Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Bonne Année! (For reals, yo.)

Captain’s Log. Week 2 (or so) of Holiday expedition. London, England.

The Brit and I made it to London on the 29th with little to no hassle (unlike another Eurostar trip or two that I know of), albeit a bit exhausted from a long day. As we dragged ourselves, and our bags (well, the Brit dragged mine), off the tube, up the stairs and in the vague direction of our hotel, who should we run into but Dino, Roomie, and Ray! Actually, what happened was this: I was sluggishly crawling out of the tube station, when I heard an excited squeal and a yelp that sounded something like my name, and was then engulfed by a large, black, puffy jacket, which when disengaged revealed itself to be a couple of bouncing, blond curls, also known as Roomie. Dino and Ray got hugs too, and after a round of introductions, dropping the bag off at the hotel, and saying goodnight to Ray, the four of us made our way over to a pub for a well deserved beer. After which we ‘crashed out,’ as the Brit says.

Birds of a feather…

It was Roomie’s first time in London, and lucky her – she had four excellent guides: two natives, and two…not so natives. Joining Roomie, Dino, the Brit and I for our goings about town was Mr. VK (another member of the anglais persuasion), who in his free time shows little Italian children around the British Isle, and so became the lead tour guide in our day’s excursion. The day’s events included the following (some images borrowed, sources cited):

  • The British Museum: Where Roomie stood next to an Easter Island statue (stolen from Easter Island), where we saw a bunch of mummies (stolen from Egypt), where Dino took us to see clocks (stolen from…?) and where we discovered a not-ancient crystal skull (stolen, but with no vodka inside – what a shame).

  • The Walking Tour of Everything: From Big Ben to Westminster. Okay, so that’s not a very far distance, but we did walk up and down Oxford street for what seems like ages, and over to Buckingham palace and the place where the guards are on horses, Carnaby Street and Trafalgar square (for a quick stop into the National Gallery), and all of this under a steady drizzle.
  • St. James’ Park: What distracted us from the infamous view of Buckingham Palace were the birds. Some, recognizable (pelicans, swans, gulls, pigeons, ducks, geese), some not-so-recognizable (check out the little guy below). This is also the Land of Very Brave Squirrels, as evidenced by one that tried to climb up Roomie’s leg.

  • The Crazy Candy Shop: Cyber Candy, where they have almost everything you could want, including Nerds (which is apparently what gets Mr. VK excited). Image courtesy of Dino.

The Italian Job

Now, this actually happened on the 30th, just like the rest of the events described above, but it’s very special and deserves its own section. Not because the food was exceptional (it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful, either), but because the service was…Bean-tastic, shall we say. And we ought to have guessed.

Clue number one: If you find three Italian restaurants in a row in Chinatown, remember you’re in Chinatown.

Clue number two: If your tour guide’s recommendation of “They’re all amazing!” is followed by “Well, I think so…I was pretty smashed, so I don’t remember much of any of them.,” do keep that in mind.

Clue number three: If the one restaurant you choose to enter calls itself ‘The Italian Restaurant,’ it probably isn’t.

Clue number four: If the staff avoids eye contact for more than 15 minutes while you huddle around the hostess stand, they’re probably not going to be much more helpful when you’re seated.

Clue number five: If they offer you the basement, just don’t do it.

Clue number six: If your waiter looks like Mr. Bean, and if your waiter acts like Mr. Bean, he probably is Mr. Bean. And that’s about the level of service you can expect

Well, here’s what happened. We weren’t seated for ages, and when we finally were, we were stranded in the Twilight Zone. The Italian waiter took an instant dislike to Mr. VK, for some reason (maybe something he’d done last time, something that he doesn’t remember?), and brought out four meals, completely ignoring Mr. VK’s appetizer and pizza. When we finally reminded him of the appetizer, he brought it down in a not-so-timely manner. He then must have completely forgotten about the pizza, and when his manager came downstairs, we reminded that bloke about poor Mr. VK’s dinner; of course, being yelled at by his manager probably didn’t put the Italian Waiter in a very good mood – so the pizza still didn’t show up.

In the mean time, the rest of us ate our meals. We were interrupted by the following events:

  • The couple at the next table over dined and dashed, I’m pretty sure.
  • An old man came down the stairs, turned on a string of Christmas lights, and went back up.
  • A woman brought down a little boy and girl, had them use the restroom, said something in French, then shuttled the troops up stairs.
  • Mr. VK went to the bathroom, at which point the Italian waiter attempted to descend the stairs, saw he was missing, decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort, heaved the heaviest sigh in the Twilight Zone, and marched back up.

Finally, some waitress must have been banished to the basement, because she appeared out of nowhere and had Mr. VK’s pizza down in 15 minutes; the rest of us had finished eating, of course, and we were all itching to go. The Italian waiter came back around, pulled out his pad as though to take our dessert orders, then said “No.” and walked away.

By the time we got our bill, he’d added a charge for a bottle of still water that was supposedly on the house and we (minus Mr. VK) were hungry again. Incredibly tempted to dine and dash as our fellow diners had earlier, we resisted the urge by paying for the meal but not leaving any tip what so ever (not even the “included” service charges). It was, on one hand, a truly abysmal dining experience; but on the other, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strange parade of events occur around a meal, and the food itself wasn’t half bad, so….

The last day of two thousand and nine.

To end 2009 we went and saw really big things.

  • Dinosaurs: I can’t decide if I was more impressed by the dinosaur bones in the exhibit, or the design of the exhibit and the building itself. If not for the dinosaurs, I think the Natural History Museum would be worth a visit anyway: the over-the-top ornament (with monkeys scaling beak-footed columns), while not my aesthetic, can certainly be appreciated for its technical skill.

  • An enormous column: Or, the V&A museum, which houses a plaster cast of an enormous obelisk from Italy, to be precise. Of all the things in the V&A, (and we saw quite a bit – architectural models, glass work, silver work, jewels, clothing…) I think I was most impressed by the object pictured below.

  • Fireworks! We arrived at the Thames at 18:00, and there were already plenty of people there. Luckily, we managed to find a spot almost directly across from the London Eye, and so had quite the view of the show. For the next six hours, we shivered in our boots (the heat packs stuffed by our toes stopped working after hour 2), chowed down on sandwiches and gummy candies, and tried not to listen to the DJ’s terrible taste in music. But the chattering teeth and frozen toes were worth it – the show was incredible. My favorite bit was when they filled the sky with golden fireworks.

…and the first of two thousand and ten.

It snowed for a few minutes after the fireworks as we weaved our way through the crowd searching for the nearest tube station; I’m told that’s supposed to be good luck, but it wasn’t helping us find the tube! We wandered for at least an hour before we finally found an open station that wasn’t stuffed to the brim with people, and chugged our way back to the hotel, where we met up with a friend of the Brit’s for a champagne toast and a couple of rounds of Catchphrase.

After napping away the early hours of 2010, we perked up as our tummies started grumbling. They led us to some street food (a sausage with fried onions, ketchup and mustard in a hot dog bun – mmmm) and then to wander down the Thames River Walk to burn off those oh-so-tasty calories. We dropped off the Brit’s friend near Tower Bridge, and then headed to grab some dinner before one of the coolest things in the world: The Lion King, the musical.

Dinner was at Sophie’s Steakhouse (near Covent Garden), and the theater where we saw The Lion King was only a few steps away. The food and service were much, much, much better than at The Italian Restaurant. I had fish pie, it was some of the tastiest fish pie I’ve eaten (by the way, whoever said English food is bad was lying – I quite like fish pie and fish and chips and bangers and mash and Yorkshire pudding…). The Brit wasn’t feeling too well, but after we drugged him (hush you, the over-the-counter pain-killer kind of drugs) he was in better spirits and ready for the awesome that is The Lion King, the musical.

Now, did I mention how amazing the musical version of The Lion King is? There are reviews abound, so I won’t bother with the details, but will let you know that the costumes were fantastic (both amazing and fantastical), the guy that played Zazu was brilliantly witty (more than filled Rowan Atkinson’s animated shoes), and the wildebeest scene was a surprisingly authentic reproduction of the film. You’ll just have to go see it to know what I mean.

And that, dear readers, ends our stay in London. Dino, Roomie and I said our good-byes to the Brit early the next morning as we boarded the Eurostar to pillage and plunder Paris. But that is a story for another day…

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Bonne Année!

The French tradition of being allowed to say “Happy New Year” to anyone you meet for the entire month of January is one that gets old, quick. Say, for example, when you’ve met the same person for the 5th time, and their enthusiasm for the New Year does nothing but remind you that you never made it past day one of your resolutions.  On the other hand, it means I can get away with wishing all my readers Happy New Year on January 23rd, and, since it is technically only the second time I’ve “met you” in 2010, you can’t be terribly annoyed, yes?

If you’ll recall, I jumped right into 2010 with the last post, but before Ye Old Year was kicked’th out, there was some Christmas revelry and London-visiting, news of which has yet to make it to these digital pages. And, as you can imagine, it’s quite difficult to cram three weeks of fun into one tiny little blog post, so we’ll take it a week (or so) at a time…

Captain’s Log. Week 1 (or so) of the Holiday expedition. Paris, France.

Trouble on the horizon

It’s not a story-worthy adventure unless it starts with some technical troubles (so that later on, when the Captain regrets forging on despite the tiny leak-producing crack which has now become a full-blown canyon, the tech support guy in India can say “I told you so.”). Our technical troubles coincided with those of thousands of other travelers trying to cross the English Channel on that fateful December weekend. Through BBC articles and Facebook updates, you can piece together our story: Eurostar trains stopped in the Chunnel. Travelers trapped for hours. Eurostar authorities apologize for snow-induced delays. Travelers scheduled to travel over the weekend re-routed to Monday and Tuesday trains. Tuesday travelers (i.e. the Brit) urged to not travel unless necessary.  The Brit arrives at St. Pancras at 06:00 on a Wednesday morning. Eurostar authorities maintain that travelers should avoid travel and that tickets will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The Brit queues in circles (sounds more French than British). Acquires ticket a few hours later and boards Paris-bound train. More weather-related delays on the tracks. Wilting Brit arrives at Gare du Nord at 14:30. Nap ensues.

Jours de fêtes at the Grand Palais

An indoor county fair in the winter. The French sure seem to have somethings backwards...

We met up with that French friend of mine from an earlier post, who now merits a nick-name, having two blog-mentions. Let’s call her Bleue. Bleue and her boyfriend, Norm, met the Brit and I at the Grand Palais, where we wandered around under its enormous steel-framed glass arches soaking up the sights and sounds of an indoor fair. A bit too scared to try any of the truly crazy rides (my mind spins fast enough by itself, thanks, I needn’t have it spin on multiple axes) we did have a go at the bumper cars, or l’auto-tamponeuse. We then wandered down the Champs-Elysées (always a sight to see, but more-so with all the Christmas lights), did a twirl around the giant ferris wheel, la Grande Roue, at the Place de la Concorde, and then hunted down dinner. Well, not literally, but we did try one recommended place, only to be told it was too busy. So we wound up at our second choice, which turned out to be not so bad at all.  At le Tambour, I had my first taste of rabbit (lapin in a mustard-y creamy sauce) and a French wine called Saumur, which is right up there with Brouilly in my books now.

Dinner and a movie (or vice-versa), Christmas-style.

My family has always gone to the movies for Thanksgiving and over Christmas. It’s one of the few times we’re all in the same place, and there’s usually a blockbuster that everyone can agree on. Well, everyone but my Mom, whose vote doesn’t count because she’ll fall asleep in the theater no matter what movie we go to. So in proper Raja-family tradition, the Brit and I went to watch a movie on Christmas Eve. I was surprised the theaters were open, as I thought the French would take any opportunity not to work – but I suppose there are some French people who fancied going to the movies over the holidays as well, and the poor folks had to work at the caisses anyway. We watched Avatar, in 3D (with the cool tech-y looking glasses, not the fake paper ones). Now, a movie review in three parts: not too thrilled with the plot, somewhat impressed by the 3-D, somewhat more impressed by the world-making. It catches your eye while your watching it, but falls flat in retrospect.

Since we couldn’t participate in my family’s (now) tradition of going to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and White Elephant gift-giving, we decided to borrow the Brit’s “Christmas dinner” as best we could. I had only recently gotten approval for using the oven (which wasn’t as complicated as Mimi made it out to be), and so was a bit wary about preparing an entire bird, and for only two people. Instead, we put ourselves at ease by purchasing dishes from Picard and reheating them in the oven. Which sounds not so tasty, until you realize that even frozen French food is better than some fresh-made American food. And then we slept. Here are some images of our coma-inducing meal (or meals, as the leftovers lasted us through the weekend).

First course: tomato soup, baguettes and turkey, mushroom and foie gras-stuffed pastries.

Main meal: Indian-style jumping potatoes, some more baguette, mixed vegetables, two types of chicken and green beens wrapped in bacon. Tossed down with some more Saumur, of course.

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Sleep and other escapades

The rest of the Brit’s stay in Paris included plenty of sleep, many more movies (I couldn’t believe he’d never seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!) and a bit of venturing out into the chilly weather. When we dared to face the brisk Parisian breeze, we did things like queue for an hour to ice-skate for 40 minutes at the Hôtel de Ville, or wander around looking at Christmas decorations, or walk six miles in a day to explore the Parc de la Villette and the adjacent St. Martin Canal (which, by the way, is beautiful even in the winter time), or go visit a swish pedestrian bridge and take silly pictures with statues in a park.

Me, ice-skating. Or rather, standing precariously in the way of rink traffic as the Brit tries to quickly snap a shot with my overly-complicated camera.

Huuuuuuge tree at the Galleries Lafayette. It was at least 4-storeys tall!

The Brit in front of the planetarium at the Cite des Sciences, by the Parc de la Villette.

Swish bridge, aka the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir.

Silly picture.

Until next time, fellow explorers, when we’ll uncover the mysteries of great Eye of London.

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What do Eminem and I have in common?

Um, well…we’re back. And, I suppose, that at times I can be a bit shady, and that once upon a time, I was slim.

These last few weeks have been incredibly crazy. Between having the Brit over for Christmas, heading up for some gallivanting in London, and then having more friends than I have fingers bustling about for a week or so after, I barely had time to finish my scholarship applications, much less blog! But…all that is now a safe distance away, and after a cozy Saturday curled up in bed with a few movies as the rain tapped on my (still-paper-snowflake-covered) window, I was ready to hit the town.  And so I did, in a manner of speaking.

Jim Haynes is the type of person with whom you feel immediately comfortable. And it’s not just the twinkle in his eye and his rosy cheeks that lend him a Santa Clause-y air: the evening he offers is a veritable gift for those able to attend. An apron wrapped around his torso, seated on a wooden stool and notebook in hand, he shook our hands with smile peeking out from below his mustache.

A bit of background info: Aussie called me with some info on an underground dining adventure, one of those “best kept secret” deals, dinner chez Jim. Every Sunday for the last 30 years, Jim has hosted thousands of strangers, people unknown to him, and to the rest of his guests. Over glasses of wine, bottles of beer and a delicious three-course meal prepared by Jim and his friends, strangers become acquaintances, and in some cases, much more.

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to meet (among others): an architect from Sydney, an interior designer from Charlotte, NC, a communications consultant from Mexico, a geo-physicist from Italy, and an immunology student from China. Dinner consisted of a potato salad appetizer, followed by boeuf bourguignon, green beans and mashed potatoes, and an apple crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert. If you wanted seconds, they were up for grabs – in both the food and the alcohol department.  Plenty of interesting conversation and delicious food, all for a small donation (small by Parisian standards, that is).

The evening was a great way to break out of my hermit-ing (understandable, after three weeks of continuous travel), and I can’t wait to go back!

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