Thursday, November 29, 2007

Home on the Range

Living abroad has made me notice something about myself that I had never really paid attention to before: I'm American. Really amazingly blatantly American. Sure, I have always known that I was American, but it never really meant much to me before because it didn't come up that often living in the US. They may speak English in the UK, and we may be direct descendants of their culture, but American and English cultures started diverging the moment the Mayflower set sail nearly 400 years ago (incidentally from a pier just across the Thames from where we now live), and there are some major differences between our cultures today. This is a big philosophical topic that can go numerous directions, and there are probably major life lessons I could be extracting from this, but I find myself focusing on more entertaining minutia like root beer and Mexican food.

Being American, and especially since we're Californian, the lack of Mexican food in London is a major source of frustration (albeit an easy way to lose a few pounds). It is a common topic of conversation amongst Americans here, and the hunt for good Mexican restaurants and quality ingredients has inspired multiple blogs and internet sites created by American expats. Never underestimate the power of a good enchilada. The posh-food wonderland that is Whole Foods Kensington, a veritable buzzing hive of Americans, is a decent source for salsas and chilies, but I have yet to find good tortillas in London. You can find some okay flour tortillas (although most are better used as frisbees), but no corn tortillas to speak of. As an act of mercy, my friend James arranged for some real corn tortillas to be brought to us by a coworker who was in London on business. He left them for me at the front desk of his hotel near Paddington Station -- appropriate since Paddington Bear is, of course, closely associated with salsa and tortillas.

Paddington with his characteristic jar of pico de gallo

Paddington Station is all the way across town from our flat and north of my work, so I had to go a bit out of my way to get there. Also, Google Maps, which is unfortunately not up to par in London, gave me the wrong directions so I walked 15 minutes out of my way just to find that the hotel was about 100 feet from where I started walking. To add insult to injury, when I went inside to pick up the tortillas, the concierge couldn't find the package. My hopes for an amazing tortilla-based meal were dashed. Several emails and phone calls later, we sorted out that the tortillas had been put in the refrigerator of the hotel restaurant and no one had told the concierge that this had been done. So, the next day I trekked back to Paddington a second time and successfully retrieved the tortillas.

You don't know how happy this made us

I couldn't stop there; with good tortillas in hand I needed to make some high quality food to fill them. So I went to Whole Foods and picked up all of the necessary supplies: dried guajillo chilies, potatoes, pork shoulder, tomatoes, coriander (aka. cilantro), limes, jalapeños, and a jicama. The jicama confused the checker who finally rung it up as "Misc. Squash" and shrugged. At home, I cooked up a big pot of guajillo-spiced pork and potatoes (picture Mexican pulled-pork with potatoes) and made a salad of jicama and watercress with lime cilantro and jalapeños. To complete the meal, we also added one final ingredient, the holy grail of American food (at least to us): root beer. I tracked down a source of Barq's here in the UK, and we had just received a case in the mail. Yes, we are in fact weird enough to mail order root beer. If this all sounds like a lot of effort just for some Mexican food and root beer, it was -- but it was totally worth it. This meal temporarily transported us away from cold dark London back to warm California days.

Still Life with Root Beer

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Our Squared Pie

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving was a few days ago, but we didn't have a big dinner on Thursday. In the US you get the day off, so you can cook all day, plus you get Friday off to digest (or just eat more pie). But, of course, in the UK, Thursday and Friday were just like any other work day, so we held our Thanksgiving dinner last night on Saturday.

You can get turkey here in London, but it isn't widely available until Christmas. Even a small turkey would feed the two of us for five days, so we went with its cousin the chicken instead.

I had it all planned out: walk to Borough Market in the morning, buy a ridiculously nice free-range chicken, get some fresh produce, herbs and crusty bread for stuffing, green beans, cranberries for sauce, and apples for making an apple pie. Well, yesterday morning was right around freezing with a lovely biting wind, so the prospect of walking across Tower Bridge was not exactly appealing. Instead, we ended up at our local supermarket; we did get a free range chicken (although it may not have lived in the shade of arching polars, sipping G&Ts while Vivaldi played in the background, like the ones from Borough market probably did), and everything else we needed was there, including some delicious local apples for pie.

We were spoiled by the kitchen in our Oakland apartment, and we sometimes forget that we don't have everything we used to have (although our current place unaccountably came equipped with two battery powered milk frothers). After I made pie crust yesterday morning (eyeballing the measurements because we don't have any measuring cups or a scale yet), one major problem hadn't hit me yet. Later, when I was cutting apples for the filling, I finally realized the problem: I was making pie (hooray!), and we don't own a pie plate (boo!). Actually, we do own several pie plates, but they are sitting in a storage locker in California and not doing very much to help me with my no-pie-plate problem here in London. I was forced to improvise, and ended up using the only available option: a rectangular casserole. I was slightly disappointed to not have a circular pie -- after all, pies are supposed to be circular in my world -- but luckily our squared pie tasted just as good as a circle.

Our Squared Pie

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shakespeare? Make it so.

One of the best things about London is the amazing live theatre, rivaled only by New York to my knowledge (except they have "theater" not "theatre"). At any given time you can find several plays in London with well known stage and film actors, and countless smaller productions and large budget musicals. For example, right now there is a production of King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellan (sold out, alas), Glengarry Glen Ross starring Jonathan Pryce (perhaps best known in the US for Infiniti commercials, but also starred in Brazil), and Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater (perhaps best known for sounding exactly like Jack Nicholson, but also starred in Gleaming the Cube).

On Saturday, Maggie and I went to see a new production of MacBeth starring Patrick Stewart at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. We saw it advertised a while back and bought tickets right away before it sold out, and we have been anxiously awaiting the show for weeks. Of course Patrick Stewart has had a long distinguished career (including many years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the X-Men movies, and one of the funniest cameos ever on Extras), but we kept saying "Hey, we're going to see Captain Picard live!" He probably gets tired of people only associating him with Star Trek, but it is better than people only remembering him for his performance in Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson.

"Give me tea, Earl Grey, hot, or I'll pump you full of lead, Banquo!"

This show has gotten nearly unanimously rave reviews from the critics, and it more than lived up to the hype. We've both seen many plays and both love Shakespeare, but we both agree that we've never seen anything remotely as entertaining, professional, and exhilarating as this production. At first we were disappointed that the play had to be MacBeth - after all, Patrick Stewart had played Prospero in The Tempest earlier in the year, and we both thought of MacBeth as a bit of a overwrought blood-bath, even by Shakespeare's standards. However, this production staged MacBeth in an incredibly creative way that made the story relevant to current world affairs and honestly frightening.


The set was strongly reminiscent of the hospital wing of Alcatraz prison - bleak, institutional, and giving off some serious Abu Ghraib bad vibes. Because of the overtones of paranoia, espionage, treason, and torture in the text of MacBeth (not light stuff, admittedly), and following the stark prison theme of the set, the characters were dressed in early 20th century fascist-style military uniforms. The witches, envisioned by Shakespeare as old hags with beards (weird perhaps, but not especially scary), were transformed into spooky torturous nurses. I didn't know plays could actually do this, but the whole thing was SCARY. The sound, music, and visual effects were equally amazing and were used very well to keep the audience engaged and make a 400 year old play seem fresh. I'm often suspicious of creative re-workings of classic plays (e.g., Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet), but somehow this worked amazingly well. Patrick Stewart was excellent and humble (he was listed alphabetically on the program and poster, and he didn't do a separate encore), and the rest of the cast was also very good.

It is really wonderful to be able to see real actors doing live theatre. While we enjoyed Huey Lewis in Chicago back in San Francisco, somehow it wasn't quite the same.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Wonderful Weekend with Bob

We had our first official visitor in our new flat this weekend: my cousin Bob! He was kind enough to stop in London for a few days on his way to Germany on business, and we all had a blast going out on the town together.

We started the weekend on Saturday with a walk over Tower Bridge - it was windy and cold, but we still enjoyed the view and the bridge architecture:

Maggie & Bob

Even though Andy and I have crossed Tower Bridge multiple times now, it never gets old. Once we reached the other side of the Thames, we walked along the south bank of the river to the Tate Modern (where we saw the Salvador Dalí exhibit in September, for all you regular blog readers). The big exhibit showing now is by Louise Bourgeois, a French sculptor known for her experimental approach. We didn't go inside the museum, instead opting to hang out for awhile outside next to her giant spider sculpture:

The sculpture aptly named Maman

If you look closely, you can see an egg sack (ewww) on the spider - hence the sculpture's title Maman. We all agreed this was pretty gross and wondered if there were little baby metal spiders that might drop out spontaneously one day from the eggs... ok, maybe not.

That afternoon we went over to west London to Harrods - it was amazing, especially now that it's decked out for Christmas. For those of you who don't know Harrods, it's London's most famous department store. It carries very posh clothing and household items, but is most well known for its extensive food court. The lines throughout the store were long, but we still picked up a few souvenirs and enjoyed walking through the men's tie department (some of the most beautiful ties and cufflinks I've ever seen)!

A busy day at Harrods

After Harrods we went to The Capital Hotel for high tea. High tea typically consists of little sandwiches, cakes, cookies, scones with clotted cream, and of course, a hot pot of tea. The Capital Hotel did a great tea service and it was considerably less expensive than the more famous places like The Savoy, The Ritz, or Fortnum & Mason. We had a lot of fun and the food was delicious, as evidenced by Bob's smile:


Finally, on Sunday we went to an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum called 'The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947 - 1957'. The Victoria and Albert (nicknamed The V&A by Londoners) is a museum exclusively devoted to art and design, and this exhibit was one of my all-time favorites. It had authentic dresses, suits, and jackets from the post-war era, when women's fashion moved away from the straight, cold lines of wartime clothing to more feminine, elegant shapes. Designers in Europe were becoming big and setting world trends in fashion during these years, so a lot of their clothing was on display, as well as some artful fashion photographs of the day.

A few of the dresses

The layout of the exhibit was especially cool - the clothing was displayed in mock storefronts that were made to look like little European shops, and the centerpiece of the exhibit was a big modeling runway with all the outfits on dress forms. The whole thing got me thinking again about designing and sewing my own line of vintage inspired jackets, something I've wanted to do for a long time. The exhibit was also fun for Bob and Andy (either that or they were too nice to say otherwise!).

Overall it was a wonderful weekend with Bob. Seeing him made me feel closer to my family, and for the weekend, London didn't seem quite so far from home. We're lucky that he travels to Europe fairly often, so we're already planning his next visit in the spring!

Bob & Maggie at the V&A

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Answer

Answer to the Special Blog Readers Challenge:

Hercule Poirot

The picture in the previous post was of the nifty Art Deco building that Hercule Poirot lives in on the mystery series "Agatha Christie's Poirot" starring David Suchet - Charterhouse Square near Barbican station in real life. For those that aren't mystery nerds like us, this show features a fastidious Belgian detective who uses his "little grey cells" to solve murders (hence the hint), generally involving wealthy disliked magnates killed in locked rooms by jealous butlers. Poirot is frequently on PBS in the US, and it seems to be on nearly around the clock in the UK, like a British stand-in for Law & Order - although Friends and Top Gear are even more common. Also I think British law states that Stephen Fry must appear on TV at least once per hour.

We have now had two correct responses, one in savant-speed time (Hi Mom), and one by a highly proficient Google user. We have also had one very incorrect response (George Jefferson) by someone pretending to be the 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen. While the Jeffersons did move on up to the east side, I don't think they meant east London, although that could have been a wacky spin-off. Prizes for correct answers must be collected in person in London by October 10th, 2007.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Our Day in the Soane

London is filled with museums, ranging from massive famous places like the British Museum to small unusual places like the Thames River Police Museum or the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum. We've only been here a few months now, but we have been wanting to get out and see more of these museums in our time off. On Saturday, Maggie and I took the tube to Holborn (more or less pronounced "ho-bun"), in central London. Unlike the hoards of people that were headed to the British Museum just a few blocks away, we headed the opposite direction to the more obscure Sir John Soane's Museum. This museum is the former private residence of, you guessed it, Sir John Soane, which overlooks the beautiful Lincoln's Inn Fields, the largest public square in London.

The Soane Museum (and Maggie)

I have seen a number of amazing things in London, but the Soane Museum has to be one of my very favorites so far. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside, so I'll have to do my best to describe it. John Soane (1753-1837), one of England's most renowned architects, was a specialist in Neo-Classical architecture perhaps best known for building the Bank of England and bits of 10 Downing Street. During his lifetime, he consciously made his house into a museum of architecture, art, and sculpture, obsessively collecting objects from around the world and contriving ways to display them in his house. He slowly modified the house over time, trying out designs he would later build on a larger scale for clients, or emulating designs from buildings he had seen on his travels. Soane was a master of light and illusion, and though the house is of a fairly modest size, even the smallest rooms seem huge, and every nook is filled with sculpture or architectural elements brought to him from around the world. His collection is truly stunning, including multiple originals by Hogarth, Canaletto, and Füseli, and even includes the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I (which he bought for £2000 after the British Museum refused to pay for it, probably because it clashed with their "plunder, don't pay" policy). But the best part of the museum is the building itself, the preservation, and the incredible attention to detail that Soane paid to the building. This is an undeniably eccentric and atmospheric place, including a crypt for his wife's lap dog that simply reads "Alas, poor Fanny!", a basement room for an imaginary monk named Padre Giovanni, walls that fold out to reveal further paintings behind or to let light into floors below, and intricate glass domes for even the smallest cupboard of a room. Once a month they open the museum at night for candlelight tours, and I think we will have to come back for one of these, although it will be spooky for sure.

About the only picture I could find online of the inside of the Soane Museum

This area of London has a series of four connected "Inns of Court" (one of which is Lincoln's Inn) running from Holborn south to Temple. These Inns are essentially the law schools and professional societies that all English Barristers must belong to. Each Inn, due to some historical quirk, is legally independent from the City of London, and they operate under traditional, and sometimes peculiar, sets of rules (such as "no whistling," "no rude children," and "no old clothesmen," whatever those are). The Inns are particularly beautiful places with large greens, and the requisite amazing old churches and buildings. During the week, the Inns are the chosen habitat of the many robed and wigged barristers that practice law. Despite the imposing appearance of the Inns, they are open to the public - as long as you don't whistle and don't bring in rude children or old clothesmen.

Lincoln's Inn Fields

Since it was the weekend, we couldn't wander the Inns, so we went to a place I had been once before, the pub Lamb on Lamb's Conduit Street for lunch, this time armed with a camera (more pictures, as always, on our Flickr site).

The Lamb Pub

Sometimes a picture says it all

SPECIAL BLOG READER CHALLENGE: On the way back across town, we went to a specific address on purpose - unfortunately the building was covered in scaffolding. Still, can anyone identify what TV character lived in the building below? You may have to use your little grey cells...