Bellack in London
Week One: November 3 - 12, 2000

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nov 3 - nov 4 - nov 5 - nov 6-10 - nov 11 - nov 12
   
nov 3 What is it with international terminals of U.S. airports? The Virgin Atlantic part of San Francisco's is almost as ugly as JFK in New York City. Anyway, getting out of San Francisco was a bit complicated. Because I'd moved my flight back a day, and had a bunch of extra luggage, I had to jump back and forth between three different lines just to pay all my extra fees. My karma was good after that, though -- on-time flight, all my luggage arrived (and all fit on one Heathrow baggage trolley!), I was able to drop the heavy stuff with a baggage service that delivered them to the hotel, and the hotel actually had a room ready. So far, so good. The hotel itself (Paddington Grosvenor Court) was -- well, let's put it this way, it's affiliated with Best Western. So the room (where I still am a week later) is small, the bed is just better than a futon, and the bathroom has the world's smallest shower stall. The TV has the bare minimum of channels and no pay-per-view, though there's one channel all in German. This channel's prime-time programming seems to consist of nothing but Big Brother programs of various types -- Big Brother live, Big Brother best-of, Big Brother panels with former cast members, and lord knows what else.

OK, enough boring hotel room stuff. My hotel is in Bayswater, which is near Paddington train station, one of the giant transport hubs of the city. The neighborhood itself isn't that great -- not dangerous, but clearly transient and a bit grubby. The densely-packed stately houses on several nearby streets have been converted to cheap hotels like the one I'm staying in. I'm not far from the edge of Hyde Park, which I haven't explored but seems enormous. I passed a sign commemorating the Tyburn gallows, where London executions went on until 1759 or thereabouts. To the east is a Lebanese ethnic area. Basically, it's convenient to the train station, which I need to get to the job in Windsor, but isn't good for much else. I'm already out of plausible places to eat dinner.

nov 4 I spent Saturday exploring. After an obligatory run to central London (Oxford Street) to buy my week's comics at Forbidden Planet (more on that at some other time or on demand), I took the train to the South Bank. I walked around Waterloo and eastward along the Thames. This isn't a great place to live right now, but has some great landmarks. I saw the Tate Modern, which is an art museum in a gigantic old power station. It's not the one on the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals album (that's in Battersea I think), but it's in that spirit. I'm sure the museum is great and meaningful, but an attempt to explore the first floor was scuttled by my near-total antipathy to anything painted in the 20th century. On the bright side, I got to see Duchamp's "ready-made" urinal. I also had a nice fish & chips plus an ale at a pub next to the museum. I sat outside and got a nice look St. Paul's and the rest of the London skyline. After that I walked east some more, passing the reconstructed Globe Theatre and the plaques marking where the real theatre stood -- amazingly, they had reproductions of some woodcuts from the period that actually show the Globe, though it had been mislabeled as a "bear-baiting pit." And people complain about pro wrestling. I crossed the Thames on foot and walked to St. Paul's, where I got a great view of the place lit up at night, and was able to hear the choir singing during the evening service, which was pretty amazing. Whatever else you might say about Christianity, they know how to build.
nov 5 Sunday was neighborhood-exploration day. My choices are limited by my commute to Windosr, which is 45 minutes to the west of London. I need to live close to a train that goes there, which rules out a lot of places -- Notting Hill, for example, is right out. Armed with two Time Out guides -- to pubs and to restaurants -- I resolved to hit a few culinary/intoxication landmarks in each area I visited. I went to Battersea, which is also south of the Thames and has a reputation as a trendy area. I had brunch at a little hole in the wall called the Boiled Egg and Soldiers, which is actually a type of breakfast, though from what I could tell "soldiers" just means "toast that is cut into strips and stacked like Jenga." This was a very homey little place -- my brunch-loving friends in New York City would have felt totally at home. The Battersea area definitely had that "up-and-coming" feel, in that each of the places I walked by looked pretty cool, but you had to walk quite a distance to get between each one. You could tell that a lot of the area was still lower-middle class. I did find a comic book store, and I spent half an hour commisserating with the owner about the sorry state of the comics industry. After two hours of wandering and a quick sit-down (and a bitters) in a pub, I had mixed feelings about the place. I'm enough of a follower to want to live somewhere trendy, but nothing really grabbed me and said "you're home, mate."

I pressed on to Richmond, which is further west. It's practically its own town, with a bunch of shops and a busy downtown right off the Thames. In theory this should be really pleasant, and many American expats are supposed to live there, but I got an itchy toursity vibe off the place. The High Street (where all the main shops are in a London neighborhood; they've all got 'em) was chain store after chain store -- Gap, Laura Ashley, Next, Boots, WH Smith, Marks & Spencer, Dixon's, Superdrug, etc etc etc. That would be one thing, but also irritating was the presence of the kind of goopy specialty stores that never seem to exist outside of tourist areas -- Houses Of Fudge, Notions By Nora, bad antiques shops, that sort of thing.

It was starting to rain by now, plus it was getting dark, so if I was smart I would've called it a night and gone back to Paddington. But overachiever that I am, I had to press on to Putney, which is midway between Battersea and Richmond on the same train line. I found myself in a strange neighborhood, with a short list of pubs and restaurants to walk past, in the pitch black and pouring rain. Amazingly enough, I had a good time, probably out of stubbornness. Putney's High Street runs into Putney Bridge across the Thames. There was a decent assortment of stores and pubs, and off a side-street was a pub from my list that looked extremely well-kept and cozy, full of folks my age having warm conversations out of the pelting rain. Because I'm certifiably mad, I kept walking north to the bridge. Turning the bend to the west I passed a few decent-looking pubs that clearly had river views. Pressing on I found another pub on my list that had an upstairs regularly booked with various rock bands and acoustic singers. I saw another comic shop, too, which gratified my inner geek. I then headed south through a bunch of residential streets, which again seemed very cosy and heart-warming, though given the torrent pouring on my head probably a cheap tent with a kerosene burner would have seemed pleasant. I finally made it to the southern main drag, the confusingly-named Upper Richmond Road (Lower Richmond Road being closer to the river). I found the sushi place that Time Out had raved about, but it was closed. Of course, this being a black rainy Sunday night, I figured that I'd just gotten there too late. Unfortunately, this was my first reminder that London is about as far north as Moscow , and as such it gets dark around 4:30pm in the winter -- it was only 5:30pm, and the sushi place didn't open for dinner until 6:30pm! This was not happy. I wandered a bit and found a Goa Indian place, which had great food and compensated for the lack of sushi. I finally got the train back to Paddington and started nursing a nasty rain-borne cold that would last most of the week.

nov 6-10 The first week on the job was a whirlwind -- my computer showed up 2 hours after I did, and it took until Thursday to get my own phone. I spent a lot of time just getting to know all the players -- ended up spending more time with other managers, not that much with the staff. Hopefully that ratio will change as we go. The office building is borderline -- for example, the men's room is a disaster area with missing lights, holes in the tiling, and similar "toilet scene from Trainspotting " amenities. It looks out over the Thames, though, which is very nice. By Friday Jeremy (my main partner, the Director of Application Delivery) and I had moved into an office which gives me a great view of the Thames. Normally this would just be picturesque and relaxing, but right now the Thames is on the razor's edge of flood level, after three solid weekends of torrential rain. It pelted down this Saturday (the 11th), so for all I know I'm going to have to wade into work on Monday.

Of course, the week was punctuated by the American presidential election. London is five hours ahead of the US East Cost, so I had to stay up all night to watch the returns, napping in fits as the lead flip-flopped. The whole situation is so deeply ridiculous that I'm not going to talk about it too much here, except to note that I did get to spend an hour the next day explaining the US political system to one of my co-workers.

nov 11 This Saturday I didn't get out & about until around noon. I went back down to Oxford Street, and headed south to explore the bookstores to the south, and Soho Square. After some wandering in search of lunch I found a decent upmarket/trendy pub variant (blonde wood, only two kinds of beer, snooty waitstaff). I felt good, though, and even got lucky and found myself sitting next to two cute girls with American accents. I eavesdropped on their conversation, hoping to join in and make some friends, only to discover they were in a deep political muddle, discussing "the movement" and working inside or outside "the system" and fighting "the power" and every type of muddle-headed academic Naderite jabber I left California to escape. Oh well.

After lunch I just started wandering, walking south to Picadilly Circus. It was fascinating to see how a broad circle of majestic statue-encrusted stone Victorian buildings could be just as imposing as the glass-walled skyscrapers of Times Square. Victorian architecture gives off an amazingly strong "it's our Empire, you're only living in it" vibe.

I decided to go to the National Gallery (lots of masterwork paintings). I overshot to the south, though, passing through a batch of grandiose monuments in Waterloo Square and ending up in Whitehall, where I saw the horse guard pass by. The National Gallery is on Trafalgar Square, where Nelson's column is. For my money the column isn't half as impressive as the four huge lions crouching at its base. I love New York City as much as the next guy, but Nelson's lions could kick the living crap out of Patience and Fortitude (the stone lions outside the NYC Public Library in midtown).

Anyway, I finally made it into the Gallery, which is very conveniently arranged in chronological order. It took me almost three hours just to get from 1250 to 1510. I was struck by the faces of the Virgin Mary -- in the best paintings, you got the sense that you're looking at a real young woman. The cynic in me wonders if the faces represent women the various artists took a fancy to. I also noticed that in crucifixion scenes, Mary is usually still portrayed as a young woman, instead of the middle-aged mother of a 33-year-old man. I also discovered the topic of Saint Michael defeating Satan -- several great paintings of the archangel stomping on a Satan displayed with Boschian creativity as various types of scaly demon, including one very creepy beastie whose upper limbs were snakes, holding the lower limbs in their mouths. You can buy this guy's face as a mouse-pad in the gift shop. The winner of the collection for me was a night-time nativity scene from the Netherlands, which showed the only light coming from the infant, who was glowing enough to illuminate Mary brightly, Joseph a little less, and just barely illuminated a cow and donkey peering over the edge of the cradle. The light practically jumps off the 500-year-old canvas.

When I got out of the gallery the rain was pelting down, which was sad because I'd lost my umbrella during the week and hadn't bothered to get another. I got thoroughly drenched on the way home and pretty much ruined my cheap Sketchers boots. I'm sure those of you reading this really care about that. The only bright side of the evening was that I finally got my computer set up for Internet access from the UK.

nov 12 Sunday was another round of neighborhood-hunting. I went back to Putney, and liked it as well or better in the sunlight. The riverside area is very pleasant, with some boats moored along the way and a nice view of the parish churches on each side of the bridge. The water was literally at the edge of the bank wall, and even sloshed onto the pavement during one swell. A couple I talked to said this was due to the tide pushing in from the east at the same time the runoff from the rains was coming down from the west. I gave in and ordered a hamburger ("beef burger") at a Slug and Lettuce chain pub. I also discovered that Strongbow is cider, not ale, when I ordered one by mistake.

I then headed to Chiswick, which is west of Putney and on the north side of the Thames. It was a very nice neighborhood, with a long High Road with a wide range of local shops, and a lot of green spaces. I felt like I was in Brooklyn. This would be really good news, except that Chiswick isn't on either of the main train lines to Windsor, so I'd have to take the tube to the train, which would be long and lousy.

I finally went back out to Richmond, because my relocation consultants have been pushing it on me so strongly. I finally realized what Richmond is like -- Cambridge, in Boston. It's a cleaned-up, sanitized perfection of a "nice neighborhood," but lacking in any real character. Of course, plenty of people love Cambridge, so what do I know.

next week The head sales guy starts at work; apartment-hunting in Putney on Wednesday; finally getting a cell phone; National Gallery part two