Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Odds and Ends before Leaving

Heading home today. It feels like we've been gone longer than we have. My feet are sore from so much walking. Peter, who has visited more museums and historic places in the last 11 days than I'm sure any other tourist to ever visit Great Britain, has become obsessed (in a "car wreck" kind of way) with Big Brother. This is a person who doesn't have a TV in Seattle, has season tickets to the Seattle Opera, went to the theater three times while we were here, and spent three hours at the British Museum yesterday looking at artifacts from the dawn of all civilizations. Big Brother.

our flat was in the building on the right
The building we've been staying in is on the Albert Embankment which runs along the south side of the Thames (the Victoria Embankment runs along the north side; the Brits really seem to love their Victoria & Albert - well, except Charles Dickens. Apparently, he refused a knighthood from Queen Vicotria [Peter learned this when he visited the Charles Dickens' House/Museum]).

There's a scene at the beginning of Get Him to the Greek which is supposed to take place in the main character's London flat - it's the penthouse of this building!! I recognized the view from the balcony in the movie, it's the same view as from our balcony but from higher, and from the street, I can look up and see the entire balcony where the scene was shot. Okay, I thought that was cool.

The U.K. has banned smoking in public places (thank god), however, Londoners have refused to give up their fags (hee hee!) and now they (all of them) smoke to and from wherever they're going and then they smoke some more outside when they get there. I am really tired of walking down the sidewalks through clouds of cigarette smoke.

One day when I was taking the tube somewhere, a guy got on with what looked like a little amplifier. I didn't think anything of it until I saw the microphone in his hand and then I got a little worried. Within a few minutes of him boarding the train, the unmistakable opening of Careless Whisper started playing and then he started singing. I've heard people sing in the subways of New York and then ask for tips; here's the deal with those people: they sing really well. This bozo introduced himself to his captive audience as "Klaus" and then sang a few more lines. Here's the deal with Klaus: I don't think English is his first language, he didn't actually know the words to Careless Whisper and appeared to be making them up as he went along, he couldn't sing for shit. I mean, I can sing better than he could - and if you know me at all, you know that's not saying much. A bunch of us exited the train just as Klaus was screeching out "So I'm never gonna prance again, the way I danced with mules..." or something like that. We all winced collectively as we desperately ran for the stairs.

I do like London a lot, but I'm ready to go home.

[Full disclosure: I typed most of that Tuesday morning from the London apartment but didn't have time to post it before rushing off to the airport. I also tried to post it from the Calgary Airport during our connection but the Canadians have an interesting concept for what "free wifi" means. I'm posting it now, Wednesday morning, from my desk in Bellevue but plan on adding a few more photos when I get home tonight. It's been fun, thanks for reading and emailing me while I was away; the blog now goes back into hibernation until the next trip. -M]

Here are a few pictures of our lovely little rented flat:








Monday, July 19, 2010

Neighborhoods of the Rich and Famous

If I were going to move to London (and I'm not going to move to London), I'd first have to win the lottery (a Powerball jackpot would be best), and then I'd find a place to stay in Hampstead. The neighborhoods on the outskirts of London are great; both Kew and Wimbledon are about 30 minutes on the tube from central London, Hamstead is a little closer, but still has that "village" feel. It's also the home of several celebs (Ricky, Russell) and for good reason, the homes are beautiful, the Main Street (or High Street as they're called here) has a ton of shops and cafes with the tube station at the top of the road, and Hamstead Heath, a fantastic, wild, huge, sprawling park with a view from a hill of almost all of London spread out below it, is a 15 minute walk from the tube station.
But before heading out to Hampstead yesterday, acting on a tip (thanks Laura!) I trotted across the bridge to the Tate in search of some Andy Warhol prints. My friend Laura emailed me that she had heard that the Tate has a series of prints Warhol made of his mother in its collection, and since the apartment we're staying in is almost directly across the river from the Tate Britain, it was easy enough to run over there and investigate. I asked the person at the information desk about the Warhol collection and she said that any Warhols would be at the Tate Modern (I learned that the Tate Britain does show contemporary art, but only by British artists). The info-girl was able to look up the Warhol collection currently on display at the TM on her computer but we couldn't find the ones I was looking for, which just means they aren't currently on show, but it was a fun little scavenger hunt anyway.

Then I jumped on the tube and headed up to Hampstead. Peter was spending the morning at the British Museum, I spent the morning taking a nap (I've never really gotten over the morning effects of the jet-lag) and then wandered around Hampstead, looking in shops on the High Street, and having lunch in a cafe. At 2pm I met Peter and Sumathi at the tube station and we headed to the park, walking through really fabulous residential neighborhoods on the way. Once we entered the heath, we found Parliament Hill which affords a great view of greater London, and from there got hopelessly lost. We walked and walked down paths and tails (Hampstead Heath is 790 acres, we passed exactly one trail map) but lost our bearings along the way and ended up in the middle of the park just wanting to get out. By asking a few different people we did manage to escape dying there and having to eat one another, Donner party-style, and made our way back to the High Street and the comfort of a bakery.
Monday night after our woodland adventure, Peter and I took a spin on the London Eye, which is a giant ferris wheel that was built for the millennium celebration; it turned out to be such a cash-cow that it remains a permanent fixture on the South Bank.

Today we wandered around the City of London with my friend Chris. When people talk about "The City" they are talking about a one-square-mile area of downtown - the financial district. About 8,000 people live there but about 350,000 people work there. We started our tour at the Royal Courts of Justice, saw a bunch of Christopher Wren-designed churches, stopped into a couple of ancient pubs, found some hidden, quiet, quaint courtyards, and then took the tube to go Sloan Square to go shopping, but ended up in the Saatchi Gallery instead. I love looking at this kind of contemporary art, mainly because it makes me laugh, usually at it, but still, what's wrong with that?


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Country Life and Train Stations

Today we took the train to Amberley Castle which is in West Sussex and another 90-minute train ride from London. The castle was built in the 14th century, it went through many phases of destruction and restoration, it was owned at one time by Queen Elizabeth I, and in 1989 it was fully restored and turned into a luxury hotel. Peter and I went there for lunch. The dining room is quite formal, the food is good (not necessarily better than the Sri Lankan meal I had last night which cost about $15 for two; this meal was a bit more), but the grounds are beautiful. Peter had a cold watercress soup with cucumber sorbet and goat cheese foam to start (the goat cheese wasn't really foamy, thank god, more whipped), I had a smoked chicken thingy with pea jelly... okay, I know I kind of went off on dishes made into foam and jelly and cotton candy, but I have to admit that my cubes of pea-jelly were damn good even though it sounds both vile and pretentious. We both had a pork cutlet (which was really a chop) for our main course, which was served with a layered square of sweet potato, a smear of spicy apple sauce, and star anise pan-sauce; it was good but not the best thing I've ever eaten. Oh, and there was a perfect square of something totally unidentifiable on the plate, I couldn't get my knife through it so I finally picked it up (daintily, with my pinky out) and took a bite - it was pork crackling, fried hard. The only thing missing from the plate was a side of Lipitor. My dessert was almost too sweet, a square of nougat which was kind of marshmallow-y (I'm not so fond of marshmallows) and a smear of salted caramel, covered with malted chocolate ice cream; it was okay. Peter's strawberry parfait with mint sorbet was fantastic. I really enjoy these excursions to the country-side to investigate nice restaurants. If the food turns out to be fantastic, that's a bonus, but if it's just okay, I don't mind if the trip is nice. In this case, the grounds of the castle which we wandered around after lunch were spectacular. There were a bunch of hidden gardens, flowers everywhere, an albino peacock lounging on a parapet (it didn't have its feathers displayed, and really just looked like a fat chicken so I didn't take a picture of it), sculptures, water features, a treehouse where you can arrange to have private dinners for two - the meal is really only half the fun, so even though I'd only give our meal a mere 6.5, it was well worth the trip, even though we had to arrive by train and not helicopter, like some of the guests did.

We got back to London in time to have a 45 minute rest before heading off to Waterloo Station for The Railway Children, a play based on a children's book about a family in post WWI England. The mother and three children go off to a home in the country when the father is hauled off to be tried for treason (which the children don't know at the time, and which is a farily sophisticated plot-point for a children's story, I think). Their adventures center around the village's train station, the station-master, and the people who come and go from the trains. Except for in two scenes, when an actual life-sized train-prop appears on the platform (the stage is a real train platform with the audience sitting on either side and the tracks in the middle), the train is represented very convincingly with sound and light effects. The three children are played, also convincingly, by adult actors, and the story is quite charming, although in addition to the treason plot-point, there is also a slightly watered down pro-Marxist element, also unusual for a children's story, but then again, children need to learn about Marxism from somewhere. There was one very intense scene in the play where the children see a landslide on the track, and we can all hear a train approaching, and the children know they have to get the engineer to stop the train or there is going to be a horrible accident. The two girls have red petticoats on under their dresses which they remove, ripping one into two pieces, and all three of them wave the red flags wildly as the train approaches, with the older girl standing in the middle of the track so she is sure to be seen. I have to admit, I was pretty stressed. The actors did a good job of conveying the emergency of the situation but the real star of that scene was the sound design - it truly sounded like a train was approaching and three kids were trying to stop it - ONE STANDING DIRECTLY IN ITS PATH. Even though I was fairly certain the scene wouldn't end in carnage, I was still pretty anxious... the power of theater man, the power of theater.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An Ordinary Day

Today I did one of my favorite things to do in a foreign country, I went to the movies. I like doing it because it's something that mostly only local people do so it's a way to blend in and not feel so touristy. I also like doing it because I love going to the movies anyway, so why not do it while on vacation. I've been reading Russell Brand's autobiography (called My Booky Wooky) which was conveniently left here in the apartment, and since I've been a fan of his since discovering his radio show podcast on the BBC website a couple of years ago (he was forced to resign from that gig after a controversy that's too complicated to go into here), Get Him to the Greek was the obvious choice for a movie today. I thought it was completely hilarious. The first 15 minutes or so involve a music video for a song (he plays a rock star in the band, Infant Sorrow) called African Child, which is so ridiculously offensive and condescending, it's called by one critic (in the movie), to be "the worst thing to happen to African culture after famine and war." The interesting thing about the moive, I thought, as I happen to be currently reading an autobiography by its star, is that while Russell didn't write the script, the guy who did clearly had read Russell's book and based the character (a completely self-indulgent, heroin and alcohol-addicted, imature, destructive, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-type) on the real Russell Brand -- the pre-clean-and-sober-Russell, who was quite a tragic figure. I thought the movie was very funny; the book is very funny too, but very heart-breaking as well.
After the movie, I met Peter at the Royal Academy of Art and Science to see the John Singer Sargent exhibit. I had seen his exhibition of portraits when it was at SAM years ago, and while I don't usually go for portraiture, I remember really liking that exhibition. This one was mostly of seascapes in France and Italy and it didn't strike me as much as the portraits, but it was still very nice. The photo at right isn't from the exhibition, it's from the Tate, I took it on the first day in London, and it's stunning.
For dinner tonight, I met my friend Sumathi who is a British friend I know from my months in Sri Lanka (she's Sri Lankan-British), and we had dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant just a few tube stops away from where I'm staying. My instinct was to completely pig out on Sri Lankan food because it's so delicious and this place was completely authentic, and who knows when I'll have the chance to have it again, but I managed to control myself. It was very fun catching up with Sumathi, she was my closest friend when I was living in Sri Lanka in 2008, and it's always fun to meet up with friends in foreign lands.

Taking the Waters

the old spa
Yesterday we went to the town of Bath which is 90 minutes by train from London. Jane Austen's characters were always going to the town of Bath - not that I've read any Jane Austen, but I've seen all the movies, which counts. Bath is a beautiful town; all the buildings are a sandy color, a river runs through the town, there are parks everywhere, and it's the site of the ancient Roman baths which is the main tourist attraction. The baths were constructed 2,000 years ago and are amazingly intact. The main bath still contains water from the same source that filled it in 43 AD as the thermal spring is still active and the construction is still water-tight. The Roman baths were built as a temple to the goddess Sulis Minerva, as well as a spa, an exercise facility, and a gathering place for both social and business activities. So, sort of... St. Marks meets Gene Juarez meets 24-Hour Fitness meets Starbucks.
the new spa
After checking out the ancient baths, I went to the modern bath for a soak in the mineral springs. The Thermae Bath Spa was built a couple of years ago and the water is considerably less slimy-looking than in the ancient one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Spot of Tea

Today was about organizing things, shopping, and snacks. We were supposed to go to the town of Bath today but when I checked the weather in the morning, the forecast was for rain all day so we changed our plan and got a few other things done in London, where there were only a few light showers. Peter went to some museums, I went to Victoria Station to change our train tickets, and then we met in Leicester Square to inquire about theatre tickets. Peter got a ticket to As You Like It at the Old Vic for tonight, he also got a ticket to the London Opera for Friday, and we both got tickets to The Railway Children on Saturday; I have no idea what it's about but it's being staged on a disused train platform in Waterloo Station, and apparently a train actually passes through the set - cool. Then it was off to the department store, Fortnam and Mason to look at the food halls and have some tea, followed by a stop at Harrods where the food halls are even more impressive. I can't imagine actually shopping at either of these stores, they are packed with tourists and totally chaotic - at least on the lower floors where the accessories, perfume, makeup, and food halls are. Maybe the upper floors where the clothing is located are more pleasant, we couldn't bring ourselves to investigate. Lots of ladies in burkas shopping in both stores; I'm guessing they're Saudi as it would take an oil well or two in the family to be able to shop at either; we saw a cake that you could order for about $6,000; truth told, it looked kinda gross.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wimbledon

Today I fulfilled a lifelong dream: to visit the All England Lawn Tennis Club, home of Wimbledon. It didn't even matter that the tournament had been over for a couple of weeks, I still count the excursion as a major achievement in my life as a tourist (leaving just Euro-Disney and the Corn Palace to complete the list). I took the guided tour of the grounds and visited the tennis museum, which had some really good exhibits about tennis through the ages (ladies used to play in corsets and stockings; one of the sponsor's give-aways in the 1920s was a pack of smokes). The grounds of the club look a lot smaller in person (why is that true of so many things? People are always talking about how television rots the brain, how come no one complains about how is skews the sense of size?), but seeing Centre Court, the press area, Court 18 where the epic 138-game match took place this year, and all the other places I've watched on TV since I was about 12, was super-exciting. Membership of the club is about 375, there is a waiting list of about 1,000 and a rigorous screening process to get in. Our guide told us that the easiest way to get in (and the dues aren't even that much - less than a gym), is to win the tournament since all singles winners become honorary members.

The tour was really enjoyable, but one thing you are absolutely, totally, and without equivocation NOT allowed to do on the tour of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, is touch the grass.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew

or Kew Gardens, as it's more commonly known, is actually a 300-acre park which was established in 1759. The botanic research and preservation institute that runs Kew Garden is responsible for the world's largest living collection of plants, and apparently they keep track of quite a few dead ones too as their preserved specimens number over 7 million. Peter and I spent a very pleasant morning walking around the park, the highlight of which was the waterlily house. There was also a really nice butterfly exhibit where I leaned that a person can spend an awfully long time trying to get just the right photo of a butterfly.

After we left the garden, we took the tube back into Central London to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a touch of home hangs in the central lobby; and then because I had watched The Young Victoria just a few weeks ago, we took a stroll past the Royal Albert Hall and the Prince Albert Memorial. Peter and I split up after that and he continued a long, circuitous walk back to the apartment passing the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace along the way, which prompted him to ponder at dinner, "I wonder where they'll put the Queen Elizabeth Memorial when she croaks." Good question.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Real Food

Molecular Gastronomy is something in which I have very little interest. I don't want essence of unsprouted parsnips wafted toward me as a first course; I don't want duck served to me in pellet form; I don't find the idea of granita, mousse, or anything "popsicled" outside the dessert tray in anyway appealing; call me pedestrian, I don't care, I like to chew my food. Which is why we had lunch today at The Hinds Head pub in the village of Bray, and not at The Fat Duck Restaurant next door. The chef-owner is the same for both; the food couldn't be more different. Here are some offerings on today's menu at The Fat Duck: Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime
Mousse, Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream, Chicken Liver Parfait, Snail Porridge, Salmon Poached in Licorice, and Blood Pudding with Confit of Umbles. I have no idea what an umble is, but if I did, I'd probably want them straight-up grilled with a side of mayo. Conversely, the menu at the Hinds Head included Highland Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Braised Pork Shoulder with Crackling and Roasted Potatoes, a Venison Burger, and several other, toothsome options. I had the grilled hake with mashed potatoes, bacon, and peas; Peter had the poached cod on a bed of crab and lemon; side of french fries; and a pickled lemon salad with fresh herbs to start. Dessert was a cherry tart with yogurt ice cream.

Bray is a tiny village outside the town of Maidenhead; Maidenhead is a 30-minute train ride from London. I had read about both restaurants, made the obvious choice between the two, and Peter and I set off late-morning on the train. From Maidenhead we walked down the road about half an hour to Bray, where there is nothing much besides some picturesque homes and the two restaurants. After lunch we asked our waitress if there was anything to see in Bray or any shops to look in, she smiled and said "no." The service in the pub was excellent, the food was lovely, and we left stuffed full of food, as opposed to pheasant-flavored helium, or whatever they were serving next door.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

London/Venice

Little known fact: there is a small network of canals in London. Well, "network" might be a stretch, but there are canals, and they are very pleasant to walk along. This morning we got up at a very reasonable time, made it out the door around 10am and took the Tube to Camden (neighborhood-home of Amy Winehouse for those of you keeping track; we didn't see her). We walked through the giant Camden Market and made our way down to the canal for a long walk to Regents Park. There are long, narrow barges on the waterway, some motoring through with tourists, some which appear to be permanently moored live-aboards (nothing like the appealing houseboats on Lake Union; more like a claustrophobe's nightmare). The London Zoo abuts the canal and is part of Regents Park (you leave the canal- path at the warthog exhibit to enter the park). We walked through the park and came out on Baker Street (where Sherlock Holmes kept office space; we didn't see him) and planned on taking the Tube from there to somewhere else, but being as the entire Circle Line was closed, and the fact that I didn't notice that some other line went through some other station where we could have connected to the place where we were going but didn't, we ended up somewhere else where we weren't really going and didn't necessarily want to be. Navigating London can be a little complicated. We ended up back at the apartment around 5pm and I called my friend Chris (using my London cell phone, which h I hadn't used in over two years, but which worked just fine after I purchased a new SIM card from Carphone Warehouse) and we made a plan to meet him in the quiet neighborhood of Wapping, which is further east along the Thames, and where we could hit a few pubs I remembered from my previous trip here. We started out at a pub called the Town of Ramsgate which is a lovely, rustic spot with a breeze blowing in off the river, and ended at the Pride of Spitelfields which is in Shoreditch; Shoreditch is a bit of scene on a Saturday night, but we managed to avoid the boozers and clubbers and snagged a table in the pub, which somehow remained empty except for the giant cat sleeping on one of the chairs. From Shoreditch we caught a bus which dropped us off right in front of the apartment, and after a long if not particularly eventful day, it's time for bed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 1: Stay Awake


view from the flat
I have now been awake for 29 hours. We landed in London around noon and arrived at our flat about 90 minutes later. The place is great, we're right on the Thames, central to most everything, not too long a walk to the nearest Tube station, in a very nice place with a balcony over-looking the river, blah, blah, blah.

I can't really think straight because, as I mentioned, I've been awake for 29 straight hours, and if you know me at all, and of course you do otherwise why would you be reading this? you know I like my sleep. Our only goal today was to STAY AWAKE until 8pm, which we have, and now I'm feeling very, very loopy. We arrived, unpacked, showered, changed, and hit the sidewalk. We walked to the Tate to check out the Turner collection. Many of J.M.W. Turner's famous oil paintings have that lovely, hazy, "unfinished" look; apparently, that was because he didn't bother to finish a lot of them (ADD?). We left the Tate and walked and walked and walked to the Millennium Bridge (my favorite of the London bridges) which takes you across the river directly to the Tate Modern. We were fading by that point and immediately got some snacks in the cafe before I suggested we just check out the room with the giant Mark Rothko paintings and then head back to the apartment. Turned out the Rothkos are being refurbished and there is only one on display hanging in one of the regular galleries, lumped in with about 20 other wildly varied pieces. When I was at the TM last, there was a rather large room, dimly lit, hung with nothing but giant, red Rothko rectangles; the paintings struck me as being exceptionally powerful hung in a group like that and I was hoping we could sit in that room for a few minutes to gather strength to walk back, but it was not going to happen. My second favorite piece in the museum was also no longer on display - that would be Jeff Koons' Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank which, if it's not clear from the title, is three basketballs suspended in what looked to my untrained eye, to be about a 50-gallon fish tank (being both untrained in modern art AND fish containment, that's my best guess; I mean, I'm pretty certain about the basketballs, but I'm guessing on the size of the tank). Since we couldn't view that piece either, we made do with a Monet and some rather violent Cy Twombly scribbles, and left. Walking back, fighting the urge to just curl into a ball on the river-path and sleep, we passed the National Theatre. The NT does a series of free summer programs, and an outdoor dance performance was going to start in 30 minutes. We decided this would be a good way to kill more time, and waited it out. The performance took place on a clear Plexiglas stage, while the audience sat in reclining chairs underneath, looking up at the dancers through the stage. Each performance was 8 minutes, forty-eight people could sit in the chairs for each performance. We made it into the first group. I'm not sure the piece was necessarily enhanced by viewing up the ladies dresses, but it didn't hurt. After the performance we continued down the river path back to the apartment. We arrived around 8pm, which was our goal time to stay awake until. I'm banging this out while Peter takes another shower (it's pretty hot out); and in a few minutes I'm going to take an Ambien and go to bed. It's bright as day out but I don't think I'll have any trouble sleeping. Goodnight.