Bellack in London
Week Two: November 13-19, 2000

<< last week - (back to index) - next week >>

nov 13-14 - nov 15 - nov 16-17 - nov 18 - nov 19
   
nov 13-14 Solid workdays. Vimal Dutt, the Director of Client Services (AKA head sales/bizdev guy) started on Tuesday -- he seems pretty good so far, so that bodes well. I asked Helen (secretary) to try to get me a cell phone via the company, since I can't get one on my own until I have a bank account & address. Interesting trivia note -- Helen is 17 and has been @ the company for over a year, because in the UK you can leave school and start working at age 16, instead of 18. This creates a whole subculture of people who look like "kids" by US standards but are professionally dressed, buying their own groceries, etc. Had dinner at Pizza Express, a chain serving tasty individual-sized, Italian-style pizzas.
nov 15 I spent today looking at flats again. My guide this time was a woman in her fifties named Gloria. We got along OK, and she was much more helpful than Juliana (my first flat-hunting guide), except that Gloria's past was morally reprehensible. My first inkling came when she revealed that she was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, who as far as I can tell is utterly reviled by left-leaning Brits. Gloria spent 20 years abroad in the Arab world (favorite place is Dubai -- "wonderful people, always treated me with respect") organizing trade shows for armaments and such like. She went on to talk about her Phillipine "house boy and house girl" who "were really more like family." At least she'd been reduced to driving a miniscule Honda, living in slightly scurvy Bayswater, and showing flats to arrogant American ex-pats such as myself.

We started off in Putney, which is the neighborhood I've gravitated to based on a recommendation from Jennie Baird's Brit friend Rebecca Shepherd (Jennie Baird is the executive producer at SmartMoney.com, where I used to work when I lived in NYC). The first place we saw was in a nasty building on a nasty strip of real estate, but the second was a very well furnished, nicely maintained "maisonette" (i.e. a two-story flat) on a quiet street between Upper & Lower Richmond Roads. The place was huge -- eat-in kitchen, big "reception" (living room), nice master bedroom, and an upstairs with two more rooms (bedroom + study) and its own bath. It's big enough that I could share it with a roommate, which I might do to save ££. Probably the only downside is that it's a half-mile walk to the British Rail station, which will be annoying in the rain and cold. The rent is £395 per week (rents here are usually quoted weekly instead of monthly).

The final place in Putney was really mediocre so we skipped out to look around Battersea. I was hoping for some nice conversions (flats that have been carved out of old houses, instead of being purpose-built). Instead all we saw were big developments that were isolated from anything that could be considered a neighborhood. The Trader's Wharf development was at least well-built (solid brick buildings, private parking, etc), and the flat I saw had giant windows with a great view of the Thames. Unfortunately it was a great view of an extremely grotty stretch of the Thames -- basically all you could see was grey water, rotting docks, and other isolated housing developments. The flat had been on the market for months, and had its rate lowered several times, which was a bad sign. The basic effect here and at the other two places I saw in Battersea was of developers gambling on the gentrification of the neighborhood. I can imagine that Battery Park City, on the southern tip of Manhattan, looked like this ten years ago, though it's much better now. [My friend Andrew Sia has lived in Battery Park City for years, FWIW.]

In any case, at the end of the day it seemed pretty clear that the nice place in Putney was my best choice. However, the rental agent wasn't sure when the current tenants would be moving out -- it could be as late as January 1, which would be pretty miserable. So things went on hold while that was worked out.

nov 16-17 More work. We had a "welcome the new folks" lunch on Thursday, where I discovered that morale is really really low. The developers are sort of entitled to be grumpy, given the huge problems in the office like not enough telephones, the nasty men's room I mentioned in my week one journal, and so forth. I'm trying to get this stuff changed -- we'll see as we go. I also posted my first week's journal on my Web site and mailed around the URL. I was gratified to find out that people actually read it, which is nice. I also got back in touch with Rebecca Shepherd, Jennie Baird's British friend. I'm going to have dinner with Rebecca & her husband on Tuesday night of next week in Clapham, where they live, which should be nice.

The flat situation continued to develop. On Friday I found the current tenants would leave on December 8. The landlords are in Australia for at least 18 months. Since the flat is so well-furnished, I'm guessing that it's the landlords' home, and they're doing the expat thing, same as I am. The bad news was that the Aussies raised the rent to £420 per month, and Stuart, the guy who runs the relocation company that sent me Gloria, has to try to negotiate them back down, probably to £410 per month. This is an annoying increase (almost $100 per month when you do the currency conversion), but I've got so much hotel fatigue I'm going to go for it. This also means that I need to find some temporary housing between now and Dec 8 -- fortunately this is something else that Stuart should be able to find for me. It turns out that I need to leave the hotel by Friday anyway because they're all booked up next weekend, so that'll put a good deadline on the endeavour.

nov 18 I slept in, and didn't get out of the hotel until almost 2pm. I ate lunch at an Asian place on the top floor of Paddington, which gave me an OK view of the terminal. I wanted to bring a bottle of wine to dinner with the Shepherds, so I bought a Time Out shopping guide and read through it for wine dealers. Berry Brothers & Rudd is 300 years old, which sounded like my kind of place, so I went there. Berry Bros. is on St. James Place, which is a very upscale street south of Picadilly Circus, near Mayfair, one of the best neighborhoods in London. The Berry Bros. shop has the original outside & interior, which is basically a bare wooden room. Because there weren't bottles stacked all over the shop (like, say, Sherry-Lehmann in NYC), I thought the place might be for rare wine collectors, and I almost didn't go in. My decision wasn't helped by the fact that Berry Bros. is right next to Hugh Johnson's shop. [For trivia buffs, that's internationally-renowned wine expert Hugh Johnson, not my-friend-from-high-school Hugh Johnson.] Anyway, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went in. The salesman was very helpful, and they did have wines in my budget (£25). As I said, the inside of the store is pretty much the original interior, with dark wood walls, an old fireplace, & so forth. There's no merchandise on the top floor, so I told the salesman roughly what I was going for and he looked up something good on the computer, then went downstairs to get it. I took a few pictures like the raving Ugly American Tourist that I am.

I was really enjoying the luxe aristocratic vibe that St. James was giving off, so when I noticed a spiffy store called Truefitt & Hill Gentlemen's Hairdressers & Perfumers (Est. 1805), on a whim I decided to get my hair cut there. Apparently this takes three people -- the young woman behind the counter in the front section with bottles, fine shaving equipment, etc; an older gentleman to take my coat, and the guy who cut my hair. Half of the experience was enjoyable upscale fun; the other half of the time I was wondering just how much this haircut was going to cost me (cue the brief nightmares of a £100 haircut that's literally fit for a King). The answer actually turned out to be £24, plus £5 for the shampoo I got roped into buying for my dry hair. All things considered, for a solid upper-class treatment, that kind of a haircut once a month might not be totally ridiculous.

OK, OK, you're right. It's totally ridiculous. Nevermind.

I followed up the Big Fat Haircut with some wandering down Jermyn Street, home of many bespoke tailors. Someday I hope to be able to afford one of the shoestores that carves the shape of my feet in wood and keeps them *forever* in case I want another pair. Anybody got a spare £1500? After I burned the luxe out of my system, I headed to Oxford Street for some more errands & shopping. Based on the Time Out shopping book, I went to another comics store called Gosh!, which I liked a lot due to a really good selection of indies (including Jim Mahfood's "Stupid Comics"). The place had an oddly familiar look to it, and when I got outside into the mid-afternoon dusk (dark at 4:30pm = nighttime, remember?), I realized that I was right by the British Museum, and this was the comics shop I had visited when I was in London with the Yale Band in 1994. Small, geeky world.

From there I walked west on Oxford Street past Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Circus, and Bond Street tube stops, wading through amazingly thick crowds. I went into John Lewis, a department store with a great electronics department, to look at mini stereo systems to tide me over, since I left my stereo in storage in California. I saw a good little Denon system for £311, but decided to wait until I was in the flat to buy anything. From there I continued on to Selfridge's, which is a huge department store that was founded by an American in 1909. Strangely enough I felt like I could *tell* -- maybe because the place feels a lot like the big Macy's in Herald Square, Manhattan, which is a store I like a lot. Anyway, I blew some time wandering around soaking up the ambience. Every floor at Selfridge's has some kind of little cafe or espresso bar tucked into it, which I could imagine being fun places to hide out.

I left Selfridge's and continued west to Marble Arch, for a total walk of around two miles from St. James Street. Marble Arch is an elaborate gateway that was originally designed to be the ceremonial entrance to Buckingham Palace. Apparently, though, soon after putting it there, the government widened the roads or something, and the arch didn't fit any more, so they moved it to its current location on the edge of Hyde Park, where it's basically a Gate to Nowhere. It's much smaller than the Arc D'Triomphe in Paris, just by way of comparison.

I could have walked home to my hotel, but I didn't want to give up on the day, so I decided to see a movie. I took the tube back to Tottenham Court Road (i.e. the other end of my recent journey) in order to walk to Leicster Square, east of Picadilly Circus, which is the home of many West End movie theatres. I hadn't been there before so I didn't know what to expect. When I got out of the tube it had started raining again, so I went for my trusty new umbrella, only to discover that *it wasn't there* -- I had already managed to lose it. So here I was again, stumbling around in the bloody rain. It was around 7pm by now, and the rain and dark completely demoralized me, so I gave up and went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. Not much to say about that, except that the meals come with fries instead of a biscuit. Damn.

Anyway, I left the KFC and discovered that I was right by Leicster Square, which is a fairly impressive open, um, square, ringed by the bright neon signs for various movie houses -- movie palaces, almost. It's a great effect, and gives off a much better vibe than US multiplexes. I ended up seeing "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the latest film from the Coen brothers (the "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo" people). It was odd but fun, full of depression-era Americana, and a musical number with the Ku Klux Klan that left me squirming in my seat. I can only imagine how this sort of thing plays to the UK crowd. The theater was full, though, and people seemed to be laughing at the same stuff I found funny.

nov 19 Another day of sleeping in. I got moving around 1pm and walked to Marble Arch along the northern edge of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, which was nice during the 45 minutes that it wasn't drizzling. I had a ham-and-cheese baguette at Pret A Manger, a chain store with ready-made sandwiches and little benches for eating. It was a short walk to Selfridge's, where I wanted to buy some more formal business pants, because after 1 1/2 years in California I had reduced my wardrobe to two types of clothes -- casual and dirty. Now that I'm back in Urban Management Land I need clothes to look the part. Unfortunately, I discovered that UK clothes are not cut with well-fed-to-the-point-of-bulgy Americans (such as myself) in mind. There was no trace of that most excellent US innovation, "relaxed fit." My options thus seem to be ordering stuff from the states, finding a reasonably cheap tailor who can alter or make me stuff that fits, or very quickly losing enough weight to change my body type enough to fit UK clothes. Very annoying.

Another observation I've made is that British men (and women) seem to wear nothing but sweaters (aka "jumpers" over here). I went into a few places and came up with a turtleneck sweater that looked pretty good on me. This is going to be an adjustment because I've been avoiding itchy wool sweaters like the plague since I was 12 years old, but I suppose this is the time to try new things. I also picked up a white dress shirt (I didn't have any of them any more).

At this point I had to book to make it to the National Gallery, where I ended up with only an hour to look around. I got through about 3/4 of the 1510-1600 section, which was mostly Renaissance Italian paintings. Some of them were amazing, including a Veronese painting of a woman sleeping on a windowsill. The Gallery's two Michelangelos were lousy, though -- both early unfinished works that looked like artists' rejects to me.

Leaving the National Gallery, I stopped in the church of St. Martin-In-The-Fields, a very elaborate church (ornate romanesque columns out front, that sort of thing), which apparently used to really be in the fields, but now is on the edge of Trafalgar Square, in view from the National Gallery, and right by Covent Garden and many theatres. There's a cafe in the church's crypt, which is a little morbid considering that to enter you have to step on memorial stones from the 1700's and 1800's. But the brick arches and columns made it a cosy place to have some tea and warm up. The church has live classical music all the time, which sounds like an interesting experience.

I walked through Covent Garden for a while (including Covent Garden Market), then ducked into an extremely ornate Victorian pub called the Salisbury for a bitters and dinner (sausage and mash). From there I went back to the hotel to write this journal, which I am doing while watching The Lost World broadcast dubbed into German. Gotta love that Europe.

next week Dinner at Rebecca & Simon's; figuring out what to do for Thanksgiving; the end of the housing hunt?; National Gallery, the adventure continues