Friday, September 21, 2007

Photos Galore

Due to popular demand, we're putting a bunch of our photos up on - not everything, but stuff people might actually like to see. We'll see just how long it takes to get a picture of a fern up there. So far I have restrained myself. There are links on the right that will take you to the photo albums so you can browse at your leisure. Enjoy!

Tales from the Crypt

I am now in my second week of work at the Natural History Museum. I’ve dug into my work right away, but the institutional details (email address, internet access, payroll, card key access, etc.) are lagging behind a bit. Not having email/internet access at work is proving a bit frustrating, particularly since the internet connection at our flat often drops out entirely, but I’m sure they’ll get fixed up soon - it has only been two weeks after all and people are still returning from vacations etc. Apart from the bureaucratic delays, the Museum has been very welcoming to me and the people that I have met so far have been very nice.

The plant collections here are vast and the library is remarkable; I keep encountering the most astonishing bits of history in the collections. On one of my first days here I came across a folder which contained four plant collections from the Tahitian islands: the first was a plant collected in Moorea by my friend and fellow fern enthusiast John Game, followed by two collections by Joseph Banks from the first voyage of Captain Cook, and one by Captain Cook himself from his second voyage. John's specimens are in good company.

The herbarium at the Natural History Museum, because of history and space constraints, is split into multiple parts. The seed plants are on the east side of the building, and the so-called cryptogams (ferns, mosses, algae, and the rest of their unruly friends) are on the west side of the building. This second half, containing the cryptogam collections (and myself, during work hours), is lovingly referred to as “The Crypt.” Come to think of it, since heads of departments here are called “keepers” instead of curators or directors, I actually work with a Crypt Keeper. Luckily for me, the Crypt Keeper here cackles a lot less than the one from television, makes fewer macabre puns (“He might find himself in graaaave danger, cackle cackle!”), and has never appeared in a movie with Dennis Miller to my knowledge.

Most people probably think very little about the physical aspects of the building they work in, but the building that houses the Natural History Museum is one of the best aspects of working here. It is an enormous castle with all sorts of quirky stairways and passages, with animals and plants worked into the architectural details. It feels in many ways like Hogwarts (Harry Potter’s school, in case anyone out there doesn’t know), especially since the stairways seem to move. Perhaps that’s just me getting lost. It was appropriate that J. K. Rowling gave a reading here when she recently released the last book in the series. In fact, all sorts of random parties and shindigs happen at the Museum, which have forced me to find new routes to my desk a few times. Right now, for example, London Fashion Week is happening right at the museum in two large temporary buildings. Later in the year, an ice rink gets put in outside for skating during the holidays. Too bad they couldn't combine the two and have Fashion Week On Ice - even I would go watch those runway shows.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Our Second Anniversary

While exploring the Wapping area recently, Andy and I came upon an interesting old building called the Wapping Power Station. It turned out to be an abandoned power station that's been converted into an upscale restaurant with an attached art gallery. Since we were both intrigued, and all the reviews we could find of the restaurant were great, we decided it would be a fun place to celebrate our second wedding anniversary.

So last weekend we made a dinner reservation, put on our heavy coats as it's getting colder here, and walked down to the restaurant. We started by touring the art gallery, which was showing only one exhibit called "Water".

The exhibit consisted of plastic water bottles from all over the world lined up on long tables. The gallery itself was fairly dark except for some strategically placed spotlights, and eerie music was playing (kind of a combination of count dracula / telephone dial tone).

Sometimes I'm put off by modern art exhibits that try too hard to make a point, but I actually liked this one. It was compelling and its environmental message - that all these bottles are going into landfills around the world - definitely hit home.

But in the end, the gallery wasn't the main point of the night. We went on to celebrate our anniversary by having a lovely dinner in the restaurant, which is housed in the main power station building. The owners did an amazing job of making a huge room with weird equipment everywhere feel cozy, trendy and welcoming all at the same time.

Most importantly, the food was top-notch - Andy had a lamb dish as his entree, and a delicious squid appetizer with beans and "little shaved bits of bottarga" (direct Andy quote). I had a nice salad, and my entree was crusted sea bass with cauliflower and carmelized onions/raisins.

Overall we had a wonderful time, and we marveled at being in London for our second anniversary. Last year we had no idea we would be here now - it's amazing! It made me happy and grateful that we have this opportunity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Poultry, Dalí, and Liverwurst

Reed, one of my old high school buddies, came for a visit this past weekend. He’s working for a company in the UK now, so we’ll probably be seeing Reed fairly frequently as he is over here quite often. I met him at Euston Station on Friday night, and, having little better to do, we walked from there all the way to our flat, a little over 3 miles as the raven flies. Of course we needed rest and fuel along the way, so we stopped at a couple of classic London pubs, the first being Lamb. This was on Lamb’s Conduit Street, one of the best named streets in all of London, although this is a tough competition, what with streets named Poultry, Seething Lane, and Fruiterers Passage. And don’t get me started about Barking and Tooting. Lamb has been open since 1729 (total youngster), and in honor of this they have a dish on the menu called “1729 Celebration Pie” - they must have made a lot of pie back in 1729 for there to be some left today. I didn't order it to find out. Lamb is a popular and beautiful old pub on a quiet street with a nice back patio and richly wood paneled interior, plus a selection of some great real ales from the London brewery Young’s.

KFC missed a real opportunity here

After Lamb, we wandered over to Holborn where we came across the Cittie of York, which was clearly old because of the silly way they spelled city. The Cittie of York has been an inn since 1420, but the building was rebuilt in 1645 and then again after it mostly burnt down in the 1890s. All of the oldest pubs in London have stories like this, which is why there are about a dozen that claim to be the oldest. The Cittie of York was less busy than Lamb (on a bigger street, and hidden down a long passageway), but the aesthetic was at least as appealing, although it felt more like a 300 year old Swiss inn than an English pub in some ways. This is a Sam Smith’s bar, so all of the beers that we get only in bottles in the US were here on tap and predictably tasty, albeit a bit on the pricey side. The bar had high rafters and lots of little walled booths to sit in, reminiscent of Tadich Grill in San Francisco. There were huge old wooden beer casks lining a loft above the bar, and a really old three-sided coal fireplace standing in the center of the room made of inch thick plates of iron.

On Saturday we all went to the Tate Modern, walking over the infamously expensive and questionably stable Millennium Bridge. This weekend was the final day of a special exhibition on Salvador Dalí that dealt not only with his paintings and drawings, but with his work on various films as well. Hitchcock fans will recall the creepy Dalí dream sequence in Spellbound with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, also renowned as the movie where Ingrid Bergman became the only person ever to make the word “liverwurst” sound sexy (here's the video of the dream). Most of the original art that was filmed for this dream sequence was on display here, as was much of his work for Un Chien Andalou and other Buñuel films, and a recently restored collaboration with Walt Disney that never got released, Destino, (probably because it made Fantasia look normal and had all sorts of semi-scandalous imagery). I haven’t really been a huge fan of Dalí since I lost my teenage fascination with all things trippy-looking, but I was really blown away by this exhibit. They had nearly all of Dalí’s most famous works including “The Persistence of Memory” (melting clocks), “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (two kneeling figures by a pool), that one with a tiger jumping out of another tiger jumping out of a fish jumping out of a pomegranate, and the lesser-known “Lobster Telephone” (a rubber lobster sitting on a telephone); you could walk right up to these paintings (and lobster) and get close enough to see the brush strokes (and lobsterness). Totally amazing.

On the Milennium Bridge

St. Paul's and the City from the Tate Modern

Monday, September 10, 2007

No water, no internet, no cable

This was a week to remember. Mostly because of the plumbers. Or more accurately, the lack of plumbers. This is a long story, but in essence 1) we had no hot water for three days, 2) I stayed home for three days waiting for a plumber that was supposed to be there any minute, 3) plumber finally comes, brings hot water back for a day, and then the system breaks again. This makes it all sound very simple, but rest assured that it has involved dozens of phone calls, Andy getting extremely angry (a very uncommon experience for those who know me well), and a few new grey hairs that had to wait a few days for their first taste of a shower.

On top of this, our internet stopped working, and we get 5 TV stations, 2 of which are clear enough to maybe watch for a while. I watched "King Ralph" out of sheer boredom while waiting for the plumber. King Ralph is bad enough when it isn't all fuzzy and filled with static. However, I do recommend the utterly silly reality TV shows here, many of which center around old ladies and their gardens.

Here is a diagram of my current understanding of how our water heater system works in our flat:

Needless to say, this is a bit more complicated than the system I am used to (you know the one with a single tank and a single heat source). Admittedly, the US system is wasteful as we tend to keep our water heaters hot all day long even when they aren't needed, but perhaps there is a balance to be struck somewhere.

Now that we have internet back (at least for now), we will soon post some pictures of our last weekend when my friend Reed visited and we tried much good beer, cheese, and modern art.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sunday in the Park

After hanging out in bustling Borough Market yesterday, we decided to take it easy today and visit one of London's parks, which are all rumored to be beautiful. So we hopped on the tube and took the Jubilee line over to Green Park, which is right near Buckingham Palace. The park definitely lived up to its name - it was huge, green and serene, with lots of pathways, benches, and shady places to sit.

It reminded me in many ways of New York's Central Park - an oasis in the middle of a hectic city. They even put out deck chairs (nice ones) so people could sit and enjoy the day - something New York would never do!

The park also had some great wildlife - we saw lots of interesting birds, including a gaggle of grey geese (we've both only seen Canada geese before), and what we think was a black and red coot. We also saw a few gorgeous black swans:

I'd never seen black swans before - they were so beautiful! We were also lucky enough to come upon a group of pelicans in a pond when they were being fed - the keeper threw fish out to them, and they caught them in their long bills. We were both amazed at how the bottoms of their bills grew huge and long when they took in the fish - just like in the cartoons! Unfortunately our picture of them is a little washed out, but if you click on it and expand it you can get a sense of what they looked like:

After walking through the park, we ended up right in front of Buckingham Palace. It was really fun to see the Palace in person - it was huge, as you can imagine, and the fountains and grounds around it were so regal. It was interesting to be in the place I'd seen on the news so many times. It turns out that Big Ben and Westminster Abbey were within easy walking distance of the Palace, so we visited them too. We both had a really good time seeing the traditional London sights, which were even more grand and beautiful than I'd expected them to be.

Weird Fountain-Man

By the time we were done with our walk, our feet were tired and it was getting cloudy, so we headed back. All day I'd had Chicago's "Saturday in the Park" stuck in my head (even though it's Sunday), so we put that on the stereo and cranked it up when we got home. Yay Chicago!!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Borough Market Day

This was technically our second Saturday in London; last week we were dazed and sleepy and only halfway aware what day of the week it was, so we didn't really do anything super-exciting. This morning we took our first trip to Borough Market, the famed London food market open only on Friday afternoon and Saturday. We had wandered through it on our last visit when it was closed, but we had little idea what to expect once the vendors had set up.

In the San Francisco Bay Area there are farmers markets that are very nice, and there are some wonderful groceries like Berkeley Bowl, but there is nothing in the Bay Area remotely like Borough Market. We had heard from some other food-loving friends that Borough Market was definitely worth going to, and some books liken it to a food Mecca with a cult-like following of foodies. They did not exaggerate. We were totally stunned at the scope, quality, array of diverse foodstuffs, and event-like atmosphere of the market. This is clearly the place to be on a Saturday morning.

True to British form, along with very good produce, the market was heavily meat and cheese oriented (hooray!), and had wonderful bakers, tea and coffee merchants, juice bars, and prepared food stalls. The bakers seemed to be in a competition to see who could make the largest and most chocolatey brownie. I encourage this competition.

Perhaps the most famous of the food stalls is the Brindisa chorizo sandwich stand. From this picture you can tell just how happy I was to try one of these sandwiches. No mugging for the camera here, this is pure sausage-fueled joy. They only serve one thing at the Brindisa stand: charcoal grilled chorizo with rocket salad (arugula), piquillo peppers, and olive oil on a grilled ciabatta-like roll. It was perfection. We followed the chorizo sandwich with a creme caramel made by a local dairy that was as good as I've ever had. Other than a chunk of incredible soft cheese we bought almost nothing because we were so overwhelmed with choices.

Anyhow, it was a wonderful start to the day, and Borough Market is highly recommended to all food lovers out there. On the way back we walked over the beautiful Tower Bridge and through St. Katherine's Harbor, enjoying the lovely weather that is still sticking with us.