Bellack in London
Week Seven: December 18-24, 2000

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dec 18 - dec 19 - dec 20 - dec 21 - dec 22 - dec 23 - dec 24
dec 18 After being up late working on the Littlewoods code review, I slept a bit late and worked from home in the morning, getting to work around 2pm. Not much got done at that point, because the G.Triad Christmas party started at 7pm.

The party was held at the "Chicago Rock Cafe" -- a 4th-rate Hard Rock Cafe rip-off at the tail end of Windsor High Street. About ten people from the office showed up. After a drink at the bar we sat down at the table and opened our Christmas crackers. Christmas crackers are a long-standing British tradition. They are cardboard tubes covered with wrapping paper and tied off about 1/3 and 2/3 of the way down the length. Everybody gets one -- you hold it at one end and your neighbor pulls on the other. There's a little bit of explosive stuff in it so when you yank it open you get a small 'bang'. Inside are three things: a tissue-paper crown for you to wear; a slip of paper with a horrible joke (like Bazooka Joe bubble gum but without the cartoon); and some kind of dippy little trinket (like the prizes in a box of Cracker Jack). We also had a tub of noisemakers and goofy props, so everybody got very silly very quickly (the alcohol helped here).

We were about halfway through the appetizers when Ossie, one of our programmers, slumped back in his chair. We didn't know what was going on, but he ended up arching backwards, with his head over the back of his chair and his eyes open but totally unconscious. It was extremely scary -- reminded me of the epileptic fits I've seen, except that he wasn't twitching -- just staring off into space. Everybody jumped back, and a couple of people got him onto the ground while someone called an ambulance. He was out for at least five minutes. By the time the ambulance got there he had regained consciousness but was still very tired and pretty out of it. The ambulance workers didn't understand what had happened -- "a guy passing out in a bar" is probably a common alcohol-related incident during the Christmas season. They took Ossie out to the ambulance to sit down for a bit, while we talked about what to do. Ossie apparently wanted to go home, but nobody wanted to let him go home alone, in case it happened again and nobody was there to help him. Some of his friends mentioned that he had lost a lot of weight recently, hadn't been feeling well, and had mentioned that using cellphones was giving him headaches -- not normal. Somebody finally convinced Ossie to go to the hospital, and Gerard (one of my staff, tall Irish project manager) went with him. We were understandably pretty subdued for a while. Hopefully Ossie will turn out to be OK -- we still don't know much about what happened.

The party did start to pick up again after a little while. Sarah and Steve (two of our salespeople) showed up soon (they were coming in from the Docklands office in London & traffic was bad). Sarah's a serious drink/party type so things started to get a bit more festive. We were almost done with dinner when the rest of the party showed up -- six of the finance/admin staff from Docklands, all women. This was Jeremy's idea, and mixing a batch of single London women with a batch of single Windsor programmers (aka men) made for a fun evening. After eating and drinking and drinking and drinking, we moved over to the bar area. The Chicago Rock Cafe plays a somewhat typical mix of "the best of the 60's, 70's, and 80's" -- plenty of Motown and "What I Like About You" type early-80's music. After a while they got into a bunch of British music that I'd never heard, including about five different Tom Jones songs. (Who knew he did anything other than "It's Not Unusual" and his cover of Prince's "Kiss"?) I was heartened to discover that The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," which is one of my favorite songs of all time, is a huge hit in the UK and is pulled out every Christmas. I was less excited to discover that even in the UK all mainstream parties will eventually devolve to the point of playing a "Grease" medley. Apparently the women of two continents can sing every word of every song by heart. Go figure.

Gerard made it back before the evening was over -- Ossie was better, and was going home with his sister. He wouldn't be in to the office for a while, obviously -- the doctors were going to run some tests and hopefully find out what was going on.

In any case, the evening was a lot of fun, including a somewhat absurd quantity of drink, stupid dancing, and casual flirting with women who, since I'm a co-worker and outrank all of 'em, are probably off-limits according to any rational sense of professionalism. Oh well. It was still a blast, and entirely too much fun to be having in a place called the "Chicago Rock Cafe." I shared a minicab home with Gerard and Darren, getting home around 2am or so.

dec 19 Felt a bit worse for wear this morning, but managed to get up early so I could finish this blasted code review. Worked from home again. I called into the office a couple of times, but between people on holiday and people at home nursing hangovers, it was almost totally empty. That seems to be typical of the UK -- the two weeks around Christmas and New Year's (the "Festive Season") are almost a full stop. Tried to go to work around 3:30pm, but the trains were delayed so after 45 futile minutes on the platform I gave up and went back to my apartment to finish the job. I needed to get my phone activated for International roaming, which meant calling Jeremy since his name was on the account so I couldn't make the change myself. This was easy, though. Got the code review off around 7pm. Started packing for Spain at that point, which involved doing some laundry and so forth. I was ready to wrap my presents around 10pm, but discovered that I didn't have any tape, which made the whole process pretty much moot. Finished packing, posted the journal for last week, and got some sleep.
dec 20 Travel to Spain. My flight was at 11:45am. I took the Underground to Heathrow because at 9am I wasn't sure how bad the traffic on the roads would be, plus I hadn't tried calling any minicab companies yet and didn't want to get stuck because my cab hadn't shown up. Got to the airport and onto my flight without incident. Flying over France and the Pyrenees was fun -- lots of tiny little fields, as opposed to the giant factory farms of the American Midwest, and the mountains were extremely dramatic-looking. Had a 2 1/2 hour stopover in Barcelona. International roaming on my phone worked fine. All of the Barcelona airport's announcements were in both Spanish and English, surprisingly. Even odder, the airport signs were in three languages -- Catalan, English, and Castillian (Spanish) -- in that order. Or maybe normal Spanish is Catalan & the first language was Castillian -- in any case, the point is that "normal" Spanish was the last language on the signs, not the first. The US seems to be really unusual as a country that has a standard language across such a huge geographical area. I assume this is because the US is such a recent country (relatively speaking), full of immigrants, and that the advent of mass communication means that the country's been able to stay more-or-less "in touch" instead of fragmenting and developing mutually incomprehensible dialects (which would then turn into separate languages). I think this is one of the hardest things for Europeans to understand when considering the US -- we may look unified to the outside world, but we're not just another smallish European country. The US has nearly as many people as all of Europe, which in my opinion means we have to be considered a little bit differently from the rest of Europe. This also explains why someone can live a full and varied life, move around a lot, and still never leave the US or get an international perspective on things.

Anyway, got some pesetas from a bank machine, bought a little Spanish/English dictionary (since dubbed "the meatball" by my brother for its small-and-square nature), and got lunch at a fast-food Spanish place called "Tip Top Tapas." Then caught my plane, which involved a trip on a bus out to where the plane was parked and then walking up a staircase -- no handy-dandy walkways here, thank you very much.

Got into Granada on time around 6:40pm. [Spain is one hour later than the UK, FWIW.] My parents + brother were there to pick me up, as planned. We went into downtown Granada, parked the car, and took a taxi to Mirador de Morayma, a restaurant way up a hill in the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter of the city. The Albaicín is all narrow winding streets that are packed solid with houses and have no sidewalks -- a layout that's clearly medieval if not earlier, and designed without the foggiest idea of cars -- I imagine even horses would have trouble on some streets. For this reason lots of people in Spain ride little scooters -- it's the only way to get around effectively. That didn't stop our cabbie from whipping around the curves like a madman. Improbably we got stuck waiting for a bus to come around one of the curves -- it didn't seem physically possible for a bus to get in to these streets.

Anyway, the restaurant is in an old villa, behind a solid oak door. There's an outdoor patio that must be beautiful in the summer. We sat inside, and were almost the only people in the place -- ah, the glories of visiting somewhere off-season. Being on a hill in the Albaicín gave the Mirador an incredible view of the Alhambra, whose turrets and walls are lit up with spotlights at night. The food was excellent, including a Spanish tortilla with some sort of obscure meat element (brain? tongue? better not to know). FWIW, a Spanish 'tortilla' is really an omelet-type dish, not a flatbread as in the US/Mexico. It turned out that my college Spanish, combined with the meatball dictionary, served me well, and I was able to communicate pretty well with the waitress.

After dinner we drove back to Almuñecar, the seaside village where my parents had gotten an apartment share. This took about an hour. Almuñecar was similarly abandoned due to the off-season. We're staying in what's basically a three-bedroom apartment, with a kitchen & everything. Everything's marble and mirrors, which ends up being fairly cheesy. I gave everyone their Christmas presents, which went over well, after which Adam (my brother) and I sat out on the balcony smoking the Cohibas I'd given him as a present, looking out over the town, a mass of white houses which spread up a hill and reached the ruins of a Moorish castle at the top. Very nice. Went to bed around 2am.

dec 21 Lazy, lazy day. After sleeping in, we piled in the car and drove off to La Herradura, the next beach town over, stopping briefly at the top of a hill to take some spectacular pictures of the beach, the mountains, and the Mediterranean. In La Herradura we walked across the grey, pebbly beach and found a beachfront tapas bar called El Chambao de Joaquin, where we sat all afternoon drinking a great beer called Alhambra Reserva and eating tapas, including an amazing dish of asparagus, shrimp, garlic, and scrambled egg; and another of jamon (Spanish smoked ham) and melon. The view was great, too. Unfortunately Joaquin's giant paella is only prepared on Saturday & Sunday, or else we would've stayed for that as well.

Back in Almuñecar, my parents & I walked into the center of town to look at the Roman aqueduct, which is in an excavation about 20 feet below road level. It probably wasn't that impressive as Roman artifacts go, but I'd never seen anything like it before so I was impressed. I'm actually amazed at how much detritus builds up over the years, taking an aqueduct that stood about 15 feet off the ground 2000 years ago and covering it up with so much dirt that an entire town could be built on top of it.

For dinner we went into the old part of the town -- more narrow winding streets climbing a steep hill. At the base of the hill we discovered La Bodega Del Jamon, which basically means "the Ham Store." This was true. Hams in Spain are prepared with the entire leg of a pig, so what you get in the store is about thirty hanging piglegs that look like giant drumsticks, but with the hooves still on. These hams are huge -- anywhere between 2 feet and 5 feet long. I was sorely tempted to buy one just so I could hang it in my kitchen and freak out visitors.

After asking directions we found the location of our chosen restaurant, Horno de Candida, which was up a hill around a bunch of confusing curves. This was another restaurant recommended by the Rough Guide to Andalucía, and like the Mirador last night was someplace excellent that we never would have found without the book's recommendation. The Horno de Candida is the restaurant of Almuñecar's hotel school, which meant that all the food was covered in elaborate creamy sauces. It was all excellent, though, including an appetizer of red peppers stuffed with seafood, coated in some sort of breading, and drenched in a bowl of creamy sauce. This was arguably a perfect dish. Dinner was great too -- I had an excellent chorito (kid) stew, and my brother had avestruz (ostrich) with roquefort coating, among other great food. We finished with an after-dinner water that was flavored with fresh apricots and cinnamon. Unfortunately I thought it was going to be a strong drink and threw mine back like a shot -- it's meant to be sipped. So after another two shot glasses of the stuff I had a raging headache. It didn't taste of alcohol but I'm sure there was something in it. We slumped back to the hotel in culinary bliss to sleep it all off.

dec 22 Alhambra day. We got up early to drive into Granada. We had great views of the mountainous Spanish countryside. We passed through a gorge with small cliffs in the sides -- it was easy to imagine Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons crawling into the caves to sleep. That's a vastly different feeling than driving around the US, because if you think about Native Americans roaming the US, you know that they were migrants over the Bering Strait; you don't have the tradition of the human race actually evolving in the place where you live. Anyway, we also drove past another near-perfect Spanish hilltown (the white houses covering the entire hill, the Moorish castle on the top, the Sierra Nevada in the background). We got to Granada around 9:45am and parked downtown to walk around.

There was some dissent at this point, because it turns out the main reason for arriving so early (our Alhambra tickets weren't until 11am) was so that I could look around for a leather jacket. I had mentioned that I wanted to look for leather goods (Spanish leather is apparently very high quality), but didn't mean for the whole family to have to sit around while I perused. So after a brief freakout of confusion we looked in some shops but didn't find anything. By then it was time to visit the Alhambra. Alhambra tickets are timed, so we had to enter the main palaces between 11am and 11:30am.

Writing about the Alhambra is bound to be a mix of history lesson and florid adjectives -- it's that incredible, and that steeped in the history of Spain. The Alhambra is a palace city on a great hill overlooking the city of Granada. It was the capital of the Nasrid Kings -- the last dynasty of Moorish (aka Islamic) Spain, from the 1200s to 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city and exiled Boabdil, the final Nasrid King. Part of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, a great fortress that was the military base of the palace city. The top of the foremost tower gives commanding views of Granada and the surrounding town. The main element of the Alhambra, and the reason for its great fame, is the palace complex of the Nasrid Kings. It's a sequence of buildings that enclose a series of elegant gardens and palace chambers. Every garden and room is laid out with exquisite geometry and harmony, and every room is covered in incredibly detailed ornamentation, including repeating geometries that inspired M.C. Escher and stylized Arabic poetry of praise to Allah, the Nasrid Kings, and the very rooms they adorn. The palace was greatly damaged over the years -- the Spanish Emperor Charles V built a bloody great Renaissance palace in the middle of the complex in the 16th century, after which the whole hill was abandoned for years, and became the dwellingplace of many poor Granadans. It was used as a barracks when Napoleon conquered the city; on their retreat Naploeon's army mined the hill and tried to blow up the entire complex. Despite the accumulated damage (almost all of the painted decoration has faded or been rubbed off), the palaces are still unique monuments that inspire great emotions. It's the sort of place that should be visited by a couple in the midst of a passionate romance -- it must be the lingering ambiance of the kings' wives and consorts (the word 'harem' is a bit exaggerated but not entirely inappopriate).

Anyway, we had a very nice afternoon exploring the Alcazaba, the Nasrid palaces, and even Charles V's renaissance palace, which is actually a very interesting building with a circular courtyard in the middle of a big square building. For lunch we had some nice tapas (including excellent smoked sheep cheese) in the Parador, a former convent on the Alhambra hill that's been converted into a state hotel. My brother wasn't feeling well, though, so after lunch we went into Granada to find something for his stomach. I got to give my Spanish a workout asking the guy in the Farmacia for medicine -- "¿Tiene algo para dolor de estomago?" After a bit more shopping (parents bought an antique engraving of the Alhambra) we headed back to Almuñecar. My brother stayed home while my parents and I went to a cosy little restaurant in town called La Almazara, near La Bodega del Jamon. I had an excellent Sopa de Ajos (Garlic Soup) -- a traditional Andalucian dish, sort of like French onion soup, but with garlic, and with an egg in the bottom, which makes it a bit like Chinese egg drop soup. In any case it was excellent and so filling I almost didn't need dinner. Dinner was Paletilla de Ibérica -- shoulder of a special breed of Iberian pig. It had been marinated, and just barely grilled, leaving the middle nearly raw. It was probably the best piece of meat I have ever eaten in my life -- totally tender, amazingly tasteful. The proprietor was really friendly, too -- a great evening.

dec 23 My family dropped me off in Granada this morning before they headed off to Seville. This gave me a day left to my own devices. After checking in to the hotel (Meliá Granada, very nice three-star place), I went out to wander around a bit. I found an old Moorish merchants' inn called the Corral del Carbón. An incredible horseshoe arch -- nicely decorated though decayed, and opening onto a central square with an old stone hitching post & pool of water. Inside was a great little tourism office where I found a book on the Alhambra and two excellent posters. I also visited an ornate mihrab (room for prayer) inside the Palacio Madraza, the old University. Some Muslim men were admiring the mihrab too -- they had a clear emotional reaction to seeing such an elaborate monument to their religion.

I got lunch at Pilar de Toro, a sleek patio bar playing funky music that's probably a nighttime hotspot in Granada. After eating I had some time to kill, because Spanish businesses close in mid-afternoon for siesta and don't reopen until between 3:30pm and 5pm. I walked down the edge of the Albaicín, getting some nice views up the hill at the Alhambra, and then went through the Archaeology Museum. Then I headed into town to visit the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), where Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. It's highly embellished on the outside, but the inside is stark -- very few windows, unlike the cathedrals I've seen in France and the UK. What decorations there are are florid -- great altars modelled with gilded figurines (instead of just having paintings). The overall sense is that Spanish Catholicism is about something quite different (and more menacing) than the northern European religious monuments I've seen. FWIW this is another example of Napoleonic desecration -- his troops opened Ferdinand and Isabella's coffins and did nasty things to the bodies (which might not even be in the coffins any more).

Granada's cathedral is next to the Capilla Real. It's a very odd building -- unfinished (no tower), but what is done is immense -- inhumanly tall, white plaster/stone pillars, niches filled with more florid gilded sculpture collections. It's ludicrously overlarge, and feels almost forced. It's built on the site of Granada's mosque. As I understand it, mosques are generally big enclosed spaces, since prayer can happen in any part of the structure, so the Granada cathedral might be huge in an attempt to scale up a cathedral in order to cover over the foundations of the mosque it replaced. But the effect is impersonal and somewhat creepy. Also amusing were the little coin boxes next to each sculpture niche -- "insert 25 pesetas for artistic lighting."

Afterward I stopped in a ceramics store run by a Scottish woman and bought some souvenirs and presents, then went back to the hotel to rest up a bit. Dinner was more garlic soup and some salmon at Mesón Andaluz, where I spent some time reading Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra. Irving (the "Legends of Sleepy Hollow" author) lived in the Alhambra for a few months in 1832, and wrote a collection of legends of the Nasrid kings and stories of his encounters with the inhabitants of the Alhambra. Then I went to Bar-Restaurante Sevilla, next to the Capilla Real. Sevilla is one of the few pre-war bars in Granada, and was apparently a big writer's hangout back in the Federico García Lorca days. I was getting a beer when I stumbled on an incoherent conversation between an American couple currently living in Amsterdam and a very drunk Spanish gentleman who was trying to get across some important point about the US elections in very fractured English. I didn't do much better with my fractured Spanish, though I did have a good time falling in with the Amsterdam couple, who were definitely the worse for wear after dropping out of US society and spending two years in a city where marijuana is legal. We did some serious drinking in the Sevilla, then wandered around until we found another bar where we did yet more drinking. Eventually the novelty of casual flirting with the guy's girlfriend wore off for three reasons -- 1) it was obviously futile, 2) her increasingly irritated boyfriend was bigger than me, and 3) I was pretty damn drunk. So I made my goodbyes and went back to the hotel to sleep it off.

dec 24 I slept in as long as possible Sunday morning, but had to get up in order to catch my plane back to Barcelona and then London. There was a torrential downpour when I boarded the plane in Granada -- I was surprised the flight wasn't delayed. I later found out there was a huge ice storm in Granada after I'd left. The flight was fine, though, and I killed another 2 hours in Barcelona airport before arriving back in London -- surprisingly quiet for 6pm on Christmas Eve, when I would've expected a packed airport full of arriving relatives. I caught a cab back to Putney, where I realized that I had no food in the house and everything would be closed tomorrow (Christmas Day). So I rushed out to the Cullens (halfway between a grocery store and 7-11, the only thing open at 7:30pm) where I bought some ground beef, potatoes, and fixins -- meat loaf and mashed potatoes, there's a festive Christmas dinner. I would've invited my downstairs neighbors up for dinner but they weren't around. So I made dinner and then went to bed. Overall a really excellent vacation, and since I didn't get to Seville or Córdoba I have an excuse to return to Andalucía someday.
next week Christmas Day; Boxing Day; National Gallery