Thursday, March 24, 2016

Collier Arrives

Several of you have asked whether Collier arrived safely, and he has. He spent almost 24 hours in transit, eventually getting to London from Charlotte via Los Angeles for reasons known only to American Airlines. 

Once here, our intrepid colleague was determined to see London like one of the 99%. So, Oyster Card in hand, he headed for the Tube where he was informed that the Picadilly Line, the line from Heathrow to Central London, was closed for a one-day strike. Why a strike? Dunno. Why for one day? Dunno. But the real puzzle is why only the Picadilly line was shut down. That's the true mystery and it remains unsolved at this point. Your humble correspondent will let you know if she learns the answer to this baffling question.

But arrive, he did, and we met for dinner at his hotel. We had the omakase (chef's choice) sushi menu and it was quite good. We'd originally planned to go out for fish & chips, but that would have entailed a mile-plus walk in the rain, so we're saving the fish & chips for another day.  

Tomorrow we plan to take one of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours. Collier is convinced that, because it's Good Friday, the crowds will be smaller. Yeah, keep telling yourself that, buddy.

Steps walked today: 5,735

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Wheels on the Bus

I've been remiss in posting the last few days. But I'm a convert to bus riding and now I can't get enough of it. It's like a free tour. Today I went to the Courtauld Gallery to see the Botticelli exhibit. But the bus ride was just as fun. Trafalger Square, the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, just watching London pass by was part of the experience. 

I saw something rather odd. It's common to see buskers in the subway stations -- musicians or other performer who do their thing and have a hat out to collect money from passersby. Some stations even have dedicated areas for buskers. The stations have good acoustics, and the performers aren't hampered by bad weather. But today I saw a busker on the street and he was playing the bagpipes! The fellow was piping away enthusiastically, but I wonder how he was doing financially!

My friend Collier arrives in London on Thursday and I'm looking forward to doing touristy stuff with him during my last week here. I've been here three weeks and am enjoying myself thoroughly.  

Steps walked today: 4,180

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Scotland Yard, Cheese and Beer

Today it was back on the bus with me. I rode the #148 bus out toward Scotland Yard, passing Hyde Park, Green Park and Buckingham Palace. And today I rode on the top deck of the bus.

The real action occurred this evening. I found a tiny shop a week or so ago called Buchanan's Cheesemonger. It's a wholesale cheese company that purchases fine cheese, ages and conditions it, and sells it to restaurants and shops. They also have a small retail shop, and this evening they offered a class on Beer and Cheese pairing. There were six students. We sampled seven beers and 12 cheeses. That was a lot of beer and cheese. The class was both informative and delicious.

Steps walked today: 2,924

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Give me Liberty!

So far this week has been a bit atypical for me in that it's involved shopping. Those of you who know me well know that shopping is not my favorite activity. But this past weekend my iPad seemed to be getting a bit wonky so I made an appointment at an Apple Genius Bar. The Apple Store is in Covent Garden, so off I went.

When I first visited London in the mid-80s Covent Garden was pretty run down. It was just beginning a sort of urban renewal. Now the neighborhood is chock-full of fancy, and pricey, shops. Both before and after my appointment I browsed the wares, but didn't buy much. 

My main and enjoyable activity yesterday was a massage at a place near my flat. 

Today, however, was a landmark. I did something I've not done on any previous trip to London. I rode the bus! I'm not sure why I avoided them in the past. The Tube seemed simple by comparison, I suppose. I guess I imagined I'd fumble the fare, or miss my stop. But it turns out that my trusty Oyster card and I did just fine. Oh, and it turns out it's only 90p per ride, no matter how far you go! And riding the bus allows you to see the sights n the way to your destination.

My destination was Liberty, the department store. I wanted to look at their fabrics. Some of the prints they offer have been in production for over 100 years. The store still has many of its original Arts & Crafts details like the paneling in the lift you see in the photo above. I didn't find what I wanted, but a saleswoman discretely referred me to Berwick Street in Soho. 

After a stop for lunch at Honest Burger (hamburgers are all the rage in London right now) I walked the few blocks to Berwick Street. I still didn't find the fabric I sought, but it was a fun outing.

Steps walked today: 4,591

Vocabulary word of the day: Lift. The British call elevators lifts. And if that didn't confuse Americans enough, they number the floors differently than we do. What we call the first floor, they call the ground floor. What we call the second floor, they call the first floor, and so on.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ode to the Underground

Steps Today: 7,765

The Underground. The Tube. The magical carpet that whisks people hither and thither in London. Yes, it can be congested. Yes, you can encounter delays or station closures. But it's still an amazing system. 

The Underground is over 150 years old. It has 270 operating stations on 11 lines. It handles 1.3 billion passengers per year. 

Now, you do need to learn its secrets, its quirks, its ways. The most basic skill you need is learning to read the system maps. At first glance the map looks like a plate of multi-colored spaghetti, but, in fact, it's a diagram that displays the entire, glorious, complex, confusing, system at a glance. The man who designed the map  in the 1930s, Harry Beck, did so on his own time since his superiors thought his idea wouldn't work. But he realized that, since the trains run underground, people didn't care where, exactly, the tracks were; they only cared about the relative locations of the stations.

In Central London it's important to realize that some stations are quite close together. For instance my flat is roughly equidistant from Marble Arch, Edgeware Road, Lancaster Gate and Paddington stations. Which station I should use depends on which line I need to take for my destination. Picking the better of two nearby stations, even if one is a few blocks farther away, can save you time and the trouble of transferring between lines.

The Tube is now cashless. Even a single-trip ticket must be purchased before you approach the gate to the station. But if you're using the Tube every day, as I am, an Oyster card is the way to go. This is a pre-paid card you simply touch to the card reader on the gate. The great thing is that fares have daily caps; once you pay the maximum, you card is not debited for the rest of the day, no matter how many times you travel.

Riding the Tube requires you to steel your nerves for the sensory overload of bustling, public, urban life. People walk quickly, they know where they're going, and tourists need to fit in. So you need to plan your journey, follow the signs, and be ready to move. When you ride the escalators stand to the right so people can pass you on the left. And be ready to climb stairs, lots and lots of stairs. My FitBit  indicates I climbed 190 steps today, and I only took the Tube twice.

Many stations have attendants who will patiently answer your questions and point you in the right direction, even to places near the station. When you emerge from the station it's important to orient yourself and figure out which way you need to walk to your final destination.

I guaranteed that after you return home from a visit to London, you'll wish your town or city had its own Underground.

Friday, March 11, 2016

When I Lived in London

I'm beginning to wonder if one of the tilesetters who worked on these London stoops was a quilter. Every day I find a more elaborate pattern that could have come from a current quilt magazine. 

And in case you wondered, yes, I will be this woman. You may count on it!

Steps today: 6,216

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Blue Plaque. A blue plaque is placed by English Heritage to commemorate a person or historical event associated with the location. I saw the plaque in this photo today, just around the block from my flat. It commemorates Sir Charles Vyner Brooke (1873-1963), the last Rajah of Sarawak. Imagine the changes he saw in the world during his lifetime.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"Of All the Gin Joints ..."

The City of London Distillery bar and 
lounge. Note the light fixtures above 
The bar made from old copper kettles.
Today I distilled my first bottle of gin. The City of London Distillery offers a class in the history and practice of distilling gin. Once you have the basics down, you get to choose your own botanicals -- juniper, of course, but also lots of other aromatic, delicious seeds, flowers, spices, roots, citrus peels and such -- and then you distill your own bottle of gin.

My gin recipe.
The City of London Distillery was the first to operate in the City in two hundred years. They distill five varieties of gin and also offer several experiences including classes and tastings. 

I entered the distillery by going down a couple flights of stairs from street level into their bar and lounge area. Michael greeted me with a gin & tonic. I had the good fortune to be the only pupil in my class so I got all of Michael's attention. He was very patient answering my myriad questions. He gave me some guidelines for selecting my botanicals, and gave me time to sniff and select and weigh and measure.  

The small pot stills are named
for the seven dwarves. 
Then it was on to the still room. It took about half an hour for the still to reach the right temperature and distill about 450 ml of gin that had twice the alcohol by volume we needed. Michael diluted the gin with the proper amount of filtered water, then we sealed the bottle with cork and wax, and I affixed my custom label to the bottle. Finally Michael packed my very own bottle of gin into a padded carrier for its journey to the US. 

If you're interested in history, in gin, or just want a unique London experience I highly recommend a visit to The City of London Distillery.

The distillery, as I mentioned, is in the City. This is a square mile in the center of London that's the primary financial district. St. Paul's Cathedral is in the City, and so is the Central Criminal Court, affectionately called the Old Bailey. In this photo you can barely see the dome of the Old Bailey. Atop the dome is a golden statue of Justice. She's to the right of the crane. In one hand she's holding the scales to weigh evidence and in the other she's holding the sword of punishment. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the City and will return to it again during my trip.

Steps today: 8,350.

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Look Right. Because vehicles drive on the left-hand side of the street, it's important that you look to your right before you cross the street. At many complex intersections there are "Look Right" and "Look Left" reminders painted on the pavement to alert pedestrians to the direction from which vehicular traffic is coming. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Quilts Underfoot and Private Parks

I continue to encounter tiled stoops outside public buildings and private homes. The stoops along a street will be ordinary checkerboards, then I'll come upon a design like these. 

And there are still lots of private gardens or parks in London. They belong to the surrounding houses and only those residents may use them. 

I had a very nice lunch today at a Persian restaurant. The portion wasn't quite as huge as it looks in the photo. The meal was similar to Persian meals I've eaten in Southern California and Houston. But the bread was especially good. It's called taftoon and is sort of a cross between pita and a cracker, but covered with sesame seeds. The restaurant is called Pardis which means paradise.

Steps Today: 3,154

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Zebra Crossing. These are designated points where pedestrians have the right of way for crossing a street. A famous one is the one at Abbey Road that you've seen in the photo of the Beatles. Ordinarily the pavement in a zebra crossing is painted with white stripes on the black pavement, hence the name. They also have black-and-white striped poles on either side of the street with yellow light globes atop them. Cars stop for you at zebra crossings; if you're crossing elsewhere, exercise caution!

Monday, March 07, 2016

A Meeting With a Chicken, Ham and Leek Pie

Are you noticing a theme in my posts? Food has definitely taken a front seat here. However, while I did eat today, I also met an acquaintance from an on-line group. He's a young Spanish man who's lived in London for several years. We met for lunch and I had my first savory pie. The English make pies with pastry sturdy enough to stand on its own, delicious and crispy. I'm assuming the crust was chock-full of butter and lard. I am now recalling the pie stall at Borough Market with heightened interest, so a return visit is on my agenda.

I also braved my flat's washer/dryer -- a single device -- and washed a few clothes. I wished Jeanne were here to share the experience with me. It took three and a half hours and the clothes were still, as the porter explained to me, only half-dry!

Steps Today: 5,543

Vocabulary Term for Today: Heated Towel Rail. 
Many English bathrooms have towel bars that are part of the heating system. They're radiators, but they're shaped so you can hang towels from them. This means your towels are warm when you want to use them but, more importantly, your towels dry completely and quickly after you use them. Whoever invented heated towel rails should win a medal!

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Okra and Public Art

I've spent most of the weekend wandering my neighborhood, Connaught Village. London originated as a series of villages that, over the centuries, have grown together into a whole. London is still divided into various boroughs and each borough has its own civil and administrative authorities.

This area, especially along the Edgware Road, is heavily middle Eastern. Yesterday I had a great Lebanese lunch at Sannin Restaurant. I want to emphasize that the area feels very safe to me, so no worries on that account. I had dinner in an Italian restaurant just a few blocks away form my flat, but it was only so-so.

Today was my first Sunday in London so I went out for a lunch of roast beef with all the trimmings. A tradition of British cooking is the Sunday joint or Sunday roast. This large piece of meat, accompanied by Yorkshire pudding (a sort of popover), roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy was both a mainstay of family life and a way for a housewife to get a start on the week's cooking. She could make the roast on Sunday, then turn the leftover meat and vegetables into several meals later on in the week. When I was last in the UK, in early 2000, Sunday roast was primarily served in people's  homes. Now it's a hot trend in restaurants, from the corner pub to the fanciest place. I chose the Jugged Hare in The City which has a highly-rated Sunday lunch. I started with grilled sardines, then I had roast beef with all the trimmings. Both courses were very good.
Today was a Mother's Day in the UK so lots of people were taking their mothers out for lunch. For my quilting friends, this tiled floor was at the entrance of the Jugged Hare. 

On the way back from lunch I happened on this sculpture which represents a window washer. He's looking up at a tall, glass-faced building as though assessing how long it will take to wash these windows. 

And for my South Carolina friends, here is a photo of okra I saw in a market when I was out. 

Total Steps Today: 5,861

Vocabulary Word for Today: Oyster Card. The Oyster Card is a prepaid card for use on the transit system in London. It's a smart card an charges visitors who travel within a certain area a maximum per day. If you're planning to visit London it's best to order your Oyster Card before you come travel

Friday, March 04, 2016

To Market, To Market.

Yesterday my hairdresser, Emma, recommended the Borough Market to me. It was already on my radar, so off I went and found Foodie heaven. 


London is full of markets. Some run on a single day of the week and some are open every day. The Borough Market is open Monday through Saturday, and is justly famous for both fresh foods like produce, dairy, baked goods and meats, and for prepared foods to eat on the spot. Here you can see a few of the many offerings: fresh fruit, cheeses of many descriptions and a whole Parma ham, on the hoof, literally.

I picked up salami, olives and bread to bring back for dinner, then turned my attention to the prepared foods. I wanted to try everything -- the toasted cheese sandwiches, the raclette served with new potatoes, the meat pies, the pulled pork at The Roast Hog where they were carving  from an entire pig. The Market even hosts sit-down restaurants. 

There were several vendors cooking food in giant paella pans; these pans are at least four feet in diameter. The offerings included paella, but also included curries and biryanis. The choice seemed endless and varied and so tempting. It was hard to choose but I finally picked a duck wrap -- shredded duck with hoisin sauce and fresh greens wrapped in a tortilla. It was delicious. 

The Boroough Market will be a must-re-visit venue when my friend Collier is in London in a couple weeks!

Steps Today: 7,079.

Vocabulary Word for Today: actually a phrase, "Mind the Gap." When you ride the underground, you hear Mind the Gap announcements and see Mind the Gap signs frequently. This is a reminder to watch the gap between the train and the platform so you don't trip in it and injure yourself. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Let Me Google That for Me

Google is my friend. Today I did two things I found via Google: I got my hair cut and I ate fish & chips. 

The hair salon is called Unruly Curls and I left with a mop of curls I didn't know I had. Emma did a super job with the scissors and the diffuser. I know my hair won't look this good when I do it, but it was pretty cool for the day. I just think one of these days I ought to have my hair done when I have plans so I can show off my new do. 

One of the fun things in the UK is that dogs are simply an integrated part of people's lives. One of the stylists at Unruly Curls had his whippet, Monty, with him. I'd have thought a whippet would be nervous and yappy, but Monty was a model of cool, suave sophistication. He greeted people as they entered in a calm, collected way. I took this photo of him because my sister likes greyhounds and whippets. 

Prior to my haircut, I had fish & chips at The Fish House in Notting Hill. The place was staffed by Italian men, but they did a good job at the fryer. Alas, newspaper is no longer used to wrap take-away (take-out) fish & chips, but many places like The Fish House use parchment paper printed with a newspaper design to wrap their food.

Unruly Curls is in the Shepherd's Bush neighborhood. On the way to from the Tube (Underground) station I walked along Royal Crescent where I saw these houses. They were designed in 1839 and mimic the style of the Royal Crescent in Bath. One of them had a tiled porch that will delight my quilting friends. 

On the way back to the flat I did a little grocery shopping at a Tesco Metro in my neighborhood. Tesco is a giant grocery chain, and their Metro stores are smaller versions of the store, tucked into urban centers. 

That's it for today. Feel free to leave comments or questions if you'd like. 

Steps Today: Alas, I forgot my FitBit this morning. I estimate I walked about 3.5 miles today.

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Door. Well, in the UK a door means the same as it does in the US. But there's an odd thing about the doors here. In the US an outside door swings outward. I think it's a requirement in the building codes; in case of a fire, people rushing from the building can exit more quickly if the door swings outward. Here the doors swing inward. I'm still pulling on doors to enter businesses, and need to train myself to push on them. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Adventure Begins

I'm safely in London and settling into my flat.

My trip started with the great experience of an upgrade to BusinessFirst class on the flight from Houston to Heathrow; yes, United routed me to from South Carolina to London via Houston! My plane had the sort of seats that flatten out completely so I slept for several hours. A nice amenity was the "Fast Track" line for customs; I breezed right through while the folks from Coach were waiting in the line. 

Then today's real adventure began. I bought an Oyster Card before I left the US. It's a smart card for the transit system in London and it is, indeed, smart. It charges you a maximum of £6.50 per day. You touch the card to a sensor both as you enter a station and as you leave your destination station, and the system debits your account automatically. The Underground trip was a bit tedious because I had my suitcase with me. But eventually I reached the office of the real estate company, paid the balance of my rent, and was ushered by the porter, Kahlil, to my flat. 

The flat is small, clean and adequate. It's close to the Marble Arch tube station. It's more of a good value than luxury accommodation. And it should be just fine for my needs. 

I confess I did take a nap this afternoon. I went out this evening to get a couple things for the flat and to have a bite to eat. You won't be surprised to know that food will play a big part of my trip. There's a nice place right across the road called Le Pain Quotidien (I translate it as Daily Bread) which is a nice cafe. I had a bowl of soup and some delicious avocado toast. Avocados seem to be all the rage here, as is coffee. 

I'm trying to figure out the television. The British send us   Downton Abbey and apparently this year we're sending them Dance Moms. Yeah, that's a fair trade. 

More tomorrow. 

Steps today: 5,492
[I dug out my FitBit for the trip. The device tracks the steps I walk during the day as well as the flights of stairs I climbed. It shows I climbed 9 flights of stairs today, all carrying my suitcase in the Underground.]

Vocabulary word of the day: courgette (core-JZET); zucchini. The waitress described my soup as Courgette, pea and ham. 
[I will provide a British word with each post. As Churchill said, "The British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language."]