which brings me to my last question: Do actual real live Londoners ever shop at Twinings, Whittards or Fortnum & Mason? Every time I go into those stores they’re just full of tourists loading up on “authentic London” presents to bring home. Am I not a true English teaphile because I like the flavoured stuff? Are Yorkshire Tea, Tetley, Typhoo or PG Tips the only types of tea you’d find in a British person’s tea cupboard? Inquiring minds must know.

A random post about nothing, grocery shopping and a cute panda video

2 Mar

Hello, friends, family and internet strangers (especially those of you who found me through my Priceline refund post, I’m so happy it’s been helping people!).

I feel like it’s been too long since I last posted, yet I don’t really have anything to post about. I’m not sure one can use the word “boring” about living in central London, but no matter where you live you tend to fall into a routine — work, run, somehow get caught up in the changing of the guard while trying to cut through Horseguards no matter what time it is, eat, more work. The usual.

Our new place is finally starting to feel like home, even though we still haven’t painted or made the cosmetic changes we’ve been talking about for months. (Finding a reputable, reasonably priced builder is surprisingly hard.) But I’ve gotten used to the location and know all the best shortcuts to get around the tourist-infested streets. I can’t seem to break my once a week grocery shopping habit though. At our old place we lived over a mile from all the best stores, so every Monday I would lug my little trolley to Aldi, Iceland, Sainsbury’s and sometimes other stores to stock up for the week. But now we live reasonably close to a Tesco so I could go every day if I wanted to. I don’t need to buy vegetables on Monday for Friday and worry if they’ll still be fresh. And yet I still find myself doing a big shop on Monday, just because Monday has been grocery shopping day for so long. I can’t even wean myself off my Aldi habit. Not only are their prices so much better than Tesco, they sell things Tesco doesn’t have, like frozen cherries and blueberries. So now about once a month my trolley and I take the Tube up to Aldi and I wipe out their supply of thousand island salad dressing, frozen fruit, and dark chocolate (at least that’s what I go in intending to buy — I always leave with a trolley so full I have to bring my giant tote bag for overflow). It’s such a hassle and I keep telling myself I should stop — I can deal with the subpar, more expensive dressing at Tesco and can use other fruits in my smoothies, but the Aldi lure is just too strong. I’m looking forward to checking out Aldi in the U.S. on my upcoming visit, they just built a nice new one by my parents’ house.

Hey, I just made a post about grocery shopping, just like in the good old days of the blog!

I’ll end with this amazing baby panda video. I know they say when you work with pandas you mostly just clean up poo and prepare bamboo, but I totally wouldn’t mind doing that with this little guy in tow!

(Though I really want to tell iPanda it should be “Nanny, you can’t resist my cuteness!” Do you think they’ll accept my editing services in exchange for baby panda playtime?)

What do watermelons and guidebooks have in common?

30 Jul

Friends, I think something might be wrong with me. Today I walked to Oxford Street to go shopping (24,000 Fitbit steps and counting today!), as is tradition before I go on holiday. There’s just something about wearing new clothes in a new place. I was gone for five hours (5!) and I came home with a pair of off-brand Chucks (shoes), some socks, and a watermelon. (And a finger that is still somewhat numb from lugging said watermelon over a mile in a cheap Tesco bag). I went into so many stores. I tried on so many things. And yet nothing seemed worth buying. It either didn’t fit right or I realized I have at least three shirts that are too similar. That, and I think I’m getting too old for many stores. Why must all the shirts be crop tops? Why does everything scream “drunken hot mess at an outdoor music festival”? Why do the jeans have so many holes in them? When I was in high school one of my classmates told me my style of dress was “career mom.” I took it as a complement, though I’m sure she meant it as a diss. I like to think I dress better now than I did back then, but I can’t shake the career mom vibe entirely, despite the fact that I work from home in pajamas most days and have no intention of becoming anything other than a dog mama. In short, I have a closet — closets — full of clothing I barely get to wear that will happily journey with me to Portugal and Belgium next week, along with my new blue cheapo Chucks.

Rick steves ebooksThat’s right, next week we begin our August holiday, which in typical Renee and Stephen fashion is to two countries that are not geographically close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other other than the fact that they’re both places we want to visit. For some reason we procrastinated and struggled to decide on a destination this year (#firstworldproblems, I know). There are so many places to go and see, but it also turns out a lot of the world is hell’s-waiting-room hot and muggy in August, so we had to narrow our choices. I’ve been reading and writing about Lisbon a bit for one of my jobs and we’ve never been to Portugal, and Stephen’s never been to Belgium. I went with my parents to Brussels and Bruges two years ago, but I told him I would happily return to the land of chocolate, waffles, frites and lambic (aka fruit beer that actually tastes like fruit and not beer. Take note, Bud Light Lime!). I’m still working on a tentative itinerary with the help of my homeboy, Rick Steves. Is there anything that screams “American in Europe” more than toting around a Rick Steves book? Maybe wearing an NFL jersey with white socks and trainers, but I tote my Rick Steves with pride. Frommers and Lonely Planet just don’t compare. This time I’ll just be toting my Rick a little more discretely on my iPad, but not because I’m not proud to be an American, but because guide books are freaking heavy (and my finger may never heal from lugging that watermelon).

What can you get for $50 at Neiman Marcus?

8 Apr

The short answer: not much.

My very first pair of Tory Burch flats are starting to wear out and constantly slip off, so I decided to treat myself to a new pair (especially now that they’ve been redesigned to no longer include elastic on the back — you’d think it would help the shoe stay on, but in reality it just makes it slip off).

treat yourself

Reva flats are not cheap, so I signed up for Neiman Marcus’ emails to get 10% off, plus they’re having a deal where if you spend a certain amount, you get a $50 gift card. While I’d much rather they just deduct $50 from the price of the shoes, I will happily accept free money.

I have not received the gift card yet, but I eagerly started surfing the site to see what I could buy. A quick click on the clothing links quickly ruled that out. I could buy another pair of Revas or other shoes, but I don’t really need any, and the $50 isn’t really free money if I have to pony up a lot more on something I wasn’t planning on buying in the first place.

So I went over to kitchen accessories — maybe they’d have something cool there! I found this water bottle:

neiman marcus citrus bottle

It infuses your water with fruit — cool! But so does dropping a slice of lemon in your glass, and that doesn’t cost $18.

Some of my favorite health and fitness bloggers rave about the bkr water bottles.

neiman marcus bkr

Apparently they’re super durable and “clean.” Except I don’t mind having to walk into my kitchen to get a drink because I need the Fitbit steps. Also I am rarely “on the go,” and when I am, I don’t want to carry a heavy glass water bottle. One more thing: IT’S A $42 WATER BOTTLE! Yes, technically it would be “free” for me, but still. It’s not $42 pretty.

I thought maybe I’d have better luck in the gourmet food department. The $50 is free money, so why not spend it on something completely frivolous that I would never buy with real money — like a giant box of Godiva chocolate. This is what I envisioned:

neiman marcus godiva ultimate truffle

I did not envision the $165 price tag for 80 truffles. Time to lower my expectations.

neiman marcus godiva dessert

I could get 12 dessert truffles for $30 (inexplicably on sale for $30 from $25?). No wonder Godiva doesn’t give samples if their truffles are “worth” $2.50!

Or I could blow the whole gift card on 12 pieces of chocolate:

neiman marcus chocolate 12

Although knowing me, I would be too afraid to eat them since they cost me so much free money and would save them until they were past their prime. Not that I’ve done that with Christmas or Easter candy in the past…

But if I’m gonna blow the whole thing in one shot, I could at least get 36 pieces of Godiva.

neiman marcus godiva spring

That’s $1.38 a truffle, an even better value than 80 for $165!

Or maybe I could get tea.

neiman marcus tea

But for $45 I would expect 20 packs of 20, not just 20 bags. That’s $2.25 a mug, wouldn’t it be cheaper to just go to a cafe?

Look, creme brulee almonds! Those sound amazing!

neiman marcus almonds

But not $35 for 18 oz. amazing. (WHO IS BUYING THIS STUFF?!!)

I was now deep in the gourmet food pages and finding some interesting things. Like asparagus. Who in their right mind buys 2 lbs of asparagus from Neiman Marcus for $44 (plus $12.50 shipping!)? So it’s essentially $56.50. I’m not sure I would even spend $6.50 on 2 lbs of asparagus, I think Aldi sells it cheaper.

neiman marcus asparagus

Look, 3 lbs of mashed potatoes for $61.50 (gotta include shipping). I think they are loaded with flakes of gold.

neiman marcus mashed potato

This dachshund cookie jar is maybe the least crazy $50 food item — it comes with 17.6 oz of cookies, which is approximately 50. So it’s $1 a cookie with a free dachshund jar! My dad and his side of the family are big dachshund fans — do you want a cookie jar and 50 cookies for Father’s Day, Dad? 😉

neiman marcus dachshund

That was all the gourmet food section had to offer for $50 or less, so I hopped over to beauty. I obviously don’t need any more makeup (does anyone?), but it never hurts to look. And now I know that Christian Louboutin makes nail polish. And it costs $50.

christian louboutin nail polish

I’m not sure what’s going on here either — is the insanely high shoe some kind of decorative case? And is the nail polish red or black, or some magical mixture of both? For $50 it better be both.

All Neiman Marcus’ makeup was designer (and not like Lorac Pro or Urban Decay, which are expensive for Ulta, but still under $50, but real designer, like Louboutin, Armani and Dior). In other words, $50 wouldn’t get me a makeup brush.

By chance I wandered over to jackets, just for kicks. And that’s when I found this mythical unicorn:

neiman marcus pleather jacket

I’m not sure I’m a leather (or pleather) jacket girl, but this one would be free. I just hope my gift card comes before they realize they left a zero off the price, because nothing at Neiman Marcus costs $34, not even a water bottle. And if I got the jacket, I’d have enough money for this too:

neiman marcus peppermint brittle

Though with a sale price like that, it’ll probably be long gone, so I’ll have to settle for 6 truffles or a $16 tin of butterfly gummies. But hey, it’s all “free,” right?

My Epic IKEA Adventure, or Why IKEA Delivers

25 Jan

ikea wembley

Almost everywhere I’ve lived — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago — has been home to an IKEA, but it’s never been “I’ll just swing by on the way home from work” close. It’s always far enough to require a special outing — an Epic IKEA adventure. London is no different.

For my birthday this year my parents got me an awesome present — an IKEA gift card in £. I have no idea how they procured it — it involved phone calls, international transactions, and the Royal Mail sending it to Kentucky — but it made its way back across the pond with me and was burning a hole in my pocket. I was behind on work from my jetlag, yet every time I would start working on something, a voice in the back of my head would say, “I wonder if IKEA sells a steamer insert. You should probably go on their website and check.” And then an hour later I have a steamer insert on my virtual shopping list, along with 10 other things. This went on for days. Clearly, the only way to stop it would be to have an epic IKEA adventure and buy all the things. So that’s what I did yesterday.

Getting to IKEA was easy enough. I rolled my shopping trolley to the overground station, arriving just in time for the train, got off at Stonebridge Park, and took the free IKEA shuttle to IKEA Wembley. In minutes I was at the Mecca of cheap Swedish furniture and other random household goods.

In a way, IKEA is like the Vatican Museum. Most people only want to see the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican knows this. But if they charged €5 just to see that, no one would pay the €16 to go through the whole museum. So they make you wander for hours through the entire museum (sometimes in wet socks and shoes) before they let you see Michelangelo’s masterpiece. There are no shortcuts either. Every so often they’ll put up a sign letting you know you’re going the right way, but you’re a long way from the main event. That’s how I feel about IKEA’s showroom. Everything on my list was in the marketplace, but they don’t let you go right there. They make you walk through the entire showroom, through bedrooms, baths and kitchens, with signs promising you you’re almost to the haven of cheap dishes and candles. I guess they’re counting on you buying something just because it looks good in the fake bedroom — if it was just in a bin in the marketplace, you wouldn’t pick it up. They even have little bins of products spread throughout the showroom. I fell for this trick when I first walked in, but I soon realized everything was also in the marketplace, and with more variety. By the time I finally made it through the showroom I had wasted a good half hour. With my list from the website in hand, I picked up everything I needed (and more) and made it to the warehouse part. The only thing I needed there was the famous cheap Lack side table that every apartment must have.

lack side table

We already have two of them, but recently bought a printer and were storing it on top of my keyboard bench, so we needed another table. I was going to have this delivered, but in true Renee fashion wanted to save the delivery fee and figured I could carry it. It’s only a little side table! I brought my largest tote bag, foolishly thinking it would fit. I think someone behind me laughed when they saw me try. I experimented carrying it in one hand around the store. Now this table was easy to carry in the way that high heels are comfortable when you first try them out around the store. With my eye on the clock, I checked out, using up all but £7 of my gift card on pots, plates, storage bins, utensils, a steamer insert, whatever the Swedish word is for “whopper chopper” and of course that side table.

I made the shuttle just in time (time was really on my side during this adventure) and was dropped off back at the Tube station. The Tube station I did not realize was at the top of three flights of stairs, because my trolley was empty when I arrived and I wasn’t carrying a table. But now I was. I went up each step slowly, taking a step, moving my cart up, cursing the stupid table. I finally made it with a minute to spare. Realizing that this table was not as comfortable to carry as I thought, I decided to be smart and take the Tube to Baker Street, then take the 274 bus that goes right by my apartment to minimize my walking. It was a long ride to Baker Street on the Bakerloo line, but the time passed quickly because there was a cute British kid sitting next to me who said cute British things. I didn’t even care that he spent the whole ride kicking my table, because honestly I wanted to kick the table too. When we arrived at Baker Street station, I followed the “way out” signs, thinking I was home free. And then I saw the stairs. I did not know there would be stairs, as I never get off at Baker Street, and my Tube station only has escalators. I begrudgingly began my step-pull routine when a woman came up behind me. “Need any help?” she asked. I lied and told her I was fine, because that’s the polite thing to do. “Are you sure?” she asked, watching me struggle. We then had what can only be described as a polite off, as she continued to offer help and I continued to insist I was OK, until finally she lifted the bottom of my trolley and suddenly I could walk up the stairs at a normal pace. I thanked her profusely, knowing that this was the perfect occasion to say “cheers,” but it just doesn’t sound right in an American accent. She walked on ahead of me as I turned a corner to encounter — you guessed it — more stairs! Side note: how are so many Tube stations not accessible? What about people with disabilities, the elderly, and those carrying trollies and tables who would greatly benefit from a lift? This time a well-dressed man came up behind me and offered help. The table digging into my fingers, I didn’t even bother with a polite off. He helped me lift my trolley up not one, but two flights of stairs. Kind people of Baker Street station, I can’t thank you enough.

Finally out of the station and on the main road, I once again thought I was home free, as the bus stop is right in front of the station… until I remembered that Baker Street is a one-way going south, and I needed to go north. To catch the northbound 274 bus I had to go over one block. This is when the metaphorical heels started giving me blisters. That table I thought was so easy to carry in the store was killing me. I was almost to the stop when I saw the bus coming down the street. The 274 never seems to come often, so I had to catch that bus. I don’t want to say I ran into oncoming traffic with my trolley and table in order to make the bus because I know my parents and grandparents read this, so I’ll say I patiently waited for the walk sign and crossed the street when appropriate, not at all running or risking the poorly packed dishes in my trolley (all of us survived, by the way). Since this story is already too long, I’ll just say that I eventually made it home with my IKEA haul, I would definitely go back to IKEA Wembley, but I am not buying a table unless we drive.

The magical failed quest for the best Jingle Jammies

24 Nov

I am sensing a Thanksgiving pattern in our household. It goes something like this:

“Thanksgiving should be all about enjoying good food and precious time with family. It’s such a shame that our capitalistic commercialism-driven society has pressured stores to open up earlier and earlier and those poor employees have to work on Thanksgiving.”

::Looks through ads in newspaper on Thanksgiving::

“Dude! Have you seen these deals? We’re going out now!”

Such was the case both last year and this year, in particular with Old Navy. I didn’t particularly want or need anything from Old Navy, until I studied their ad. That’s when I saw them — $8 Jingle Jammie pants covered in Boston terriers wearing Santa hats. I do not need any new pajama pants. But I needed those.

So after stuffing ourselves with stuffing and the like, we headed off to Old Navy — my mom in search of deals, my brother along for the ride until the next store, and me in search of the magical Santa Boston terrier pants.

After searching the entire women’s section to no avail, I had to cave and ask an employee. It went down something like this:

“Excuse me, where are the maroon Jingle Jammies with the Boston terriers wearing Santa hats on them?”

The employee studied the photo in the ad closely. “Which one?” she asked, pointing to a pair of pink plaid pajama pants on the wall that clearly featured neither Boston terriers nor Santa hats. “These?”

“No, these,” I said, pointing again at the photo. “They’re maroon. And there are Boston terriers wearing Santa hats on them.”

“Oh.” She said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen those.” And she proceeded to look in all the same places I had just looked, before we moved onto the girls section. Soon enough several employees were involved in my quest for Santa hat-wearing Boston terrier pajama pants. It reminded me of the task force often assigned to me in China to find a sit-down toilet. One of the employees checked in the back, but came back empty-handed. “Sorry,” she said. “I thought we had everything in the ad in stock. I guess not.” Obviously disappointed, I told her it wasn’t a problem.

I went home empty-handed, but the magical Jingle Jammies that got away were always in the back of my mind. I finally decided to check the Old Navy website. As predicted, no Boston terriers wearing Santa hats. Then on a whim I googled “jingle jammies” and this photo appeared:


It’s hard to make out, but those maroon pants second from the left appear to be covered in Boston terriers. Wearing Santa hats. And they appear to be worn by a man. The wheels began to turn — the ad said “for the family.” Maroon is one of those androgynous colors. Why did I think only girls or women would wear Santa BTs? Why did I not check the men’s section when I was at the store? So I checked online under “Men,” and there they were:

And what time did I realize this? At 11 p.m. Saturday, the day the $8 Jingle Jammie sale ended. Their original price is $16.94. Do I pay that now? Do I return to the store and demand a price match because none of the employees helping me the other day thought to check the men’s section? Or should I just let them be the Jingle Jammies that got away?

…Oh crap, they come in green flannel too?!

OldNavy.com, why must I spend $50 for free shipping?!

Election Day from far away

7 Nov

It’s odd experiencing an election outside the US. I am forever grateful I was spared the onslaught of political ads and signs, but I also felt disconnected. If it weren’t for all my friends going on about it on Facebook and the occasional BBC “U.S. President Barack Obama and this bloke named Mitt Romney had a debate. Now on to weather!” blips, I wouldn’t have known it was happening. Being five hours ahead on Election Night certainly didn’t help. The BBC had in-depth coverage about the election, but most polls didn’t even begin to close until after midnight GMT. I was torn. They say the average person only sees 18 election in their lifetime. Seems like something worth staying up for, even more so than the Super Bowl. So I plopped myself in front of BBC’s coverage, which as usual was entertaining. I think my favorite comment came from some important British guy: “Over two hours to vote? I think most of us Brits would go home after 10 minutes of waiting.” Even I’m amazed that some Americans waited that long to vote. They had various BBC corespondents reporting in from bars across the US, including Ohio and Florida. Random people kept popping up behind the reporter and shouting “Obama!” A little after midnight some of the numbers started coming in. “This is exciting!” I thought. But then my eyes started to get heavy. They started talking about the same things over and over again because no new states were reporting. I realized this was not an election that was going to be called at a reasonable hour for me. So I went to bed. Around 5 a.m. (midnight EST) I woke up and saw the breaking news alert on my iTouch from USA Today: “Barack Obama re-elected president of the United States.” In 2008 I heard fireworks and cheers all night, just blocks away from Obama’s party in Grant Park. In 2012 I found out who won by checking my iPod half-asleep. Who knows where I’ll be or how I’ll find out in 2016!

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend near Oxford Circus. As we were leaving we stumbled upon an aggressive fish and chips peddler who insisted we take one of his flyers. When we refused, fibbing that we didn’t like fish and chips, he asked if we were American. It being election day, I expected him to ask us about Obama or Romney. Instead he said, “Oh, that explains it. Americans like, what, steak sandwiches? Oh, and hot dogs!” And then he preceded to give us unsolicited recommendations on hot dog joints in London, including a place with “massive” ones. It seemed like an odd business tactic — get customers to eat at your fish and chips shop. If they try to ignore you and hope you go away, recommend hot dog places.

After the guy finally left us alone, I did a little Christmas shopping along London’s most popular shopping street. The stores and street were fully decked out, and it would have been truly magical were it not raining. I’ll leave you with this photo I took of the street lights, brought to you by … Marmite Gold.

I’m not sure if “You either love it or hate it” refers to the yeast extract spread itself or the fact that London sold out and turned its Christmas decorations into an advertising campaign.