Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I Miss

People ask all the time what I miss from the U.S. Our friends and family, of course. "What else?" is the inevitable next question. Nothing, really. (JT interjects, "TiVo!!") I mean, our lives are so rich in other ways (J: "Football!!") that there's not really time to miss anything ("TEEEEEVVVOOOOO!!").
While we were in Strasbourg this week, I realized that there is something I miss: warm water. That is, turning on a faucet, making some adjustments, and having the water coming out of a single tap at a perfect 98 degrees.

Ahhh, the bold look of Kohler.

Instead, I have this:

The nightly facewash involves darting my hands back and forth quickly between the two taps. If I can't be bothered to do that, I have the choice of freezing cold or scalding hot (I'm not sure, but I think our hot water may be freshly boiled). Even doing the dishes in the kitchen has hazards. Yes, there's actually one tap (but two knobs) for that one. But check this out:

(Ignore the crud around the faucet; it's hard water residue. So, crud, I suppose.) (Also, yes, that is a moldy water damage spot on the ceiling, an ongoing point of argument with the property managers. The spot resulted from the fact that the 2nd floor bathtub overflow, rather than flowing back down into the drain, actually literally overflows down the side of the tub, 'round to the other side of the bathroom, and down through the floor/ceiling. I say they should fix the tub; they say they'll paint over the spot.)

Anyway, back to the kitchen faucet. As you can see, it has two sides -- one for the hot water, and one for the cold water. They're decently mixed by about 4 inches below the faucet, but any higher and you get two distinct streams of water.

So forgive me if I splash around in your sink for a little longer than normally acceptable when I visit. It's the little things I miss.

What we don't miss:

Grape jam.

I know, I know. We told all of you about how Europe doesn't do grape jam. They import everything else -- Starbucks, McDonalds, Old El Paso, Budweiser, even Skippy in laughably tiny jars -- but no grape jam. The thing is, dear wonderful, fabulous friends and family that you are, oh how we love you so, you ALL SEND GRAPE JAM.

So, at least for now, please save your pennies on shipping -- and your jam. We've got a healthy stash. (JT: Psst, that's only a 4-month supply. Spring visitors: bring jam.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Trip Report: Lisbon, Portugal

Trip dates: Sept. 16-20; Full photo album here

Both of us were heading to Lisbon to cover a conference. We originally intended to get there a few days early to visit the picturesque Sintra, west of Lisbon. However, after our somewhat spontaneous trip to Alicante, we decided to get there just a day early and focus on Lisbon.

Somehow this trip, which had been in the works for nearly a year, crept up on us. I had done my usual preparation of absolutely nothing, and JT had done his usual prep of printing out every article in internet existence on Lisbon. I skimmed one of our charity shop guidebooks cover to cover on the plane, plus all the articles he had printed. I brushed up on my Portugese "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry," "where's the bathroom," and "two beers please" (language fluency, by KT's Rules), and landed in Lisbon late Saturday afternoon with some confidence that I knew enough to fill in the small breaks around the conference.

We got to our hotel (Novotel, which was a fantastic business hotel, but not near downtown), got changed, and headed for the metro stop. We weren't in central Lisbon, but we were on a metro line that went straight there. After paying all of 75 cents (euro cents, that is) each for our ride, we were on our way on Lisbon's extremely clean, punctual metro.

I navigated us to Cervejaria da Trindade, a beer hall in a former monastery. We had to wait a bit, but we were rewarded with nice atmosphere, good food, and cold beer. We left there in search of the Solar do Vinho do Porto--the port wine institute. We found the address--and closed 12-foot-high doors that had graffiti on them. We were victims of an out-of-date guidebook, we decided. So, we thought we'd descend the hill from Barrio Alto via the Gloria Elevador--a tramcar that does the hill work for you--but alas, that was closed, too. So we walked down the hill and had a pleasant walk windowshopping and marvelling at sights.

The next day, we set out for the Basilica de Estrela on foot, which looked to be a mile, mile and a half walk. What the map didn't show were the giant hills along the way. Lisbon is built on seven hills--very big hills. Us here in the fenland aren't used to such serious climbing. The tiled buildings along the way gave us something to distract us, but it was quite a hike. We were rewarded, though, with the beautiful basilica, which was enchanting both inside and out. We got there just as Sunday mass was starting, so we sat in the back quietly for 5 or 10 minutes, and then snuck out for a pretty walk in the Jardin de Estrela.

From there we caught the historic Tram #28, which takes you through the most historic districts of Lisbon. The tram cars are yellow on the outside, wooden on the inside, and a welcome break from having to climb hills on foot. We rode the tram up to the Castelo da Sao Jorge. Lisbon was born on this site -- a strategic location on a hill that overlooks the River Tagus. The castle was built up by the Romans, then Visigoths, then Moors, then finally Afanso Henriques, Portugal's first king, drove out the Moors in 1147. Most of the structure that remains dates from the 12th to 15th centuries.

We walked back down, stopping at the Se cathedral on the way. The cathedral was begun in 1150. In the back courtyard, archaeologists have dug up structures and remains that go all the way back to 400 B.C. Very cool.

After a walk to the Praca do Comercial, we hopped in a cab back to the hotel. Our conference began that evening, so the next two and a half days were business. The conference itself took place at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, one of Lisbon's best museums. That we, unfortunately, did not see. Instead we were stuck in the museum's conference facilities for most of the time. The most striking thing I can say about them is that you can still smoke inside. Seems so weird these days.

Our meeting wrapped up on Wednesday, and we both worked that afternoon. That evening, we decided to make another attempt at the Solar do Vinho do Porto, this time asking the hotel staff to call ahead. Sure enough, they were open. So we hopped in another cab and headed back to Barrio Alto to find the port bar most definitely open. We were handed a book of the different ports--all incredibly cheap. Awesome! We liked this place a lot and would definitely go back. Also: The Gloria Elevador was now working as well. Excellent!

After our port apertifs, we headed to a fado restaurant. Fado, uniquely Portugese, is "a melancholoy form of traditional singing accompanied by guitar." We ended up in a decidedly tourist trap fado restaurant, but enjoyed ourselves anyway.

The next day, JT headed back to London. I used my last day to go to Belem, a half-hour tram ride west of central Lisbon. First stop: Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos. The monastery and its attached church were absolutely breathtaking. The church was built in 1502 in honor of Vasco da Gama's successful voyage to the West Indies.

I walked along the river for a bit, visiting the Padrao dos Descobrimentos and the Torre de Belem. Then I heard the deep, booming whistle of a ship's horn. I turned to see the Queen Mary 2 leaving port. I watched for probably a half an hour as the ship made its way under Lisbon's grand suspension bridge and down the river to the sea. Very cool.

I headed back to Lisbon and decided to treat myself to a nice dinner in the main plaza where I could people-watch and write out postcards. I did have a great time, and when I was nearly finished with my dinner, a woman who I'd met at the conference walked by and waved. Her name was Olga and was from Russia. She had spent the day sightseeing with another conference attendee, Boris. (Also from Russia.) (Also, I am not making this up.) They sat down with me and we all had another drink. It ended up being a rather nice visit. My favorite part was talking about how cold it gets in Siberia, where Olga lives. I said to her, "you must have to dress in a lot of layers." Her response, which you must say out loud in a thick Russian accent: "Like a cabbage."

I left for Barcelona the next day, which you will hopefully get to read about soon. Overall I liked Lisbon, but will probably only return if business takes me there. It was an interesting trip from a personal perspective, though. Lisbon was the first non-English-speaking city I ever went to, on a business trip in 2001. This time, as I walked around on my last day, some of my first trip came back to me, but it was more like deja vu than memories. We even stayed at the same hotel I stayed at six years ago--and I don't remember it at all. I do remember eating at McDonalds on day 3 or so, because in the previous days I was served food I didn't recognize--and didn't like. I remember just going from the hotel to the conference center each day and spending the evenings at the hotel. I remember that I only took a half-day or so to venture into the city and go to the few "must-dos" in my tour book.

This was a striking contrast to this time, when I led us downtown on the metro within an hour of getting to Lisbon. We wandered around the city to get our bearings, something we now do whenever we visit a new city. I confidently asked strangers if they spoke English or Spanish. I ate more food I didn't recognize, and this time ordered it on purpose. These days, not only do I seek out the most important sites, I also take walks in neighborhoods just to see what life is like in that city.
Who says people don't change.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Advantage to not having Thanksgiving:

No reason to wait to put up Christmas decorations!

They're up all around the city, too, but not lit yet. I'll post more pics when they are. Yay! Christmas in October!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Wanna Buy a Lighthouse?

We found ourselves in Hunstanton today, a small town on the water about 60 miles due north of Cambridge. From a quarter of a mile away, I say, "Oooh, look at the lighthouse! Wouldn't it be fun to live in a lighthouse?"

We get closer and, lo, it's for sale.

Yes, for the low, low price of 695,000 pounds, you can have a 4-bedroom lighthouse (well, the bedrooms aren't in the lighthouse) with this view:

The real estate listing is here. I think it needs some work. But! Imagine the possibilities!


We had a fun day. JT's sister N is in town, so we took advantage of the weekend, hopped in the car, and drove north. Our first stop is one of our favorites, Ely Cathedral, where anyone who visits us for longer than 3 days is likely to be taken. It turns out it was the Ely Harvest Festival, so we got treated to a gorgeous array of autumn flower arrangements in the cathedral, and an extry special farmer's market added on to the usual Saturday market. We ate street food and millionaires, and I bought a pumpkin.

Next up were the ruins of Castle Rising, built around 1140 by a man who needed to feel important. (Not kidding. Brochure: "...was built around 1140 by William D'Albini to show his increased importance on his marriage to Alice of Louvian, widow of Henry I.")

Also from the brochure: "In its time Rising has served as a hunting lodge, royal residence, and for a brief time in the eighteenth century even housed a mental patient." We think that last one must be quite a story. *A* mental patient? The castle does have a mighty big moat. I suppose that could work both to keep people out and keep people (or person, as it were) in.
Anyway, we didn't tour the castle, just stopped by, because we were on our way to:

Sandringham, the Norfolk retreat of Her Majesty The Queen. The royal family spends Christmas here, arriving in mid-December and staying through mid-February.

We got to tour the ground level -- drawing rooms, sitting rooms, dining room, and ballroom. All were lovely, and you can stand there as long as you want and ask the very knowledgeable guides as many questions as you can think of, and they will answer. We talked to one man about some china cabinets, and how they have books of photos of all the cabinets so when they clean them, they can check against a photograph that everything's back in its place. Apparently HMTQ has a freakish photographic memory and will notice when knicknacks aren't where she left them. The year before.

There's a museum on the site as well that houses many of the Royal family's past cars, even the first motor car owned by the Royal family, a 1900 Daimler Phaeton.

We left there and made our way up to Hunstanton, part of which is cheesy, amusement-park-y, so we kept driving until the lighthouse.

So, that's a cathedral, a farmer's market, a castle, a royal residence, British coastline, and a pub dinner all in one day. Any of you who visit in future may get this same agenda because it sure was fun. After all our travels in September, I'm very happy to be back home--in England.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Tres Chickas En Barcelona

Synopsis: Three American women rent an apartment in Barcelona. What could possibly go wrong?

Characters: AW, the editor from DC who has been peed on by a goat; RT, the well-traveled freelancer from the Bay area; and KT, the expat who looks at you blankly when asked, "Where are you from?"

Run time: 10 days.

Best lines:
AW: "That lady looked annoyed when I shoved her."

RT: Anyone want to go out to dinner with Lilly flacks?
KT: Who's Lilly Flacks?

.... and about 10 million more.

A favorite scene:

The one at the restaurant where KT surreptitiously points her camera backwards while AW looks at the screen to direct the taking of a photo of a man with completely irrational eyebrows

A scene repeated throughout:
Waiter brings something to our table in a restaurant.
KT: [says thank you in Portugese.]
RT: [says thank you in German.]
AW: [says thank you in Mandinka,]


We're all science journalists and were in Barcelona to cover a cancer conference. We each live 3,000 to 7,000 miles away from the others and see each other a few times a year. On day 3 or so, we met up with a colleague who insisted our situation was a sitcom. We decided we could at least get a pilot out of it. I wish I could think of more of our funny lines from the trip, but more than anything, it was 10 days of laughing -- sometimes at nothing in particular. The detailed overview of the sightseeing portion of the trip will come soon. For me, though, this trip was made exponentially better by getting to experience it with friends. Thanks, ladies - I had a blast.

RT, AW, and KT on top of Casa Batllo, designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona, Spain

Sunday Roast, Michigan-style

As we've explained earlier in the blog, Sunday roast is the UK equivalent of America's Sunday brunch and Peter and Leslie put out a juicy pork roast yesterday after the Lions beat Da Bears--the fuzzy camera phone picture gives you a hint of how good the food was (All that was missing from an English roast was the Yorkshire pudding). Combine that tasty food with visiting family, nice wine, my mom's peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, and a Lions victory and it was a perfect Sunday. Saturday night's dinner at my brother's steakhouse and wine bar was equally delicious and decadent--I need to get back to UK-sized portions of food!--jt