Monday, July 28, 2008

Bellagio or Bust

Deciding where to go on vacation always comes down to the choice between A. the new and unknown, and B. the places you know and love. This is always tricky because both the very best and the very worst trips we've taken have come from choosing the riskier option A, whereas B is the safe bet. When we were recently planning our latest trip, we were initially thinking of going somewhere new in Spain, but we had such a good time in March when we went to Locarno and the Italian Lakes that option B won us over. In March, the weather was cool and the trees had still not leafed out, so we were looking forward to seeing the area in full Summer glory.

A simplified map of the western lakes region on the Italian - Swiss border

When we told our coworkers that we were headed for the Italian Lakes, there was either a look of zero recognition or people thought that no one from England had taken a holiday there since Byron and Shelley. Much like in the US, where 73% of people do not own a passport, many Brits stay at home or, when they do go abroad, spend their holidays with other Brits in the many chip-shop- and pub-filled outposts on the Costa del Sol or the Balearic Islands.

We again stayed near Locarno on Lake Maggiore, just over the Swiss border in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. We had explored the immediate area on our last trip, so this time we decided to take a short road trip to Lake Como and take the ferry to the famous town of Bellagio. Plus, Maggie's friend Sasha said he would disown her as a friend if she didn't go to Bellagio, and we wouldn't want that to happen.

On the road

Lake Como is mostly known these days as a backdrop to numerous movies (the recent James Bond flick Casino Royale, Ocean's 12, and some memorable scenes from Star Wars II: Attack of the Bad Dialogue), and as a secret celebrity enclave: that dreamy George Clooney owns a lakeside villa in the village of Laglio. Lake Como is wishbone shaped, with Bellagio sitting just at the central least accessible point. I had been to Bellagio once 8 years ago with my brother, and we had driven up the lake from Como along an insanely narrow road that had the unfortunate combination of cliffs, sharp protruding walls, and speeding Italian gas trucks. Once we arrived in Bellagio, we were thrilled to find out that we didn't have to repeat the experience in reverse -- you can take a car ferry and avoid the nasty road entirely. Armed with this knowledge, Maggie and I set out for the western shore of Lake Como to Cadenabbia to take the ferry into Bellagio for the day.

The shore of Lake Lugano

This was a good plan, except for the fact that the road approaching Lake Como from the West along Lake Lugano is just as scary as the road to Bellagio with cliffs, a few 1.5 lane tunnels, and some buildings that seem to be more or less in the middle of the road. That being said, the lake was beautiful and it made me want to explore the eastern part of Lake Lugano more.

Bellagio from the ferry terminal at Cadenabbia

Konrad Adenauer plays a mean game of bocce ball

The ferry ride from Cadenabbia is short (maybe 15 minutes) but it provides the most visually striking approach Bellagio. Despite the Vegas casino image most people get these days from the name Bellagio, the town itself is small and sleepy and, even with the few tacky tourist shops, it bears no resemblance to anything you might find in Vegas.

Approaching Bellagio by ferry

The waterfront at Bellagio

Belaggio has only 2 or 3 streets that you can drive on; all other "streets" are steep stairways or narrow twisting alleys that are built for exploring while eating gelato. Bellagio is rightly famed as a perfect little gem of a village, and is undeniably tourist-oriented to take advantage of this. Despite this, you can escape the most glaring trinkety areas along the waterfront simply by walking just a short distance up the hill (while eating gelato).

One of the many steep stairs leading up through Bellagio

Towards the top of the hill in the middle of town you can find (if you don't get too lost) Ristorante Bilacus. This had been recommended by one of our books and a few online sites and we stumbled across it while looking around for a lunch spot.

Maggie, salad, and the Boris Johnson impostor at Ristorante Bilacus

Ristorante Bilacus has a beautiful leafy terrace and serves delicious local cuisine, some of the best food we had on the trip. I had a delicious piece of fresh lake perch with greens, but Maggie had the clear winner with a plate of fresh papardelle and porcini mushrooms. There was an English family sitting behind Maggie, and I kept thinking that the man might be Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, but I think he was simply another blonde mop-haired Brit. Alas. I was hoping for that dreamy George Clooney anyway.

Papardelle with porcini mushrooms

View of Bellagio from La Cucina della Marianna

Before we left Cadenabbia for Bellagio, we booked dinner at La Cucina della Marianna, which had received some good reviews online, has a really quirky website, and specializes in fresh local ingredients. On warm nights, such as the night we were there, they serve dinner on a patio right on Lake Como looking out at Bellagio. Because the restaurant itself is across the road, this setup means that the servers have to carry the food across the street (the semi-busy main road along the lake). They've done this so many times, that they just walk out into the road without barely a glance and make cars stop ("Hey, I'm carrying frittata here!") — between the lake views and this peculiar gastronomic Frogger game there was plenty to keep us amused all night. Each night at La Cucina della Marianna you get served a complete fixed dinner that varies depending on the day of the week and the season. The night we came was, unfortunately, the Garden Menu — delicious and creative but entirely vegetarian, and we kept wishing we had come on the meatier days of the week. Still, the food was excellent, the host was extremeley friendly, and the view was incomparable.

I'm not sure that I would stay in Bellagio itself — too isolated, not enough to do for more than a few days, and it probably gets crazy busy on weekends — but it is such a beautiful spot that it is a must-visit if you are in the area.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Architect Sketch

This past weekend, with Maggie away in Arizona on business, I decided to go out and explore London by myself. Normally, when I find myself alone on a weekend day, I'll do relatively little: sit around, read, surf the internet, do a few chores while avoiding the most annoying ones as long as possible by surfing the internet, etc. Apart from my strange habit of cooking something experimental and challenging (I do this by myself so that when I screw up, only I have to face the consequences), I don't do much exciting by myself. But the weather was nice and warm (by London standards), and I was feeling restless, so I hit the town.

Powder Blue Orthogonal Pavilion by Toby Paterson
in front of London City Hall

You know you're living it up when you're
inside the Powder Blue Orthogonal Pavilion

The London Festival of Architecture is going on right now with a variety of installations and events scattered across town (see, e.g., part of the Portavilion project above). I had read on the festival's website about an exhibit at the Hayward Gallery called Psycho Buildings: Artists Take On Architecture; if the title wasn't catchy enough to pull me in, there was also mention of a few interactive installations open only to people "age 16 years and over, fit and not suffering from vertigo". I do have a moderate fear of heights — just thinking about Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger makes my palms sweat, and not because of the gripping dialogue — but I love doing things that force me to confront this fear, so I had to go check this out.

The Hayward Gallery, part of the Southbank Centre, houses large-scale installations of contemporary art. The Psycho Buildings exhibition was a collection of architecturally inspired installations by invited artists that visitors can explore psychologically, perceptually, and physically; nearly all were large enough to walk into, and several were quite interactive. Photography was not allowed inside the Psycho Buildings exhibition, but you can see pictures on the museum site (while it lasts) or at the Guardian. I mostly enjoyed the exhibition, but many of the artists converged rather predictably on bleak scenes of destruction (a building caught in the midst of an explosion, films of old buildings being razed, a room with walls mostly destroyed by a crazed chainsaw killer, a Korean doll house crashing into an American doll house, etc.). Even though it was all executed expertly, I do get tired of modern artists playing variations of the same one-note song.

Just an average day in London, rowing on the roof

Luckily, the outdoor exhibitions on the roof were a breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). There's no need to describe this first one, the picture says it all. For some reason, it was called "Normally, Proceeding and Unrestricted With Without Title". I would have called it "Lake on roof, people in rowboats" or "The lawyers would never have let you do this in the US". Perhaps I'm too literal to be an artist.

Entering the bubble

My personal favorite was the massive plastic bubble on the roof overlooking the river, the subject of the vertigo warning. The bubble is divided into two hemispheres by a clear plastic membrane: "The Observatory" on the bottom, and "Air-Port-City" on top. The Observatory is a pressurized chamber that fits maybe 30-40 people, whereas only 3 people at a time can go out onto the inflated membrane up in Air-Port-City and flop around awkwardly while people watch from below. Being out on the membrane was bizarre and fun, but not particularly vertigo-inducing despite the height. It took me hours to get Insane in the Membrane out of my head. The only thing that was truly scary was the fact that the membrane had ripped a few times and had been mended with duct tape at a few points. The lawyers would never have let you do this in the US.

In Air-Port-City

No, this wasn't embarassing at all, why do you ask?

The sky view from Air-Port-City

Inside The Observatory

As fun as it was crawling around in Air-Port-City, watching people from below was also great entertainment. (BTW, apparently Lando Calrissian is not the Mayor of Air-Port-City. I asked.) The experience of watching someone essentially floating 10 feet above you is quite surreal. On one hand, they seem weightless and free, but on the other hand people flop about in a slightly unsettling way, like a live fish getting shrink-wrapped. Now this is what I call art.

Please don't shrink-wrap the elderly

After my experience at Psycho Buildings, I decided to cap off my architectural tour of London by seeing a movie. A movie you say? What's so architectural about that?

Shirley MacLaine & Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

Well, I went to see The Apartment, the classic Billy Wilder film starring Jack Lemmon (being charming and mildly manic), Shirley MacLaine (being cute and mildly depressive), and Fred MacMurray (being sleazy). This is one of my very favorite movies (if for nothing else, watch it for the incredible cinematography and art direction), and it was showing at The Screen on the Green in Islington for just this week, so I had to take the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

I did several things for the very first time this weekend: I went out to brunch and ate eggs Benedict by myself (delicious, even without company), I crawled around on a giant inflated plastic membrane (in the name of art, naturally), and I went to a movie by myself (I've honestly never done this before). As it turns out, these were even better ways to avoid doing chores than surfing the internet.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Coffee Ban

I’ve been banned from using the coffee machine in my office. Honest to god. Banned. Clearly there’s a story here — not a very good story mind you, but the other option is me telling you about the conference I went to on RNA interference, so I think you’ll probably agree that the "banned from the coffee machine" story was the better choice.

The beautiful Southwark Cathedral next to Borough Market

This morning, as I was sitting in front of Southwark Cathedral sipping my small Sumatran coffee from Monmouth Coffee (after happily spending 20 minutes in line and £2.00 on a simple cup of filter coffee), I had a surprising realization: I’ve become a coffee snob. How did this happen? I suppose it’s natural since I somehow made it through grad school in biology (thanks caffeine, I owe you), I'm a botanist ("Is that 100% Coffea arabica?"), plus I’m an everything-else snob to boot. Actually, much as my barber described the rogue grey hairs that have started forming rebel encampments on my head as looking “distinguished”, I prefer to think of myself as a coffee “aficionado”. The difference, to my mind, is that I will gladly drink a cup of brownish swill at a greasy spoon and appreciate in context, while a snob would simply refuse to drink it in the first place.

The Market Coffee House at Spitalfields, a coffee oasis in London

London, despite being an amazingly worldly city with a flourishing culinary scene, has mostly crappy coffee and relatively little appreciation for good coffee. There are a few really high quality places around, but it certainly isn't commonplace to find good coffee. If you're looking for good coffee in London, definitely don't come to my office. My company provides a few options for coffee: (1) a standard electric coffee maker in the kitchen that no one has used in years and smells funny; (2) a massive multi-drink vending machine with a reassuring picture of Seattle on the front, which dispenses tea, coffee, hot chocolate, chicken soup, and orange soda; and (3) a Flavia Beverage System in the reception area. One could potentially walk outside and buy a coffee from one of the many decent cafes in the surrounding neighborhood, but the concept of “the break” has yet to hit my office. Maybe it’s an American thing, I don’t know. Here’s a photo of the scary multi-drink vending machine:

Anyone for chocolate orange chicken coffee soda?

I call it "The Nutrimatic" after the drink dispenser from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that invariably "delivers a cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea". After I saw the inner workings of the multi-drink vending machine, with a convoluted network of tubes and containers with frightening labels like "Whitening Agent 23", I vowed never to drink from it again. It also occurred to me that at some point right before the drink hits the cup, there is a single tube through which chicken soup, orange soda, chocolate and coffee all must pass. Yuck.

So this creates a dilemma: either I use the funny-smelling coffee machine, or I walk down to the reception area two floors away and use the Flavia Beverage System. If you know anything about Flavia Beverage Systems, walking down two flights of stairs to get to one is really a questionable choice to say the least, but I need to invent a reason for a break now and then and the coffee, while still instant, is mildly better than the one produced by the Nutrimatic. The Flavia is somewhat clever in that it makes a variety of types of hot drinks based on a selection of individually packaged servings (various coffee roasts, teas, hot chocolate, etc.), avoiding the sketchy chicken soup mixed with coffee situation in The Nutrimatic.

The latest and greatest Flavia Beverage System

Recently, it has become a daily routine for my work mates and myself to trudge downstairs and grab a drink from the Flavia Beverage System for a mid-morning coffee break. Clearly this routine was upsetting someone (no idea why), and we were approached by one of the reception staff who informed us that we were no longer allowed to use the Flavia Beverage System because it is supposed to be reserved for company directors and guests. That was that; banned from the Flavia. "I'm sorry sir, the Twinkies are reserved for the first class passengers." I bet those directors have a secret stash of Hot Pockets and Amstel Light too. This was probably a blessing in disguise: on Monday I'm going to wash out the old funny-smelling coffee machine and start making real coffee myself.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


When we first announced that we were moving to London, nearly everyone pointed out the amazing travel that would be at our disposal: France, Italy, Spain, Iceland. Coming from California, it takes a serious effort to get to these places, but from London, all of Europe is at your fingertips. Because Maggie just finished her Master's degree, we decided to take a celebratory trip somewhere fun. So where did we decide to go? Amsterdam? Madrid? Zurich? Nope, we decided to go even more exotic: New York City. After nearly a year in London, a dose of American culture can sound incredibly appealing, and we both love New York. What a crazy feeling it is to be living in Europe and vacationing in the US - it boggles the brain.

New York has many charms, but for me the food is paramount. We talked about other things to do in New York (plays, museums, etc.), but really all we wanted was food (and perhaps to find the Cash Cab). The first thing we did after we dropped our bags off at the hotel was to head straight for pizza.

A pizza masterpiece from John's of Bleecker Street

I like the European style pizza, don't get me wrong, but nothing in the world can compete with a real New York coal-fired brick oven pizza. I won't get into the argument over who serves the best (Lombardi's, Grimaldi's, Patsy's, etc.), because I honestly haven't spent enough time in New York to fairly judge; all I know is the pizzas served up at John's of Bleecker Street are pure pizza perfection. Only an 850° coal-fired oven can produce the crispy smokiness needed to make the perfect pizza. I would never order anything other than a plain pie here; adding a topping would just distract from the perfect harmony of the cheese, sauce, and crust.

John's has been operating in the same location since 1929. An older couple saw us photographing our pizza and offered to take our picture. They had been eating there most of their lives and still come regularly. The woman said to us, "The best thing about John's is that everybody in here just loves pizza. You can't be unhappy in John's." We couldn't agree more. Judging by the pictures on the wall, Mickey Mantle, Al Pacino, Bruno Kirby, and Vanilla Ice also agree.

The British Invasion

Just before coming to New York, we had seen the Sex and the City movie, and we both gasped in horror when we saw Carrie and Miranda eating sandwiches from Pret a Manger. When we first came to London, Pret seemed to be a decent enough place to grab a sandwich. An overpriced and pre-made sandwich, but decently tasty. You get tired of them really quickly, particularly when you're forced to eat them multiple times per week at meetings like Maggie. Much like Starbucks in other parts of the world, there are so many Prets in London, that you can commonly stand in a Pret and see another one across the street. Anyhow, we're kind of sick of them.

Proof that Pret is not needed in New York

I understand why Pret is so popular in London: 1) there aren't that many great places to get a freshly made sandwich (there are some really good ones, but not many); and 2) everyone is in a crazy hurry in London, such that waiting the necessary 2 minutes for a sandwich to get made might cause people to explode out of impatience in a burst of hair gel and spray-on tan. Oranges are declining in popularity in the UK, because people are in too much of a rush to peel them. Seriously. Anyhow, the point is that Pret makes sense for London where soggy sandwiches are the norm. But New York? I just don't understand why anyone would go to Pret when there are incredible delis all over the place. Granted, a pastrami on rye from the Carnegie Deli costs about $13, but then it is the size of your average toaster.

27th Annual Pride Run

This past Sunday was also Gay Pride Day, and we wandered through the festivities at the parade on our way to get pizza (the second time). It rained a bit on the end of the parade, but this didn't deter anyone from staying out and having a good time. On Saturday, we went strolling through Central Park in the 90° super-humid weather. We were suffering just walking around, so we were majorly impressed by the runners going by in the Pride Run. It was so hot out, we decided that maybe going to a museum was a good idea after all. Sadly, it took air-conditioning to get us to actually go to the Met. This turned out to be a great call - not only was the air nice and cool inside, but the museum was spectacular.

We spent a lot of our time wandering around the Egyptian collection, which is particularly impressive. There are two entire temples moved from Egypt and rebuilt inside the Met, including the impressive Temple of Dendur which sits in a massive sunlit room surrounded by an indoor pond.

The Pharaoh Gropehotep I

While the Met has a predictably amazing collection, I was most impressed by the spaciousness of the galleries and the sense of light that seemed to permeate the architecture. Even on a Summer weekend day, the museum was mellow and not crammed full of people like I had feared, and it was all-in-all a very pleasant time.

But we didn't come to New York for the museums - we get enough of those in London to be honest. We came for the hot dogs, the pastrami, the bagels, the pizza, the sushi, and to soak in the unmistakeable Americanness of the place. Unfortunately we didn't find that Cash Cab...