Tuesday, August 28, 2007

back in anger

About a year and a half ago, a good friend of mine and I started a political fight about a highly charged issue. But even before starting to scream and hurl insults at each other, we decided that the other was a complete asshole and not worth talking to. That's what you get when your friends are far away. The argument was silly and not worth risking a friendship, but I was not man enough to admit that to him, and neither was he.

A few months ago, we started talking again. It had really got too silly. Now he has come to work in the UK, and this weekend he came down to London. What a jolly good time we had. On Saturday, we went to Seaford, a small town by the Channel coast about 70 miles from London. Seaford is a family resort, quiet, relaxing and mighty impressive thanks to chalk cliffs that start just east of town. We hiked for hours putting our noses in the wind – and later our toes into the slowly approaching high tide. It was the first time that I had seen the tide move in.

The only downside to the trip was the drive. Due to the strong gravitational pull that's particular to big conurbations, it took more than two hours to get there. Next time I'll take the train.

At night, we walked around Shepherd's Bush a bit. My friend acted the local and introduced me to the Somali grocer and Moroccan pastry chef. I benefited from his background when he translated all the Arabic shop signs to me. Looks like there were no hidden "Infidels will have their throats slashed" messages. It's a nice neighborhood.

He also made me aware of a Lebanese bakery called Zeit & Zaatar. Zeit, he said, means oil. It is not surprising that the Spaniards call their oil aceite. Maybe they got the word from the Moors. But what about the Italians? Did anyone ever hear of oil turning into vinegar (aceito) or, scientifically, acetic acid? If you don't think I'm a geek for finding linguistics cool, your might find a dozen other reasons.

Sunday we did Notting Hill Carnival, Kensington Gardens and Kensington the neighborhood. Utter and unbelievable craziness, calm leisure and posh life, respectively. Too much for one post, as always since I've moved to London. I'm surprised I still find time to sleep.

cake and a ride

If my friend stays long enough at his current job in Northern Ireland, I might go up there one weekend, now that I've learned that it's better to look forward in glee than back in anger.

Monday, August 20, 2007

same old

Another weekend and, as if London didn't have much to offer, I went back to places I had already been. I started Saturday with Portobello Market, the world's largest regularly held street market. Starting near Notting Hill Gate, you can first buy tons of antiques, then old and new clothes, then fruits and vegetables, and finally assorted useless stuff. Like every weekend, thousands of people took to the streets. It was a quiet morning.

portobello road

Not by any sane standards, but apparently in comparison to the Notting Hill Carnival that will take place next weekend. Carnival in August, carnival in London? Indeed. NHC is the largest of its kind outside of Rio. Initially started by immigrants asserting their rights against and splendidly getting in the face of violent racists in the late sixties, early seventies, it is now a celebration of everyone and everything. Thousands of colorful floats with beats thumping and people jumping move infinitely slowly down narrow streets clogged with dancing spectators.

Sounds like something better seen on TV? Maybe. Anyway, what the show is really famous for is the battle of the steel bands. Steel drums give the carnival its Caribbean sound, and the best steel drummers congregate for it. In an insider's guide book to London I had read that one week before the carnival a steel drum powwow takes place in a local park. We were there Saturday afternoon, but the drummers were not.


Sunday's skies looked threatening, and the forecast predicted rain. Since I had just got my Tate + Guest membership we decided to see some Dalí. We weren't the only ones, but thanks to my card we bypassed the lines - and the ticket booth. The best part of the exhibition was an animated movie Dalí had envisioned with Disney. Dalí only did the initial drawings and storyboard. Now, sixty years later, it was finished thank to some creative computer wizardry. Very distinctively Dalí. Also fantastic were a set of photographs by Philippe Halsman that are collected in the book Dalí's Mustache. Hilariously nuts. What about the paintings? The Persistence of Memory was there, as was the Metamorphosis of Narcissus, but overall the show couldn't compete with the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Back out on the south bank of the Thames, the rain had failed to materialize. We walked towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge, just as I had done three weeks earlier. It was so different. There's always so much to do. A street festival with dancing and singing, presented by old folks. The World Press Photo Award exhibition for free. Street performers beneath the Eye. Designer shops in Oxo Tower wharf. I picked up a handful of flyers for various symphony orchestras. One event that struck me takes place on London Open House weekend. Too much for one life.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

leaning back

With my flat as full of furniture as I can bear and almost all of the shelves having found their places at the wall, it's time to kick back and enjoy a leisurely evening or two. What's going on? How is London?

Full of contrasts, more than anything else. Next to average people getting by and distressed folks scrounging for their next meal is unbelievable wealth, shamelessly flaunted. My neighborhood sports a large market and lots of little shops, most selling household goods, furniture or clothes, inevitably cheap. Immigrants are everywhere. The vendors already recognize me as a regular. The few white faces are easy to remember. This is not upscale. However, it takes only three minutes on my bike and I see Porsches parked at the side of the road, and ten minutes into my morning commute I usually pass the first Lamborghini, Maserati or Rolls. The area around Imperial College might just be the world's largest Mercedes showroom.

Consequently, you can live in style. The other day I saw a 200-square-meter penthouse at Hans Crescent for rent. Right behind Harrods, perfect for watching all the Saudis spending US oil money. Priced to go at five thousand pounds per week. At the other end of the spectrum, the beer at Imperial costs less than two pounds for a (British) pint, cheaper than anywhere outside Germany or the Czech Republic, and Forrest's bread is a steal at less than a pound. Shopping around is key.

Somewhat non sequitur, the contrasts continue on the radio. BBC2 is a pretty eclectic station (though far from hip). Every hour, their music changes, and even within a show, they fill the range. I know that I tend to be impressed by radio that's new to me. I immediately fell in love with K-BER 101 and (of course) X96 when I moved to Utah, but that crush only lasted a few weeks. Then I noticed that the music wasn't any better or any more diverse than what I was used to but just different and all the sad repetitive same after a while. My hopes are still alive that the Beeb might be another kind of radio.

One step back. Let's not get too excited. My plans do not include sitting at home listening to the radio like an old geezer. Isn't there life music in this town? I'll update on that soon.

Friday, August 10, 2007

stop and go

It could be so easy, and I always imagine it is. But when one moves, there are inevitably hurdles. Procedures that should be straightforward are very complicated, and other potentially difficult issues are resolved in no time.

Such was the case with my apartment. I found it reasonably quickly and with little effort. The three days looking hard don't really count in the grand scheme of things. And take the whole move from France to the UK. Nothing could have gone smoother.

On the other hand, I still have no bank card. I have at last an account – and money in it. But how do I get it back out? I don't have a telephone line either. After calling British Telecom throughout the week, I'm ready to give up. No matter what I do, I always end up on hold. This afternoon, I took advantage of their offer to call me back. This worked, suprisingly, but then the lady asked me for my number. When I said, I didn't have one, that's why I'm calling, I'd like to connect a landline, I was back on hold.

Maybe it wouldn't even be so bad without the landline. My cell phone serves me very well indeed. But how about broadband internet, and how about international calls? How about receiving international calls. All three are disproportionately more expensive with a cell phone. I have to keep pestering them – and wasting my time in the process.

Talking about time, how much of it can one spend at IKEA? I went last night to the one near Wembley, open till midnight on weekdays. After three hours of browsing, I hadn't even come to the end of their showrooms. I haphazardly took a few things I thought I needed but, more importantly, went home with a better impression of what kind of furniture is available, what I could put into my bathroom, living room and kitchen, what colors and shapes exist, and what the dimensions of a few interesting pieces are. I had looked at everything in the catalog before, but seeing it in three dimensions and touching and feeling can't be beat. Now I'll have to go back tomorrow or on Sunday and really splurge. Then I have one week to put everything together and up, and to clean before mom gets here.

What about leisurely weekends, you might ask? Well, at least we had a three-hour lunch in Covent Garden today. That will have to do for the moment.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Still no internet at home, so no convential subject-oriented blog that is updated whenever something worthwhile comes up. Instead I summarize the last few days in a hodgepodge manner. Lots of stuff for one post!

The kitchen

Went to Habitat yesterday, a French furniture and decorations store, bravely modernist and not cheap. Their summer clearance worked in my favor, and I got all the dishes I needed in colors I liked, 81 pounds in all (price, not weight). I paid 38. This will be the first time I own entire sets not random assortments of plates and bowls. And none is chipped. Does that mean I'm getting old? At least the bowls don't match the dinner plates, nor the side plates the mugs. Now my kitchen only needs a shelf, then it's done. I love it already.

The house

What's far from done is the bathroom. I'll go to IKEA today to see if they can help me out. I also need to get lamp shades. You wouldn't believe what the landlord left hanging on the ceiling. Old, tattered and torn, and dirty. Apart from that, the apartment is really coming together nicely. The sofa arrived on Friday. Yesterday morning, I managed to stash away all of my belongings, most after taking them out of their boxes. Now, with the sun shining through the kitchen window and the first espresso in my new cups, I have to say I love it.

The parks

On my way to Habitat, I found myself in Holland Park. You have to know that London takes pride in its parks. It claims to be Europe's greenest capital. I was ready to poke cruel fun. Some cities have a few parks, others a stunning natural setting with mountains, coastline or green hills. My derision was premature. While the parks don't compare to the Alps in their splendor, they are lovely in their own right, calm and relaxing, yet full of life, filled with picnickers and footballers, promenaders and sunbathers when the weather is good. And the weather here is getting better by the day, thanks to global warming. Even the paltry triangle of Shepherd's Bush Green, surrounded by roads busy with buses, taxis and stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, mercilessly surrounded by noise and pollution, gets a different feeling once you set foot on it. Grass, trees, people at play or at rest, and the city out there gently fading away. I love it.

The Bush

Shepherd's Bush is my new hood. It's far from fancy but not far from fanciness. Notting Hill is just down the road, and some say the Bush is facing the same fate. So far, it has resisted gentrification. Immigrants and expatriates from dozens of countries call this area their home. Life is pulsating at all hours. The streets are littered with trash most nights and lined with the most diverse shops and restaurants. There is an Indian tandoori grill, a Caribbean take-away, a Polish delicatessen, and an Arabic nut roaster. And those are literally just the first four businesses when I get out of the house. I love it.

The baker

One thing that I was curious about when moving the London was whether I'd find a good baker for my daily fix of bread, or whether I'd have to go back to baking my own. In the US, I did just that. In France, the bread was good enough that I wouldn't claim I could do it better. I wasn't sure about England. Imagine my delight when I saw Forrest the Baker, just across the street from the nut roaster, a small artisanal bakery with dense, varied breads and reasonable prices. Every time I walk by I'm tempted to shout: "Bake, Forrest. Bake!" For breakfast, I love their raisin walnut bread.

The paper & the town

Yesterday, I bought a Guardian, apparently the daily specifically written for me, the skeptical intellectualist. But what am I to do with 244 pages? I might as well read the internet all over again. And I haven't even mentioned the 100-page next-week's events guide that tumbled to the floor when I lifted the bundle. No matter how much action you seek in London, there will always be vastly more events you miss than you catch. This is truly one of the most happening places one can imagine. I love the energy and the vibe of it.

The beer

I've been to a few pubs sampling the local fare. With all due respect to the master brewers, I can't remember drinking equally revulsive concoctions in a very long time. Mind you, Utah beer is mostly bad, French beer is mostly bad, but some beers here are utterly disgusting. So Friday evening when we went to Imperial College Student Union for a drink, I chose Carlsberg. I paid two pounds per English pint, subsidized by the College and was rewarded with a fresh taste, much to my liking. I also got to sit on a delightful lawn among about a hundred like-minded students and staff, hanging out after a week of work. The French weren't into that kind of stuff, but I love it.

The bikes

One of the conversations we had on the lawn was about cycling to work. You might imagine it suicidal in London, with all the traffic and pollution, but it's not that bad. If you ride early in the morning, say before eight, air quality is still good from the night. Also, since the tube bombings two years ago and the extension of the congestion charge zone this February, the number of bike commuters has increased dramatically. Kensington High St sometimes looks like a critical mass event. There is strength in numbers, and you will be seen. Cyclists are also encouraged to move up to the traffic light at red, to be see by drivers. This gives us a head start every time the light changes and annoys the hell out of those poor souls waiting behind. I love that the question of owning a car never even comes up.

The cars

Not all are lucky enough to find satisfaction in something else but cars. On my way to work, I pass Kensington Gardens Hotel, five-star poshness and a magnet for wealth. In their driveway, I have seen a pimped-up orange Land Rover, a white Lamborghini and a race-ready silver Carrera, all with Dubai plates. That's the nouveaux riches. Besides that, there are plenty of Maseratis, Porsches, Bentleys and Daimlers with English plates in the streets. It cracks me up to see old Rolls-Royces parks carelessly in front of homes where the owner clearly thinks nothing of it. Probably had the car for a decade or two and loves it.

The conclusion

I've been here for a good ten days. In some ways I've settled in. My apartment is almost presentable, and work has started. I have not yet signed up for gas, telephone or internet, and I have not seen much of the city. But I can already say that it's not that bad after all.


This post was written Sunday morning. In the course of the day, I made it as far as Wimbledon but never got to Ikea. Wimbledon has a few nice high street stores, though, and an entirely unexpected Tchibo, and I bought some things I didn't need. My bathroom is still a disaster, and I have no table.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

just wrong

The other day I moved in. The apartment is full of boxes, some still full while others have emptied their content all over the living room floor, and I don't have internet yet. That's why this post is a bit late and the next might not be immediately following.

My boxes, mattress, sofa and all those little things that never made it into a box had been in temporary storage for a week. To get them out, I rented a truck, which was a challenge in itself. Saturday afternoon, after I had signed the lease, all rental agencies had already closed for the weekend. On Monday, they were open but wanted a proof of address for renting to me.

With some flexibility, this problem was sorted out, and Monday night saw me all ready to move. Driving on the left is not overwhelmingly confusing. One basically goes with the flow and doesn't do anything creative like intuitively picking a lane. In intersections and roundabouts one has to constantly remind oneself not to head into oncoming traffic.

To make things really interesting, my little truck had the steering wheel on the right side and stick for the stick shift on the left. I'm used to these implements having their proper place, opposite from what I found them to be this time around. Driving felt not unlike being stuck in a parallel universe. Imagine trying to shift with the window crank. And then the inverted left-right proportions.

Everyone who drives knows that there is about half a meter of car to his left and judges distances with it. My truck extended by a meter and a half. Navigating narrow streets I came close to grating the cars parked on the left more than just once. And turns! And parking! Ooolala. At first I laughed madly at the incongruity of it all, but after less ten minutes I was sweating away. It was exhausting, and I was so happy to leave the truck later that night – without a scratch. Now I'll be stuck in my apartment for a while trying to make it nice before mom comes to visit.