Sunday, March 16, 2008

Our first visitor

We had our first visitor last week! Elise, who is my oldest friend (we've been friends for about 17 years), came over for a few days during her spring break. We learned several things:
1. It is possible to host a guest, even in our tiny flat. We'll soon find out about the viability of hosting two guests, when Robert and Diane arrive in May.
2. Andrew and I already know London well enough to play tour guide and show people around, complete with humorous anecdotes.
3. Never, ever, ever fly US Airways. Elise was meant to leave New Haven last Saturday and arrive here Sunday morning. Because of weather, maintenance, and personnel glitches, she didn't get here until nearly midnight on Monday night! And her flight back was delayed by hours, too. Poor Elise.

But, even though her trip was cut short, we all had a fabulous time. We spent lots of quality time hanging around the flat, drinking tea and playing games. We also got to do some sightseeing. On Tuesday, which was my birthday, I had the day off, so Elise and I went into the city. We went to the Tate Britain museum, which I had seen once before, but many years ago. It's all British art, and the museum has particular strengths in William Blake, JMW Turner, and the Preraphaelites. There were some stunning Elizabethan portraits, too.

After our art fix, we walked through Pimlico to Westminster and toured Westminster Abbey. I had never been inside the abbey before because it's pretty expensive, but it was absolutely worth the cost of admission. I'm really glad I got to go with Elise, too. She and I have so many shared interests, and so much shared historical and cultural knowledge, that we make good museum buddies. We were both in awe at the abbey, partly because of the beauty of the architecture and the overwhelming weight of the building's historical significance, but mostly because of all the dead people. Poets corner was as moving as I'd hoped it would be. There we saw the tombs, or at least memorial plaques, of all the heavy hitters of English literature and drama. Elise nearly fainted when she saw Chaucer's tomb. The most fascinating tomb, though, for both of us, was Elizabeth I. We were lucky to be there on a Tuesday afternoon, because we had the room to ourselves for about ten minutes. We couldn't believe we were standing so close to her; it was almost a religious experience. Elizabeth is such a legendary character, but one who actually existed; it was like being able to see the tomb of Frodo Baggins or something. Well, I guess Frodo wouldn't actually have a tomb because he sailed away to the undying lands, but you know what I mean. It was special.

After the abbey, we walked along the river all the way down to Borough Market, where we met Andrew, Amy, and Don for a fantastic tapas meal. Andrew and I had tried to eat there before, but there was a two-and-a-half-hour wait. On my birthday, we got there early and snagged a great table. Andrew kept ordering food and wine for us, and we all had a great time. The food was phenomenal, too. We had thin slices of chorizo and iberico ham, fried goats cheese with honey, shrimp cooked in garlic butter, a nice, peppery green salad, lots of tasty bread, almonds, and olives. For dessert, we had creme catalan, which is basically creme brulee, but with cinnamon, rice pudding, and a sort of flan. How do you say delicious in Spanish?

The rest of Elise's trip was fun, too. Andrew and I had to work, so Elise did some sightseeing on her own: the Tower, the British Museum, the National Gallery. In the evenings, we did some tasty cooking, showed Elise our grocery store, and had some much-needed heart-to-heart conversations. Sometimes you just need to talk to an old friend to figure things out. She left on Friday morning, and Andrew and I have been resting this weekend. You don't get a lot of sleep when Elise is around!

So, for anyone who is considering coming to visit us: we're all ready for you! But make your reservations early, because after such success, I'm sure we'll be filling up soon :-)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Living it up in London

Now that we've been in London for six months, we're starting to feel somewhat at home. Our jobs have gotten busy, and I've been going to ballet and Andrew to karate once a week. We've settled into routines with cooking and chores around the flat, made regular trips to the library, and learned where to buy everything we need. Since we've reached this level of everyday comfort, we've had the freedom to branch out and try to take advantage of living in London. Sometimes that just means meeting up for a pint of cider in an old-fashioned pub after work. Sometimes it means going out to a fancy bar with friends. And sometimes it means doing touristy stuff in a local way.

Several weeks ago, Andrew was doing a training session in the city, so after work we met at Piccadilly Circus with the plan of going out to dinner. We wanted to try a Spanish place near Borough Market, but instead of jumping on the Tube with all the rush hour crowds, we decided to walk. It was a very touristy walk past many of the major London sights, including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and St. Paul's Cathedral, and we enjoyed seeing all of those things, but because we had seen them before and knew exactly where we were going, we could afford to just enjoy each other's company in a glorious setting without having to pay all of our attention to what we were walking past. It took us about an hour to walk all the way across central London, and when we got to the market, the Spanish place was packed but we found a fantastic seafood restaurant instead.

More recently, I decided to plan ahead a little bit and book tickets to some of the special museum exhibits around town. We have tickets to a photography exhibit after hours, including dinner, for later this month. I'll report on that later. My major victory, though, was scoring evening tickets to see the First Emperor exhibit at the British Museum. It has been nearly sold out since before it opened, but we got two of the last tickets available.

We felt very special showing up to the museum on a Sunday evening, long after the crowds had left. We walked through the echoing entrance hall and into the stunning atrium that used to be an open courtyard but is now covered by a huge glass dome. In the very center of this round space is the old reading room of the British Library, which is reserved for special exhibitions like this one. As we entered, we caught a glimpse of the old bookcases covering the round walls, stacked at least four stories high. The exhibit was set inside the reading room with plenty of space around the edges for people to move among the shelves and still get to the books. When we got inside, I looked up, as I always do in big public spaces, and I wasn't disappointed by the spectacular roseate design on the ceiling high above.

The exhibit was amazing, from both an entertainment perspective and a curatorial one. We got a very good overview of early Chinese history, and I was able to fill in some of the gaps with what I remembered from my Chinese history class at UF. The historical background took up the first part of the exhibit, where we got to see 2500-year-old weapons, drinking vessels, jewelry, and sculpture.

Then we moved on to learn more about the emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who
was the first to gather large swathes of what is now China into a single empire. He started the Qin dynasty (pronounced "chin," and supposedly where the name China came from) in 221 BC, when he was still a very young man. He built dozens of ornate palaces and instituted laws and systems that we still use today. He worked to standardize industrial production, the Chinese alphabet, and systems of currency and measurement. And, from the day he took power, he started building his physical legacy, a mountain-shaped underground tomb near Xi'an that has never been opened because of legends about its defenses, including rivers of mercury (modern scientists have confirmed that the soil around the funereal mound is indeed abnormally high in mercury content).

All around the tomb, he had legions of terra cotta sculptures of soldiers in battle formation buried to protect him after death. The first of the terra cotta soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1979, and archaeologists have discovered thousands of the life-size sculptures since then. This exhibit is a really big deal because it's the first time so many of the soldiers have been sent overseas. But before we got to the soldiers, we learned about how the emperor's palaces were constructed and how the technology used to create terra cotta roof and floor tiles for the palaces was adapted to create these intricate, lifelike sculptures. Then we turned a corner, and there they were, about two dozen six-foot high soldiers, some with fragments of brightly colored paint still clinging to their surfaces. Each one looked different. You could tell what roles they were meant to play in the army and their rank. Generals had full armor and fancy hairstyles; archers had light armor; cavalry riders held their arms out to take the reins; terra cotta horses pulled chariots; acrobats, dancers, and clowns performed tricks to amuse the troops. Each face looked like that of a real person, with a life story. The faces even reflected the geographic and demographic diversity of the empire. And every face showed the determination of these soldiers to protect and glorify their emperor for all eternity.

After the weight of so much history, it felt a little weird to go back outside to the quiet streets, but we walked for a little while and traded impressions, then found a place to get some delicious Chinese treats for a late supper. Then it was back on the train home...just a normal day in London.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Springtime in bloom

I've seen some beautiful spring flowers in my day. Tallahassee and Blacksburg, in particular, put on quite a show. But nothing prepared me for the profusion of blossoms in London, and it isn't even technically spring yet! The snowdrops came first, little white bells dangling from verdant stalks.

They were followed by the crocuses in stark white, bright lemon, deep purple, and vibrant violet stripes with orange centers.

Over the last few weeks, the flowering trees and shrubs have developed little buds with magenta tips, and they are starting to unfurl. In Regent's Park, I found a grove of cherry trees with pale blossoms, looking like a pinky haze skimming the surface of the grass. The forsythia is shooting upwards with yellow starlike flowers, and here and there, miniature irises are starting to pop up.

And everywhere, covering nearly every available spot of grass in the city, are daffodils. There are white daffofils, yellow daffodils, white daffodils with orange centers. They congregate amongst the roots of trees and luxuriate in the open sunshine. They sway and nod in the breeze and follow the movement of the sun with their merry heads. I've been tracking their progress for weeks, since I saw the first snowdrops in the park and noticed, slowly, like a mushroom hunter picking out his quarry from amongst the camouflaging leaves, the green stems peeking through the grass, promising daffodils to come. They burst all at once, suddenly, blanketing the grey city in much-needed colour, and I've been enjoying their cheerful display ever since.

[The squirrel is for Nicholas :-) ]

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mussels in Brussels

Last weekend, Andrew and I went on a mini-break to Brussels, Belgium. We met after work at St. Pancras station, which has just been renovated and restored to its Victorian-era wrought-iron-and-glass glory. The main terminal has a soaring barrel ceiling of glass panels, and we could see a little bit of the sunset through it as we stood and sipped glasses of champagne at the bar before boarding the train. It only took two hours for the Eurostar to whisk us under the English Channel, through northern France, and into Belgium. While not quite luxurious, it was at least as comfortable as an airplane, without the security hassle or pesky CO2 emissions. Besides, the retro feel of the whole enterprise was quite glamorous.

We arrived in Brussels with the familiar sense of anticipation we felt this summer each time we got to a new city. Confidently, we strolled through the station to find the subway that would take us to our hotel, but it took about ten minutes before we could even find the ticket machine. Then twenty minutes to figure out that the machine wouldn't take our card or the euro bills we got from the ATM. Then another ten minutes to find a place where we could get change. Okay, okay, we told ourselves. This is fine. So there aren't any signs in English, even though this is the capital city of the European Union and everyone speaks English. No worries. We finally got our tickets and went down to catch the subway. Well, I have been on many public transportation systems at this point, and I can confidently say that Brussels has the worst I've ever seen. And that includes Taltran.

We finally caught a subway, then waited ten minutes to catch another one, then emerged to find a bus to get us to the hotel. We found the right bus, but the driver said he was going in the other direction, so we crossed the street. Makes sense. right? Well, a bus pulled up there shortly, and it turned out it was the same driver. And he remembered me. And he yelled at me for wasting his time. (I don't know what it is with me and getting yelled at on public transportation.) I stomped off, and we found a map that showed that we were several blocks from the hotel, but we couldn't figure out how to catch the right bus, so we set off on foot. We walked and walked and walked. Way too far, as it turned out, but we just couldn't get our bearings. We found a boulevard with a name that looked familiar from the map (place names in Brussels are confusing, because everything is in French and Flemish), so we turned and walked down it. We soon ran out of sidewalk and came up against some metal barricades strung with copious amounts of rusty barbed wire. I thought we'd ended up in the trenches somehow! We looked around to see what was going on and noticed the stars and stripes streaming above a large, fortified building. Ah, the US embassy. The day before, a crowd had burned the US embassy in Serbia; I guess they were being extra careful at all the other embassies. We had to squeeze past the barbed wire and teeter on the edge of the busy street to get past the whole thing, with the armed guards eyeing us warily. In retrospect, I guess maybe we should have just flashed our passports or something. At any rate, we finally made it to the hotel and realized that it had taken us longer to get across half of Brussels than it had to get to Brussels from London!

However, once we got to the hotel, everything was perfect. The staff were super friendly and helpful, the hotel was beautiful and luxurious, and the concierge found a place for us to have dinner right away (it being nearly midnight at this point, this was quite a feat). We dropped off our bags and walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be utterly charming. We forgot about the struggles of the evening and settled in for a relaxing, romantic weekend.

The restaurant was a traditional Belgian affair, and the waiters only spoke French, but in a very friendly way. Andrew ordered for both of us, very quickly as the kitchen was about to close, and we ended up with two bottles of kriek, a delicious cherry-flavored beer. I had steamed mussels and french fries, and Andrew had carbonnade a la flamande, which is a braised beef stew. We ate and drank and laughed at the music (Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong played about ten times during our meal). We both leaned back in our chairs and soaked up the cozy atmosphere. The food was hearty and tasty, and the waiters showed me how to eat my mussels using an empty shell to pull the meat out of the other shells. They were tres impressed that I finished the whole pot! Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel and watched The Simpsons, which we have now seen in six countries and several languages! It's funny, no matter what language :-)

The next day, we slept in and then set out to see the city. We didn't have much on our list of things to see, which was part of the attraction of the city. We didn't have many specific expectations, so everything we found was a delightful surprise. We walked past the royal palace and over to the museum district, where we bought waffles from a street cart and ate them in a garden. Then we went to the modern art museum, which had several Rene Magritte paintings, a room full of James Ensors, and lots and lots of beautiful post-impressionist paintings by artists I'd never even heard of.

After the museum, we walked to the Place Grand Sablon, where we saw a beautiful church with delicate stonework and an antique market with stunning silver and jewels and ancient cookie and chocolate molds. I wanted to buy some, but they were heavy! The Grand Sablon is also where all the big chocolate shops are, and we did a bit of window shopping before we decided where to buy our chocolate later on. We had a nice lunch in a crowded cafe with art nouveau decorations. Victor Horta, one of the big art nouveau architects, lived in Brussels. We saw one of his buildings in the morning and got a spectacular view of the city from the rooftop terrace. I don't think he designed the cafe where we had lunch, but it was certainly inspired by his work. After lunch, we went to Wittamer to buy some fancy chocolates and a lovely little tea shop, where we got rose and cherry blossom loose leaf tea. For all the cultural significance Britons attach to tea, they don't offer a very wide selection of it in the shops; we had to go all the way to Belgium to find good tea. Then we went back to the hotel and, luxury of luxuries, we took a nap in the afternoon. Ahhhhhh.......

We woke up in time to eat our chocolates (flavored with earl grey tea, cinnamon, black pepper, lime, and amaretto) and get ready for dinner. It was fun to get really dressed up. I did my hair and fancy makeup and wore a nice dress and jewelry, and Andrew put on his nicest suit. We took a cab to the restaurant, another art nouveau stunner. Our table was in the middle of the restaurant, under a huge stained glass ceiling. We had comfy leather club chairs, and we were able to lean back and relax (a theme for the trip, you may have noticed). We got a bottle of white wine, which they kept cool in a little silver stand next to our table. The waiters were all wearing traditional Belgian aprons that looked like ships' sails, tied in the back with intricate knotted ropes. The overall atmosphere, though, was modern and sophisticated. We started with a couple of langoustines from the oyster bar. I'd never had a langoustine before, and I wanted to taste one. They are like miniature lobsters or giant shrimp, and they are sweet and juicy and delicious. Unfortunately, they are also rather difficult to get into, and we were cracking ourselves up trying to crack the shells open. We also got a nice little salad with the Belgian equivalent of prosciutto, and the waiters came by from time to time with baskets of warm bread and cold butter. Andrew got a gorgeous steak with french fries for dinner. His fries came in a little ceramic cone that kept them nice and hot. Very clever! I had sole meuniere, which is basically a fancy fried fillet of sole. It was cooked in lots of brown butter, and it was crispy and delicious. For dessert, Andrew had another waffle, with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I had ile flottante, which means floating island and is a little soft meringue floating in a sea of cold custard. Delicious! We had coffee that came with little squares of chocolate afterwards, and took a cab back to the hotel, stuffed and happy.

The next morning we got up early to see a little bit more of the city before we had to catch our train. We took a cab to the Grand Place, which is one of the main squares of the city. The place is lined with imposing baroque buildings with fantastical carvings of gargoyles and weird creatures. One of the buildings seemed to be covered in gold leaf. We found a cozy little restaurant with a roaring fire and had croissants and ham and cheese (like the continental breakfasts we had sometimes this summer) with fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious coffee, then walked around for a few minutes, caught a cab, and took the train back to London. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. We had just the right balance of food and culture and rest that we needed. Well done.