Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Home again, home again & belated Berlin

So I think we last left our readers as we were hanging out in Berlin, still suffering from some fairly poor weather. Thankfully, that at least got better while we were in Germany - it hardly rained at all! We, however, were a bit "done" with being tourists. On our first day we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and wandered past remnants of The Wall. After that, however, Hank and I decided that a break was deserved and desperately needed. We'd spent over 2 weeks at that point looking at art & old buildings, traipsing through cobbled streets trying to figure out where we were and how to get where we wanted to go. Generally we were exhausted!

So, we took some time off and just sat around for a day, followed by a very leisurely day at the delightful Berlin Zoo. (I got no end of amusement in trying to pronounce the animal names as they were written in German... Das Hippos!!) I'm always quite partial to polar bears and otters. Hank's favorite was the primate building, specifically the squirrel monkeys that were running around generally looking crazy and ridiculously cute at the same time. One of them even had a teeny baby clinging to her back, and was still jumping from branch to pole to other branch as crazily as the rest of 'em.

After Berlin, we managed a quick final visit in London, where the always-delightful Amy gave us a place to stay for a few nights. We had a great pub night with friends, whom I think had sort of started to get used to us not being around. (I have a feeling they enjoyed the peace & quiet of the office, as well as giving Hank's replacement a chance to dig through the piles of mobile phones to actually discover whether there's actually a desk beneath them all!)

We've been home about 6 days as of today, and we both feel good to be back. Home is comfortable (if still a bit messy), the cats seem like they're back to their old (read: incredibly lazy & loud) selves. It's a bit of a shock to walk outside the front door and not be surrounded by the billions of people, busses and cabs whizzing past. It's peaceful, comfortable, and definitely shockingly quiet (by London standards, that is). We've seen a few groups of friends here and there - Molly came over the day we moved into the house to make sure we had things to eat - she brought some essential groceries...and ribs!! Home feels more like home when there's pork to be bbq'd (ok, maybe Hank doesn't share that opinion, but whatever).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Vienna, then our Czech-ered visit to Prague

We've not had really consistent internet access since we left Vienna, so thus the two-city summary post.

We departed Venice one evening, and arrived in Vienna the next morning - just like magic! OK, not that glamorous, but it was pretty easy to catch the night train between the cities. It was even more comfortable than I'd thought. Hank is standing here in front of the beds, and the other side of the compartment is literally inches from his back. It had a small area with some storage cubbies and our own private sink - natch. Sadly the weather had worsened by the time we arrived in Vienna, so we wound up having to purchase umbrellas, coats, and extra long sleeved shirts & pants just to avoid freezing to death. (OK, maybe it wasn't that cold, but it was pretty nasty when we'd packed expecting a continued European heat wave!!)

We started out the tour by visiting the palace & royal apartments, the museum of Empress "Sisi", and a few other areas. I have to say that I was MOST impressed with their display of baking dishes & accessories as soon as you walked into the royal china & silver museum -- that's a serious dedication to a love of baking!! (Molly, we thought of you all throughout the china displays... you'd have gone nuts.) We even managed to have a small patch of good weather during our walking tour of downtown Vienna, which was a nice treat.

However, the highlight of Vienna has to be visiting the cafes. I've heard of Viennoiserie and Viennese-style cakes before, and I even have an Austrian baking cookbook, but I've rarely had the opportunity to taste traditional Viennese pasteries. We first found a really lovely cafe called Demel where they had a viewing area to watch the pastry chefs rolling out strudel dough and pulling fresh cakes out of the ovens. The cakes themselves were just delights to see, not to mention utterly delicious to taste! There's a hotel called the Sacher Hotel where the Sacher Torte was invented. I'd had versions of Sacher Tortes before (chocolate cake with apricot jam, covered in thick chocolate ganache), but I never really liked them. Annie convinced me via IM that I really needed to try it once again, just to try it in its original form... I am so glad she did! It was awesome - really a moist and chocolatey cake (ones in the past had been pretty dry). Hank wasn't much of a fan, but he didn't leave any left for me to steal, so I can't think he disliked it that much.

Sadly the way things worked out was that our 3rd day in Vienna was a Sunday, and in Europe nothing is open on Sundays, really. So we chose that as a day to travel to Prague, having heard such great things about the city. On looking back on our visit, Prague I think had the most mixed feelings - it was an incredibly stunning city, but we had a bunch of crappy things happen.

When we arrived at the Prague train station, the cabbie who took our baggage into his questionably-driven car was immediately flagged down by a guy screaming at him and a police officer in tow. Wanting to avoid that situation entirely, we caught a different ride. The hotel we finally made it to was alright, a few hitches there (incompetent IT people who never fixed the wifi, bad desk service giving misleading information). Funny enough there was a really killer mexican restaurant 2 minutes away - something both Hank and I have been craving while living in the UK. (Apparently there are like 6 mexican restaurants in Prague, and I could only think of 2 in all of London, neither of which were all that great.)

We mostly just walked around beautiful old town Prague to look at different buildings, as well as did a tour of Prague Castle, but we also had a really fab walking tour giving the highlights of the city, and a fabulously bad driving tour out to a couple of smaller sites in C.R. The sites at which we stopped, a castle I can't recall the name of (at least until I pull the photos off my camera) and a city called Ceský Krumlov were themselves great stops. The castle had amazing carved walnut walls & ceilings, beautiful pictures and original furniture from the late 18th and 19th centuries. The city, Ceský Krumlov (photos to be posted soon, I swear) was stunningly beautiful - huge arches and a castle carved into the massive granite faces of the surrounding hills. However, we were only allowed to get out of the cramped van to spend about 45 minutes in each of these places. I've decided that a tour guide that points out advertisements on the side of the road, and tells you which the "agricultural minstry" building is is really worse than having no tour guide at all. But we've taken a collective deep breath from the mishaps, loved the non-crappy times we did have, and are now in Berlin.

Phew, ok, I think that's it. I've messed up my knee a bit, so am currently taking advantage of being forced to sit in one spot for a few minutes to be able to write this. Hopefully it'll get better tomorrow so we can check out some Berlin spots, and I can practice my newly learned skill of being able to count to 10 in German. Woo!!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Jesus, Mary, and... nope, mostly just them

Italy is filled with artwork. Jam-packed, I'd even say. The subject matter, however, is a tad limited. Our first full day in Florence had us visiting the Uffizi gallery, home of major Renaissance and Gothic artwork. Most of the remaining time in Florence can be boiled down to shopping, pizza, gelato, more shopping, and some more gelato! We found THE awesomest gelato place in the world just across the street from our hotel called Grom. They'd be scooping you the flavor you ordered, but in the mean time (those 30 seconds can be a long wait, you know) try these two other amazing flavors. The hotel itself was good, but I'd stay there again in a heartbeat just to have easy access to that gelato!

We saw a really wonderful rendition of the La Boheme opera (think "Rent" but in Italian, with fewer trannies) in a gorgeous Anglican church. It was the abridged version, as there were only four singers, but being able to hear something so moving in a small crowd in the acoustics that only old churches seem to offer was a great experience.

Florence itself is really a lovely city, but everything seems to pale in comparison to Venice. (The churches are bigger, the shopping is better, the food is more varied, and the crowds are more crowd-y.) My dad & stepmom happened to be finishing up a cruise in Venice at the same time as we visited, so we spent about a day with them. They had arranged for a private tour of a few places, so we tagged along to see the Doge's Palace, St Mark's Cathedral, and a few smaller churches showing the progress from Gothic to Renaissance design around the city. Laura, the tour guide, was amazingly informative. Hank and I usually take the "wander around until we find something cool" tourism approach, but it's a bit lacking in background... having Laura give explanations was really important in a place with such a rich history (and a bit sordid, stealing a saint's body in a basket full of hams like that!). The interior mosaics of St Mark's were absolutely breathtaking - the place is massively huge and just glowing with all of the tiny gold mosaic tiles. Even having seen beautiful cathedrals before, seriously, I have no frame of reference to compare this with. It was simply amazing.

Speaking of hams... I've become an expert in prosciutto & melon. Man, it's tasty stuff, such a perfect balance of sweet and salty, yum.

I've asked Hank what all he has to say thus far about our travels, which he summed up as, "Food good. Feet bad." Amen.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Moved out, moving on

The last couple of weeks have been a haze of packing, organizing, scheduling, and stress, but we've survived and are now ostensibly homeless, wandering through Europe (sounds romantic, eh?) But let's go back a few days and start from there.

Last Thursday was possibly one of the single most stressful and downright worst days I've had in a long time, possibly ever. Bleh. I'd had to reschedule the movers to Tuesday (requiring an additional night's stay in a hotel) because the ONLY time the inspector (hired to see what damage and chaos we've caused to our flat) could come was 11am on Thursday, the day before we were leaving the country. But the only time I could get a cleaner in was 9am on Thursday, so the flat was still a complete disaster when the inspector went through the flat with her clipboard of doom in-hand, pointing out each and every scuff mark, nick, bit of dust, and even pointed out to the cleaner how many things she's missed in her cleaning. So it'd turned out the cleaner I'd hired was good at wiping down surfaces, but not actually getting anything clean! She had to redo one bathroom 3 times, after I wound up re-doing the other bathroom after she'd cleaned it twice. I expressed my opinions to the cleaning company about what to do with her, but eventually they just told me that I had to follow her around the flat pointing out every single thing I wasn't happy with... it wasn't something I enjoyed (for those of you who think I actually would!!). It was like a scene from Mommy Dearest combined with the worst Martha Stewart-esque moments I've ever had.

So rather than being able to spend the day doing last-minute work I needed to get done, Hank and I were scrubbing walls. Then I realized the power charger that I was using to charge literally every single bit of electronic equipment I was taking on the trip with us wasn't working, so I needed to come up with 5 separate chargers. Then, when trying to find out where I could get one of the last chargers late in the evening, my laptop crashed! It was definitely a last-straw to my nerves... they crashed about as quickly as my hard drive. But really, from there it could only get better!! (Thankfully both hard drive & sanity are still operational.)

We met friends that evening at the greatest Tiki bar in London, had good drinks, good food, more good drinks, some drinks on fire... Despite it being a sad occasion on which we had to say farewell to lots of good friends, it was at least a lot of fun doing so.

The next morning, at a shiny 5am wake-up call, we flew to Florence. Right now Hank and I are in Venice, having spent our previous 3 days in Florence. We're quickly becoming experts on gelatto, pictures of the Virgin Mary (just ask us about plasticity of forms in renaissance painting!), and tragically expensive shoes (only tragic because we can't see spending that many Euros on them, but DAMN are they hot!).

Friday, August 24, 2007

One week left

So a week from today, Hank and I fly to Florence to begin about 2 weeks of vacation. I have such a hard time believing that it's really been a full year we've lived here! It's especially hard to believe that it's the end of summer, because we really have had a crappy summer in England. It's winding up to be the wettest summer on record... lucky us!!

In terms of the actual process of moving, this past week was crazy-insane just trying to get everything coordinated. I wound up having to reschedule the day the movers were coming to be a day earlier since the people who need to inspect our flat when we move out were incredibly inflexible about the one time they could show up. So coordinating our actual packing time with getting in cleaners, taking the cats to the airport, planning a two-week vacation, coordinating dinners and drinks with friends, AND Hank's birthday on Monday... crazy-insane, as I said. But at least there's been a good stock of dark chocolate at work, so the body count is fairly low.

Comparatively I haven't thought much about the vacation that we're going on - the whole moving thing has sort of been what I've been working on. But we're going to Florence & Venice, then depending on how timing work out, Vienna, Prague & Berlin. We realize it's a bit rushed to try to see all those places in just over 2 weeks, but at least it will give us ideas about what we'd want to come back to visit in the future. There are so many places that we still want to see that we didn't get to while living here... we'd need at least another 5 years over here! (And that's only if we don't have to work... I better start buying some lottery tickets.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Parisian Anniversary

For Hank's and my 5th wedding anniversary, we splashed out a bit and had a lovely long weekend trip to Paris. We found a really great deal on a 4* hotel in the area just by the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by quiet streets, tons of boulangeries, and gourmet cafes. I don't think we would have had nearly as good a time if Hank hadn't started eating fish a few weeks ago, however -- it's not a veg-friendly place, really. (Hank would have been just fine surviving on Nutella crepes, I'm sure, but it's always nice to have options.)

We did a lot of the basic touristy walking around bits - Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, those sorts of things. We also toured the inside of a fair number of shops - hey, it's the end-of-season sales... in PARIS! How could we not? We each bought a few things, and I found a baking store - natch. Picked up a nice new crepe pan and a few other bits for baking fun. Hank also picked up a very snappy beret, which he wore to work (all day at work, I should say) on our first day back. His French office mate had a few chuckles, but the girls in the office said he was tres chic. (Back off, ladies...)

We also went out to Versailles. The last time I'd been I really thought Versailles had been a disappointment - lots of dust bunnies in all the rooms, really nothing fabulous to see about it. This time we took a separate tour of the private rooms of Louis XIV - XVI, where they keep the bulk of the original furnishings that they've had to purchase back (it was mostly auctioned off during the revolution). The outside of the buildings were also in the process of being cleaned -- the place was really very wonderful and gave me more of the impression about how it would have been back in the day. The gardens are of course just massive - we barely made it through any of them due to exhaustion & the heat (we Brits aren't used to this thing you people refer to as "the sun"). I tried to convince Hank to take me on a paddle boat, but as I was suggesting that he do all of the paddling, I don't think we would have gone very far.

The food was, of course, stunning. We treated ourselves to La Table, one of Joel Robuchon's restaurants in Paris. The funniest part was actually the guy sitting next to us trying to order rose wine with dinner, to which the waiter said (in your best French waiter accent), "Non." It was the only moderately snooty service we had at all, and it wasn't at all directed towards us. I even had one of the waiters compliment my French... score! But the food overall was just so amazing. We had absolutely wonderful fresh fish dishes, and at La Table I had duck that I'll remember for the rest of my life! They also served us the richest mashed potatoes ever from personal ceramic crockery that they bring to the table and spoon gently (and artfully) upon your plate. There was a open-air market on Sunday just at the metro stop nearby our hotel that we walked through... everything looked just as perfect as Whole Foods, but without the Whole Paycheck prices. Perfect radishes to be eaten with butter & fleur de sel, whole (and I do mean whole) chickens, ducks and geese, zillions of cheeses and pasteries... it really made us miss California. I've long been trying to defend London food, but really after seeing just what anyone can pick up for a few Euros at a farmers market in Paris, I think I need to give London some tough love and say to put France in charge of food in England. It's such a travesty that the only place I can even see food that pretty is in Whole Foods that just opened up in Kensington (affording it is an entirely different matter).

Sorry, photos are still on the camera... but I'll post them to Flickr soon, I swear.

On the topic of coming home, Hank and I have just under 3 weeks left in London... sniff. I'm starting to wrap up projects, and arranging transportation for the cats, our stuff, and eventually ourselves back to California. (Can you believe that round-trip tickets cost about 1/3 less than one-way tickets?? What kind of math do they use??)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The rain in Spain falls mainly in...England?

OK, so I know I've been complaining to everyone that this summer has been raining constantly. I can count on one hand the number of times in the last 2 months that we've seen two non-rainy days together. We'll occasionally get a sunny afternoon, or *gasp* even a full 24 hours without rain. But then it turns back into truly crappy weather.

London itself (at the moment) isn't under the water that places just to the north, west & south of us are. But we've definitely had our fair share of impacts:
- Our building gym is flooded. It'd just been refurbished after flooding just before we moved in. Grrr.
- Most of the restaurants we tried to eat at within about 3 blocks of our flat had flooded last Friday.
- About 1/5 of the stores I saw in Notting Hill/Portobello Rd were closed last Saturday, at the height of tourist season, because their roofs had leaked or the sewer lines overflowing had flooded their basements.
- The tube system was at least 60% blocked (not just delayed) for most of Friday & a lot of Saturday.

So, when I said it was raining a LOT, you believe me now, dontcha??

BTW, our flat is on the 4th floor. We haven't needed to buy a boat. Yet.