Bellack in London
Week Six: December 11-17, 2000

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dec 11-13 - dec 14 - dec 15 - dec 16 - dec 17
   
dec 11-13 Lots of work this week, not much to tell without getting into the sordid details of Littlewoods, BT, the infamous DMS Wales Pre-Qualification Questionnaire, and other such like. I got to draw a Visio diagram again for the first time in ages. And we had a management meeting on Monday morning. That was fun too. Adjustment to Putney is going reasonably well, though the train route to Windsor is a local, and stops at a bunch of little towns -- Feltham, Staines, Twickenham, Datchet, etc. I am not making these names up.

We did have lunch with an entrepreneur from Dublin, which was fun -- I don't think I've met an Irishman yet who isn't really nice. It turns out the population of Ireland is only around 4 million, 1 million of which are in Dublin. That makes Dublin very large, and the rest of the country very sparsely populated. In any case, we did come to an agreement that the next meeting we had with this guy would be in Dublin. Heh heh heh.

The upshot is that Vim and I are starting to get run pretty ragged. There's no sign of it letting up, either. At least we've got the Christmas break to look forward to.

Oh yeah -- I've been doing one of those online personals site as another way to meet people, so I spent a bunch of evenings this week emailing back and forth with various women, including someone who's moving here from Australia in a week or two. That, ironically, makes me a UK native, relatively speaking.

dec 14 Vim and I went back to BT in Hemel Hempstead for the business meeting to figure out how much they're willing to pay us for all the extra work we did. It was pretty exhausting -- I thought we spent the whole time arguing, but the sales guys (Vim & Steve) thought it went well. We shall see.

Vim and I then headed for London to go to the UKCFUG Christmas Party, which we (G.Triad) were helping to sponsor. It was about 6:30pm when we left Hemel Hempstead, and the party started at 7, so it was really a matter of how late we were going to be. The plan was to go back to Maidenhead so Vim could drop off his car, then catch a minicab to the Maidenhead train station and get to the party that way. [The party was at Cyberia Cafe, the same place the CFUG meeting I went to was.] This plan got horribly whacked when Vim tried to take a shortcut. We ended up utterly lost, driving down winding dark roads through tiny villages, stopping at every third pub so Vim could run in and get directions. The pubs were all suitably scenic -- all pubs really do look frighteningly similar. At one point we came whipping around a curve and practically smacked into an old Tudor-style house (black creosote-soaked timbers with white plaster in between, it's a classic look that everybody's seen) and Vim pointed out that it wasn't just a Tudor-style house, it was a Tudor house from the late 16th or early 17th century. It's hard to process this sort of information, considering that in America almost anything that looks old is a fake.

Anyway, our wanderings took us through the Chiltern Hills and the Cotswolds, both of which are scenic areas when it's light out and you can see anything. We didn't find Maidenhead until just past 8pm. To give you an idea of how lost we were, it's approximately like trying to get from Sunset to Potrero Hill in San Francisco, and accidentally ending up in the Presidio. Only scaled up so that Sunset and Potrero Hill are 30 miles apart. Vim has a roommate, it turns out -- a woman named Natalie who is very normal, but can trace her lineage back to Jane Seymour's only child. Jane Seymour was one of Henry VIII's wives, so effectively Vim's roommate must be number 3,519 in line for the throne, or something. I tried to convince her to start knocking off the other 3,518 and seeing how close she could get, but I don't think she's going to go for it.

The good news is that the UKCFUG party was a blast, or "Good crack" as they say in Ireland. They don't mean the drug. Anyway, we didn't get to Cyberia until around 9pm, at which point it was only 1/3 full. There were four or five other folks from G.Triad there, though. There were plenty of free beer tokens floating around, and at one point Vim picked up all the ones that we had left and carried a huge armful of beers back to the table. This was good, because it meant that in the 2 hours between 9pm and 11pm we managed to make up for missing the first two hours of the party and catch up to everyone who'd been there the whole time. Once the Cyberia party wound down, most of us picked up and went to Point 101, a modern-decor bar in Centre Point. Centre Point is a tall, ugly office building from the late 60's or early 70's that was built by tearing up the intersection of Oxford Street, New Oxford Street, and Tottenham Court Road, turning what was by all accounts a pleasant old-London couple of blocks into a miserable traffic snarl topped with this drab-yet-ugly concrete building. Sort of like the Art & Architecture building at Yale, but much much worse. At least the bar was good -- pints of Grolsch. The CFUG folks are fun and friendly, so I made friends, even if it was basically an all-guy party with one or two token women thrown in (including Claire from my team at G.Triad) just to keep the rest of us off-guard. I felt very international when I ended up being accosted by a guy from Rotterdam who wanted me to know that he strongly believed that "every vote should be counted." It's hard to imagine what it would've been like to move here when everything in the US is going smoothly -- what would I talk about?

Getting home at 2am was another adventure. Darren, one of the programmers at G.Triad, turned out to be waiting outside the bar -- we thought he'd left an hour ago, but he'd spent the hour in a futile attempt to flag down a black taxi. We got tipped off from one of the CFUG guys to head down Tottenham Court Road, which worked out when we found a crossroads full of minicabs pulling up and taking in passengers. This is apparently illegal, because everyone cleared out when a police car came through with sirens blaring, but two minutes later the minicabs were back. It cost 20 pounds to get back to Putney, which doesn't seem too horrible as long as you don't do the pounds-to-dollars conversion.

I took some photographs of both parts of the evening, so I should have some nice embarrasing shots to publicise in a couple of weeks when I finish the roll and get it developed + digitised.

And yes, I have started writing "publicise" and "digitise" instead of "publicize" and "digitize." When in Rome, yadda yadda yadda. I've also started writing my date in Euro format reflexively, which gets very confusing when I'm filling out one of my American checks and realise nobody's going to know what I'm getting at.

dec 15 Friday, as you can imagine after such a day of debauchery, was fairly low-key. I didn't stagger in until around 10:45am, which is pretty late over here. Most of the other people from the party hadn't made it in at all, though, so I didn't feel too bad. I have a huge code review document to complete by next Tuesday, and the pieces I have to assemble have started to arrive from the other members of the team, so I spent most of the day on that. Stayed in Windsor fairly late to upload all of my digitised photos onto the Web site. I've got a few of the best linked from the JBB-in-London homepage. They're all on the site, though, so you can browse around if you want to play with typing the URLs in directly. Let me know if you have ideas about how you want to see the photos, given that they're always going to lag weeks behind the journals (since with two cameras I'm not filling two full rolls each week, and there's a one-week delay to get photo CDs back).

As a side note, there's something very "meta" about addressing the audience who's reading these journals in the journals themselves -- at some point you lose the boundary between a journal of what I'm doing and a public forum for communicating with friends, family, and interested strangers. Any postmodern literary theorists out there are invited to submit comments for peer review and possible publication.

dec 16 A full day of Christmas shopping. Normally I would have to hide this entry until after the 25th, but since my family is in Spain right now I can write exactly what happened because they won't read this journal entry until after I've given them their presents and they've returned to the states. Heh heh heh.

Got up and out fairly early (for a change). Started off by going back to the High Holborn area, and stopping at Arthur Beale's Yacht Chandlers (in business four centuries). This is a surprisingly legit boating shop -- the customers were in looking for cans of boat paint, there were rolls of rope (i.e. "lines" and "sheets" if you're into boat-speak), blocks, pulleys, all the good stuff -- not a tourist trap. I was there to get my parents an anniversary present. I'd been looking for a UK yacht club flag (yacht clubs all have distinct flags that identify them uniquely -- some are funny or artistic and worth collecting), but after several inquiries it seemed that the only place I could get them was at the actual marinas, all of which were out of public transport range. The Beale's folks had an alternative, though -- courtesy flags for England, Scotland, and Wales. These are small flags that you fly from the stern (back end) of your boat when you're in that foreign country, below a larger flag for the country where your boat is registered. They also had the country-of-registration flag for the UK, which is a Union Jack in the upper left corner against a red field. I decided to get them all, and could see the elderly sales clerk wincing -- this was a very touristy thing to do, esp. because my parents can't actually fly the UK country-of-registration flag. But gift one was covered.

My other destinations were back west, in St. James's (highbrow street where I got the bottle of wine and the expensive haircut) or near Oxford Street. I started cutting through Covent Garden heading for St. James's, and stumbled on Grosvenor Prints, a store with two-story-high ceilings and every wall covered with antique prints. This was exactly what I wanted to get my father, and the only other place I had found a name for was threatening to be much too highbrow/expensive, so I felt extremely lucky. The saleswoman was very friendly (offered me a fresh mince pie -- I turned it down because I don't know what mince is and hence am cautious). She had only a few old yachting prints, but one of them was a great hand-colored engraving of a few yachts on the Bay of Firth (or Firth of Forth, or something -- she wrote it down on a card that's sealed in the package), and an old three-master in the background, just to date the image to the 1880's, when it was printed. So gift two was covered much easier than expected. Good karma so far.

After a quick stop in a Pret a Manger for lunch (I'm going to them a lot these days -- really fresh sandwiches all pre-made so you don't have to wait for a deli guy to make it to order, plus it's cheap -- they should port the concept over to NYC and make a fortune), I trudged over to St. James's and started looking for my brother Adam. Since he went to Harvard and is in law school now, he's got a bit of that spiffy/posh thing going on, so I figured I'd encourage him with some upper-class tchotchkes. First stop was Fox of St. James's Fine Cigars, where I got four Cuban cigars that were entirely too expensive to be worth it. My brother's not a cigar smoker, but we both went through a cigar-smoking phase back when it was trendy in the mid-90's, including a few cigar gifts at holidays, so some good old illegal-in-the-US Cubans should be a good way to close out the tradition. I actually think I'm not even allowed to buy Cubans as an American due to trading-with-the-enemy laws or suchlike.

Part two of my brother's present was some white handkerchiefs from Turnbull & Asser, which is one of the more definitive bespoke menswear shops on Jermyn Street, "by appointment to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, shirtmakers." To explain, any shop or company which does business with the Queen or the rest of the Royal household can qualify for a Royal Warrant, which basically means they can put the Royal crest on their shops and printed matter, along with a line like the one I wrote above. This is fairly impressive when you're wandering St. James's and Jermyn Street, because it gives the shops an air of impeccable respectability and permanence that can't really be matched by the high-end stores in New York. The closest analogy is the J.Press store in New Haven, or the Yale Club itself, both of which have a deeply enveloping old-boy-network feel to it. Of course, the Royal Warrant thing only gets you so far, because the Royals buy a lot of different things -- it's much less impressive to see the Royal Warrant on a bar of Lever 2000 ("by appointment to her Majesty the Queen, soapmakers"). That's not a joke -- Lever really does have the Royal soap warrant. And Prince Phillip (Queen Elizabeth's husband) removed his Royal Warrant from Harrod's in a fit of pique after the guy who owns it, the elder Mr. el-Fayed, blamed the Royal family for his son's death (his son was Princess Diana's boyfriend and died in the Paris car crash). OK, I'm now embarrased that I know this much about the Royal family. I don't want to know all this, it just sort of seeps in because it's everywhere in one way or the other -- for example, a notable piece of news last week was a video taken of Prince William cleaning the toilets at a hostel he's working at in Tortel. Really.

The final leg of my present journey was for my mother. This was a harder call, since I had gotten her a really expensive scarf from the UK for her birthday so the budget was not quite so exorbitant. I ended up going into Waterstone's, a huge bookstore off Picadilly Circus, and getting her one of the currently popular British cookbooks. This will be good for two reasons -- one, it features lots of hideously-unhealthy dishes that nobody makes in the US any more; and two, the unit-of-measurements conversions should drive her amusingly insane. I also found a book on Moorish Spain which I'm reading through in preparation for the Granada trip next week.

Lastly, I went to Selfridge's (west down Oxford Street to Marble Arch) to look for Christmas crackers. For those of you who don't know, a Christmas cracker is a cardboard tube, tied off 1/3 of the way down each side, which you pull open to set off a small bang. Inside is a tissue-paper crown, a piece of paper with a terrible pun, and some kind of amusing valueless trinket, like what you get at the bottom of a box of Crackerjack. This is a universal British tradition and apparently great fun for all. My mother found out about this 7 or 8 years ago, and ever since then she's somehow found Christmas crackers in the states and pulled 'em out every Christmas dinner. My brother, my father, and I don't quite see the attraction, though. So this year I figured I'd bring them some authentic crackers from the source, with some kind of "British twist" that would make them less annoying to all concerned. This turned into a major adventure, because it turns out you can buy crackers finely calibrated to match the price you pay against the quality of the trinket inside -- from cruddy plastic keyrings all the way up to silver-plated pens, at prices (per 6 crackers) from 10 pounds to 60 pounds. After much obsessing and awestruck contemplation, I got a set in the middle to high end (dominoes, a mini-screwdriver, a little sewing kit). Still stupid, but at least a bit different.

So all my presents were purchased, and things looked good. I stopped at the grocery store on the way home, only to discover to my dismay that the perfect crackers for a family who doesn't "get" crackers were right there in the shop, for only 12 pounds -- crackers with After Six dinner mints inside! Who needs the toy -- go for dessert. I'm still obsessing about whether to try to return the Selfridge's crackers and get the mints, or just deal with what I have. Yes, I know, it's a fabulous life full of important decisions.

Just to continue the fabulous life theme, I spent the evening going through bills and paperwork. Oh joy.

dec 17 I spent all day working on the code review document for Littlewoods. This was sad because I really wanted to finish the National Gallery, but it became apparent that there was no way I could do the museum and finish the work. Oh well.

My parents called from Spain in the evening. Spain is one hour later than the UK. They got into Seville on the 14th with my brother, and had been driving and working their way east since then. I had an ugly surprise when it turned out they weren't staying in Granada the city, but rather Granada the province -- the actual town they were in was on the Mediterranean about an hour away from Granada. Given their location I could have flown into Málaga and saved at least 100 pounds, and might not have made flight arrangements to stay an extra day in Granada town, which is an hour in the wrong direction. I threw an almighty fit on the phone to my father, which was probably uncalled for, though I was frustrated. The situation is equivalent to someone saying to you "we're going to New York for vacation. Come join us in New York!" and then when you arrive in New York City, you discover they're actually staying in Albany, New York State.

I also discovered that London literally shuts down on Christmas Day. There isn't even any public transportation -- the tubes and mainline trains are closed. This means I won't be able to do much of anything that day, which could end up being pretty boring. I'm thinking about last-minute options but am not sure what I'll be able to work out.

And the night dragged on, reviewing code all the while...

next week G.Triad Christmas Party; Spain.