Bellack in London
Week Three: November 20-26, 2000

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nov 20-21 - nov 22 - nov 23 - nov 24 - nov 25 - nov 26
nov 20-21 Work on Mon & Tue, nothing special. Tuesday night I had dinner at Rebecca & Simon Shepherd's. They live in Clapham, which is to the west and a bit south of Putney (where my flat-to-be is). It was a 20-minute walk to their house from the Clapham Junction train station. I walked down Northcote Road, which I'd visited when flat-hunting in Battersea. It looked pretty inviting at night, lots of pubs & restaurants open. The Shepherds live in a nice oldish house, with a stained glass door. Home ownership is a bigger deal in the UK than it is in the states, and lots of people who'd have apartments in NYC or SF have bought their own house in London. Apparently people start buying when they're young and single, which also seems different from the US, where most of the people I know have only bought when they've gotten married. Part of the reason (according to the books I've read) is that you can get a mortgage here with a very low down payment. Anyway, one of the guests said the house was 150 years old, in which case it was really well maintained.

The dinner was very nice. Another couple (Victoria & Rob somethingsomethingsomething) and another woman (Eliza) were invited, too, so it was a good group. Rob & Victoria ("Tor") had lived in Chicago for a while, so we spent some time taking about the US and publishing (they have their own little company). I finally got to eat a home-cooked dinner after three weeks of hotel hell! Trivia note -- seems like the chickens in the UK come with the feet still on the drumstick. Otherwise, highlights were bread pudding, which looked like a bowl of paste but tasted pretty good & garlicky, and the dessert, which was: cupcake batter, cooked just enough to make the top bake & puff up, leaving the innards gooey, then poked open with a spoon in order to pour in cream. It's the kind of delicious, insanely fattening dessert that's probably illegal in California. And they followed it with chocolates!

Overall a really nice evening. I got a ride back to a tube stop from Rob & Tor, who live in Fulham, just across the bridge from Putney, so it'd be convenient to get together once I'm situated.

nov 22 More work on Wednesday. Vim put me in touch with his banker at NatWest, which should be a big help in setting up an account. I also got info on temporary housing from Simon the relocation guy -- his suburban compulsion came back to haunt him, because he tried to convince me to take a temporary flat in Wimbledon, which is 2 tube stops further out than Putney, and thus nowhere near anything useful (since there's no tennis this time of year). After some gentle pummelling he came up with an alternative in Covent Garden, which is more expensive but is at least in the damn city. I also booked my trip to Granada right before Christmas, to meet up with my parents & brother. Should be fun -- we can see the Alhambra, for example.
nov 23 Thursday morning I skipped work and went to the American Thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral. This was truly incredible -- the place was chock-full of American expatriates. I got there a few minutes late and had to sit in the back and to the side, so it was a bit hard to see anything. Fortunately I had a good view of the lectern, or whatever it is they call the place that people read from. This is an ornate platform with a high balcony at the top of about twenty winding stairs, on the southeast corner of the central area underneath the dome. The Ambassador read President Clinton's Thanksgiving message, and then gave a short speech, followed by various hymns and a sermon from the Chaplain of the European Fleet, complete with jokes about turkey and American Football. The last hymn was America The Beautiful, accompanied by a big choir of American kids. It was quite an experience to here such a traditional American song echoing off the walls of a great British monument. They ran through all four verses -- the audience was good and loud during the first verse, getting fainter & fainter as each more obscure verse came in. The organist also slipped the Star-Spangled Banner into the exit music, which was pretty funny. I'm really glad that I went -- even though I'm only half-Christian and not much of a New Testament guy, it was really meaningful to be surrounded by so many expat Americans and hear people talk specifically about the experience of being an American in the UK.

I hung around the Cathedral as it emptied out, and visited the American chapel, in the rebuilt east end of the cathedral. This part of St. Paul's was hit by a parachute mine in WWII, which fortunately didn't explode, or else it would have blown off the whole end of the place. As it is it still ruined everything inside. The rebuilt American Chapel is remarkable. The floor is inlaid with the message "TO THE AMERICAN DEAD OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR FROM THE PEOPLE OF BRITAIN." The stained glass windows include the seals of all 50 states. There's an illuminated manuscript under glass that contains the names of the American dead. I found it really emotional -- St. Paul's is a British monument designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1720, and they actually devoted part of it to thanking the US. Gives you a real sense of "important" history, as opposed to this ongoing election nonsense or the impeachment debacle.

I had lunch at The Black Friar's, a pub that's on the site of the medieval Blackfriars abbey. It was copiously decorated in the 19th century with wooden carvings and friezes of friars, with goofy cliches like "Silence is Golden" and so forth. It's balanced on the razor's edge of touristy and historic. After that I went in to work for a few hours, since I hadn't been able to find anyplace with a turkey dinner. Just as well, since I wouldn't want to be stuck eating two lousy slices of turkey and some sorry cranberry sauce surrounded by tourists. I had even called the embassy, but they're closed on Thanksgiving and didn't know of any events.

After work, I went to the temporary housing place to check in. It's actually a building of little apartments rented out like hotels -- my room's basically a studio apt. -- a working kitchen with a hob (aka stovetop), microwave, refrigerator, crockery (aka dishes, pots, pans, cutlery) and a dishwasher. Plus there's a portable stereo, so I can play music. The excruciating task of taking my 600 CD's out of their jewel cases and putting them in two gigantic looseleaf binders full of CD sleeves is finally going to pay off. The hotel on High Holborn street, which is about five minutes' walk from the British Museum and not much further to Covent Garden, and a reasonable hike to Trafalgar Square & the National Gallery. The only down side is that I'll have to take two tube lines to get to Waterloo for the trains to Windsor -- the total trip is going to be over an hour. All my stuff was still in Paddington so I went back there for the night after checking in.

nov 24 I had to move from the Paddington hotel to temporary housing Friday morning. I spent an hour repacking everything, which seemed to take up twice as much space as it had when I left SF. I took a cab to High Holborn -- fortunately the cabs are huge so everything fit, though the cabbie seemed pretty flustered by the fact that I pretty much used his cab as a moving van. We had to circle the block twice to find someplace he could pull over while I unloaded everything. By the time I packed, shuffled everything to the lobby in Paddington, moved everything into the cab, moved everything out of the cab, and carried everything into the elevator and down the hall to my temporary apartment, it was 10am already.

I took the train to Maidenhead (one stop past Slough, in the far Western suburbs of London) because Jeremy, Vim and I (the three main managers of the office) were doing an off-site meeting to talk about our sales and business development strategy. I was incredibly late (it was supposed to start at 9:30am but I didn't arrive until 11:30am) which wasn't so hot, though I had a pretty good excuse what with the cross-London relocation and all. The meeting went well after a rocky start, and wrapped up around 6pm.

Back in Holborn, I set out to finally get some groceries and cook my own meal. I got cocky and left my A to Z in the flat, which meant I promptly got utterly lost. I saw plenty of scenic streets, but couldn't find the supermarket to save my life. I finally got lucky and stumbled on a Marks & Spencer across from the Covent Garden tube stop that had a good food selection, & got some pasta, sauce, & ground beef. Since Marks & Spencer is famous as a department store, this felt very odd -- buying ground beef at a Marks & Spencer is roughly analogous to picking up a head of lettuce at a Macy's.

I wish I could tell you the food I cooked was delicious and fulfilling, but that would be a savage lie. At least it was cheaper than eating out again.

nov 25 Saturday was full of errands & maintenance stuff. I bought a pair of Clark's shoes to replace my dead boots. Trivia note -- UK shoe sizes are 1 size smaller than in the US (10 1/2 US => 9 1/2 UK), and they're all cut narrow, so I needed extra-wides. I went back to Gosh! for my weekly comic book fix (finally found Planetary #11, for all you geeks in the audience). The hotel has a deal with a nearby gym, so I got the form to join for a month (which is cheaper than buying by the day), and finally found the real supermarket (Tesco Metro). Food-buying is going to take some adjustments. Everything is conceptually similar, but organized differently and with different selections. For example, most of the Tesco produce was packaged, instead of being in open bins with plastic bags to put it into. I didn't realize until I got lost in the Tesco's how *similar* all US supermarkets are.

Other fun admin stuff, like filling out the flat and NatWest bank applications. I also spent some time working on an important presentation that's coming on Wednesday of this next week. I'm somewhat sad to be working on weekends already, but such is life.

nov 26 I've been trading mail with a guy named Will who's a friend of Gena Lai's former-UK friend Wendy Roth -- we were going to try to catch a movie Sun afternoon but it fell through. He did invite me to a housewarming party he's having in Clapham in early December, which should be a good chance to meet more people. I went to the gym at 11:30am to go through an orientation for their insurance purposes, after which I finally got in a decent workout after many weeks of travel, moving, jet lag, and hotels. After that I went back to the National Gallery for about two hours. I finished up the 1510-1600 section, which included some great portraits by Parmigianino. Looking at the highly detailed portraits, with their precise rendering of an old man's wrinkled skin or the sculpture behind an art collector, you have to imagine an entire world where these paintings were the only way to represent other human beings -- no photographs, no film, no TV. What must it have been like to live in a world where the only time you saw yourself was in a mirror, and then have a Renaissance master accurately portray you on canvas?

I really liked the portraits by Frans Hals. Hals used broad brush strokes that make for extremely energetic paintings, very different from the precisely-rendered paintings of others. Apparently he was a big influence on Monet. Generally speaking, I think my favorite artists may be the Dutch, Netherlandish, Flemish, etc. painters who did such amazing work with light -- I'm amazed by the ability of carefully-applied white and yellow paint to make a canvas seem to radiate light.

I started just the first bits of the 1600-1700 section, to check out the Vermeers, which are brilliant but not as amazing as the Vermeers I remember from the Louvre in 1994. Considering there are only 34 Vermeers known I had an idle thought about figuring out where they are and trying to see them all -- sort of a pretentious variation on taking a trip around the US to visit every major league baseball park. The best painting I saw in this area was a small Dutch painting called "The Seduction" or the like, which had a man & woman just barely illuminated by a candle -- another example of capturing light on canvas with uncanny accuracy. Another example was a painting of the interior of a blacksmith's shop. A man was coming in the door, so light was spilling in that way, but light was also shining from the red-hot metal the blacksmith had on the anvil.

As I've moved forward from 1310 to 1700 the subject matter is finally getting more idiosyncratic -- the smithy I mentioned above, a gruesome image of the dragon biting into the whole face of one of Cadmus' companions (this was NASTY -- who says violence in the media is new?), interiors of churches, still lifes of flowers (often painted one flower at a time, to combine flowers which could never bloom in real life, or weren't available where the painter lived), and the first few examples of paintings by women. There were even a few comedic paintings, including a famous image of an incredibly ugly woman in a bodice that fits much too tight.

I stopped in a fish-and-chip place on the way home and finally found some truly awful British food. Tasteless, not hot enough, lack of texture -- everything that could go wrong did. I did end up spending an hour talking to an American guy who's visiting from Marin County, about San Francisco, dot-com mistakes, stupid managers, and so forth. He has a rich Tory friend in South Kensington -- I asked him to drop her a line on my behalf (ostensibly to get tips for a newcomer to London). I then went back to the hotel and spent the evening plugging away on the work presentation for Wednesday.

Final note -- the UK is apparently where old US brands go to die. They still have Woolworth's here, and I've seen ads for Mars bars, Ovaltine, and Bird's Eye vegetables. On the bright side they do have Snapple.

next week My boss Gerry comes to town on Tue & Wed; a night on the town with Gerry & Vim Tuesday night; trying to drum up a movie or something for the weekend; and more National Gallery hijinx.