Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Revelations and Resolutions

Things I have discovered just before the new year:

(1) There is one honestly good reason to go to Ikea:

(2) My digital camera is dying and is starting to turn every picture pink (see edges of above photo).

(3) My beloved laptop is making very alarming dying animal noises. Take the camera, but spare the laptop!

(4) My New Year's resolution of riding my bike to work is currently being thwarted by the fact that I do not own a bike.

(5) My New Year's resolution to stop buying things from overseas that can easily be made locally (e.g. sparkling water, which really does not need to be shipped from Italy and cost more than gasoline) is being partially thwarted by the fact that the only local sparkling water I can find is Calistoga, which is gross and ridiculously over-carbonated (Maggie gets mist on her glasses). This is also thwarting my attempt to make elderflower soda using the above syrup from Ikea.

(6) Readers of this blog seem to do so only while they are supposed to be working, which explains why we have only a disappointing handful of responses to the Raisin Survey so far. If I had a sad raisin emoticon, I would paste it here. While I would love to reward the diligent readers who took the survey right away with the results now, I'm going to wait until people get back to work and give them a chance to take the survey - after all, it is absolutely essential that we get statistical significance right?

(7) Maggie got me a membership to iGourmet's Cheese-of-the-Month club, which is both exciting (I love cheese, and I've never been a member of an "of-the-Month" club), but also slightly worrisome. I'm going to have to pedal extra hard on that non-existent bike to work off all that cheese.

All right, now go take that Raisin Survey if you haven't already, and have a happy New Year!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Raisin Hell: A Survey

Apparently some people despise raisins. I know, I couldn't believe it either, but I've met two of them in the past week. Okay, so they get your fingers kind of sticky when you eat them, and sometimes they have that little leftover stem that pokes you when you chomp down on it, and those things they call raisins in Raisin Bran are closer to pebbles than fruit, but otherwise raisins are all good.

In fact, I feel a position statement coming on. I should have used an official position statement for the caper survey, but I'm certain that my position (i.e., I have no time for capers) was quite clear. But this time I feel the need to make this an official DSRB Position Statement™:

Grapes are delicious. Haters should back off.

That's really all there is to it. In fact, nearly all things made from grapes are good — juice, wine, cognac, raisins, sherry, grappa, jelly, sorbet, verjus, hell I'll even throw in cream of tartar for good measure. I'll admit to not being a big fan of champagne, cava, prosecco, and their sparkly pals, but I occasionally enjoy them and I do at least understand why people love them. On the other end of the spectrum, purple is without question the best flavor of most multi-flavored fruit candies (don't argue, it's a verifiable fact); although purple flavoring contains roughly as much real grape as blue raspberry flavoring contains actual blue raspberries. Plus, other than raisins, what other dried fruit has sung on stage with Ray Charles and Michael Jackson?

So it comes as something of a surprise to find out that there is a percentage of the population that wants absolutely nothing to do with raisins. It's just a dried grape; it's sweet, it's tasty, so what's not to like? And prunes, poor sad delicious prunes. Prunes get an even worse rap, so much so that Sunkist has tried marketing them as dried plums to make them sound more appealing.

This seems like a natural time to go right into our latest survey designed to delve deeper into the complexities of the human-raisin relationship. [SURVEY IS NOW CLOSED]

Thanks for completing the survey, raisin' awareness to this complex and sticky issue, and listening to me whine. Hopefully we can work together to stem the seeds of raisin hatred and prune away the pernicious tendrils that have penetrated deep into the brix and mortar of our society. Results soon.

Given the season, I'll leave you with a stirring rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wide Open Spaces

When we first moved back to the Bay Area, the adjustment seemed totally straightforward. After all, we had both lived in the area for most of our lives, so we didn't have to figure out where to get groceries, how to open a bank account, where to look for rental listings, and all of that stuff that took a lot of effort when we moved to London. So in many ways we hardly noticed the change — it just felt very familiar and normal, almost like we had just returned from a long vacation, except we didn't have a house to come home to and we were distinctly more on the anxious side of things than we tend to be after a nice long holiday.

It has taken a while for it to sink in how much has changed while we were gone: some friends ve moved away, favorite restaurants have closed or changed, and, despite my best efforts to maintain my American-ness in the UK, I occasionally hear myself unintentionally saying things in semi-British ways (like "nice long holiday"). I guess it takes some time to really comprehend any major life change such as an intercontinental move; it certainly took some time to fully appreciate just how different life in London is from life in the Bay Area.

Things are definitely different here

For one, while there are lots of things on the ground in San Francisco, I have yet to find a single banana peel. I know if I keep looking I'll find one, but SF doesn't have banana-mania like London. I took a brief survey of things on the ground in San Francisco, but it was mostly burrito wrappers, cans and broken bottles, the occasional person, a single black sock, and at least one corn husk from a tamale (I was in the Mission, so the sample may have been slightly skewed).

Sock not banana. How do you lose one sock?

In a recent post The Miss List, I listed a few things that we were surprised to find upon moving back, but there were two major omissions: space and light. San Francisco itself is fairly dense, mostly because it's physically constrained by the geography of the peninsula, but because of the setting with water on three sides, it generally feels very open and airy. The rest of the Bay Area is quite a bit less dense and there are countless open spaces, including miles of beaches, mountains for hiking, and parks of every description, all within easy access no matter where you live. The difference in light is tricky to describe — I'm sure it has to do with the latitude and angle of incidence and all that physics jazz, but beyond that there's a lot more blue sky and the air always seems cleaner and clearer because of smog control measures and the influence of the Pacific coast weather patterns.

Late November on Mount Diablo

Above Mitchell Canyon, Mount Diablo

And the space isn't limited to the outdoors. You can certainly find shoebox-sized apartments in San Francisco, although not to the degree of London or New York, but most are considerably more roomy. We loved our little Wapping flat, but the tiny kitchen got so claustrophobic we had to initiate a "one person at a time" rule, particularly when there were sharp and hot things being used. Our new flat in the East Bay, where to things tend to be even more spacious than in SF proper, is quite a bit bigger.

Hard at work in my new kitchen

Hard at work in our London kitchen

Okay, it really looked like this

It occurs to me now that I spent over a year feeling vaguely claustrophobic, although I never really thought about it in those terms at the time (except when crammed into Northern Line like a kipper in a tin). I think, without really knowing it, that among all the things I missed about home, the sense of space was one of the factors I missed the most, and probably why I loved to be by the river in London.

I'm sure there's more revelations to come, probably some of those deep meaningful existential things that tend to get dredged up by big transitions, especially when we start really delving into the boxes of stuff we put in storage and never really thought about for the past year or so (a task I'm not exactly looking forward to eagerly). We're both looking forward to the day that it feels like the move is over, everything is out of boxes, we find a coffee table so we don't have to use an upside-down cardboard box, we know where to find the TV remote, etc. It all seems insurmountable still, but luckily there's Christmas to distract us coming up really soon — although I still haven't bought a single Christmas gift yet...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Today is Thanksgiving, which is always something I look forward to; but more importantly, at least in my little world, Maggie and I are finally moving into our new flat tomorrow. And yes, I did say flat. Contrary to popular belief, the word "flat" is used occasionally in the US, but it usually refers to an apartment that occupies an entire story of a building. Our new flat fits that bill, plus the listing was posted by a British expat, so either way it's a flat.

Just for fun, let's compare the two flats, our London flat vs. our new one:

UK: ~700 sq. ft. in a 40 unit building
US: ~1700 sq. ft. in a 3 unit building with a garden

Now take a guess which one costs more per month.

No matter how you tweak the exchange rate, out London flat was much more expensive even without considering the council tax. We don't have council tax in the US, instead we have potholes, bad schools, minimal public transportation, and lots of homeless people, which is apparently a fair trade-off.

Living in London is crazy expensive, a well known fact, but then again London also has by far the highest average salaries in the UK. The interesting bit to me is the comparison of average household incomes in London and San Francisco: ~£40,000/year in London vs. ~$70,000 in San Francisco (1,2,3). Now some might say, "Sure, but the pound is worth more than the dollar," and this is true. In fact, when we moved to the UK the exchange rate was 2:1 dollars:pounds, and when we left it was around 1.5:1 (which means we got royally screwed in both directions, but that's a story for another time while sobbing into a glass of wine). But exchange rate means nothing when you're living in a country using the currency, what really matters is purchasing power, i.e. how much the money in my hand buys me in terms of goods and services. What we found overall was that most things cost about the same in dollars that they do in pounds. If a sandwich costs you about $5 in New York, it will probably cost about £5 in London. This is all a very long-winded way of saying that (a) cost of living is much higher in London, but (b) London salaries don't adequately compensate for this. Which brings me to the inevitable question, one of the questions we were most frequently asked by our American friends: how and why does anyone afford to live in London? As to why, there numerous factors such as culture, trendiness, alcoholism, and curry. As to how, the question can be answered by what I like to think of as Andy's Special Theory of Economic Relativity (ASTER for short).

Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about relativity — I know I don't. I freely admit that I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about lots of pointless things: What movies would I pick for a special Dan Hedaya movie night? (Initial thoughts: The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, Blood Simple, and Running Scared - maybe Clueless or The Usual Suspects); What would be my audition song for American Idol/The X-Factor (current favorite: Sister Christian by Night Ranger); If I opened a restaurant that served only fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cold milk, would people come? Anyhow, I'm rummaging through my various pointless lines of thought, and relativity doesn't seem to factor heavily in hardly any of them. But ever since I visited Einstein's house in Bern, relativity has been creeping into my mind, and I think ASTER helps explain some of the economic situations people live in around the world.

Night Ranger is relatively cool in Japan

The classic way that the basic premise of relativity is explained always seems to involve a person on a train and a person on a platform while the train moves by. I'm going to consciously buck this trend and use a new set of images that I think will be more vivid: a clown on a jet-powered tricycle, and a hitchhiking mime on the side of the road. While the clown zooms by the mime, completely ignoring the mime's exaggerated hitchhiking gestures, the clown is expertly juggling three bowling pins. In the mime's frame of reference (the roadside), the clown is moving very fast as he roars by on his festively decorated jet-powered tricycle and the bowling pins are moving forward with the clown. In the clown's frame of reference (on the jet-powered tricycle), apart from the slight vibration caused by the jet engines, the clown isn't moving at all relative to the tricycle and the bowling pins are going straight up and straight down with no forward motion. The point (I think) is that both are accurate depictions of what is going on, but the observations are only accurate relative to the frame of reference. In other words, words that would probably make a physicist wince, a particular reality only makes sense if you are the one occupying that reality.

ASTER is the economic extension of this concept. When we first moved to London, we couldn't do the math. We looked at our salaries, we looked at what things cost, we looked at the weekly rents that were scarily like our monthly rents in the US, and we looked at how we liked to live, and life in London just didn't seem to add up to something we could realistically afford. 8 million people couldn't possibly afford to live in London, yet they did somehow. After several months of adjusting to the way of life in London, all of a sudden the math worked and we could start to accurately get a picture of our budget. I imagine someone from London moving to the US would probably look at the math and think, "Blimey, I can afford a 6 bedroom mansion and a Lamborghini," then they'd get to the US and wonder where all the money went.

Perhaps ASTER isn't that groundbreaking of a concept, and it is probably not even worthy of such a cool acronym. Yes, London is expensive, but people that want to live there make it work by adjusting the way they live (e.g., not owning a car, eating in a lot, etc.) or by going into massive credit card debt. From the outside looking in, it's easy for one to wonder why people don't just move somewhere more affordable; in fact, people elsewhere in the US ask this same question about the San Francisco Bay Area, which is much more expensive than most parts of the US. The point (I think) is that you live where you want to live and you make it work. We couldn't be happier to be back home in the Bay Area, enjoying a real Thanksgiving with circular pies, and moving into our new flat. I just can't wait for the Lamborghini to arrive.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Towering Achievement

With the exception of three weeks we spent in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Maggie and I lived just a few minutes away from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London in Wapping for the 14 months we lived in London. We walked over Tower Bridge countless times and took more photos of it than I know what to do with. I walked past the Tower of London twice a day when I was taking the tube over to South Kensington, and I often had the boasting thought, "Hey, what a cool commute I have." Yet, somehow, after 13 months neither one of us had been inside the Tower of London nor had we gone up inside Tower Bridge to walk across the upper catwalks.

And we've definitely never tried the lemonade

It's far too easy to put off doing things when you live close to them; I can't tell you how many people live in the San Francisco Bay Area and (sadly) never go to Alcatraz much less make the drive up to Yosemite. Also, we had heard mixed reviews of the Tower: some loved it, some thought it was overrated, and all thought it was too expensive. To make it even less interesting, several people were adamant that the highlight was the crown jewel exhibition. While this may appeal to some, royal regalia doesn't really lift my tunic, so to speak, and the fascination with the English royalty will forever be a mystery to me. Nonetheless, I was still interested in the Tower as an important historic locale, and of course I'd feel like a complete putz if I lived that close and never went in. Finally, during our last week in London, when we were both off of work and Maggie's friend Cabernet was in town visiting, we got around to doing both the Tower Bridge Exhibition and the Tower of London.

Hey, I can see our house from up here

The Tower of London (foreground) from the upper catwalks on Tower Bridge

Looking west along the Thames

The Tower Bridge Exhibition is definitely worth doing for the spectacular views up and down the Thames on a sunny day. In addition to the views, your £6 admission also gets you two short films on the history of the bridge and admission to the "engine room" on the south side of the bridge (not actually the engine room, just a small museum with many parts of the old steam engine). Parts of the engine exhibit were working, and they tried to enhance the experience with lights and sound (you be the judge):

Fortunately there was some fun to be had in the engine room:

I think Maggie lied when she said this was where they hid the fun

These two kids didn't really know what to make of the engine room

I know I'm not the first to make this observation, but the Tower of London looks more like the Castle of London; it's kind of squat and not so tower-like. In fact, the very first day we were in London we walked across Tower Bridge, strolled right by the Tower of London, and I remember saying something like "Hey, check out that cool old castle thing. I wonder what that is." Idiot. I honestly thought Tower Bridge got its name from the towers on the bridge — it never occurred to me that it had something to do with the Tower of London.

Our Yeoman Warder guide, no doubt yelling about something

We wanted the full experience, so we joined one of the tours guided by the famous Yeoman Warders of the Tower. By far the best part of the Yeoman Warder tour is when they start yelling with gruff gleeful voices when they get to a particularly gruesome part of the story. Hooray for gore! Given that the history of the Tower is one long string of gruesomeness, there was quite a bit of Yeoman yelling to enjoy.

From the outside, the Tower looks fairly small, so I was surprised to find quite a bit of open space in the center, and essentially an entire village, pub and all, inside the walls. I always thought the Yeoman Warders went home at night and went out to the pub — well, they actually do, except both home and pub are inside the Tower of London.

One of the more tower-like parts of the Tower of London

I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the crown jewels, but I was in for a bit of a surprise: the crown jewel exhibit was both underwhelming and extraordinarily surreal as an added bonus. Before you even get to the jewels, you have to walk through a series of rooms with videos projected on the walls of various royal ceremonies (e.g., the coronation of Queen Elizabeth) and loud triumphant music playing in the background. This would be fine except you are forced to walk through a switch-backed labyrinth of banisters in an attempt to slow you down as you walk through (because you really don't want to miss the exciting part of the coronation, lemme tell you). Once through the cattle maze you finally get to the jewels, but the really cool ones (the diamonds the size of kiwi fruits, etc.) you only get to glimpse for a moment because you're on a moving walkway. To add insult to injury, as you leave the exhibit where you just saw countless millions of pounds worth of precious stones and metals, they ask you for a donation to support the exhibit. Um, yeah, that's going to happen. There's nothing like charging £16.50 for entrance and showing ostentatious displays of wealth to make people open their pocket books.

Apart from the jewels (which, admittedly, Maggie and Cabernet liked far better than I did), I quite enjoyed the Tower of London and found the history and the long maintained traditions of the Yeoman Warders fascinating. With free admission to the British Museum, the V&A, the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum, and countless other wonders in London, the price of entry to the Tower of London is hard to swallow; still, I find myself wanting to go back and explore the parts I missed, so I don't regret a single pence.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hope Floats

Well, it looks like we have returned home to the US at precisely the right time. There's no need to go into the details of just how bad it has been here in the US for quite some time. We did the best we could during the dark years, and some of us even sought greener pastures abroad. But little did we know that just as we were returning home someone would come along just when we most needed them to provide us with something we never even knew we needed before: a pre-made root beer float in a bottle.

That's right, if you haven't seen them already, the crack team of beverage scientists at Dr. Pepper Snapple has put out two new beverages for those out there who are too lazy to pour a soda over vanilla ice cream: the A&W Root Beer Float and the Sunkist Orange Float (or in true soda lingo, an orange cow). And before I let my rampant sarcasm run this post straight into the ground, I'm forced to wonder: who asked for this?

I was alerted to the upcoming release of these several months ago through a comment on the blog by a lurker pretending to be A&W founder Roy Allen, but we were unable to find it in the UK (unsurprisingly). I bought both flavors immediately upon return to the US — lest you think I am really that obsessed, I didn't hunt them down, I just stumbled across them in the supermarket...while looking for normal root beer.

So how were they? Well, despite my best hopes, they were utterly disgusting. Complete abominations. I can't possibly describe how much I disliked them. I would love to know how they managed to get either flavor past a panel of tasters without the help of heavy narcotics and/or bribery. The Sunkist float tasted okay at first, but it was sickeningly sweet, left a bitter aftertaste, and had a mucous-like thick consistency akin to drinking Jello just before it solidifies. The consistency was really hard to stomach. The root beer float was even worse — while the orange float at least resembled orange and cream flavor, the root beer float tasted like an unfortunate hybrid between a buttered popcorn Jelly Belly and a campfire-burnt marshmallow, with no discernible resemblance to root beer. Now I know it must have been challenging to recreate the effect of a real ice cream float in a shelf-stable package, but (a) I have a hard time believing that there was a clamor from consumers for such a product, and (b) I have to think that they could have done better than these super-sugary foul-flavored snot-slicks in a bottle. To summarize: unless you're looking for a new way to haze inductees into your fraternity, avoid at all costs.

I guess we, the American people, will have to roll up our sleeves and do it the hard way. Can we manage to extract several scoops of ice cream from a container, put them into a glass, and pour soda over them? Yes we can.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Popular Science

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favorite places in the whole city and on my must-see list for any tourist visiting London. Working there, however briefly, was truly an amazing experience. The old, dusty, antiquated feeling to the place to me represented its greatness not its shortcomings, whereas the modern wings felt cheap and soulless in comparison. While I would never argue that natural history is a thing of the past, I would say that it needs a bit of dusting off and rebranding to be interesting and relevant to the world today.

I have been waiting for years for the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, one of the 10 largest natural history museums in the world, to reopen in its new building in Golden Gate Park. I loved the old museum, but the last time I was there it felt kind of shabby and out of date, so I was happy to hear of their plans to rebuild and start afresh. I also visited their temporary home while they rebuilt in the original location in the park, but this felt, perhaps unsurprisingly, small and impermanent.

The new Cal Academy building, which just opened at the end of September, was designed by Renzo Piano, known for his work (with Richard Rogers) on the unusual and controversial Pompidou Center in Paris, the Whitney Museum and the new New York Times building in Manhattan, and other large-scale projects. Beyond the elegant design of the new building, it is also the greenest museum in the world and the largest building yet to receive the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. What amazed me was that you could easily walk around the musuem and never notice most of the innovative energy-saving measures used in the design. The museum uses insulation made from recycled blue jeans, which is safer and more energy efficient than fiberglass. The canopy that covers the entrance and surrounds the building on all sides is not merely decorative, in fact the patterns that I mistook for simple artistic designs contain thousands of photovoltaic cells that provide around 10% of the museum's power needs, proving, as I had always suspected, that solar panels don't need to be clunky and ugly.

The photovotaic canopy at the Cal Academy

The most noticeable green aspect of the building is the living roof, a bizarre landscape of undulating hills, skylights, and solar panels. This roof provides insulation for the building and takes advantage of the rainwater which would otherwise be wasted. As far as what will happen during the dry Mediterranean summers in California, I'm hoping it won't dry to a crisp, but we'll find out next year (maybe they're storing extra rain water for this time, I'm not sure).

The living roof at the Cal Academy

I certainly like the roof, despite it's odd mumpy appearance, and I spent at least a small amount of time being incredibly nerdy and identifying the plants they were using on the roof and showing off my Latin prowess to my friends. The glazed-over distant look they always get when I do this is clearly a sign of how impressed they are. While I enjoyed the roof and the views over Golden Gate Park and the De Young Museum (even on the grey morning we were there), I can imagine some people making their way up to the roof and saying "Hmm, there's a weird looking roof covered with weeds, awesome" and going right back down to the penguins and sharks without another thought. If only they had me there to tell them about the origin of the name Achillea millefolium, I'm certain they would have a much better time.

As a fish lover, the new Cal Academy's aquarium was definitely a highlight. I do miss the old Steinhart Aquarium, especially the circular fish room where you stood in the middle of a huge ring-shaped tank. Hundreds of fish would all be swimming in one direction and one oddball would be going the opposite way; I liked that guy. The new aquarium is much snazzier in every respect and the new tanks look amazing so far. I particularly loved seeing some of the more unusual animals like the chambered nautiluses and the leafy sea dragons.

Spooky Nautilus

Kelp and fishies

The indoor rainforest, a multi-story glass sphere that occupies the greater portion of one wing of the building, is perhaps the most talked about feature of the new museum and certainly the busiest attraction.

People inside the indoor rainforest sphere

The nifty futuristic roof of the rainforest sphere

There are some impressive things in the rainforest dome, such as lots of live butterflies flying around and some nice live plants...

...and then there are some disappointing aspects like the fake ferns (Pteris plastica)

View down to through the water to the aquarium tunnel

As far as when to visit, might I suggest not going on a weekend only a few weeks after the grand opening on kind of a chilly day where everyone was trying to think of something to do indoors. It was packed. On the plus side, it's great to see people voluntarily lining up for anything even remotely science related, and it was impressive to see that the building and staff could handle the massive crowds. On the minus side, I think I stepped on about a dozen children (sorry kids), got my ankle repeatedly smashed into by strollers, the slow crowded shuffle through the hot humid rainforest got intensely claustrophobic, and with thousands of babies inside of a large greenhouse the aroma got increasingly diapery throughout the day.

A small portion of the long lines waiting to get into the museum

An unruly herd of wild strollers (Currus infantulus)

Overall, I was very impressed by the new Cal Academy, and I can't wait to return once the excitement has died down a bit so I can take longer and more fully explore the museum's exhibits (and actually be able to get into the planetarium). Most importantly, I think the museum succeeded in the most fundamental challenge: through clever architecture and carefully planned exhibits, they have managed to truly bring natural history into today's world, so much so that people are willing to stand in long lines and pay a rather high price to get in to see what they have to say. And I'll bet you some of these people slept through science in high school.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dry Soda

I've never been much of a drinker — I love wine and beer and some spirits, but I generally only want them in fairly small quantities. So when I go out for a splurge dinner and get a tasting menu, I'm often put off by the wine pairing option. Wine pairing often nearly doubles the price of the meal, and if the meal is 6 or more courses (as tasting menus often are), I get completely trashed by the end of the meal and no longer enjoy the food as much. On the other hand, I'm a big beverage fan and a good pairing of beverage and food can greatly enhance a meal. Even a hot dog is enhanced by a beer, or a slice of pizza by a root beer. So why does it always have to be wine with fancy food?

Wine, the mandatory fine dining beverage, and water, its optional companion

One of my many fantasy restaurants I would open if I could would have a tasting menu where the pairings are not confined to the wine world. There are so many great juices, sodas, waters, milks, and teas, why confine yourself to one type of beverage, especially an alcoholic one? Instead of pairing foie gras with sauternes, try Navarro Gew├╝rztraminer grape juice. Tea smoked duck? How about some smokey lapsang souchong tea? Normally expect a white wine with your salmon? Why not try an elderflower soda instead? You might even have a Belgian wheat beer with your rib eye steak. Would it be so wrong to pair a flourless chocolate cake with an ice cold glass of whole milk?

Unfortunately, high-end restaurants have at most two types of water (one of which is nearly always San Pellegrino), few if any interesting sodas, and are generally completely lacking in the juice end of the spectrum. Tea is viewed as an after dinner drink, and the options are confined to black tea, peppermint, and chamomile, with a few places venturing into more creative options. A few places, to their credit, have started pairing beers with food. I was very impressed at a recent meal at Hibiscus in London when near the start of the meal, instead of some variation on a champagne cocktail, we were served a homemade hibiscus soda with pineapple juice bubbles and a hint of ginger — fun and delicious.

So I was naturally intrigued when I read about Dry Soda in an article by my current favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, and it has received quite a bit of hype from food bloggers and columnists over the past year. Of course, reading the words "dry soda" I immediately thought of some bizarre powdered creation like astronaut ice cream. Luckily "dry" refers to the fact that the sodas aren't super-sweetened like most sodas and would be more appropriate for pairing with food as, gasp, an alternative to wine. Just last week I stumbled across Dry Soda in a shop in Oakland and bought one out my normal soda curiosity. At the moment Dry Soda comes in four unusual flavors: kumquat, lavender, lemongrass, and rhubarb (soon there will be two new flavors: vanilla and juniper berry). I applaud their creativity, but lavender? Smells nice, but tastes bitter and soapy - I speak from experience. At $3 a bottle I wasn't about to try them all, so I got a kumquat soda as a trial (I should note that you can get them for as little as $1.79 if you go to Beverages and More, but I wasn't there unfortunately).

Dry Soda, produced by squiggle

It certainly wasn't sweet, so they got that right, but there was almost no flavor at all and what flavor there was didn't seem so kumquaty. There was little to like or dislike about it, but about halfway through the bottle I simply got tired of drinking it and didn't know what to do with the rest. Everything about Dry Soda is unfortunately pretentious from the flavors to the strange box on the bottle that reads "Produced by: [illegible squiggle]". I can't find anywhere on their website or elsewhere that explains who or what the illegible squiggle refers to nor why it would mean anything to me. Also, looking at the four ingredients in the soda (water, sugar, natural extracts, phosphoric acid) and the fact that it is clearly 99% water, why so expensive? Does the squiggle make it more expensive? It quickly dawned on me: this is nothing new. Dry soda is simply flavored sparkling water, a product that has been around for generations. I'm happy that someone is out there trying to create new options in the bevearage world and alternative pairings for fine dining, but Dry Soda sadly does not live up to the hype.

But seriously, ice cold milk and flourless chocolate cake would rock.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Miss List

Before we left London we knew that we'd miss a lot of things about London, but we were also sure that we wouldn't be able to predict everything that we'd miss. I knew I would miss some simple pleasures, particularly foods, but I know that at some point we'll both miss some of the more ethereal aspects of our time in London. Perhaps I'll miss the now reassuring sight of discarded banana peels on the street, the small boy I would see many mornings running through crowds of befuddled pigeons in Altab Ali Park to make them fly away in a panic, or the short trip back in time provided by a walk down Fournier Street that would always bring to mind Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Maybe Maggie will miss the many walks across Tower Bridge, always exciting and beautiful despite the weather, or watching coots nesting along the canal, or the old clock tower permanently frozen at 8:13 that we could see from the living room of our flat.

Yep, still 8:13

We miss all of these things and many more that have yet to come to mind, and I'm sure that once we've settled down a bit more here we'll have more time to reflect, but we've been keeping some initial notes on things we miss, some of the things we definitely don't miss, and some of the surprises we have found on returning to the San Francisco Bay Area. This is a provisional list, and I'm sure we'll have some things to add to these soon, but here's our first stab:

Things We Miss About London:

  • No charges at most cash machines, so no need to hunt down your specific bank
  • Dandelion & Burdock soda
  • Eccles cakes
  • Wapping, our oasis of calm amidst clamor
  • Integrated public transportation (yay Oyster card!)
  • The Underground (BART isn't even close to as cool and useful)
  • History and architecture

    Maggie next to WWII bomb damage to the Victoria & Albert Museum

  • Certain words and phrases: yob, "tick all the boxes", "chalk and cheese", "chocolate teapot", "Aldgate East Gyratory"
  • Constant innuendo, intentional or otherwise

  • Real ale kept at cellar temperature
  • The half pint of beer and the ability for a man to order one without being considered sissy
  • Bosphorus Kebabs (one of the oldest kebab shops in London, and the best spicy kofte kebab ever)

    Simply the best

  • London cabs and cabbies
  • Figuring out how to get from A to B in one of the world's most delightfully confusing cities
  • Tea that just seems to taste better (Do they send the crappy tea to America? Is this some sort of payback for the Boston Tea Party?)
  • Clotted cream, clotted cream, clotted cream
  • Amazing theatre
  • Museums (especially the incredible free ones)
  • Zebra, pelican, and toucan crossings (not really, we just like the names)
  • Fewer commercials on TV
  • Proximity to continental Europe
  • The Bibendum Building

    The Bibendum Building, South Kensington/Chelsea

  • The relative safety of most parts of London
  • Double-decker buses (especially the top front seats)
  • Standing below the Gherkin looking up

    St. Helen's Bishopsgate and the Gherkin

  • Graham Norton's dogs
  • All of the great people we met and befriended over the past 14 months

Things We Don't Miss About London:
  • The weather, needless to say
  • Insanely high cost of living
  • General lack of warmth on the part of the citizenry
  • Pointless mid-door doorknobs


  • Increased risk of electrocution
  • No power outlets in bathrooms
  • The lack of eye contact
  • Mini combined washer-dryers that take forever and wrinkle everything
  • Either ironing t-shirts after they emerge from the washer-dryer or wearing wrinkled clothes all the time

    The hateful wrinkle monster

  • That mysterious jelly layer inside of pork pies
  • Customer service (with a few notable exceptions)
  • Certain words and phrases: bikkie, brekkie, sarnie, buttie, rezzie, bap, gutted, chuffed, buggie, nappie, pram, mummie
  • Celebrity nicknames like Macca, Madge, and C-Zed-J
  • Constant use of "sorry" when no one is actually sorry
  • Most of British TV (except anything involving David Mitchell)
  • All things to do with being a pedestrian in London
  • London water (yum-yum)
  • Air quality
  • Lack of decent peanut butter
  • Mountains of disgusting soggy sandwiches
  • People eating mountains of disgusting soggy sandwiches at all hours of the day
  • Prawn cocktail potato chips (crisps), and all other meaty flavors (Roast beef and horseradish? Really?)
  • Copious public urination and vomiting (sorry, it's ugly but true)

Surprises Upon Returning to California:
  • The clean air and the smell of trees and flowers, as opposed to parks that look nice but still smell like diesel
  • Elderflower products are starting to show up in markets (hooray!)
  • Relearning the geography (how did we forget so much so quickly?)
  • No more talking on cell phones while driving
  • Amazing amount of Journey and Huey Lewis on the radio
  • How few surprises there were upon our return
Overall, we're really glad to be back home in the Bay Area, and we're gorging ourselves on our favorite foods and loving seeing all of our friends and family here. While we had a decidedly love-hate relationship with London, I can tell already that the parts we loved will be more prominent in our memories.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sailing Away

We've arrived back in California welcomed by blue skies, friends, and predictably easy access to root beer. Before we left London, we decided to give our 14 month stay in London a little symbolic closure, so we took a stroll across the river to Rotherhithe. What's so special about Rotherhithe? In August 1620 a certain notable ship left from Rotherhithe with a contract to pick up a boatload of people fleeing religious persecution and a few profit-seeking venturers in Southampton and carry them to a certain faraway shore. The ship was, of course, The Mayflower, and the faraway shore was later to become the birthplace of root beer, cranberry sauce, the corndog, and Huey Lewis.

Thames panorama from Rotherhithe extending from Shad Thames and Tower Bridge to Wapping (it gets quite a bit larger if you click on it)

The Captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, lived in Rotherhithe and was buried there only two years after the Mayflower voyage in an unmarked grave at St. Mary's Rotherhithe (the church has a very good pilgrim history page here). Today, there is relatively little left in Rotherhithe to indicate this historical departure apart from a riverside pub called The Mayflower, an engraved memorial tablet to Christopher Jones inside St. Mary's, and the occasional wandering American looking for some connection to the past.

The Mayflower Pub

Plaque on the Mayflower Pub

While Maggie and I were certainly not persecuted by the English (at least most of the time), we were, in our own way, leaving England and heading to America in search of a new start with a fair degree of uncertainty about our future, so it seemed a fitting end to our London adventure. We had one final can of root beer left in our fridge, so we snagged this and brought it along to have a mini celebration on the waterfront and raised a toast to our silly-hatted forefathers.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

All's Eel That Ends Eel

We have just a few days left in London before our move back to California, so, when we're not busy packing boxes and waiting on hold with the power company, we've been running around revisiting our favorite spots and trying to do all the things we meant to do over the past year but never got around to.

We'll soon be seeing a lot less of More London

For some unfathomable reason, I decided that it would be wrong if I left London without trying the classic East End specialty: jellied eels. Long-time blog followers will recall that I went to try eels once before just after we arrived in London, but I couldn't bring myself to eat them after seeing an order of them dished up for the man in front of me. Strike one.

Other than massive amounts of alcohol or hypnotism, I figured the only way to get myself to eat jellied eels was by means of the persuasive powers of peer pressure. I arranged to have a farewell lunch with two willing friends at Tubby Isaacs, a food stall on Goulston Street near Aldgate tube station that has been selling eels and other seafood specialties since 1919. Unfortunately, despite seeing it open every other time I had passed by, I made the mistake of scheduling the lunch on Yom Kippur, and Tubby Isaacs was closed for the day. Strike two.

The East End institution M. Manze

But all was not lost in the quest for the jellied eel. Faced with a bit of spare time on Saturday morning, and finding myself in Bermondsey after walking Maggie to her hairdresser, I decided to gather my courage and go back to M. Manze, the site of my first eel failure. Manze's is the oldest eel, pie, and mash shop in London, slopping up dishes of eels since 1892. Apart from the plastic forks and take away containers, I doubt much has changed since they started including the old-timey green lunch lady outfits that they wear behind the counter.

When I confidently ordered my meal of pie and mash with liquor (the green parsley sauce that traditionally accompanies pie and mash) along with an order of jellied eels, the woman behind the counter was apparently unconvinced by my performance.

"First time trying the jellied eels?" she asked.

"It is," I answered truthfully. "Got to be a first time for everything, right?"

"Not for me," she said with undisguised disgust, "I won't touch 'em." A glowing recommendation if I ever heard one, and yet another fine example of British customer service.

Not to be turned away, I went ahead with the order and took my bag of goodies off to a nearby park to inspect the contents. The pie and mash was as I recalled: the mash looked bad and bland but actually tasted quite good; the pie looked delicious and flaky, but was dense and flavorless with a gruesome minced beef interior; the liquor was green, starchy and did absolutely nothing to improve the pie and mash other than adding some much needed color.

Pie and Mash with Liquor

So then we come to the eels. I had been told third-hand that jellied eels are quite delicious once you get past the skin and get the meat off the bone, and this isn't far from the truth. Firstly, it should be noted that the eels are served very cold. The jelly is almost flavorless, apart from a mild fishiness that it picks up from the eels, and serves no function that I could discern other than to make it look totally unappetizing.

Jellied eels, yum-yum

The eel comes looking vaguely like a sliced banana with the peel left on. The skin is rubbery and grey-blue, and running down the center of the meat is the spine of the eel with small bones radiating off this. The trick is to get the meat into your mouth somehow without the skin and bones, which is no easy feat. I stabbed uselessly at the eel bits for a while with a plastic fork and knife and only managed to chip a few flakes of meat off into the gelatinous surroundings. On my second piece, I decided to throw caution to the wind, so I grabbed a piece with my fingers and popped it in my mouth. This worked a lot better, but you get a fishy gelatin-covered hand and a mouth full of skin and bones that you have to spit out.

Picking away at the eels

Once you do manage to get the meat off the eel, it is, despite my low expectations, not that bad. It reminded me of a canned sardine or kipper, but quite mild. Lightly fishy, salty, a bit smokey, but there was nothing unique about the flavor, and certainly nothing to make it worth the effort. As a famine food, I can kind of understand, but I can't understand why it still exits today when there are so many tastier ways to prepare eel.

The full East End spread: pie, mash, liquor, and jellied eels

After a few pieces of eel and some jelly, I decided that I had tried enough for the rest of my life and set off to find something to wash the eel flavor from my mouth. This being my last Saturday in London, I had to make one last visit to Borough Market, the high temple of London food and the perfect spot to find something far tastier than a jellied eel.

A farewell tour

The Brindisa chorizo sandwich stand at Borough Market

My final chorizo sandwich

I made sure to hit all of my favorites: a chorizo sandwich at Brindisa, the awesome little £1 creme caramels at Real France, and a coffee from Monmouth. I waved a sad farewell to Mrs. Bourne's Cheshire Cheese, the yummy raclette and cheese sandwich stand, the guy at the produce stand who was the first person to actually call me "guvna", the meaty wonderland of The Ginger Pig, and the beautiful gothic Southwark Cathedral.

Creme caramel from Real France: best way to spend £1 ever

Southwark Cathedral

The eel flavor a distant memory, and my belly full of much better food, I went back home to continue avoiding packing and cleaning. I'm definitely happy to have tried pie, mash, and jellied eels just for the London credentials and to say proudly that I've eaten them and kept them down, but I can't say that I highly recommend them to others. British food has happily moved beyond the stereotype of being bland, fatty, and questionably edible when sober, so it remains to be seen whether future generations will embrace the jellied eel (metaphorically I hope).