Friday, September 26, 2008

Playing Tourist

There's been a lot happening lately, particularly with our impending move back to California (just a few weeks left!), so it feels like we're running behind with our blogging a bit. Last week we took a very memorable trip to Norway that left us wishing we could have stayed longer. But before we went to Norway, we celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary, enjoyed an evening of chamber music at the oldest surviving music hall in the world, and we spent a fun week with our friends Jeanne and Kelly who were visiting from California. We always love having visitors: not only do we get to hang out with our friends from home, but we get an excuse to play tourist and cross things off the "things we have to do before we leave London otherwise we'll feel stupid" list, which is still embarrassingly long.

Jeanne and Kelly got to experience a dose of typical grey and wet London weather during their visit, but luckily the weather more or less behaved when we visited Kew Gardens and saw a play at Shakespeare's roofless Globe Theatre.

Even Emperor Trajan gets a little tired of the rain

Some Londoners mind the bad weather less than others

When we last visited Kew Gardens, we were tantalized by the not-quite open treetop walkway, and vowed to come back when it had opened to the public. Jeanne and Kelly were more than willing to join us on this outing (in fact they suggested it), so not only did we get to try out the treetop walkway, but I got a whole new audience to bore entertain with random botanical facts.

The Xstrata Treetop Walkway

The treetop walkway (unfortunately dubbed the Xstrata Treetop Walkway, to make it sound more x-treme to appeal to hip youngsters), while an impressive piece of engineering and pleasant, was a bit of a letdown in terms of thrill factor. The whole structure felt incredibly stable and you feel almost enclosed when you're on it, so I never felt the "oh crap, I'm way too high up for my own good" feeling I was hoping for. Compared to the canopy walkway I went on in Malaysia, which was made of cheap aluminum ladders tied together in a questionably secure fashion and left me shaking in my leech-socks, the Kew treetop walkway felt like a calm stroll through a city plaza. Nice views, but not so x-treme.

The Xstrata Treetop Walkway contrast to the canopy walkway in Malaysia

At least the Evening Standard found something x-treme about the canopy walkway

We had both really wanted to see a play at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and we were disappointed when we had to give up tickets to see King Lear there earlier in the year because we absent-mindedly booked a trip on the same day, so we were excited to get another chance to go with Jeanne and Kelly. Even though the Globe is a recent recreation of the original, it was done very well and true to the original design and feel, so that it doesn't seem artificial in any way, particularly when you see how well plays work in the space and how you can hear each and every word spoken by the actors.

Sneaking a picture of the stage between acts

We went to see Timon of Athens; not Shakespeare's best known play to be sure, but the acting was excellent, the story entertaining, and the staging involved weird crow-like acrobats romping around on a big net suspended over the stage and occasionally dropping on bungee cords to bounce around over the actors. Since we were sitting on the top level, the crow-people were especially entertaining (if slightly creepy in a Cirque du Soleil sort of way). The only bad thing about the Globe is how much you focus on your own discomfort during the play due to the hard wooden bench seating, but even that is worth it for the chance to see Shakespeare where it is meant to be performed.

Another sneaky picture of The Globe

Somehow we have spent the past year in London without ever setting foot in the British Museum. Now that I've been, I wish we would have gone earlier because there is so much to see and enjoy. I'm certainly not the first to say it, but one of my favorite aspects of the British Museum is Norman Foster's amazing glass-roofed Great Court — this would have been even better on a sunny day but was much appreciated on the rainy Friday afternoon.

The Great Court at the British Museum

While the British Museum has wonders pilfered from all over the world, the Egyptian collection is one of the major strongpoints and certainly one of the big draws of the museum. I enjoyed seeing the Rosetta Stone in person, although it was difficult to get near it with all of the people trying to see it and tricky to get a decent photograph of it. Luckily, a lot of the museum visitors seemed to be going for the greatest hits and everything in between the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles was relatively peaceful and uncrowded.

Nice kitty

Beetle-mania is still alive and well in England

Evidence of why the British were never as feared as the Vikings

While the impressive historical collection was to be expected, we were surprised (and lucky because the exhibition was just closing) to find an excellent retrospective of American print making. The collection included some incredible prints from artists that I had only known previously as painters like Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, and Grant Wood.

One of my favorite prints by the American artist Martin Lewis

At some point we'll just have to give up: there's just too much to see in London to ever feel like you've seen everything. Even so, it sure is fun to be able to explore the city while we have the chance, and it's great to get to experience it with friends from home.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The News

As Maggie mentioned in the previous post, we have been in the midst of some big life decisions lately: I decided to bite the bullet and finally try reading On the Road, and Maggie took the huge leap of becoming a fan of Huey Lewis and the News on Facebook.

Huey Lewis and the News On the Road

Oh yeah, and we're moving back to California.

Of course this has major blog ramifications: root beer is no longer going to be a rare commodity in California, so what do we do? Change our name to Desperately Seeking Elderflower? Desperately Seeking Clotted Cream? Desperately Seeking Jellied Eels? Do we change our remit and start searching for sources of Kendall Mint Cakes in San Francisco?

Title questions aside, I'm quite excited to continue the spirit of exploration that we have kept up in London back in the San Francisco Bay Area. Blogging keeps us on the lookout for interesting things and spurs us on to get out and try new things, and not simply for the sake of a few silly pictures (although silly pictures never hurt). And who knows what we'll find in the Bay Area; perhaps, instead of Graham Norton, we'll find Huey Lewis lurking in the shrubbery? {Maggie: "God, I sure hope so. Mrrrrow."}

Leaving London has made us start thinking about the many things we're going to miss. Most of them are food-related, and absolutely none of them are weather-related, but there are all sorts of random things we'll miss. The frenetic and haphazard bell ringing at the church behind our flat that only seems to happen when we're on the phone or right at a key point of dialogue in an episode of Numb3rs. The view over the river and Tower Bridge. Pubs that are significantly older than our entire country. Cheese. Our endless string of odd haircut experiences involving such characters as The Pufferfish, Dark Helmet, and The Turkish Razor.

The Pufferfish, Dark Helmet, and The Turkish Razor

This is a bit of an aside, but I can't mention The Pufferfish, Dark Helmet, and The Turkish Razor without some sort of explanation. Maggie should have turned and fled when she met Dark Helmet, rather than paying some ungodly amount for a strangely spherical haircut. Haircut rule #1: Don't get your hair styled by someone whose own hair looks like a helmet. I showed up to a haircut appointment one time only to find that the woman who had cut my hair previously no longer worked there, so instead I got an angry Turkish man who proceeded to rant at me about injustice in the hair styling industry, all the while cutting my hair using only a straight razor and a comb. No scissors. This was also not a good haircut, and I certainly don't remember asking him to make me look like Bert Convy.

The password is: bad haircut

The Pufferfish is probably the weirdest of all. I went to him randomly when looking for a new barber closer to our flat. Everything seemed normal until he started blowing on my head every few seconds. And not just a light puff, but as hard as he possibly could without spit spraying out. Snip, snip, snip...pfffffffff! Snip, snip, snip...pfffffffff! Needless to say, I've never had a barber, or anyone else for that matter, repeatedly blow heavily on my hair. It actually didn't bother me too much until he blew twice directly in my face and I could identify individual ingredients that had been in his lunch. It soon became apparent that he had some sort of dislike for hair clippings. He would occasionally stop, pick up the nearby hairdryer, and proceed to blow down his shirt and trousers to remove any trace of hair. A trichophobic barber, now that's irony.

We're definitely going to miss all of the oddments that have made up our London experience, some clearly good things, and undoubtedly some things we could never guess that we'll miss. I'll probably find myself missing the distinctive diesel, bacon, and dampness aroma of London streets, or the strangeness that is black pudding. Maggie may even find herself missing the constant Top Gear reruns. {Maggie: "Fat chance."} Believe it or not, I'm going to miss The Pufferfish — that guy gave me one hell of a haircut.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Paris Blog (Finally)

I'm finally getting around to writing about my trip to Paris with my Dad... it's been a busy month with friends visiting and big life decisions... more on that soon!

But back to Paris - the trip with my Dad confirmed what I've long suspected: Paris is truly one of my favorite cities in the world. For starters, the Luxembourg Gardens this time of year were even more spectacular than when Andy and I visited in February. The flowers were all in bloom and people enjoyed sitting around in lawn chairs all over the garden - including Dad and me. We returned more than once to sit at a certain corner of the lawn that attracted little hopping birds (and bumblebees too, which luckily didn't bother us too much). The various fountains in the park were also made more beautiful by the warmth and sunlight.

Our visit to the Louvre was one of the highlights of the trip. I have to admit, having heard rumors that the Louvre doesn't live up to the hype, I was a bit skeptical; but the rumors couldn't have been more wrong. The Louvre is every bit as impressive as you could imagine - with huge marble hallways, gallery after gallery of Greek and Roman statues, and of course paintings galore. (Their cafeteria was also fantastic - Dad tried a panna cotta for the first time and it was great!). The Venus de Milo was beautiful in person; I didn't expect to be impressed but I actually stood for a long time staring - it's one of the most graceful sculptures I've ever seen.

The Mona Lisa was also striking, and even though it was crowded, it wasn't the mob scene I thought it would be. We also came upon an unexpected treat - Napoleon's house. They've set up replicas of Napoleon's many living rooms, hallways, and dining room in the Louvre so you can actually walk through them. Many of the items were authentically his, down to the carpets, the staircases and the moldings, so it feels like stepping back in time as you're making your way through each room. Maybe it was the mood of the place, but Dad and I liked it so much we walked through twice and spent a long time just soaking it in.

Napoleon's salon

... and his dining room

The dining room was opulent and spooky at the same time - there were 8 foot high paintings on each wall of predatory animals on the attack (no kidding) - including vultures, tigers, and wild boar. The room was also darkly lit, which added to the creepiness.

Finally, I can't post a Paris blog without a mention of food. On our first afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled in and we ran into Cafe Tournon, where we had a delicious lunch of meat, bread and cheese. All of the doors and windows were open so we sat and watched the rain - we were the only ones in the restaurant at 4pm so it felt like the place was all ours.

The best food we had was by far at L'As du Fallafel, recommended by our friends Alice and Jon. Dad and I had the standard falafel which was both delicious and a good bargain, and the atmosphere was casual and friendly. After returning home and doing some research, it turns out The New York Times reviewed them a few years ago and raved about them too. We didn't take pictures but luckily their photographer Richard Harbus did.

L'As du Fallafel is in the Jewish part of town called Le Marais, and afterward we walked around the neighborhood and stumbled upon a memorial to the people in Paris who sheltered and aided Jews during World War II. We found out there was a huge underground railroad movement in Paris that included over 75,000 people. The names of families and individuals involved were engraved on the memorial - it was so moving to see how many people stood up for human rights in the face of Hitler's attempt to terrorize the world.

That's the thing about Paris - every time you go, you find new incredible bits of culture and beauty, and you realize there's so much more to do. Even as we were leaving, both Dad and I started planning our next trip there - I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Brillante Weblog Premio 2008

A few weeks ago, our friend Alice at An American in London kindly awarded us with The Brillante Weblog Premio 2008. Alice is awesome, and not just for giving us a nifty award that is possibly in Spanish and looks like a screenshot from an episode of The Adventures of the Gummi Bears. Anyhow, go read her blog.

The rule is that we have to pass on the award to blogs that we follow and that deserve recognition, like a chain letter that the recipient is actually glad to receive and isn't sent from a fictitious church with a menacing sounding name like The Church of St. Vitriol Without Entrails. I believe the original rules for this prize entail passing it along to 7 other blogs — while it is true that I follow 7 other blogs regularly (but probably not many more than that - hey we got full-time jobs, what can we do?), one is Alice's blog, a couple others have already received The Brillante Weblog Premio, and some don't need an award because they're too well-known already. So 7 has shrunk to 3, but these are 3 goodies.

And the award goes to...

New Yorker in London
- One of our favorite American expat in London blogs. Her recent pictures of a warm Summer evening in San Francisco and the brief mention of Pancho Villa made us long for, well, a warm Summer evening in San Francisco and Pancho Villa (deluxe burrito al pastor, refried black beans, hot salsa, sour cream, and a watermelon agua fresca, thank you very much).

Life in a Nutshell - Deserves an award simply for saying this: "I don't know why I'm entertained by trying to sneak up on farm animals. Those sheep were so on to me though." Also, anyone creative and brave enough to post a lolpregnancytest must be prize-worthy.

Grumblemouse - Even if the Grumblemouse has a fancy new job, we want him to keep grumbling. This is a prize being used as a prod. Hey, I got an idea, grumble about the new job!

Pass it on!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How to Not Electrocute Yourself in London

Electrical outlets in the UK have been something of a mystery to me since we moved to London. I knew the voltage differed (220 volts in the UK vs. 110 volts in the US) and I was aware of the big clunky plug design, but why did every outlet have it's own switch?

Why all the switches?

Are power surges so common that everything needs redundant breakers? Do people in the UK have such low esteem for the quality of their local electricians that extra safety is deemed necessary? I couldn't figure it out. I occasionally mocked the switch.

I've had a bit of experience with getting shocked in the past. While doing research in the South Pacific some years ago, I found that my eyes got hot and tingly and the world started looking pinkish when I used a microscope. The microscope I was using was plugged into an old hulking transformer and somehow a bit of current was running through the metal frame of the scope right into my eye sockets. Not recommended.

Here in London, I've had ongoing trouble with my laptop power adaptor. I use an Apple Powerbook, and one of the adaptors I have for connecting a US plug to a UK outlet somehow transfers a bit of current to the metal computer frame and makes my fingers tingle. In fact, right now, if I touch the left side of my computer next to where the power adaptor plugs in, I get a little shock. I recently ordered a real UK Apple power cord to try to avoid this problem. Unfortunately, the new plug was poorly manufactured and the prongs were all a fraction of a millimeter too large to fit comfortably in the outlet: I could get the plug into the outlet with a little extra pressure, but I had a hard time getting it back out.

This is when I should have used the switch.

I wiggled the plug. I shimmied it. I cursed at it. I tugged on it. The plug suddenly cracked open, my hand fell straight onto to bare metal leads inside the plug, and 220 volts of pure pain went surging through me. I yelled something along the lines of "Haggadafiggidah!!!" and jumped 5 feet backwards.

Broken plug, with switch now in the proper position to prevent electrocution of Andy

I had been getting ready to go to bed, but after getting severely shocked I found that I couldn't fall asleep for a few hours and that I was uncomfortably hot for no particular reason (well, other than the 220 volts that had been coursing through my body). When I woke up in the morning, I found that I had 4 evenly spaced white burns on my finger. I'm always looking for new experiences in life; this was one I could have done without.

So the moral of the story is this: use the switch. Apparently the switch is there to prevent idiots like myself from electrocuting themselves.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Milestone

We celebrated our 1st Londoniversary last month -- it's amazing that it was just a year ago that we took the huge step of moving to London. In some senses, it seems like that was only recently, but mostly it feels like a very long time ago. We no longer get confused by the traffic direction, the fact that it can be rainy and grey nearly every day is not a source of constant surprise, and when people ask how you're doing by saying "Are you alright?" with a look of utmost concern, I no longer check myself for wounds.

A typical English Summer day

We decided to celebrate our Londoniversary with dinner and a show (where do we come up with such original ideas?), so I picked up tickets to see the new live production of The 39 Steps playing at the Criterion Theatre. The Criterion sits right on Piccadilly Circus (one of London's innermost circuses of hell), and unlike most theatres, you enter at the ground level and descend into the theatre. I suppose there isn't any reason to have theatres above ground, because you don't need windows; however one unfortunate consequence of burying The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus is that the whole theatre shakes every 3 minutes as an Underground train roars by.

I got busted by an usher for taking this picture of The Criterion. I wish I had captured some of the nice architecture instead of a stranger's scalp.

The heart of the West End is a place we generally try to avoid because of the insane crowds and the difficulty of finding anywhere to eat other than one of the 500 Aberdeen Steakhouses or Garfunkels within a 10 block radius (at least we now know what happened to Garfunkel after the breakup - he became a successful London restaurateur). It is worth going for the theatre of course, and there are a few great book stores and other shops, but I can never figure out why there are thousands of people milling around Piccadilly Circus taking pictures of advertising when there are so many interesting things to do in London.

A spread of goodies at Dehesa

We had dinner at the trendy tapas restaurant Dehesa in Soho, and had a very nice but a bit overly meat/cheese-heavy dinner. We tried to counter this by ordering the one salad on the menu, but this came in a teacup sized bowl and drenched in truffle oil, which kind of defeated the point. Still, a nice glass of sherry went a long way in cutting the heaviness of the meal, and the meats and cheeses were so delicious that I can easily overlook other faults.

5 compelling reasons to visit the West End

To my mind, the other reason to visit the West End is for sodas. Yes, here I go again with the soda thing. On a recent weekend day we went to CyberCandy in Covent Garden (heaven for candy lovers, great news for dentists) and Golden Gate Grocers in Chinatown; between these we got 4 root beers (IBC not pictured, but tasty), a cream soda made by Schweppes (only normally available in Asia for some reason), and that unique purple elixir Welch's Grape Soda. It has been a year of searching for root beer (and other good sodas) in the UK, and I'm happy to say that we've been successful in this quest and found quite a few other things along the way.