smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
Thursday, 10/27. No sleep. Packing and leaving. Duty-free. Longest plane ride ever. Panic in the seats of Economy. Parting thoughts.

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Being the second half of Monday, 10/24. Caffe Cinos. James Hutton. Primark. Talking Turkey. Down House, home of Darwin. The Queen's Head. Snuff. Toku.

(Sorry about the long delay between updates. Blame scotch, the Sith, and Cardinal Richelieu.)

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(I think I've realized that I'm dragging out these travelogues because writing them lets me reminisce in detail, pretending I'm still in London, pretending it's not yet over. Sigh.)

Monday, 10/24, AM.
Split-up. Nerdery. Frustration. The Southeastern Line. Swanley. English Leather.

The split-up. Every now and then even the most loving of couples needs a break, and today was a day that Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I had set aside to go have separate adventures until it was time to meet for dinner. I got up early and caught the train; she slept in and went to the Museum of London and did some shopping. I did some shopping too, among other things. I just had to catch the train to do it.
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Sunday, 10/23. A morning jog. Dogs. Laundry. Thoughts about coffee. Sloane Ranger for a day. Victoria and Albert Museum. Maker culture and postmodernism. More laundry. Liqueur from Sardinia.

Slept late enough for the sun to be well up, then went back to Hyde Park for a jog. This time my jog encompassed Kensington Gardens as well, and I loped past the well-fortified Russian embassy on the west side of the park. Upon returning to the park I took a premature right turn and ended up on the Kensington Palace grounds themselves, where I briefly interrupted some gentlemen preparing to cast their R/C sailboats on an ornamental lake. Of course there's a Model Yachting Association of Great Britain, so I reckon these fellows belonged to that esteemed organization. I gracefully turned around and jogged back the way I came (O HAI I TOTALLY MEANT TO DO THAT).

Back in the park, dodging bicycles and horse poo, I spent some time observing dogs and their owners. I don't think I've ever seen such pampered, happy-looking dogs. I know I'm looking at my surroundings through rose-tinted glasses, but I wanted to take all the dogs home. (GET ALL THE DOGZ!) Most owners seemed happy to let their dogs run free, trusting them not to flee, and the dogs seemed to be pretty content with this arrangement. One canine in particular made me smile: the dog had lagged behind its people, content to sit for a moment in the sunshine. The man called, but the dog didn't come. The man spied a squirrel and started chasing it in circles. The woman started to laugh. The dog's ears pricked up: Hrrrmmm? Then the dog's eyes widened: Squirrel! The dog took off like a rocket while the squirrel skedaddled. Canine and hominids lived happily ever after.

After the fun the work began: Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I needed to do laundry. The hotel lobby had a flier for the nearby Pimlico Laundrette, so we packed our dirty things into a couple of bags and schlepped them through the neighborhood. It turns out the map on the flier was not drawn to scale, so we took a route about three times as long as it needed to be, but it was such a lovely day and such a lovely neighborhood that we didn't really mind. Originally we thought we might do the laundry ourselves, but it turned out that the establishment was willing to handle the chore for a modest fee, so we took advantage and spent the afternoon wandering around.

First stop: breakfast! Er, lunch. Brunch. At Daylesford Organic farm shop and cafe: yum. Smoked salmon and eggs on toast, with coffee to die for...

Oh, the coffee. I'm soooo spoiled now. I think I'll have to buy a French press (or maybe an espresso machine) and a bunch of small coffee cups. And a better grinder. And sugar cubes. And teensy little spoons to stir with. And maybe some Eastern European guest workers. Something about the coffee in London just blew me away, every time, no matter where I drank it. I used to be impressed with my automatic grind-and-drip coffee pot, but now I know what a shallow and flaccid brew it makes. The worst part? My flaccid home brew actually compares favorably with most of the stuff I get from local fancy coffee shops in Austin. Maybe it's the side effect of drinking coffee that's sat in a thermos, from big paper cups. I don't know, but since coming home I've felt like I've downgraded from Ferrari coffee to Ford coffee. Something Must Be Done.

Yes, I know: "First-world problems."

Fuck that shit. I want my coffee.

After lunch we became Sloane Rangers, wandering along the expensive streets and shops of Kensington and Chelsea until eventually we found the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Note that we didn't actually buy anything from these expensive shops, so I suppose we're just Sloane Rangers in Training. Maybe Sloane Hobbits.) Instead of wandering all about the museum, we stuck to two small exhibitions, and they were a lot of fun.

Power of Making. This room was basically full of Boing Boing porn, and being Boing Boing porn, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen most of it before. The demonstration of 3D printers was very cool, however, and I think it's great to see a major museum celebrating outsider art and DIY manufacturing, building, and craftsmanship. There was a line to get in, and I think that's cool, too.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990. (First rule of postmodernism: all titles must have a colon in them.) This was what I really came to see. It's all about postmodernism in art, film, music, architecture, design, and even commerce (but not so much in literature or philosophy, which was a bit of a disappointment, but then it is an art museum after all). The Blade Runner bit was predictable but satisfying, the home decor bit was slightly bewildering at times, and the music bit was a flashback to the 80s. I especially liked the Grace Jones video, which I'm sure had nothing whatsoever to do with my fond memories of her bravura performance in Conan The Destroyer. (SUBVERT ALL THE DISCOURSES!)

After the V&A it was back across town (for an extremely limited and local definition of "town") to the laundrette, where we collected our nice clean clothes and and hauled them back to the hotel. At this point our feet were barking and our dogs were tired, but we were also ravenous, so we debated whether to go back out for food or to ransack the bed & breakfast's supply of shortbread cookies. Real food won out in the form of Oliveto, a Sardinian restaurant around the corner from our hotel.

Oliveto's pizza was brilliant, the pasta was amazing, the tiramisu was divine, and even the bottled beer from Sardinia was lovely. But the star of the show was mirto, a Sardinian liqueur made from myrtle berries.

Mirto is hard to describe. It tastes like licorice but smells like an herb garden or a windswept field of wildflowers. Wine experts will talk about how a vintage evokes the soil and climate where the grape was grown, but I've never experienced anything as strong (in terms of evocation of place) as this mirto. It's a rocky hillside in bloom and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in TechniColor, CinemaScope, and full-blown Smell-O-Vision. It's amazing. And Cyrano De Bergerac was actually Sardinian, so I think we should slap the swashbuckler on a bottle and sell it to everyone. Mirto. Look for it.

Next time: A split-up. Swanley. Wested Leather. Bromley. Primark. Down House. Science, politics and philosophy with a nice Turkish couple. Snuff. Toku.
smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
Note #1. We're back in Texas. Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I are both suffering from what I've decided to call the BBC Flu, though technically it's just a cold. Unless it's pneumonia. Or consumption. It goes to show that no matter how much you enjoy London and the Underground, you shouldn't lick the handrails. 

Note #2. I've updated the picspam photo gallery. If your life is so full of joy and contentment that you can afford to fritter away a few minutes on another person's rather pedestrian tourism, go have a look.

Saturday, 10/22. Slept in. Tate Modern. Giraffe. We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Note to self: jaffa cakes, jelly babies, and champagne do not make for a wholesome evening meal, even if you're watching Holy Flying Circus at the time. Beware the next morning! (UPDATE. I think I've picked the wrong night for the champagne and jaffa-cake fest. My ability to reconstruct events is not what it ought to be. But I know it happened somewhere in the mix.)

On Saturday we slept in and nursed our hangovers, and then we visited Victoria Station, where I bought a train ticket to be used on Monday.

Then we visited the Tate Modern. Sturdy Helpmeet felt it was time to check out the modern art and see if it infuriates her. (Some of it did, some of it didn't.) I had a hard time focusing because there's just too much stuff to see. If a piece of art is worth paying attention to, then you should probably spend some time with it. Trying to see as much art as possible in a set amount of time, by contrast, is a bit like trying to quaff a few hundred pints in an afternoon and then remember something edifying about the taste and bouquet of pint #327. It's just pointless. It's better to focus on one piece of art, or one exhibit if it's not too large, and try to learn something.

But even that's hard if you're fighting huge crowds of tourists and families out for the weekend. So after a while I gave up and just started watching the crowd as I walked around. That said, three things from the Tate Modern stand out in hindsight.
  • photo by Diane Arbus of a (mentally handicapped?) little boy holding a grenade and a rock in either hand. I have days when I feel the way this kid looks.
  • An exhibit about John Heartfield, a German artist who took an English name as he criticized and lampooned the rising fascist movement before WWII and the global capitalist elite in general. His work seemed Relevant To My Interests™.
  • A nifty negative-space staircase sculpture-thingy by Korean artist Do Ho Suh. It filled me with pleasure just by being what it was.
After the art, Sturdy Helpmeet announced that she really wanted to see a movie, so we picked We Need to Talk About Kevin at the Renoir Cinema just north of Russel Square station. Based on the novel of the same name, it's about a mother trying to cope with sacrificing her career and her life of the mind for her family, on the one hand, and raising a psychopathic son on the other. Good movie, but all I could think at the end was That poor woman, at least now she knows she wasn't crazy all those years thinking her kid was fucked up. (Actually, I had more thoughts but this probably isn't the place for them.) The commercials before the film were fun, in that "Hey, foreign commercials are fun!" kind of way.

Before the movie we ate at Giraffe, a chain that delivers a kind of "global" or "ethnic" fusion comfort-food menu, which was delicious. Actually, the decor is more "global" or "ethnic" than the menu, in a public-TV morning kid's show kind of way. But the food's good. (Then again, I don't think we ate anything that wasn't good the whole trip.)

I find I really like the open-air, pedestrian-friendly shopping centers that house the Renoir and the Giraffe where we ate. American malls are either claustrophobic by comparison or automotive deathtraps.

Next time: laundry and postmodernism!
smackshack: Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos, but awesome. (Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos)
I've updated my photo album.

My ability to keep up with the tourist death-march flagged a bit today. After walking with Sturdy Helpmeet to Westminster Abbey (which turned out to be closed on Fridays -- d'oh!) we sauntered up Whitehall to the National Gallery. We didn't stay very long; we were both too tired to really take in that much art, and had trouble focusing. We tried again at the National Portrait Gallery, and I had the same problem (although Sturdy Helpmeet did much better).

Then we had lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Wahaca, and it confounded our snooty home-grown Tex-Mexified expectations by being really, really good. We expected something bland, but it was spicy and delicious and authentic in subtle, flavorful ways. In fairness, a lot of Tex-Mex sucks and is an insult to real Mexican food, so there's no intrinsic reason to think the English would be any worse at appropriating the cuisine, aside from England's not being adjacent to Mexico. But even by the standards of good Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and other variations of Mexican food that you can find in the Southwestern USA, Wahaca does a terrific job. Two thumbs up.

Then we visited the Transport Museum of London, which make us strangely grateful that we get to deal with global warming and not with having to wade through rivers of horse-poo to get from point A to point B in the city.

After that I was out of gas. Sturdy Helpmeet kept up the tourist chores while I returned to the bed & breakfast with Sturdy Helpmeet's purchases from the Transport Museum's book shop. (Sturdy Helpmeet <3 infrastructure.)

After some rest and recuperation, we had a lavish dinner at Barbecoa, a restaurant by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang, that claims to serve (among other things) "Texas Pit Smoked" beef and pulled pork (which really isn't Texas, strictly speaking, but hey). The food was delicious, but it bore little resemblance to anything a Texan would call BBQ. The cut of beef wasn't brisket, the sauce for both dishes was way too sweet, and it had no bite and no burn. And the beef was served with baked beans, not BBQ beans. 

But here's the funny thing. It wasn't authentic as far as being BBQ was concerned, but it was real damned tasty, and I'm not sure what to think about that. I mean, if Wahaca can do great Mexican food, then surely someone like Jamie Oliver and his cronies can do real BBQ. On the other hand, if the British wanted to invent their own BBQ tradition -- and if they weren't going to do it with Jamaican jerked meats, which would probably be the way to go, all things considered -- then they could do a lot worse. It's not BBQ, it's Brit-BQ, and it seems to cater to a palette of comfort-food tastes that are distinctly British in some way that I feel like I see dimly, but don't yet fully comprehend.
smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
Brought to you by three-quarters of a bottle of Moet & Chandon, an unlimited supply of Walker's shortbread cookies, and a borrowed European laptop that puts all the \iu9u30 special keys in the wrong \9er987 places. I took more pictures! Some observations...

The Tube. I can see why citizens of Britain get fed up with the Tube during rush hour, but coming as I do from a nation where public transportation is regarded as a communist plot, I think it's wonderful. It's like being able to step into a goddamn transporter beam and come out someplace else new and wonderful every time. 

The Accents. The closest thing I've heard to a canonical Oxbridge or BBC accent was from a guy of Chinese ancestry who was touring the National Theatre with his English girlfriend/acquaintance. Otherwise, speech patterns are all over the map. But I'm beginning to see how they could be used to draw ethnic distinctions in the absence of clear physio-gnomic markers. That, and the hideous, hideous shoes.

The British Museum. A death-march of antiquities, the only question is whether you can see everything before you collapse in a heap and die. But you can't. You're dead. I'm not even typing this shit right now, I've had to possess the body of a Basque backpacker who's staying the night in a friend's room at this bed and breakfast. That said, I may have to go back to see the re-opening of the Japanese exhibit. And I love the room devoted to the Enlightenment---it's basically nonstop steampunk mad-science porn from top to bottom.

And the Rosetta Stone. That's kind of nice. Not to mention the gear from Sutton Hoo. And Babylon. Clean the wax out of your ears: Babylon. Assyria. We're talking some old, old shit here.

It's hilarious, really. You go from the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Saxons, and Renaissance Europe---not to mention the Africans, South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians---to the art, design, and fashion of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it's like: What the fuck happened? The human race used to have such good taste, and suddenly everything is embossed with cherubs and a riot of uselessly decorative crap. And you think, Holy Shit the elitist bastards were right, if you give the peasants a bunch of money and allow them to make art they'll ruin the whole fucking world! And then you shake your head and buy a copy of The Guardian, but the feeling lingers. I tell you, it lingers.

(Oops, I think I accidentally deleted the post referencing the trip to the British Museum. The pictures are still there in Google Plus, but not the post. Damn these drunk-posting fumbly-fingers!)

The British Library. Any culture that erects a six-story bookshelf of precious tomes and puts it in glass, just out of reach, is full of precisely the kind of sado-masochistic language nerds that give me a rampant bibliomaniac hard-on. I'm just sayin'. (And yes, there's an app for that.)

The Banner. I'm marking this photo for special treatment. It's a giant banner hanging from an apartment block behind Victoria Station, and it says, "Be Civil. Disobey." It was in twilight when I noticed it, and I wiggled my way into the parking lot behind the train station in order to find a vantage point from which I could get some kind of photo. The policeman/security guard who accosted me wasn't happy with my presence. "You there!" he shouted. I walked over to him. "Yes? Can I help you?" "No! Can I help you?" "Oh, I'm fine. I just thought the sign over there was charming, so I tried to get a photograph." "Oh ho." "Yes sir, that was all." "Is that it?" "...Yes, that's all it was." He didn't seem to be willing to tell me to go about my business, and I wasn't quite willing to ask if it was all right for me to go about my business. So we ended with a series of half-belligerent "That's all it was?"es and "Is that everything?"s as I slowly backed away and left the parking lot. The poor guy was probably just trying to make sure I didn't steal an employee's bicycle, but I found it hard to sympathize with him at the time.

The Used Book Stores. To call London a "college town" is like calling Moby Dick "a book with a boat." The place is full of interesting little bookstores, and although Sturdy Helpmeet and I have visited several, I expect we'll visit many more. Here's how bookish London is: on the south bank of the Thames between the National Theatre and the Eye---an area festooned with tourists, tourist attractions, and the buskers and tramps that follow---there's an open-air used book sale that has its own plaque mounted on the fucking railing. And not in plywood either. This is a thing.

More jogging. I think it's fair to say that my caloric intake has skyrocketed since I arrived. I'm trying to keep up the exercise---aside from walking around gawping at stuff like Another Goddamned Tourist---but it's difficult.

This evening I did planks and then went for a run in Belgravia. I didn't plan my route in advance, so the second time I found myself in front of Sloane Square Station---thinking that I'd made it back to my bed & breakfast instead---I started to actually pay attention to where I was.

There's a big difference between jogging in Hyde Park at 6 am and jogging on city streets at 7 pm, and that's the fear of death. At 6 am in the park the most dangerous things about appear to be health-conscious yuppies and sleepy geese. If violent perverts lurk in the bushes, then so far they've left the jogging Texan tourists alone. At 7 pm in the evening, by contrast, every vehicle in London actively wants to kill the stupid Yankee who can't remember where the traffic comes from. What started as an enjoyable jaunt became a slightly terrifying quest for recognizable landmarks as I attempted to find Ecclestone St. or Elizabeth St. before I was killed by an impatient cabbie or a growling Mercedes turning right from the (American) left-turn lane.

Nevertheless...I'm not dead yet! London gets to try again tomorrow. :-D

smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
(Crossposted from [community profile] exercise_every_day .)

Thanks to jet lag I was out the door around 5:30 this morning. Jogged to Hyde Park and around the Serpentine, per [personal profile] rydra_wong 's suggestion, got back to the B&B around 7 am. I didn't realize when I booked this room that I was plopping down in the middle of embassy central...I've never seen so many crazy fancy cars in one place (not that I'm complaining). Bentleys, Aston-Martins, Jags are as thick on the ground here as pickup trucks and Hondas in Austin.

I paused during the jog for some calisthenics. 3 sets of: 10 inverted rows (hanging from a guardrail), 20 push-ups, 10 squats. Then back to jogging.

(And I performed a kata for some sleepy geese. They were not impressed.)

I was impressed, however. This is my first time in London, and for an impressionable boy from Texas it's hard to imagine a better way to watch the city slowly wake up in the morning. At one point I could look to the right and see fog hugging green grass like a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then I could look to the right and see the blue curve of the Eye on the horizon, winking at rosy-fingered dawn.

I think I'm in love.


smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

June 2012



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