Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Day London Shook in Fear!

Ok, so the title is a bit extreme, but I'm guessing what the UK tabloids will be blaring on their front page tomorrow--England, including the London and Cambridge area, did suffer a modest earthquake around 1am last night, but most people slept through it. We did.

On to more important news. My favorite story today is this one about an English aristocrat named Benjamin Slade who is using DNA testing to find an heir for his fortune, which includes a rather large mansion. Here's an outrageous excerpt outlining some of his concerns about who can be his heir:

"I have said that drug-takers are out, which upset the people of Amsterdam where the entire population seems to be on drugs," he explained. "I have also said that I don't want a communist, because they would give it all away and because I don't think Stalin was any good, or Castro.

"I don't want homosexuals, because they don't breed. I don't want Guardian readers, because this is a Guardian-free household. Independent readers are marginal.

"I had an email from Papua New Guinea and sent them a reply. I'd rather like to go there, although there aren't any Slades in Papua New Guinea, but I do worry about getting eaten or speared. So I sent them an email saying, 'Do your women have bones in their noses and if they have them how then can I give them a bit of tonguey?

Oh my! Is it April Fool's Day already? The funniest part. This story was in the Independent, whose readers, according to Slade, are "marginal".--jt

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Brussels redux

Here's our Brussels' photoalbum

KT gave you a rundown of her brave sampling of street stall snails and other fair food in Brussels but we haven't told you much more about our 4 day vacation there right after Christmas. The Christmas market was indeed the highlight of the trip. It snaked through much of the city center and included a huge Ferris wheel and large outside skating rink (with a beer garden next to it to make one even more unsteady on skates). I think our favorite part, however, was watching the two amazing carousels. They were both so much more creative than anything I've seen in the U.S. Balloons and rocket ships went up and down, insects flapped their wings, etc. Check out the video--don't you wish you were a little kid again (hmm, check back again later--video not loading properly).

Brussels carousel from dceditors on Vimeo.

We also enjoyed jazz twice in Brussels. Once, after a dinner at a great Italian restaurant next door (La Boule Rouge), we went to the Music Village club for some traditional jazz from a group covering Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald songs. The other show was a 5pm concert at L'Archiduc, an art deco jazz club that dates back to 1937. An unusual round space with a 2nd balcony level encircling the club, the venue had a very retro feel, highlighted by the outside buzzer that visitors had to use to be granted access. The jazz couldn't have been more different from the previou snight--a trio of what looked like university students played jazz versions of various pop and rock songs (including a Nirvana song!). Still very cool.

One day we ventured outside the city center to the Basilica Koekelberg, the sixth largest church in the world. Built to celebrate Belgian Independence, the church (right) was hosting an exhibit on the life, art and science of Leonardo Da Vinci. Since it's an active church, the place wasn't designed to host such an event and the exhibit rooms were a bit claustrophobic at time. Still, one could not but be impressed by Da Vinci's amazing life. The English audio guide was nice but we wish we could have read all the exhibit signs, which were in Flemish and French.

Another unusual stop on this trip was Brussel's famous Musical Instruments Museum--housed in a beautiful 1877 building that used to be a department store--that displays thousands of, uh, musical instruments. The most innovative aspect of the museum is that visitors wear infrared headphones and when they walk near many of the instruments, music played on them is heard. A highly recommend stop for anyone visiting Brussels--and the penthouse restaurant has glorious views as well.

MIM (left) and one of its many odd musical instruments.

The MIM wasn't the oddest stop on our vacation. We also went to the Atomium, whose website labels it "the most astonishing building in the world". Celebrating its 50th anniversary, this 10 story-high structure mimics an iron crystal and was built for the 1958 World Exposition. It's recently been cleaned up and one can travel through its tubes and sphere via stairs or escalators. School classes can even spend the night in one of the spheres. If you haven't guessed yet, it's the picture at the top of this post.

Since we expect we'll visit Brussels again, it was nice not to rush to do ever thing. We sampled the great Belgian beers and chocolates, scrutinized the beautiful buildings around the Grand Place, strolled a neighborhood looking at Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings (with the European Parliament's modern glass buildings in the background). Just a 3 hour train ride away, Brussels will see us soon.--JT

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Aix marks the spot

Now that our travels--KT to Texas and Boston and myself to Michigan--are over and we can catch our breath, it's time to catch up on a few posts. We never did finish off our Provence trip from January (posts here, here and here). We decided Wednesday would be a slow day, so we didn't do much more than read and relax--I ended up reading all of Peter Mayles books--A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and Encore Provence . We did head over to explore the nearby village of Callas--more closed shops and restaurants--and visit their local olive oil mill where KT stocked up on gifts.

But we were saving energy for our big adventure Thursday to Aix-en-Provence (pronounced X-in-Provence), which all the guidebooks hail as the perfect Provencal city. It was about a 2 hour drive away and, after paying quite a few euros in tolls on the French highway system, we made it there around 11am.

Aix-en-Provence is big enough that it has markets everyday but Thursday is one of the Provencal market days, which means food stalls everywhere. We eagerly and quickly strolled through them--the markets close not long after noon--buying cheese, dried sausage sticks (mmm), cookies and more. Given the bright sunny day, we sat down on the steps of a nearby building and, like many others around us, basked in the warmth while we nibbled on some of the food. Aix-en-Provence is a university town of around the same size as Cambridge and given how closed rural Provence had been, we were ecstatic to see open stores, bakeries, and restaurants everywhere. And fashionably dressed people flooded the city--to my mind, Aix was a perfect Paris-lite (most of the good stuff of Paris without the density, traffic, etc).

After wandering around a bit, and having lunch at one of the many OPEN restaurants, KT played guide and took us on a walking tour that included ruins of the city's original hot springs (now the site of a fancy spa that uses the warm waters), a mansion used by some local official's mistress (picture of me at top is at the front door), and a Catholic cathedral dating back to Roman times. The church has had many additions since then--and now houses a beautiful organ (right). Afterwards, as the sun was setting and a cold wind began blowing, we stopped and had some hot chocolate and coffee in one of the many outdoor cafes dotting the city. Rather than rushing home to uncertain dinner we thought it sensible to stay in a place where restaurants actually were OPEN. After looking at menus throughout the city--French restaurants by law have to post their menus--we settled on a lovely restaurant called Le Bistrot Latin, where we dined on a spectacular and beautifully presented 3-course meal for about half the price of what it would cost in Washington DC. We had spotted the menu on our own and then noticed the NYTimes and another guidebook had recommended the place. This blog writer also had a equally delightful experience and you can see some of the food's presentation at her write-up. The profiteroles I had were an amazing dessert.
We made it back to Claviers late, which already put our Friday plans to visit Gorges du Verdon, France's Grand Canyon, at risk, but KT woke up feeling sick (I suspect the mushroom pizza slice from the street stall she got in Aix!). So another day of rest and reading in our stone house. I explored Claviers a bit more and found the local cemetery and its memorial to those who had died in World World I (left) and also a monument to those who fought in the resistance (right).

When you think how small the village was then and how many people they lost, it's humbling. KT learned after our trip that the father of one of her uncles had parachuted during World War II into the area where we were staying (This ambitious plan to win back souther France from Germany was called Operation Dragoon).

Saturday morning, we glanced at Claviers weekly market (only about 5 stalls--meat, fruits & vegetables, fish, eggs, etc) and the sped off for the airport. We arrived in Toulon with extra time so we pulled off into the rocky beach just outside the airport and basked in the sun one last time as we looked out over the Mediterranean sea.

Things I'll remember about Provence: the distinctive iron lattice bell towers on churches, the great meals when we could find them, excellent rose wine, mountain switchback roads, beautiful stone houses (such as ours), the mad dog that chased out of a village, food markets.


Here's a short video KT took of the mountain village we stayed in:

Claviers house and village from dceditors on Vimeo.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Go Green

Jesus Green, photo from the Cambridge2000 photolibrary

(I figured I should do my own one year anniversary post. I started this entry back in November after a bike ride on a warm, sunny fall day. I decided to finish it Saturday after another great bike ride, albeit on a 38 degree, sunny day. Despite the frigid weather, college crews were racing on the river as I rolled by and owners were throwing sticks into the river for their dogs to fetch. This first bike ride of 2008 reminded me of a key fact about Cambridge and its surroundings--it's so green, even in winter.--JT)

I'm a city boy who likes small towns. I won't go so far as to say I love small towns because I haven't really lived in one--Detroit, Boston/Cambridge (the Massachusetts one), and Washington DC have been my homes. I know I have an overly romantic view of small towns. They have their flaws--hey, we've all seen Footlose. How you can ban dancing?

But I digress. My point is that Cambridge (UK) is about the closest I've come to living in a small town and it agrees with me. The city isn't tiny--for those who keep asking, the city proper has about 110,000 residents, including about 25,000 students--but it is comfortable. I walk most everywhere, see the same people in the neighborhood, and generally feel a sense of community that I have not felt before, despite being an American outsider. Maybe it's all the fairs and festivals that bring the town together so often.

I also told KT the other day it's tough not to grin when you see so many small kids in a place, especially when they're zooming around on small bikes or are dressed in their color-coordinated school uniforms, sometimes with proper hats. Cambridge is full of college students but it's also very much a family town, with a lot of big private and public schools in between our home and where I work. To me that brings life to the city--the condo buildings where I lived in DC had few kids, and DC is hurting for young families who tend to flee to the suburbs once their kids reach schoolage. The same was true in Detroit and in Boston.

So, this all a really long-winded intro to get to my final point: I just had a nice bike ride through meadows and green grass and I can thank some far-sighted urban planners for it.

Most of you reading this blog probably haven't paid attention to the satellite image map in the right column. It's from wikimapia, the same folks who brough you wikipedia, the online encylopedia. Basically, it's a stunningly clear satellite image on which people can mark objects and attach descriptions of comments. I like zooming in and out, looking at the aerial view of things I normally see from ground level normally. For example, when I looked at our house, I noticed the image was taken right when they were starting to build 3 flats--they are almost done (we hope!)

Here's a link to the map that you can open up in a new window (a more zoomed in version focused on Parker's Piece, the lawn a few minutes walk from our house is here)

A quick glance at the large-scale map will show how quickly the city gives way to rural land--parks, grazing areas, and even farms. This is deliberate as Cambridge is one of the UK's Greenbelt cities, an effort to limit urban sprawl by surrounding city centers with area in which no development can occur. London was the first such Greenbelt city, according to a wiki entry, although it's hard to imagine that given how London now spreads out for mile after mile. Greenbelts now cover about 13% of England, notes a BBC explainer.

Greenbelts are controversial to a certain extent. As in Washington DC, there's a desperate need for affordbale housing near city centers and many here argue greenbelts prevent that. Sometimes, after a tortuous process, local planning official will create a new village tucked away in a greenbelt but that has not kept pace with the demand for housing. So, every once in awhile, some government official makes headlines by "threatening" to overturn Greenbelt policies. But call me selfish. That's a politican I'd be motivated to vote against.
-- JT

Shh, it's a secret

About two weeks ago, we decided to give our new old car some exercise. We drove first to nearby Newmarket, where we failed to get our UK provisional driver's licenses--we have to send in our passports to an office, we learned. Then we headed off to Chelmsford, a city about an hour from Cambridge and the home of a Winter Beer Festival. We had a delightful time, sampling about 10 beers, including some Belgians, over the course of a few hours. But before we got to Chelmsford, we almost got side-tracked by a most unusual road-sign.

Now, wouldn't you be tempted by the arrow to the secret nuclear bunker? Only the promise of beer kept us on the way to Chelmsford. But we do plan to vist the SECRET nuclear bunker soon. It's apparently a shelter built during the Cold War for military, government officials and other VIPs. It's now a tourist attraction and companies can even rent it out for retreats or conferences. Check out their website, appropriately named

Saturday, February 16, 2008

One Year.

The milestone of being in Cambridge for a year (as of 12 Feb.) slipped by unmentioned on the blog, but certainly not unnoticed. One freakin' year. Most of the time, it feels like one month. We're actually starting to worry that we're not going to have time to do everything we want to do in the U.K./Europe before we return – that is, if we don't change our return date of two years from nowish.

We've learned a lot about each other, ourselves, England, Europe, and travel. Here are a few lessons we've learned in the last year:

1. Always make tea. Neighbor drops by? Make tea. Plumber's coming? Put on the kettle. Don't feel well? Nothing like a cuppa. Stressed out, tired, awake, anxious, calm, mad, sad, happy? Make tea.

2. Always bring a towel. What works for Arthur Dent works for you, too. OK, maybe not literally a towel, but a washcloth is often handy when traveling. So's a travel clock – I've encountered very few hotels/B&Bs that have clocks in the rooms. Ladies, always pack a light (or heavy) pashmina, unless you're going to a beach, then make it a sarong. Toss an umbrella into the suitcase, too. I could go on – perhaps I'll stop here and revisit in a later post.

3. Learn a bit of the local language. Always try to learn how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me (often different words to get someone's attention or if you, say, knock down an old lady), I'm sorry (also helpful for aforementioned old lady), I don't speak English, and two beers, please.

4. Learn the tipping standards. The US is the highest in terms of tipping. In many other countries, you just round up the bill to the nearest dollar. Some places you tip a taxi driver; others you don't. Etc.

5. Invest in good shoes. Self explanatory.

6. Try the local food. OK, you don't have to eat snails. But find out what the local specialties are and try them.

7. Value personal recommendations over guidebooks. Find someone who's gone to the city you've gone to and get their recommendations. Guidebooks excel at making places sound absolutely amazing; if you only follow those recommendations, you're guaranteed some disappointments.

8. Watch people. Take time out from racing around and sightseeing to just take in your surroundings and observe the locals.

9. Don't assume that because you and they speak English that they will understand you.

10. Simple meals from a market can rival the best meal from a restaurant.

11. Pay at least the tiniest bit of attention to football (soccer); it will provide endless hours of conversation.

12. Eat bread in France, drink beer in Belgium, eat meat in Spain, drink port in Portugal, eat pretzels in Germany. (I'm sure there are many eating rules regarding Italy, but we haven't been there yet.)

13. When driving, you can always keep going around a roundabout.

14. You don't have to buy new. New furniture, new electronics, etc. Be an environmentalist: Repair things and buy second hand to reduce junk.

15. Watch British quiz shows. You won't understand a lot of things, but you get insight into humor and history.

16. Cycling is awesome, particularly in very flat areas.

17. Friends and family are just a plane flight/phone call/e-mail/IM away. The distance can be hard, but all these things make it much more bearable.

We can't wait to see what lessons the next year brings!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Long-distance Love

Since she's been in Texas and on her way to Boston today, I just wanted to use this venue to wish my lovely wife a Happy Valentine's day. You are much too far away. It's been a year this week since we moved to Cambridge and I couldn't have a better partner for this adventure. Come home soon. Love, JT

Friday, February 8, 2008

Just Like the Amazing Race! But Not.

Voiceover: The DC Editors leave the house at the same time for two different airports, bound for their respective parental homesteads. Who will get home first?

9:20 a.m.: The DC Editors walk out the front door.

9:26 a.m.: They arrive at the bus terminal. KT gets in the queue for the bus; JT gets in a taxi for the train station.

9:44 a.m.: KT's bus departs for Heathrow. She's settled into a seat in the third row – not her usual front seat to avoid getting bus-sick.

9:45 a.m.: JT's train departs for King's Cross station in London. No seats; he has to stand for the 50-minute ride.

10:45 a.m.: JT makes it to King's Cross, crosses the road to St. Pancras Station and hops a train to Gatwick with 8 minutes to spare.

Meanwhile: KT's bus is at Stansted airport. Someone in front row leaves, and KT nabs that seat. Score.

11:13 a.m.: JT's train crosses the Thames with a view of the London Bridge, the Gherkin, and the London Eye.

Meanwhile: KT's bus is on the M25 and has just passed a lorry (truck) loaded with cars that have been squished into little cubes. Awesome!

11:43 a.m.: JT arrives at Gatwick Airport.

11:53 a.m.: KT arrives at Heathrow Airport.

12:14 p.m.: JT is checked in for his flight and is having some lunch.

12:22 p.m.: KT is checked in for her flight and is having some lunch.

1:07 p.m.: JT is sitting on plane, due to take off at 1:45.

1:36 p.m.: JT's flight leaves the gate, and eventually takes off.

1:40 p.m.: KT is sitting on plane, due to take off at 2:15.

2:15 p.m.: KT's plane leaves gate, and takes off 25 minutes later.

4:18 p.m.: Flight attendant on KT's flight apologizes that AV system isn't really totally working. Remaining time to Chicago: 6 hours, 37 minutes. She spends the remainder of the flight reading magazines, listening to music, editing, and watching two episodes of 30 Rock and the first 30 minutes of Martian Child in three-minute, non-consecutive increments before giving up.

Meanwhile, on JT's flight: JT watches Michael Clayton, Dan in Real Life, and Gone Baby Gone.

9:58 p.m. GMT/4:58 p.m. EST: JT's plane lands in Detroit. Snow!

11:09 p.m. GMT/5:09 p.m. CST: KT's plane lands in O'Hare. Snow!

1:40 a.m. GMT/7:40 p.m. CST: KT's second flight leaves for San Antonio.

4:05 a.m. GMT/10:05 p.m. CST: KT lands in San Antonio.

3:00 a.m. GMT/10:00 p.m. EST: JT has hugged and kissed the family and extended family. He falls asleep.

6:00 a.m. GMT/12:00 a.m. CST: KT has hugged and kissed the family and falls asleep.

11:15 a.m. GMT/5:15 a.m. CST: The Family Cat reminds KT who's the baby around here with a bite on the hand. She's now officially been welcomed home.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Farewell Aunt Gloria

This is when it's tough to be so far away from family and friends. My godmother passed away yesterday after a long, stubborn fight against a variety of medical issues and a lot of pain. I'm incredibly sad but also grateful that she's at peace now. Gloria was a constant presence in my life. She and Uncle Si lived across the street from our house and I probably saw them at least every other day of childhood, most commonly when Gloria came over to chat, smoke cigarettes, and play cards with my mom in our small kitchen. I can't tell you how many hands of 3-person pinochle I played with the two of them. She and Si also vacationed with us in Canada during the summers. My heart goes out to Uncle Si and the rest of her family. She was a special gal. She was my second mom.--JT

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bikes, The Boss, and Bongs

I walk out of the train station (above) and notice an odd scent wafting through the night air. As I navigate all the construction and dodge crazy cyclists, I recognize the odor: marijuana. Yep, I'm in Amsterdam!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My latest travels started last Sunday morning when I headed to Heathrow airport for a 45 minute flight to Amsterdam, followed by a 25 minute flight on a propeller plane to Maastricht, which is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands (It fights for the title with Nijmegen). I can't remember the last time I took a connecting flight rather than a direct one, but it did allow me to walk through the nice Amsterdam airport, which amusingly has cheese counters everywhere.
When I arrived in Maastricht, I looked for the bus that went into town. But I got nervous about how often it ran on a winter Sunday night so I went back to the taxi stand. Uh-oh--empty. The airport is small enough that the taxis know when the few flights arrive and they had already left with the passengers smart enough to quickly grab a cab. But then a Finnish couple came to my rescue. The husband saw my plight and when his wife rolled up, they offered me ride to my hotel. As I hopped into their car, I briefly wondered if this was the smartest idea but they were very nice and we had a delightful chat on U.S. politics.

I went to Maastricht for a 2 day workshop on whether prizes can stimulate medical innovation i.e. could offering a billion dollar prize for a AIDS vaccine do more than, say, working through the normal drug patent system. Some see prizes as a way to stimulate drug research on neglected diseases; other see prizes as a way to break monopolies held by pharmaceutical companies and to lower drug prices overall. Interesting debate.

Maastrich itself was nice, though I had little time to play tourist. The city is in the most southern part of the Netherlands and almost as French and German as Dutch. A university town, Maastrich thankfully has many open restaurants on winter nights--unlike our experience in Provence! After I checked into my hotel--across the street from the train station!--I walked the cute cobble-stone streets and eventually settled into an Argentinian steakhouse where I curiously watched groups of people walk by in clown garb and other costumes. A trio dressed in wigs and colorful outfits at one point strolled won the street playing a tuba and 2 other horns. After talking to various waiters, I learned everyone is preparing for carnival in Maastricht. While Brazil may be most famous for its Carnival, many other places also have the pre-Lent festivities. Every weekend people are "practicing" for the big event in Maastricht, I was told. And during carnival, the whole town--cabbies, shopkeepers--are in costume. Indeed, anyone out of costume looks odd, a waiter told me. I liked Maastricht's whimsy--fun storefronts and cafes with amusing decorations, and some intriguing public art throughout the squares.

After my meeting ended Tuesday, I walked back to the hotel, picked up my luggage, walked across the street, jumped on a trained and 3 minutes later was on my way to Amsterdam. The train systems are something I really envy Europe. I read a newspaper, watched a DVD, and 2.5 hours later I arrived in Amsterdam, where I had a Wednesday meeting of science policy VIPs, including my publication's new head honcho who I was going to meet for the first time.

Again settling in was easy. I walked about 7 minutes from the central station to the delightful tropical-themed B&B I had booked when I found few decent hotels available at the last minute. The next morning I strolled over the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, which occupied a beautiful building (far left). To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Amsterdam. It can be a beautiful city, with gorgeous canals, great museums, and fun cafes open later. But it's also riddled with drugs and panhandlers--it's, well, sketchy in too many areas for my comfort. Note that just a block away from the prestigious academy was the city's famous red-light district (left), where prositution is legal, live sex shows draw gaping tourists all year round, and window-shopping takes on a whole new meaning (Wikipedia tells me several stories on the origin of the term red-light district ). The owners of the B&B I stayed at surprised me with the news that the city had just bought out a number of brothels in the red-light district and was converting them to fashion design houses as part of an attempt to slightly clean up area. No open expects the red-light district to completely disappear, however.
Given that I had a 8am flight back to London and my lovely wife, I carefully skirted the red-light district when I walked home after dinner with my new boss. And that's about all I did on my brief jaunt. KT has never been to Amsterdam so I'm sure we'll back with some time to explore. By the way, for those curious about just how cycle-crazy Amsterdam is, check out this three-tier bicycle parking structure built on the canal just outside the train station entrance. Bikes whiz up and down it like cars in a multi-story parking garage. --JT

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Election Fever

Here's one surprise about our move to England: I talk more about U.S. politics here than I did while living in Washington D.C.

Part of it is this is a pretty fascinating primary race, for both parties, but it's also that Europe is fascinated with and wary of what happens next at the White House. There's a general sense America has dragged down Europe with the Iraq war, particularly hurting England as Tony Blair followed Bush almost blindly. So whereever I go, the minute someone hears my accent, they start asking about who will be the next president, who will be the Democrat (Editor's note--I've corrected my initial use of "demoncrat" and deny it was a Freudian slip!) nominee, what's obama really like, etc.

Take this week's trip to the Netherlands (report coming soon). At the Maastricht airport Sunday, a Finnish couple who gave me a ride into town asked about whether Mccain was for real this time. I stopped in a cafe for dinner Tuesday--next thing I'm chatting about whether Obama had enough experience or was just charming. On my flight back to London, the British man next to me distracted himself from our rough approach to the airport by talking U.S. elections.

People back home have asked whether folks here follow the election--well, it's often front-page news in the UK, especially the Hilary-Barack battle. The land of Margaret Thatcher is curious if we will elect a woman and even more curious, given what they perceive about our divisive racial politics, whether we could elect a black man.

Just this week one of the national papers did a two day U.S. election special--one day the paper had a massive wallchart depicting the U.S. state map, with info such as the number of electoral votes, who they voted for in 2004, their primary date, etc. The next day the paper had a small book explaining U.S. elections and giving trivia. In fact, a German colleague walked into my office this morning reading the pamphlet with great interest--it had a list of all the losers of president elections and he was curious how many I recalled from the past 50 years. Not many, I sadly realized.--JT