Tuesday, June 29, 2010

End scene

Well, it's over - for me at least. I'm referring to the World Cup. In one weekend, all of the flags on my floor at work have been taken down: the US by Ghana, England by Germany (ouch), and Mexico by Argentina. After The Fat Duck on Saturday, we motored home to change and then ran over to my favorite pub, The Drapers Arms, to watch the US v Ghana. I was really excited, having only had the chance to watch the second half of the US's last Group game which ended in a thrilling 91s goal to push them into the next round. But Ghana was good, and the last African team in the tournament, and by the half it was clear they were the better team. Our World Cup run ended, and I was sad to see it go. Clearly, the defeat called for The Irishman and I to continue drinking into the wee hours and suffer just as much as the team (only from a hangover).

Sunday was the England v Germany game, my next team to support, and frankly it wasn't worth writing about. Having lived here for two years, and knowing the ins and outs of Rooney, Gerrard, and Terry's lives and exploits, I expected a bit more from the lads. All of the English I know are taking the defeat in stride, saying things like at least the disappointment came early rather than late. At any case, now I have to suffer through a month of newspaper and blog sites reviewing and critically analyzing the England match, what went wrong, whether Capello is the right coach, ETC...

Then of course Argentina whupped Mexico but good, and I am sort of in love with Diego Maradona - he's such an amusing character; the only thing bigger than his personality is the cross he wears around his neck. So I might have to support Argentina for the rest of the tournament, in addition to The Netherlands due to my love of the Dutch and my good friend Rietje. But when you choose teams to follow, it's never quite as good as when your home team really does good. Next time, USA. xx

Sunday, June 27, 2010

2 years = 14 courses, 3 waiters, 2 bottles of wine, and 1 grumpy sommelier at The Fat Duck

So I've been sitting on a little surprise for quite a long time as it was a surprise for The Irishman and he is an avid reader of Bloody Brilliant. Some of you might know it was our anniversary this past week, and last year The Irishman surprised me with a trip to Bruges to celebrate. This year, it was my turn to come up with a worth surprise in return and, if I say so myself, I done good. Two months ago, I sat on hold for an hour and secured a reservation at The Fat Duck.

For those of you who aren't foodies, The Fat Duck is the number 3 restaurant in the world. It holds 3 Michelin stars and its chef, Heston Blumenthal, is a genius at taking apart classic, nostalgic dishes and recreating them in new and exciting ways. Now, I've never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant, but The Irishman has and as a foodie he's wanted to go to The Fat Duck for quite a while. I knew he'd want to be a total nerd and read all of the blogs about the restaurant and the menu before we went, so I gifted him with the official Fat Duck cookbook last Monday and told him we were off to Bray on Saturday. Needless to say, he.was.thrilled.

Yesterday was hot and sunny and we got up early to get to Bray for a drink at The Hinds Head, also owned by Heston. The Irishman found a great website where you can find reduced train fares around England, so we got out to Maidenhead for £5 each (it's good for as far as Brighton, so go go go!). Once there, we sipped our G&Ts slowly but frankly we were so excited that we just kept looking at the watch waiting for our reservation time. Finally we could go and we literally ran into the restaurant, excited to eat eat eat.

The Irishman and I decided not to be nerdy and photograph everything we ate, but to just enjoy the food and the experience. We chose not to go with the paired wine tasting menu - I'd heard everyone who did it just ended up getting drunk halfway through the meal - so we chose an amazing Sancerre to start, and then moved to a really rich and fruity Malbec halfway through the meal. Our sommelier was really grumpy but in a hilarious way; he was much happier when we asked him for his recommendation for the red wine. The rest of the waitstaff were also impeccable and really really friendly - they joked with us and made us feel like we were special and belonged there. It was fantastic.

And, the food. OMG. I don't know how to accurately explain how amazing everything was. Each course got better and better, and topped the one before it. Only one I felt a bit like, okay, that's a bit out there, I'm not down with it, but even that was phenomenally delicious. Every bite you took gave you more flavors, more textures, and more to marvel at. Heston is really a genius to think of how to serve up experiences, rather than just food, and I think that's why I was so excited about each dish. It rarely was served just food on a plate - there were sounds, smells, and textures to accompany the tastes. My favorite was the Seaside - we were given a beach of sand, fish, and seaweaed to eat while listening to the sound of waves from an iPod in a conch shell. It really did transport you from the dining room to the sea. The Irishman's favorite was The Mock Turtle soup, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland - we received a gold watch that dissolved in a teacup of hot water, becoming the broth for soup based on a Victorian delicacy.

We were at the restaurant for nearly 4 hours, and when we were ready to leave the staff were more than happy to have the chef sign our menu (sadly, it wasn't Heston) but when we mentioned that we were there to celebrate our anniversary, they produced a Happy Anniversary card signed by the man himself. Such a nice touch. They then called us a cab to whisk us back to the train station, and I really did feel like I was back in the real world after falling down a rabbit hole... a rabbit hole of gastronomic delight. The Irishman has pronounced the meal one of the best he's ever eaten, and I have enough brownie points to let me off the hook for the rest of the summer!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Parting is such sweet sorrow - goodbye, trusty Bike.

Another thing that happened in Brighton was I gave up my bike. She didn't have a name - I just called her Bike - but she was definitely a lady and a graceful one at that. I acquired her back back back during my first tour of New York, free from a newcomer to the city who posted her on Craigslist. I went all the way up to Inwood to pick her up and rode her home and never looked back.

We had such adventures, Bike and I. We rode in countless Critical Mass rides, we cycled over the Brooklyn Bridge, we traveled a daily commute from Fairmount to the Zoo in Philadelphia, we got doored by a cab in Fort Greene, and we made the ultimate trip together over the Atlantic. She traveled in steerage, thrown in the belly of the plane with the other luggage, and I wasn't sure she'd make it. But when I got to baggage claim the next morning, there she was propped against a pillar. She accompanied me around London during my first weekend here when I knew no one - she was my only friend and my trusty companion.

But lately, Bike's been a little worse for wear. She lived outside for many a winter and her chain had been described by someone as looking positively Victorian. Her basket has always been dented but has recently looked even more so and her front end was really wobbly. She got really rusty, and her gears didn't shift the way they used to. One day this spring I walked outside to see she'd been spray painted by vandals! A few bike geeks at work would mock her, but then took pity on me and gave her a bit of a tune up; gently, though, they told me there wasn't much that could be done.

I knew all this but stubbornly kept riding Bike. She and I had been through so much together, I couldn't just cast her aside. So I figured that one last big ride together, one last epic voyage, would be it. I would ride her to Brighton and then find someplace to donate her so she could start the next part of her life.

Let me tell you - bike donation is a hard thing to find in Brighton. A few places accepted them to fix them up and sell on, but no one was around on Sunday. I asked in a few charity shops if they would take her, but most said no because if the brakes didn't work they'd be liable. Shocking! I was so upset that not only was I giving up Bike, BUT NO ONE WANTED HER. Finally, the good people at The Sussex Beacon charity shop took her in. Hopefully her sale will help some people with HIV/AIDS, and she'll find someone who can fix her up and give her a new lease on life.

I won't lie - I walked away from handing Bike over to the shop attendant in tears. It was so emotional, cycling 60 miles to the coast on my trusty steed only to then leave her to a secondhand shop. But it's for the best, and I know in my heart that some spunky, sassy shorthaired university student will pop into the shop, see Bike, and it will be love at first sight. I hope they'll have many happy adventures together.

As for me, I have a new bike but I'm not yet ready to ride her. Both physically and emotionally (sore butt and all). I'll post her debut soon, but, until then, in honor of Bike, go outside and give your bike bell a ding for her.

I biked to Brighton.

In case you didn't read, I participated in the London to Brighton Bike Ride on Sunday. I lied earlier when I said it was 70 miles - it was only 60 from door-to-door - but past 20, I say who's counting. The day was supposed to be warm and sunny, with patchy clouds, but it dawned overcast and cold. It didn't help my mood as we had to get up at 6am to leave by 7am to bike to the start on Clapham Common at 8am to set off on the route. It also didn't help that halfway to Clapham Common, I pulled over to the side of the road to wait for The Irishman who got caught by a light, and a bird SHAT ON ME. And not just like, a little poo; The Irishman cycled up and asked me what died on me. It was disgusting, purple, and smelled like gingko tree berries. I almost cried right there and turned around.

But The Irishman mopped me off and would have hugged me if I didn't look and smell so foul, and headed to the start. There were hilarious characters of old women (people in drag) on motorized granny vegetable carts (dressed up segways), riding around and dancing to early hip-hop, which was possibly the only thing that could have lifted my spirits at that point, and then we were off! It was really difficult to get out of London; the sheer numbers of riders on the road was huge, and even with police directing traffic we had to stop several times in the first few miles.

The crowds didn't really let up throughout the ride; several times we turned a corner just to find that people were getting off of their bikes and starting to walk. Mostly this was at hills, and to be honest it wasn't so bad - it was like a nice break from all of the cycling. A bit over halfway, we came to Turners Hill - a small town at the top of a hill with a pub and some shops on a roundabout that sets up a BBQ, band, and several food tents for the riders. We stopped there for lunch and had a break to enjoy the atmosphere. It was like a carnival! The Irishman contemplated a pint, but frankly there was no way that was going to happen for me.

We attempted to make it to Brighton by 2pm, but with all of the stops we made it at more like 4pm. The very end of the race has a really horrible gigantic hill called Ditichling Beacon, and unfortunately a rider some distance ahead of us had a heartattack on the ascent. The organizers stopped the race for probably an hour to give everyone a rest, so we had some forced downtime that gave me the opportunity for a nap on the side of the road. But once we did get going, and made it to the top of the hill, it was all coasting down to the seafront.

Brighton itself is a mad, lovely seaside town. We stayed a fabulous little BnB in Kemp Town, the gay neighborhood, called Nineteen. I highly recommend that if you visit Brighton, you stay with Mark. It was so comfortable and calming and relaxing - less like a hotel and more like your own house in Brighton, just with breakfast in bed (for real!). After showering and stretching and etc on Sunday, we met one of The Irishman's friends for a few drinks and then headed to the seafront for seafood at Due South. It's a really nice restaurant, and really good value, so treat yourself! We were pretty exhausted after stuffing our faces so we headed back to the hotel for the night. Monday was fabulously sunny and warm and we spent the day exploring the pier and wandering the Lanes and North Laine (thanks for the tips Kate!).

I loved Brighton, it is like a cross between San Francisco and the Jersey Shore (two of my favorite things) - and at only about an hour train ride from London, I'll be sure to go back soon to sit on the beach chairs and enjoy the sea. Would I bike down there again? The ride itself, distance-wise, wasn't terrible - I'd definitely consider it - but maybe not as part of the organised tour. Riding with 26,999 other cyclists wasn't exactly easy, and I think I'd enjoy it more if The Irishman and I did it ourselves. Also - I'd invest in one of those gel bikeseats. REALLY.

UPDATE: Pictures here!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Whoa! Holy concentration, batgirl!

So, I've been working on this project for work for a while. Like, upwards of 2.5 years. It's not really a project as in client work, but more of a "hey, you are smart, try your hand at this and see what happens" type of extracurricular work. And it's been slow going. So much so that I've had at least 3 different people try to help me, and we've all gotten frustrated. The problem is, the brief in the beginning was nebulous at best, the topic is thorny, and, because I'm working weeks where I'm billing 71 hours sometimes, the last thing I want to do is come home and crack open my laptop again to work on this thing. And all it really is is a few written pages. It's gotten to the point where it stresses me out that this thing isn't done. I have dreams about it. This is truly procrastination at its finest.

About six weeks ago the CEO of my company was in town and we sat down to discuss this project. It seems that he's really keen to have it done (he doesn't know how long its been in the works, thank god). So we chatted, and suddenly the brief became a lot clearer (if not completely different), and so lately I've had a renewed interest in finishing the damn thing. I wrote an outline a month ago, and have been playing with a draft of the piece ever since. But today I stole the Irishman's laptop, marched to Euphorium, and wrote it. The whole sodding thing. In 2.5 hours. And I feel good. I just logged into my work email and sent it to the relevant parties with a plan for finishing it, and it's like 2 stone have just been lifted off my shoulders.

It's funny, because "real" writing (not this blog, because this is just stream of consciousness when I get around to it), like papers, articles, and reports, is really hard for me. I've been told I'm good at it, but the practice of sitting down and putting thoughts down is really hard. I liken it to giving birth, though I've not experienced that and I assume it's much more physically painful than writing. Writing is emotionally and mentally taxing, but, like childbirth, once you've finished something you forget the anxiety and second-guessing and emotionally-fraught hours staring at computer screen willing the words to appear in the right order with the right sentiment. It's excruciating. I've actually taken to writing on paper for the first few drafts because it's easier somehow; it feels less permanent, or perhaps less official, when you're literally putting pen to paper and scribbling. Kind of like sketching before starting a painting.

Anyway, I'm in that lovely afterglow when a piece is done for now. No doubt next Sunday I'll be back at the coffee shop, silently cursing all of the screaming toddlers and chatting mothers, wringing my hands over how to say what I really want to say, and wishing I'd never actually agreed to do this stupid project. But I never could keep my big mouth shut, so I'll just close it now and enjoy my bliss while it lasts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gearing up for a big bike ride

Guys, I'm so looking forward to this weekend - I'm going to Brighton! But I'm slightly fearful of how I'm getting there: The Irishman and I are participating in the London-Brighton bike ride.

70 miles. On my bike. Which is sort of falling apart. Eeps!

If you have any tips of things to do in Brighton once (if) I make it there, let me know!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Get thee to the Barbican

I had a special treat on Friday when one of my colleagues took me and my team to The Barbican for lunch. For non-Londoners, The Barbican is a 1960s-era housing complex in between Clerkenwell and The City. It's regarded as one of the UK's most successful urban communities, and a testament to poured concrete architecture, but it's also damn ugly. I've walked, run, rode, driven past it thousands of times and vaguely thought about how there is a cinema and theatre inside, but ended up reestablishing just how cold and forbidding it looks. So when a colleague suggested our team head over there to get lunch and see an exhibit, I was curious as to what just lay inside the imposing towers.

Well! The Barbican is totally worth the inevitability that you will get lost while wandering through its lanes. It is a massive housing complex that has a cultural center inside, with art galleries, cinema, theatre, restaurants, bars, and just really cool spaces. There is a man-made lake with a terrace where you can sit and gaze on St Giles church. The whole experience reminded me of the old Tomorrow Land in Disney World, but with a much better end result.

And the exhibit? Totally awesome. John Bock is mental - I loved his creation of pod living spaces and a transportable home that takes the Clampetts overburdened vehicle to the next imaginary level. His attention to detail in decorating his living spaces and fashioning living basics made the whole exhibit more of anthropological extrapolation than a work of art, though he apparently enters his pods at certain points in the day and interacts with the audience which I would love to see.

So if you find yourself in The City and fancy a cup of coffee and some culture, wander to the Barbican. I guarantee that you'll find it both amazing and (literally) impossible to escape.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

London to live, New York to love - BloodyBrill on Little London Observationist

If you fancy, hop on over to Little London Observationist. Stephanie's got a great thing going, reviewing and commenting on London life and its lovely quirks. She also interviews a Londoner weekly, and your truly is that Londoner this week! Check out my interview on her blog, and give her a read - you won't be sorry.

World Cup Fever

I've surfaced from a week of absolute insanity at work (my timesheet recorded 71 hours of work since last Sunday... and a standard work week is 37.5... ouch!) to quelle excitement! The World Cup has begun - my office looks like the a mini version of the United Nations, as colleagues hang their home country flags above their desks!

I sort of love the World Cup. As an American, I hadn't really known about it until my summer abroad in Italy when the entire country shut down for every Italian match. That was 2002, when the US beat Germany unexpectedly to advance to the quarter finals. In 2006, my Dutch friend and I slipped out of the office to watch the Netherlands games in NYC dive bars at odd hours - like 10am - and this year I've downloaded a World Cup app for my iPhone and I will be watching all of the American matches proudly.

I watched Uruguay v France in the pub last night, and I am gearing up for the big mama of games - England v USA at 19:30 GMT tonight. It will be the game to end all games, setting the tone for the rest of the tournament if we can beat England at their favourite sport. Apparently we did it the last time we met 60 years ago. I'll be wearing my Michelle Obama earrings for extra good luck!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Give a girl a BREAK!

Seriously, guys, I need a break. I have no clean underwear, I have no cotton balls with which to remove the chipping nail polish from my manicure, my eyebrows are looking caterpillary (after my post about English beauty habits, I'm not exactly holding up my own American standards), and I'm just really pooped. Even though I enjoyed and relaxed during the long Bank Holiday weekend that just passed, now I'm trying to get five long days of work done in four. I haven't seen the Irishman in a while, and next week his MOTHER is coming for a visit "just to hang out". Can someone just put life on pause, please?

I'm also recovering from having an American friend visit for the last week-and-a-half. While on the one hand it's awesome having people over from the homeland, it's quite another when the visitor conjures up a spectre of who you used to be and you have no time to reconcile it all. Friend J. came to stay for a while, and it was lovely to catch up with him and find out all of the gossip from home. But hearing all the news and spending time with him was also disconcerting; I didn't realize just how much I had built a life here, a new life separate from the one I had in the US, until I was confronted with the evidence of that old life in the form of my friend. It was really strange - almost like I had to bridge a gap to the past to relate to him. It's not an indictment on my friend, but more of a revelation for myself of just how much I've changed and grown up.

So while I enjoyed having J. visit, now I have so much to consider - when I find the time (and energy). I'll let you know what I come up with!