Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Run for your lives!

As you can see, we barely survived our London weekend, narrowly escaping this monster outside the Tate Modern museum. That's St. Paul's Cathedral across the Thames. Let's hope the creature can't swim. We'll report more on the weekend once the week slows down.--JT
(P.S. If you click on the picture, you can see the sculpture in more detail--and a helicopter in the distance that's coming to drop bombs on the alien monster!)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Minivan Madness

We rented a car the weekend before Thanksgiving so we could visit some Christmas craft markets outside Cambridge and do needed Thanksgiving shopping. Or at least we thought we rented a car, a VW Golf to be specific. So when KT and I walked into the rental company's parking lot and she said, "Oh no, I hope we didn't get that minivan", I quickly responded "No way".


If I have the numbers right, this is the 4th time out of 5 attempts, we've been "upgraded" because the company has so few automatics. The minivan barely fit into our driveway as you can see. It also wasn't the best timing as gas here finally rose above a British pound per liter (more than $8/gallon). I'm just glad we didn't drive far that weekend, although we still spent about $40 in gas.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Make Mine Man-Sized

From the "they think we need it" department ...

When placing an online grocery order recently, I made my usual perusal of the sale items. Tissues were on sale, so I bought four boxes. I didn't read the fine print. When the order arrived, I had four boxes of ...
Kleenex for Men. Now, that photo makes them look no different than other tissues. Maybe comparing to a regular box will help:

They're HUGE. Perhaps the damp, chilly climate makes men's noses particularly runny? And they blow their noses with the force of a jet engine and therefore need more surface area to contain the shrapnel?

I suppose Kleenex for Chronic Sinusitis or Kleenex for That Guy At the Back of the Church Who Sounds Like A Foghorn When He Blows His Nose didn't pass the marketing department.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Walk in the Botanic Garden

No time for writing today -- it's a pretty sunny day, and the daylight is measured in minutes nowadays, so I gotta go. It's not actually measured in minutes, but it sure feels like it. Dark by 4:30 or so, and we've got one more month of that getting earlier and earlier. Sigh.

Anyway, here are some pics from a walk in the botanic garden last week. Even on the down side of the growing season, it's a nice place to visit.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Trip Report: Barcelona, Part 2: Food

(Trip dates: Sept. 21-Oct. 1, and the food porn is here in the food photo album)

In general, the food in Barcelona rocked. Perhaps it might not have been as striking had I just come from the U.S., or, more specifically, D.C., where an embarrassing sum of our disposable income was spent on eating in nice restaurants, and where the legendary meals of our cooking club had just gotten into full swing. Instead, the trip came after 7 months in England, long enough for me to say that everything they say about British food is true. More on that another time, though.

Anyway, Barcelona. Barcelona is in a region called Catalunya, which borders France. Food in this region has its own unique identity, with heavy influence from Spain, France, and Italy. Spain's climate gives it a long growing season, and in late September, the produce was amazing. Its position on the sea means seafood dominates. And, of course, you have the delightful Spanish wine to wash down all that great food.


One of the first restaurants we ate at was Les Quinze Nits, in Placa Reial. They open at 8:30 p.m. and don't take reservations, so a line starts to form before 8. My coworker who lives in Barcelona had suggested the place, so the three of us met her there at 8:15 or so to join the queue. What was most striking was how inexpensive it was. We got the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu -- 11 euros (about US$15).

For a starter I had gazpacho that was absolutely incredible. We'd later get a glimpse at why -- the local produce is phenomenal. Easy to make great food with great ingredients. For a main, AW and I split a paella:

Very rich, very delicious. Other mains on the table: lamb shank and seared tuna. Dessert gave me my first exposure to crema Catalana, a creme brulee-like custardy dessert, only less sweet and less heavy. Here's a recipe on the Spain tourism site; the translation is a little silly, but use your imagination.

The night of the boring reception, we went back to our neighborhood and ate at CheeseMe in the El Borne neighborhood. Yes, unfortunate name. Cheesy, even. But how can you not love a restaurant where every dish includes cheese? We started with a sampler of 10 Spanish cheeses:

The blue (Cabrales, I believe) was probably our favorite. Sadly, we really had no clue what the rest were.

AW had heard about a must-do restaurant that turned out to be about 50 feet from our apartment. It's called Cafe de L'Academia. As soon as you book your flight to Barcelona, your next call should be to book a table at this restaurant. The food was phenomenal and a really good deal for what we ate. We were able to walk in and get a table at a Friday lunch with only a short wait because we really wanted to sit outside. (Inside, we could have been seated immediately.) (Also, sitting outside this restaurant was the scene of the Eyebrow Man Incident.) Pictured are our main courses, and there is a photo of our appetizers in the photo album and dessert is below. I'm not sure we ate anything that was particularly unusual, but everything was so perfectly executed. My main dish is the one at the bottom of the picture: Pounded beef steak with a goat cheese cream drizzle served with pear sauce. Mmm. My appetizer was a rice dish tossed in chili oil, which gave it just that little extra something. They're only open Monday through Friday -- have to appreciate a restaurant willing to forego a Saturday night's income.


Rule: Always eat tapas next to a church. [I could explain that, but I think I'll just leave that open to your own interpretation.]

We had some great tapas, and gee, it sure would be nice if I could remember some of them. Thankfully, I have at least a few pictures to remind me. Here are our tapas from a place called Ciutat Comtal on Rambla Catalunya: clams, ham and cheese croquettes (ubiquitous in Barcelona -- and sooo good), shrimp, fried anchovies, pimientos de Padron (the green peppers), and, on the side plate, tortilla (a potato fritatta, basically) and some pan amb tomaquet, grilled bread with tomato and garlic.

One of our tapas-next-to-a-church outings was to a local chain called Taller de Tapas. I can't remember a thing that we ate there, but that's mostly because of my crappy memory, and also possibly because we were eating at a poorly lit table and so didn't really see much of what we were eating. Thanks to someone on Flikr who took pictures of her food when she ate there, I do remember eating the chorizo sausage cooked in hard cider. Mmm. Anyway, it's a good, reliable meal, so if you come across one of these in Barcelona, give it a try.

One evening, with colleague LR in tow (the one who stole the sign), we wandered down to Bubo, a tapas-and-pastries place in El Born. Part of the fun was trying to communicate: Our waiter Tony didn't speak a word of English. So, it was down to my translation skills. Ha. It turned out to be pretty easy, as the special menu of the evening was six tapas of the chef's choosing, plus a cocktail, snacks, and dessert. So, with all food decisions out of our hands, we were brought plate after delightful plate of tapas, none of which I think we would have chosen organically but all of which were quite good. (Would you like to know what they were? Yeah, well, join the club. I do remember that the snacks were olives, and some sort of salty nuts served with a toffee sauce because salty + sweet = yum.) R did take a picture of our desserts: Nice, huh?

La Boqueria

Lest you think we spent all our time in restaurants, we did eat five dinners at the apartment. Sure, one of those nights we ate nothing but baguettes fresh out of the oven from the corner bakery, cheese, and olives. But man, don't knock it until you try it. Most of our dinners at home featured food from La Boqueria, Barcelona's amazing food market. I only have one picture inside the market because I got irritated at the number of tourists inside taking pictures. I, on the other hand, was there to live like a local, darnit. But man, it was beautiful. To get a flavor of it, do a Google Image search on "la boqueria barcelona," and you'll see what I mean.

The main staples of our at-home meals were bread, tomatoes, cheese, olives, and occasionally some serrano ham or baby chorizo sausages. The bread tended to be baguettes, although our best loaf came from a woman selling dense whole wheat loaves out of a basket on the side of an alley during the festival. We never saw her again. Oh, man, that was some bread.

The tomatoes were quite clearly in season, tasted amazing, and were very cheap. One day I bought three huge tomatoes from a woman off the side of La Boqueria. "Veintiocho centavos," she says. My brain simply couldn't process that. I handed her 78 cents. "No no no," she says, and hands me back 50 cents. So, these beautiful tomatoes cost a whopping 28 cents. And they tasted like sunshine.

The cheese ranged from goat cheese we bought from a mysterious cheese market that seemed to appear purely for our benefit, to the local Spanish specialty, manchego cheese. (Also some delicious fresh cow's milk cheese that I can't remember -- borrata? Borgato? Something like that. If you find it, GET IT, and eat with fresh tomatoes. Mmmm.)

The olives were amazing, too. We got some that were in a marinade that was on the edge of too spicy but were so good we ate them anyway. And the ham? Oh, the ham. The meat vendors in La Boqueria had the whole ham -- the bone-in, knee-to-hip (do pigs have hips?) ham -- hanging from the rafters. You tell him how much you want and he slices it right off the ham. Now, some of this was 175 euros per kilogram. We're talking serious ham here. We settled for a nice 75 euro/kg one, and got 5 euros' worth. SO good.

And finally, we actually ate a meal in La Boqueria. It was at the very popular lunch counter of El Quim. It's apparently a mother, father, and son operation, and they must all get along famously because they deftly and quickly move around each other in maybe a 9-foot by 5-foot space -- cooking, doing dishes, and serving customers. Basically they walk around La Boqueria to do their shopping, fry things up, and serve them for lunch. Doesn't get any fresher than that.

This was our first introduction to pimientos de Padron, small green peppers that grow only in Spain. They get sauteed in olive oil until the skin is a bit charred, and are served warm and heavily salted. The heat in the peppers apparently varies widely, but the ones we had were nothing but delicious.

Our main meal here ... well, this is going to be a hard sell for some of you. Namely anyone related to me or JT. But here goes: chipirones, or baby squid, sauteed in garlic and some chilli pepper, and served over a fried egg. Oh, so good.

Our dessert from Cafe d' Academia. And dessert means el fin.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ode to Boobs

Before seeing Elizabeth: The Golden Age on Friday, we were treated to 27 minutes of commercials and previews. (Seriously.) One of the commericals was ... eyebrow raising? Moderately shocking? Rather funny? Slightly baffling? It's a public service announcement about breast cancer.

Fair warning: If you're at work, make sure it doesn't matter if someone walks by and sees a topless woman on your computer monitor.

Also, DEAR PERVERTS WHO GOOGLED "FILTHY NAKED LADIES" AND ENDED UP HERE (what, you think I don't look at my referrer stats? Think again.): You ended up at the wrong place. The post you're looking for is this one, and it's about football and contains no naked ladies. So there.

Anyway, back to the video. What do you think? Can you picture that on American TV or at the cinema?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Are you ready for some football? U-NI-TED

For those who get this blog by email or who have trouble seeing the football field, here's the link

Most of you reading this blog probably haven't played all that much with the satellite image map in the right column. It's from wikimapia, the same folks who bring you wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Basically, it's a stunningly clear satellite image on which people can mark objects and attach descriptions of comments (A nice blog entry explaing some basics is here. I simply like zooming in and out of Cambridge, looking at the aerial view of things I normally see from ground level. For example, when I looked at our house, I noticed the image was taken right at the start of construction of the new apartments across the street--the site is cleared but no building yet.

In any case, one day I was looking at Coldhams Common, a parklike area where the recreational leagues play soccer. Since I didn't quite know where the fields were I looked at the wikimapia and was amused to find an American football field marked off next to the soccer fields. After a bit of Googling this morning, I discovered there's a British American football league and our area fields a team, the Cambridgeshire Cats. They apparently play during the summer--their last game was a few weeks ago--so I'll have to wait til 2008 to attend a game and report back.

For those following the Amber Wave, the UK form of football, KT and I yesterday attended Cambridge United's amazing come-from-behind victory, 2-1, over Aldershot ("Sit down! Shut up! Aldershot!" was one of the non-obscene Cambridge chants). This was the first round of the FA Cup, which is England's famously democratic tournament where almost any team in the nation can qualify and play against the big boys, even Premier League teams like Manchester United. Cambridge had won its qualifying matches and drew a home game in the first round, the first FA cup match at home in many years. They also drew Aldershot who happen to be the top team in our own league. It was a very entertaining match and today at 5pm they draw for who plays who in the next round. The Premier League teams get byes for another round, I believe, but Cambridge could certainly play a team from the league or two above. Sometimes the lower league teams make quite a run. It would be like a single A minor league baseball team ending up in the Major League baseball playoffs, or George Mason University making the Final Four in college basketball. Hope for a miracle (and another home game)!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Trip Report: Barcelona, Part 1: The Sights

To recap: This was ostensibly a business trip for me, KT. The meeting was 3.5 days. I was there for 10. Heh. Also: It was September. I don't recommend trying to write about trips 6 weeks after they happened.

We had no idea we'd be in Barcelona during La Mercè, a many-day festival that honors the patron saint of Barcelona (or something). I flew in from Lisbon, AW flew in from DC, and RT flew in from Germany. After a couple hours of catching up and an additional hour of napping, we thought we'd head out and find some dinner, and maybe see if we could find the source of the merriment we could dimly hear from our apartment. Two blocks from our apartment, we came to this:

Starting Procession of La Merce from dceditors on Vimeo.

The giant puppets make multiple appearances throughout La Mercè, and move by a single person stepping inside it and lifting the entire structure up on their shoulders. We stayed and watched fire dancers and more puppets dancing, and it all ended with fireworks being shot off the top of city hall. Fun!

Throughout the following four days we encountered several parades, and stumbled onto plazas with huge stages with music and dancing, and we came across the occasional arts and crafts festival. It was incredible! I later talked to an acquaintance who used to live there, and he says we definitely got to see Barcelona at it's most vibrant. I am in general opposed to crowds, but Barcelona can handle it.

If you're not there during such merriment, you will still have plenty to do. Perhaps the most striking thing about Barcelona is the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Well, actually it's the architecture in general -- Barcelona put some serious effort into making its city streets ooze with Catalan culture. Gaudí designed buildings that stand out, like Casa Batlló, for example. His buildings were built around the turn of the century during the Modernisme movement, an Art Nouveau variant. We toured this house, and it was incredible! Lots more pictures in my photo album.

Another major site is Parc Guell, famous for its mosaic benches and, well, tiled mosaic everything. It's a ways out of the main downtown area, but it's a pretty park. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon here, finding some shade and chatting for a good long while, while a Cuban man lazily playing the trumpet provided the background music.

Gaudí's most famous building is surely Sagrada Familia. It's tough to know where to start to explain Sagrada Familia. Here's a good, still brief, description of the history and construction of Sagrada Familia. Even more briefly, though, Gaudi took over construction in 1883 on the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia -- the sacred family. It ultimately became his life's work and indeed his obsession for the last years of his life. There are some parts of it that are truly phenomenal and others that make you wonder if he was a little off his rocker. Construction continues today, and the architects say that it will be completed in 25 years. I think that's optimistic. Gaudi also didn't have blueprints and was making it up as he went along, so there are some parts of it that are extrapolated or inferred by contemporary artists and architects. The Passion Facade was completed in the late 1980s -- its angular figures often seen as controversial. It was an incredible site. Pay the extra money for a guided tour, and allow plenty of time to study the building's intricacies.

Besides Sagrada Familia, there is Barcelona's actual Cathedral, the one that's been there for, oh, 700 or so (and it's been the site of a church since 343 A.D.), and it's breathtaking in its own right. Literally. Right when we walked in, I had to step aside and catch my breath. Perhaps the presence of Catholic saints or something, but it was also for its beauty. Worth a visit, for sure.

After A's parents arrived, we took a day trip up to Montserrat, or the "serrated mountain." It's a couple of hours by multiple trains to get there, but the views were breathtaking. Thankfully, we were there on a gorgeous day. Montserrat has been the site of a monastery since at least the 9th century, and it still is home to Benedictine monks. The basilica is gorgeous, and it houses La Moreneta -- the dark maiden. The legend is that it was brought to Montserrat in AD 50 by St. Peter, but carbon dating suggests it was made in the 12th century.

Toward the end of our stay (my and R's stay, anyway; A and her parents stayed for an extra week), us three ladies had an evening out at Palau Musica Catalana, where we saw Spanish guitarrist Manuel Gonzalez. The concert hall itself is gorgeous. It was completed in 1908, during the height of the Modernisme movement. It's perhaps most famous for its incredible stained glass dome. It was an incredible concert in incredible surroundings, and really made us feel like we lived and breathed Barcelona.

(The video is really tiny because there's not much to see; it's more of a listening clip.)

The truth is, though, we didn't even come close to seeing everything. We never made it to the beach, never saw the Olympic village, didn't go to any museums (including the Picasso Museum or the National Art Museum (MNAC), which supposedly houses the world's largest collection of Romanesque art), didn't go into the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar despite walking by it a dozen times, and didn't go to Parc de la Ciutadella. So, there's plenty to see when we go back, and I can't wait to go back.

Some brief trip notes: We got our bearings -- and indeed, just got around -- on the sightseeing bus. I highly recommend this. Also, the main language is Catalan, not Spanish. That was somewhat of a surprise when I learned that 5 weeks into my 10 week Spanish refresher course. (Aside: I just got a certificate in the mail. Apparently I have Grade 6 proficiency in Spanish. I beg to differ -- I'm sure it's worse. Evidence: the time I asked for 3 extra knives -- instead of spoons -- to share my gazpacho.) However, knowing some Spanish was definitely handy.

Since we were going to be there for so long, we rented an apartment. No, it wasn't perfect, and when you furnish an entire apartment from Ikea, there's bound to be some (or many) broken things. But it was overall fantastic, I'm sure saved us money in the long run over a hotel, and the location couldn't have been more perfect. Also, my south Europe counterpart for work lives in Barcelona, and a friend of A's lived there for 4 years, so we came armed with insane amounts of advice. That was a big help, too. At the same time, there is so much to do and see in Barcelona that you really can't go wrong. I will suggest, though, that you walk Las Ramblas once to say you did, use it to get to La Boqueria, but don't bother hanging around there anymore than that. Off the beaten path -- even one block off Las Ramblas -- and you get a far better experience than the crowds and tourist traps.

Wondering why there's no food mentioned here? That, my friends, is a post of its own. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Poor Pete--"I'm Gutted"

I'm intimidated by the idea of the 50 mile London to Cambridge trip so this 57 year-old man puts me to shame and his luck is so bad it's hard not to laugh reading this Cambridge Evening News story.

Peter Woor, 57, was cycling the 263 miles to Torquay to watch his beloved Cambridge United when he was in collision with a truck near Hatfield.
He was heading west ahead of his team's match against Torquay United on Saturday.

He suffered bruising to his ribs and cuts - and his bike was a write-off. To add to his woes, his other bike was stolen from outside the Kingston Arms in Kingston Street the next day.

Peter has not had much luck recently in following the Us. As the News reported, he made a gruelling 170-mile trek to watch his heroes in September - but was locked out of Altrincham FC's ground. The lab worker in the haematology department of Addenbrooke's Hospital finally got in and caught the last 20 minutes, but he missed Cambridge United's three goals.

He said: "I haven't had the best of luck. I was cycling between Hatfield and Luton when the lorry hit me....Friday was not my day as I found out that my other bike was stolen as was my friend's machine. They were parked outside the pub but the thieves had cut the cables. It's a double whammy. I won't be going to any games for a bit. My body is in bad shape and my bikes have gone. I'm gutted."

The pedalling fan has cycled 8,000 miles to 56 different grounds to support his team. He combines his two loves - football and cycling and travels 10,000 miles a year on his bikes, competing every year in a cycling event in Italy.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire Night. We remember, remember the fifth of November, because it's the day in 1605 that Catholic radical Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators did NOT blow up the Houses of Parliament in protest of King James I's Protestant England.

The infamous Gunpowder plot was discovered the day before it was meant to happen, and Fawkes was eventually tried and executed. So, to celebrate, Brits blow up fireworks and have bonfires. Isn't it ironic. (In fact, the irony reminds me of this line from Sarah Vowell's Partly Cloudy Patriot: "It is curious that we Americans have a holiday -- Thanksgiving -- that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parents' lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It's as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets.")

The villages around Cambridge have had fireworks for what feels like daily for the past week or more, and tonight was the big climax: an awesome fireworks display, a carnival, and a bonfire. Impressive!

Our First Black Tie Dinner in Cambridge

The invitation came pretty late -- like, Monday for the Saturday event. The Magazine was one of the sponsors, and the usual representative for such things couldn't go. JT forwarded me the invite -- Cambridge University Scientific Society, annual dinner, Nobel prize winner as after-dinner speaker, blah blah blah. Sure, sounds fun, I said. I guessed it would be an excuse to dress up, get a good meal, and chat with the old-guard scientists of Cambridge.

Minor detail: the society is a student society. Everyone was 20 years old. Or maybe 19. The only old-guard scientist was the speaker, who, it turns out, JT and I had just seen at the meeting in Lisbon. (For those keeping score, it's Nobel prize winners interviewed/met - JT: 30, he reckons; KT: 4. )

It turned out to be a lovely evening. Boy, these kids are driven. Like, crazy driven. Third-year science students (so, juniors in the U.S.) are choosing their specialty for their fourth year research projects. (Research projects?!) Medical school starts at 18 and goes for 8 years. I talked to three students (undergraduates) who will be presenting posters at an upcoming meeting.

We were seated across from the man who founded the society 12 years ago as a student, and his wife, who's a teacher at a local private school. I was sitting next to a very nice young man who's a fourth-year medical student from Malaysia. JT sat next to a charming American woman doing her PhD in cell division. Also close to us was a woman from Denmark who's reading (that's what they say here instead of "majoring in" or "studying") physics and math. (They also say "maths" instead of "math", but that makes the editor in me twitch, so I shall refrain from using it here.)

Dinner was a four-course affair, delicious and ended with the traditional glasses of port (and way too many profiteroles!). Here's what the hall looked like:

We were in one of the new colleges, called, um, New Hall, founded in 1954 as a women's college. It's still a women-only college -- one of three, among the 31 total colleges at Cambridge.
And you often see Cambridge students in at least a coat and tie, or a nice dress -- standard dress code for dining in the formal dining hall, which students do about once a week -- so it wasn't much of a stretch for them to be in tuxedos and cocktail dresses. It was, however, a rare event for us, and we were lookin' mighty fine, if I do say so myself :

JT comment: Well, my wife looked stunning in her new dress, but due to the late invitation, the rental tux I got was a bit ill-fitting--overly long sleeves on the jacket, for example. Living here and in DC, I should just buy one!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Happy Halloween!

... a day late. I know, I know. And we haven't posted in more than a week. I'm still trying to finish my dang trip report from Barcelona a month ago, and we've been to Strasbourg since then, too. The good news is we have NO TRIPS PLANNED as of now. (At least, not until I buy these here plane tickets, hmm.) So, since you can't read about our trips just now, go read about Two Crabs' camping trip around Europe, or John Kelly's trip around western England. (Both of those guys are also American journalists living in England.) Kelly also managed to write a pre-Halloween Halloween post, and a post-Halloween Halloween post. There. I need not say more.

I should spend some more time in the evening working on posts, but I'm too busy thinking about ironing (and not doing it), not reading all the newspapers I ask JT to buy, and not planning more trips. We are, however, watching a little more TV. Our latest fave is BBC's Classical Star, where young classical musicians are competing for a record deal. These kids are intense. Also nice: The show is 5 weeks long. Five episodes. An hour a week. None of this American Idol 3 times a week for 3 weeks of auditions, then 900 more weeks of bad performances. We here in the UK can watch the episodes from that link; let me know if you can watch them in the US. Good stuff.

Alright. Since I clearly have nothing to say, look at some pictures:

Dahlias in bloom a couple of weeks ago out at Angsley Abbey:

Fall in full swing in Cambridge:

And a quiz -- can you guess what's for dinner?

Will get to work on being more interesting. Right after tea.