Thursday, August 28, 2008

Postcards from Bern

Even though I was to meet Maggie and David in Bern on a Sunday to start our trip to the Swiss Alps, there was not much point in hanging around in London on Saturday, so I got to Bern a day early to do some exploring on my own. I took the train from Geneva to Bern, a roughly two hour ride along the north shore of Lake Geneva and through scenic Swiss countryside.

I made the dubious choice of reading Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith while riding by myself on a mostly empty train. The book is even eerier than the Hitchcock movie version, and certainly more so than the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito remake Throw Momma From The Train. Luckily the scenery was so beautiful that I quickly put the book down before I got too creeped out.

The Bahnhofplatz in Bern

Bern itself is a charming, historic, and very Swiss city, built on a high steep-sided ridge overlooking the Aar River and with views of the high Swiss Alps in the distance. For a capital city, Bern is very mellow and turned out to be a very pleasant place to spend a day.

Scattered around the streets of the old town are numerous tall columns topped with brightly colored figures. As best as I could tell, each one was a representation of a folk tale or legend, although I couldn't place most of the imagery. Almost all of them included a bear doing something (firing a rifle, suited up for war, doing more normal bear activities); one had no bears, but more than made up for this ursine omission by featuring a man eating babies.

Mmm, babies

The capital building at night

I really enjoy the occasional trip by myself, and my day in Bern was no exception. I definitely made the most of my time in Bern:
  • I watched people play big-chess, and sneakily took their picture

  • I saw more bear statues and bear art than I can even begin to describe

  • I was shocked to find Mexican food in the outdoor market in the Barenplatz, and even more shocked that it was authentic, made by actual Mexicans, and amazingly good. If you go to Bern, be sure to check out the Don Porfirio stand in the outdoor market and try their tortas - one of the best versions of a torta de carne I've had anywhere.

  • I watched a marimba duet on the street

  • I ate pistachio gelato

  • I saw Albert Einstein's house

  • I treated myself to an amazing gourmet dinner at Casa Novo just feet from the rushing Aar River. I didn't realize quite how fancy it was until I was seated - see amazing beef carpaccio dish below as an example of level of fanciness:

  • I amused myself by noticing that my hotel had elevators made by the manufacturer Schindler — yes indeed, Schindler's Lift (I can't possibly be the first person to notice this).
Even though I was only in Bern for a day, I squeezed in a lot of activities (if you count being a big-chess spectator as "activity"). I even watched a musical puppet show and a German funk-rap band at the Buskers Bern music festival. Before I met Maggie and David the following day, I had an engrossing conversation with a complete stranger (he spoke Italian and a few words of English, I did the opposite - after about 2 hours we had managed to convey that London is expensive, George Bush likes to play with bombs, and that bolognese is better than pesto), and I watched some more big-chess.

As much fun as I had by myself, I did miss sharing the experiences with others, like the excitement and surprise of finding Mexican food in Bern, and having a gorgeous riverside dinner. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't have had a long conversation in Italianglish, I wouldn't have busted through two whole books, and, even if someone else had been with me, I wouldn't have shared my pistachio gelato for the world.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Steppin' Out

After the first few days in London, Maggie and her dad, David, went off to Paris to enjoy themselves while I stayed behind in London. Not to be totally left out of the European explorations, I flew to Geneva on the weekend and took a train to the Swiss capital Bern where they met me the following day.

Bern street view

When Maggie and David joined me, we drove from Bern to Lauterbrunnen, just under an hour away by car. The Lauterbrunnen Valley is one of the most visually stunning places on the planet, similar in many ways to Yosemite Valley, but on an even bigger scale. The valley was J. R. R. Tolkien's inspiration for the valley of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings (think Thomas Kinkade with elves), and it's easy to see why he was so inspired. Towering over the valley are the Mönch, Eiger, and Jungfrau, all of which are over 13,000 ft. tall, there are waterfalls everywhere you look even in the driest part of the year, and everything is green and glorious.

Lauterbrunnen Valley view from our hotel room

After we arrived, we took a short hike up to Staubbach Falls. The Swiss have a wonderful habit of building stairs (and roads, and trains, and buildings) in places that look absolutely impossible, and they seem to do it simply because of the challenge. I'm happy that they do these things, because I get to walk behind a massive 1000 ft. waterfall or take a train that goes through the Eiger up to the Junfraujoch at over 11,000 ft.

While hiking and climbing up the stairs to Staubbach Falls, we kept running into this American guy who was, for some untold reason, eating frozen bonbons while walking. Why he was eating bonbons on a hike is beyond me, and the irony was that he was constantly showing off his mountaineering prowess to his girlfriend and coaching her on how to properly ascend a mountain and not slip on gravel, all the while stuffing his craw with chocolatey bonbons. Mr. Bonbon then planted himself right in the middle of exact spot that everyone wanted to photograph, so we all got pictures of his bonbon container. When he reached the bottom of the trail, he no longer had the bonbon container and had clearly dropped it on the trail somewhere. I'm sorry world; we Americans are not all like Mr. Bonbon, I promise.

Mr. Bonbon and Staubbach Falls

The following day, we took the gondola up to the village of Mürren, a place built for postcards. The picture would have been totally complete if there had been a man with a jaunty cap and an alpenhorn and a girl in pigtails. We took an idyllic hike along the ridge munching on wild strawberries and bilberries and listening to the subtle clanging of the cowbells in distant ravines. Needless to say, this was all very nice.

View of the Lauterbrunnen Valley from the gondola

View from our Mürren hike

Monkshood in bloom

Downtown Mürren during rush hour

As the weather started to turn a bit grey and threatened to rain, we made our way back down to the valley floor, and, not content to end the day without having climbed massive amounts of stairs, we went to visit Trummelbach Falls. Unlike most of the other falls in the valley, Trummelbach is essentially a series of cascades inside the rock of the mountain. Once again the Swiss proved that they can build anything anywhere and built a stairway that follows the waterfall up through the mountain.

Because the water is glacial melt, the cave is icy cold, but, because the trail snakes in and out of the cave, you go through tremendous temperature changes on this hike. The best parts of the trail are when you are inside the mountain right next to the waterfall experiencing the intense force of the rushing water. No photo could possibly capture this sensation, but I did record a short video:

Even that just looks like a bit of flowing water with some noise, but trust me that it was quite exhilarating to stand so close to such a powerful force inside a dark, icy cold cave.

Above Grindelwald

Getting to the top of Trummelbach Falls involved climbing many hundreds of stairs, so we swore that we would avoid stairs entirely the next day and take a nice drive up to Grindelwald and take it easy. Wanting to take a short walk in the morning, we drove past Grindelwald with the intention of going up to the Grosse Scheidegg for a walk in the high alpen meadows (near where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty fought to the death in The Adventure of the Final Problem). Unfortunately, the road is closed to cars for the last bit (but open to cows), and the bus that would have taken us to to the top wasn't set to leave for over an hour, so instead we followed signs to a trail that lead up to the nearby glacier.

Cows allowed

As it turned out, this wasn't merely a trail, but in fact was an incredibly steep and long staircase straight up the cliff face handmade out of logs, and naturally we couldn't resist one more set of stairs. After climbing for ages you reach a scary suspension bridge over a gorge that was quite fun, but the advertised view of the glacier wasn't all that interesting, especially compared to the views of the mountains and the lush green valley.

The triumphant trio on the bridge

For our next vacation, my vote is to go somewhere flat, sip on a piña colada, and do very little. Of course, looking at our calendar, our next trip is to Norway with hopefully a visit to a fjord or two. Hmm, fjords are flat right?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dad’s Visit - Our Days in London

It seems like I’d been waiting for ages for my Dad’s trip to Europe - and last week he finally arrived! We’d been planning and talking about his visit since February, so it was wonderful to finally see him coming out of customs at Gatwick Airport. Being the history buff and map-lover he is, by the time he got here he had tons of exciting ideas about where to visit and what to do - so before you knew it we were off and running.

Since my Dad has done extensive reading about World War II throughout his life, our first order of business was the Imperial War Museum in London. We took the underground to Waterloo station, and stopped briefly to check out where they filmed the cool chase scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, one of my Dad's favorite movies.

The museum is just a short walk from Waterloo station, so we trudged over through the rain in true London fashion. The first thing you see outside of the museum is a huge navy battleship gun with shells that are bigger than me. I honestly can’t believe these things were once dropped from the sky onto people, buildings, etc - they averaged around 1500 lbs each and could travel as far as 18 miles. The thought of hearing one coming at your neighborhood is extremely scary; apparently they sounded like a loud like a train approaching, and they traveled way too fast to be seen by the naked eye.

The craftsmanship on the vehicles and planes in the museum is incredible. It was great to be there with my Dad because he knew so much history about everything we saw - he would quote facts about the tanks and planes as though he was reading straight from the plaque next to them! He easily could’ve been a tour guide there with the amount of information he knew.

While all of the exhibits are fascinating, at a certain point you inevitably realize that human beings built all these machines to hurt and intimidate others. That fact made the museum hard to take at certain points. This was especially true in the holocaust exhibit, which was full of real Nazi propaganda, photographs of the time, and testimonials of survivors. It walked you through the timeline of how Nazis came to power though their eventual demise. We all felt somber after seeing this exhibit; it put images in my head that I'll never forget.

On a brighter note, the next day we visited another popular spot in London: St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is a Baroque cathedral with a beautiful dome, an enormous sanctuary, and a crypt with graves of famous scientists like Marie Curie and Sir Alexander Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin), and military heroes like the Duke of Wellington. The building has a very reverent feeling - in fact it made me want to be religious, and that’s saying something! They wouldn’t allow photographs in the church but a lot of blasphemous people like me were surreptitiously taking pictures anyway. Here's one of my ‘casual’ shots that caught Andy’s head - ‘I really don’t have a camera, honest…’

I got bolder as the day went on and as I saw how many other people were unabashedly taking pictures, and I actually got a few good shots of the dome and sanctuary.

Believe it or not, St. Paul’s has stairs that go all the way to the top of the dome, and of course none of us could resist the challenge of climbing all 530 of them. So we (and hundreds of other people) set off on the long journey up - luckily there were a few stops along the way. The first level was the ‘whispering wall’, where from within the dome you could stop on a ledge and whisper at one side of the dome and supposedly it would be heard on the other side.

The second and third levels took you outdoors for some great views.

My Dad also got to ride in the top front of a double decker bus on the way home (fun!), so after a few short days he was quickly becoming a London expert. Stay tuned for the next blog on our Paris trip!

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Graham Norton Mystery

Living where we do, we see quite a lot of Graham Norton. Anyone in the UK with a television will find it rather hard to avoid him, but Maggie and I live quite near to him and regularly see him walking his dogs around Wapping.

The ubiquitous Graham Norton

When I was first looking for a flat in Wapping and was being shown around the neighborhood by an agent, he told me that Graham Norton lived in the area, but "despite his bubbly persona on TV, he looks like grim death in person." Now I wouldn't go quite as far as "grim death" but he does adopt a definite "don't bother me" scowl as he trots around with his dogs or peruses the pasta section in Waitrose. To be honest, I don't want to bother him at all, but I do want to pet his nice looking dogs, especially the big fluffy labradoodle named Bailey.

Graham Norton and his doggies

After seeing his dogs repeatedly, on one recent occasion I had a sudden realization. Back in April when we had a snowy day in London, we posted a picture of dogs playing in the snow in the park. At the time, we thought it was weird: as far as we could tell, we were completely alone in the park apart from the dogs. We looked around for their owner, but absolutely no one was around and it was totally silent apart from the happy dog noises. And the strangest thing of all, if you haven't figured it out already, was that the snowy dogs were Graham Norton's dogs.

The three photos of Graham Norton's labradoodles in the snow

Graham Norton loves his dogs and is regularly photographed with them, and I have never seen him let them off the leash. The thought that he would have let his dogs run free in the park while he was off buying a latte seems rather unlikely. Could Graham Norton have been in the park and we simply didn't see him?

Being a studious watcher of Matlock, I went back to the photographic evidence. Using fancy forensic techniques (a.k.a. fiddling around in Photoshop), I soon discovered the truth, and a recon mission to the park provided confirmation: Graham Norton was hiding in the bushes while we snapped pictures of his dogs.

An enhanced photograph proving that Graham Norton was hiding in the bushes. Graham Norton footprints indicated by the dashed line.

In the original pictures, it didn't look like there was anywhere that a person could have been hidden from view, but on a recent return trip to the park I found that there was indeed a hiding place. As you walk towards the shrubbery (see above photo), a hollow just barely big enough for one petite comedian soon becomes evident. This "Norton Niche", as I am calling it, was where Graham Norton must have been hiding on that snowy April day.

Returning to the scene of the mystery

Rounding the bend

The Norton Niche

That's one mystery solved. Whether Graham Norton was using the Norton Niche for shelter from the snow, specifically to hide from us in fear that we might ask him for an autograph, or maybe he simply thought it was a cool fort, we may never know.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Roti, Roti, Roti!

Two years ago, I spent three weeks touring Malaysia. Mostly I was traipsing through the jungle collecting plants while fleeing from blood-thirsty leeches and pit vipers, but I also found time to try as many types of food as possible. I quickly became a fan of roti canai, a Malaysian staple consisting of fried flatbread served with a yellow lentil dal and usually a coconut chutney or other various condiments. After having a delicious breakfast of roti the first morning I was in Kuala Lumpur, I decided to branch out the following evening at an outdoor restaurant that served dozens of types of roti. Unfortunately, the menu lacked any description of what each type was, so I picked purely by the sound of the name. I was naturally drawn to the one called "roti boom"; I figured you couldn't go wrong with a name like that. Unfortunately it turned out to be very sweet, like a dessert roti, and I had ordered it thinking it would be my dinner. Never one to turn down dessert, I ate my roti boom and quickly ordered some standard roti canai to finish the meal.

Malaysian fruits on display

My previous attempts to find roti canai outside of Malaysia have ended in disappointment, but I was hopeful once I saw that the Malaysia Week 2008 festival was taking place in London right near City Hall and that the festival would be featuring Malaysian food stalls. Our friends Alice and Jon, also roti lovers from their trip to Malaysia, joined us last weekend in our hunt for roti at Malaysia Week 2008. Not only did we find the Powder Blue Orthogonal Pavilion still in place, but we successfully found some really tasty authentic roti canai from the restaurant Awana (although sans coconut chutney). The roti was being made by a by a man who would enthusiastically yell "Roti, roti, roti, roti, roti, roti ca-nai!!!" to attract customers. I had already bought the roti by the time he started yelling, so all he succeeded in doing was getting the song "Ruby" by the Kaiser Chiefs stuck in my head.

Sarsi and roti canai: a dream come true

Much to my delight, another food stall was selling Sarsi, the Malaysian equivalent of root beer. I personally love Sarsi (no surprise there, perhaps) — it tastes mostly like a typical sarsaparilla with a hint of fruitiness, but there is also a subtle bitterness reminiscent of the aroma of a Chinese herb store. Sarsi is certainly not for everyone, but I would recommend it to all fans of root beer out there.

9 out of 10 macaques prefer Coca Cola to Sarsi

Tasty Malaysian foods at Malaysia Week 2008

Malaysian desserts can be a bit of an acquired taste, at least if you're coming from a Western perspective. Whether you want to acquire the taste for red beans and corn in your dessert is up to you — I'm on board with the corn, but I'm still working on truly enjoying beans for dessert other than as a novelty. Ais kacang, or ABC (which stands for 'air batu campur' meaning 'blended ice'; it does not, alas, stand for 'already been chewed'), is a popular dessert, similar in many ways to Hawaiian shave ice, but with the addition of corn, beans, sweetened condensed milk, variously colored bits of tapioca, and grass jelly. While it was great to see this in London, it lost a bit of its appeal after my initial order got snatched by a pushy person who had just walked up, I had to wait another 10 minutes to get another one, and after all that it ended up looking a bit too much like icy roadkill for my taste.

Looks can be deceiving

We all had lots of fun wandering Malaysia Week 2008: in addition to the food, there was traditional dancing, art and handicrafts, and even a short fashion show. I hope more nations of the world have their own weeks in London — I'm currently trying to will Mexico Week into existence.

Malaysian fashion show