“I Drank What?”

20 October, Saturday: “Coal: the old nuclear”

“Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, ‘I drank what?'”
Val Kilmer, Real Genius

A very late start today. Poor Ivan — he has failed chemistry class, and is out for the count. Learned before we leave today:

  • Those weren’t 8 nuclear reactors we saw today. They’re coal-burning. Whoa.
  • Some flats here don’t come with a stove. You have to buy or rent one.
  • Same with a fridge.
  • And heat(!).
  • Renters pay property tax.
  • There’s a laid back way of things here. It took Bill and Sherry nine months to get a gas bill, for instance. There’s not as much convenience here as a Canadian or American might be used to.
  • Bill makes amazing French toast! He says the secret is Canadian maple syrup, but that can’t only be it. Sure the skill of the cook factors in?

We head out for lunch and a 2:30pm morning cup of coffee (after all, it *is* 6:30 am in Seattle) at the Cinema, a cafe with great espresso and an even better aubergine curry. Ivan orders nothing. Rather, he stares intently at a non-existent piece of dust in the air several yards away, when he’s not sleeping. Poor, poor Ivan. I bring him a glass of water and some mango juice. Still images of classic films are shown via projector onto a large wall in the cafe: The Big Lebowski. City of Lost Children. The Border…

We’re off to Edinburgh via Virgin Trains right now. Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Trains, Virgin Records, Virgin Megastore, Virgin Energy, Virgin Atlantic airlines seems to have a Gatesian quality in the ownership of many aspects of British life. The trains have a reputation for being late, and our train has the added distinction of being overcrowded. We’re SRO for a stop or two before we settle in for the 3 1/2 hour journey North, to meet my friend Mary’s friends Kenneth and Chris. Chris asked me if I wanted to do a little design work when I phoned them yesterday. I’m not averse to making a bit of coin while I’m here.

I picked up Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”, at Bill and Sherry’s recommendation. An American writer, he lived here for 20 years with his British wife and reflects upon the cultural idiosyncracies here before their move to the United States.

Another long journey, and we’re thankful to arrive in Edinburgh. A cab ride takes us to Kenneth and Chris’s flat in the Stockbridge neighborhood, which they describe as a sort of trendy district. It’s a great place — spacious, tastefully decorated, and filled with four Macintoshes! It looks like I’ll be helping Chris put together the design for a CD cover and booklet for a BBC film archive disc he’s made, containing mostly audio clips and some video footage of old BBC shows. He describes it as a remix for a new generation.

Kenneth is a cinematographer. He was here this summer to talk to Mary about a film project she’s interested in doing next year. I pass him an envelope from her friend Tom, a fisherman he’s interested in sailing to Alaska with next summer in order to film fishing boat adventures there. Tom has given Kenneth a couple of crosshatched renderings of what he might expect — it looks like he’s going to be quite cold up there.

Ivan and I are hungry. His hunger is much worse, though — it’s that post-hangover hunger that immediately hits when the alcohol has left your system, and a tad before the healing begins. Fortunately, across the street, is a restaurant that serves… Mexican food! The burritos aren’t bad… it’s a little strange hearing “Oye Como Va” at a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh, though.

Two Americans are sitting at a table next to us (do we all sound that nasal? Wow…), and discussing websites. Maybe they’re from Seattle? Or maybe they’re unemployed, like Ivan and I, remembering the Age of the Great Extraction of Cash from Large Corporations. Hmm…

“Poison Ivy” with Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt is on BBC 4 tonight. To be fair, we get that karma back when PBS shows “Are You Being Served Again?”

The UK version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ allows a contestant the chance to win one million pounds! That’s like 1.5 million dollars! Great deal, that. I wonder if the Italian version is one million lire. That’s what… 10 dollars?

And they’ve got ‘Lost’, the show where they drop three groups of two contestants at a secret location. They end up getting planted in Venezuela, and have to find their way to London, via Martinique. Really, though, they just have to get to Martinique, and book last-minute flights home with money provided when they get to Martinique. (Where’s the sport in that? Ivan and I have spent several hours doing that this trip…)

Anyway, one of the teams drops out, and one of those team members is happy to be done with it. The film crew follows him home to his wife, kid and dog, and they rent ‘Friends’ videos and order kebabs for delivery. I was thinking that the episode should have started filming here. The show would be called ‘Lost’, but a person is dropped at a location known to them (say, in front of the living room tv with kebabs and Friends videos) and then has to discover themselves through risk-taking. Maybe they become gurus or something in the process.

Swearing and nudity are allowed on television here. Most of the swear words are British, so I have little idea what they mean, and why they are swear words in the first place. Pratt? Bugger? Londoner?

As I write this entry at Kenneth’s place, a group of women are returning from a pub and very loudly singing “Summer Nights”.

I like the vibe here — it’s a bit more laid back than London.

Ivan, post-absinthe, on a Virgin Train to Edinburgh.

Dooks, member of the All Stars.

Kenneth and Dooks explain the finer points of Scottish comedy.

Sunday, 21 October: “FECK! ARSE! DRINK!”

Chris keeps me busy today after breakfast. I spend most of the day helping him design the CD cover and booklet. We order in Chinese food and watch ‘Father Ted’. One of the characters, Father Jack Hackett, is so memorable that I’ve ended up shouting his curse words sporadically, sort of like Irish Tourette’s, to this day.

Later, on a mini pub crawl, I find out I’m sitting next to Mark O’Donnell, part of a Scottish TV comedy series called “Velvet Soup”! Kenneth, Chris and I talk to him for a few minutes. He’s surprised anyone outside of the UK has seen the show, but I let him know that I saw it when I was visiting Scotland this summer. He finds out tomorrow if the show is picked up for a second season — fingers crossed.

Anne Robinson is on the front cover of a Sunday newspaper magazine. Anne, tell me *I* am the weakest link! Hello!

They get Ricky Lake and Montel Williams here. To be fair, we get that karma back when PBS shows “Are You Being Served Again?”

Night falls on an Anne Robinson photo.

“The Long Dark Coach Ride of the Soul”

Friday, 19 October: “When is Budweiser not a Budweiser?”

Ivan and I head north to Nottingham, and decide to save a little money and take the bus. Only 13 pounds and a 3 1/2 hour ride, or so we think.

At the bus station: more espresso from a machine. I liken these contraptions to those food making machines in Star Trek — you press a button and out pops beef stroganoff and a vintage chianti. Really, how can a machine replace a human being in this regard? At individual tasks, machines can do the trick, but a proper cup of espresso requires the grinding of beans, the steaming of milk, and the creation of Georgia O’Keeffe-like patterns in the milk. (Mental note: perhaps I spend too much time talking about coffee. Maybe I should spend my time getting a job or going to school or something).

The bus was comfortable if you like to spend three hours in a contracted yoga position. To be fair, it’s not like riding Greyhound and there’s no chicken or goats that roam the aisles or attack you from the storage compartments, but a bus’s main fault is that it’s attached to a road, and a road is attached to traffic and traffic extends our tiny bus journey by over an hour.

We meet my friend Sherry at the bus terminal. Leaving the bus is one of the most joyful expressions I experience today. I decide it’s best to vent the journey through a crutch, so we stop at Marks and Spencer, pick up a couple of bottles of wine, and head back to her and her husband Bill’s flat.

They’ve got a great place — the flat is fully furnished and I make my way to the most comfortable couch in the history of the universe ever and enjoy a glass of shiraz. (Bill and Sherry, thank you so much for the accommodation!)

Nottingham is very much a college town, and when we head out in the evening that fact makes itself very well known to us. We head over to a place called The Alley Cafe, a tiny tucked-away Vegetarian restaurant and bar. Ivan and I enjoy a bottle each of a Czech beer called Budweiser Budvar — apparently no relation, and it tastes worlds better than the American macrobrew of the same name. This and the two bottles of wine make for the beginning of what is to be a fantastic evening.

A DJ spins funk and soul hits from the 60s. Apparently this genre of music is making a comeback here. I welcome it, especially after the difficult listening hour of 80s soft hits at the Vietnamese restaurant in London.

Bar hopping! The Pitcher and Piano is our first stop, a desanctified church turned into a beautifully-sytled drinking establishment. While posh, it’s too crowded (and playing Ricky Martin), so we head across the street to The Pit and the Pendulum, a very Poe-themed bar. I wish the bars were this nice when I was at University. We place orders — I stick to Guinness. Ivan orders absinthe, a strange liquid likely made from gasoline and paint thinner, and an illegal substance in the United States. He’s never had it before, and I sense a chemistry accident will happen shortly.

The interior of the pit has all the appearance of an Edgar Allan Poe setting, except Edgar Allan Poe probably never played Top 40 dance music at his home. Still the visual aesthetic keeps us interested.

I’m intrigued by the ritual of college men-boys hitting on college girls. Every guy in the place is dressed the same: trousers, button down shirt and sensible shoes. Women, on the other hand, are wearing tight fitting, revealing synthetic clothing substitues, whether they should be or not. Their style of dress is much more daring than anything I’ve seen stateside, and I respect the fact that there seems to be less self-consciousness about one’s figure here.

We head across the street to a bar called ‘The Social Club’. There’s a cover, but Sherry gets us in without charge. (I love that. This guy Max I knew in Vancouver, BC, used to play saxophone at the Purple Onion Cabaret Lounge. There’d be a chain of people around the block waiting to enter, but Max would get us in through the side entrance, Good Fellas-style). The upstairs floor is playing funk and soul music! A couple of Guinness (Guinneii?) for me, and people-watching.
I meet a guy named Mark who wants to work as a programmer for Microsoft (Apologies in advance to Grant, who might be getting an email from a guy named Mark who wants to be a programmer at Microsoft).

I meet a guy named Dan who works at The Social Club and who’s flying to Vancouver via Seattle to see his girlfriend. (Apologies in advance to self, who might be getting an email from a guy named Dan from The Social Club). To do: furnish Dan with a list of nightclubs a guy with a voice and a guitar might play. Suggestions: the Breakroom, the Crocodile, and the Central might be a good start.

Bill left the club earlier, so Ivan, Sherry and I stumble home. Ivan’s *really* sauced. This promises to be a rough night and following day for him.

Bill and Sherry, Mortie, Ivan at the Alley Cafe.

Bill, Sherry and Ivan (sans absinthe).

Hmm…

Homage to small rodent.

Early skateboard park.

Ceiling for my dream house.

“Basketball under Glass”

Wednesday, 17 October: “Solidly colored canvas or masterpiece?”

I knew Ivan and I could kill two birds with one stone today – to see great modern art and drink great espresso. Solution: the Tate Modern. The Tate has two pay-per-view events today – an exhibition on surrealism, and a Katharina Fritsch retrospective. We have no idea who KF is, save for the placement of a rat on her promotional posters. These exhibitions cost 10 pounds, so we went right to the free stuff, being proper “Let’s Go” travellers.

Of note:

Concert for Anarchy: An upturned piano suspended from the ceiling converts classical music to noise. The keyboard ejects itself, then slowly withdraws back into the piano over several minutes. The lid closes. Repeat as necessary.

De Stijl (Dih Shtill): These are the kids who used only horizontal and vertical lines in their work. One fellow in the group, named Van Doesburg, decided to use diagonal lines. This freaked out Mondrian, one of the group’s other members, and he promptly quit the group. Shallow victory or playfield of the insane? You be the judge.

Basketballs under Glass: Former stockbroker-turned-artist Jeff Koons suspended three basketballs in a large glass tank, equally positioned from the glass and from one another. He explains that the basketballs, positioned as weightless objects, approach the perfect state, which he envisions as death. I’m thinking that he was very good at manipulating the stock market, too.

Within view of the Tate is the Millenium Bridge (several architectural items in London have been emblazoned with the “Millenium” prefix, already dating their existence), a beautifully designed, pedestrian-only suspension bridge. While I gandered, an American who looked a lot like Dale Chihuly (sans eye-patch), informed us that on the bridge’s inauguration day, tens of thousands of people traversed it, causing it to sway so horribly that it had to be shut down. It’s set to open by the end of the year. Form: 1, function: 0.

The destination *is* the reward. Illy Espresso at the Tate! I’m such a coffee snob!) Ivan and I are surrounded by multicultural art school girls of doom. I’m reminded of a Joy Division t-shirt I used to wear proudly.

Ivan’s not into modern art, and while I agree that some of the work here is nothing more than shysterism, there *is* some wonderful stuff here.

At the Tower of London today, the tour guide told us that the Earl of Essex, the only male execution victim there, didn’t expire after the first throw of the ax. Apparently, three times *is* a charm.

I finished Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” today. It’s a good read. I wish I could read faster than one word a day, though… I stopped “War and Peace” after “It was”. Anyway, that’s been replaced by “Only in London W2” by Hanan al-Shaykh. She’s an Arab writer living in London, and I picked it up based on its description: A flight from Dubai to London hits turbulence and brings together four people from different ends of the Arabic world. It seems like a compelling read – I’m unsure if my decision to buy it is influenced by September 11th.

Ivan is drawing a likeness of me at the King’s Cross/St.Pancras station coffee shop (Mental note: erase other mental note about staying away from coffee shops at tube stations). Judging by the rendering, it seems that I’m in dire need of a shave.

We meet two more of Ivan’s friends, David and P. Smith, at the station, and along with Iain and Storme, wander to a pub called the Rocket, which has frequent drinker discount cards (Mental note: I think I have an idea for Molly Maguire’s, my weekly drinking establishment). I overhear a group of people mention a karaoke night here on Thursday! They emerge with a disclaimer — the place is under new management, and may not have this distinctive night anymore. Sad if true, as there is always room for more karaoke.

A long walk takes us to Leicester (“Lester”) Square (tourist central) and to a Vietnamese restaurant. We’re shuffled upstairs where a waitress takes our orders with chilling Terminator-like efficiency. Within viewing distance at the intersection outside is a 30-foot-tall likeness of Jackie Mason’s face. Startling. Our dinner guests don’t know who he is, but sci-fi/dungeons-and-dragons-like conversation saturates the air anyway. I do my best to stay awake. They *are* really nice people, and are entitled to their hobbies, even if it’s a hobby I haven’t personally been involved with since I was half my age.

Pubs close at 11pm. Bugger. Dance clubs stay open late. Yes!

(more text follows photos below)

Tate Ceiling.

Jungle Girl at the Tate.

Tate Outside.

Jungle Girl and the nice bowguns.

London (not Millenium) Bridge.

A London Guard.

Yes, that is Jackie Mason.

David, Storme, Iain, P.Smith and Ivan.

Karaoke night?

The view from the drink.

Thursday, 18 October: “Shove it up your arse!”

Nothing happened today.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Ivan, Vika, Iain, Storme and I eat lunch today at a pub, and I have the pleasure of experiencing my favorite British dessert, sticky toffee pudding, originally introduced to me during a summer trip to Scotland. It’s sort of a bready-sugar thing served warm with custard. You can buy it at the grocery stores here in a can. Put can in hot boiling water. Wait. Open can onto plate. It sounds better than I’m describing it. Really.

Ivan and I separate for the day. I wander around to Covent Garden, and enjoy coffee not served from a machine. The sun’s out and it’s 60 degrees. Beautiful. A busquing street kid tells the customers at the table next to me to shove something up their arse. I was only eavesdropping, so I’m unsure as to the identity of the item intended for shoving.

A group of Hare Krishna parade past me, drumming, singing and dancing. Handily, they have written the lyrics to what they’re singing on a large sign displayed proudly above them. It’s easy, though: Hare, Hare, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Krishna… Lather, rinse, repeat.

A group of violinists (violinii?) in an alcove below play classical music, but just dove into some Greek or Russian dancing-clapping thing.

I later amble past the Theatre District, and one of the houses is playing ‘Cats’. Can’t we just move on?

During a short shopping spree, I successfully secure the second season of “The League of Gentlemen” and “Ali G: Aiii”. Life is good.

It turns out Ivan and I are in the same Internet cafe last night, and that’s how we run into each other. We eat at a touristy chain restaurant called Garfunkel’s, where the deep-fried Vegetarian kiev burger doesn’t go so well with the too-fresh merlot. Maybe I should have ordered a white zinfandel?

On the way home on the Tube, two men who look like you wouldn’t want to fight with at a pub sit across the aisle from us. One is showing the other a video game on his cellphone. Then they send each other text messages on their cellphones. After they bore of that, one of them kisses the other’s shoulder and leans his head there for the rest of their journey. Book does not equal cover.

I’m pleasantly surprised by this city, and the many ways in which the surprises are received.

Musicians at Covent Garden.

The new Mini Cooper, on display in the Theatre District.

Photo slideshow: 4 of 4

Photo slideshow for Europe, part 4 of 4:

Photo Slideshow: 3 of 4

Photo slideshow for Europe, part 3 of 4:

Photo slideshow: 2 of 4

Photo slideshow for Europe, part 2 of 4:

Photo slideshow: 1 of 4

Photo slideshow for Europe, part 1 of 4:

“Meat curry, death of a shoe (no salesman) and a tube ride to drool for”

Tuesday, 16 October: Shagadelic curry

A late start this morning. We’re awakened by Storme, who reminds us that we’re meeting Iain and Vika. Vika is a friend of theirs living in London for a year, and is being paid to speak about and study Italian literature. She’s from Moldova, bordering Ukraine, and her current permanent home is in Boston. The five of us dine at a curry house off Warren Street. A group of office people are sitting behind us, talking about other office coworkers and conducting a poll as to who might be the most “shaggable”. Working in an office isn’t much different from living at university dorms, I wonder, as I down a meat curry and lassi.

Ivan and I tube to Trafalgar Square, after a brief stop at Tottenham Court Road, a large electronics shop area. Anything gadget-like can be obtained here. It’s also the home to Muji, the smart-money’s Japanese version of Ikea. Again, more well-designed, well thought-out items using a minimum of materials.

The tourism minister in Israel was shot today. Uh oh.

Trafalgar Square brings the inaugural photo of Jungle Girl(TM). Jungle Girl(TM) is the barely-clothed, knife-wielding, large-breasted poseable figure that Ivan has chosen to be a recurring photographic theme during our overseas visit. An older, somewhat mad-looking gentleman stares at Ivan as he props up Jungle Girl(TM) on the fountain ledge outside the National Gallery, using a lid from an absolutely abysmal cup of coffee purchased from Charing Cross station. (Mental note: stick to restaurants and coffee houses not attached to tube stations.) Unlike Seattle, Starbucks doesn’t litter retail space every 100 yards or so. Several coffee houses excel here, but the Italian restaurants put the houses to caffeinated shame.

Jungle Girl!

The National Gallery is right next door. Admission is free, but a donation is requested. *Someone* has to pay for the hundreds of 12th to 19th century portraits stored here. I have to admit I slept through most of the 12th to 17th century paintings — well crafted, but either portraits or depictions of Biblical scenes — with the exception of Paolo Veronese’s “Portrait of a Grotesque Old Woman,” which could really be described as “Portrait of a Rubenesque John Gielgud dressed in 16th Century womenswear for royalty-on-the-go.”Georges Seurat’s preliminary studies of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” are displayed here. I felt a little Chicago pride, as the final result is displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Next to the National Gallery is St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a beautiful church with signs inside saying that it costs 2 pounds a minute to operate. I wonder if that’s pay-as-you-go or if they charge more once the monthly minutes are up. Jungle Girl(TM) is photographed outside.

Ivan hands me a postcard that announces the availability of “The League of Gentlemen, Series 2” on DVD in the UK! The sun shines a bit brighter today.

We stroll by 10 Downing Street, the British White House. Apparently, Tony Blair’s family is so large that they had to move into 11 Downing Street. Still, both are inaccessible via the large security gates, which look very thrown together, and a stark contrast to the buildings’ formality. A walk by Westminster Abbey and Big Ben propels us to the London Eye, a large ferris wheel from the future supported by one side and offering 360 degree views of London. Ivan has a small guidebook that has points out the names of the different landmarks. Curiously, MI6 (their Secret Service headquarters) is on the map. Maybe they should have a large marquee over it they says “REALLY SECRET HEADQUARTERS”.

London is stunning from this height. The sun is setting, and autumn colors accent the landscape below. Several jet trails streak the sky… I wonder if they’re from fighter jets patrolling the skies on security alert. The papers here have the war on the front pages, but the feeling in the city seems to have a “life goes on” attitude.

So much for frugality. I drop a small fortune on a pair of Italian boots, and promptly ask the clerk to dispose of my walking shoes of several years, after one of the heels decided to divorce the pair without warning. I’m eagerly awaiting Florence, where I can purchase a shiny Italian suit for my next Vegas trip. Bellagio, here I come!

Italian for dinner — cannelloni, shiraz and a shot of espresso. Damn! Jungle Girl(TM) is photographed with knife and fork near completed pesto linguine.

On the way back to Iain and Storme’s place via the Tube, Ivan and I spot a burly man sitting across the aisle from us, dressed in a tee shirt and jogging pants, fast asleep. Two paths of drool on his shirt are currently on a lackadaisical race towards his stomach. Ivan reaches for his camera, perhaps sensing another Jungle Girl(TM) opportunity, but I nod disapprovingly. I wonder about it later, though… it would have made a great photograph.

“Anything to declare?”

Monday, 15 October

London!

An uneventful journey through Customs. The first thing I notice is the polite demeanor in which customs officials ask for your documents — it’s almost a formality to bring them out, but nothing to worry about, really. I notice no additional security at Heathrow since September 11th – it seems like they’ve been set up for this sort of thing for a long time. It’s nothing like the snap-of-the-rubber-glove sound security precautions now installed at US airports.

My travelling partner Ivan and I met, and phoned his friends Iain and Storme (real names). They’re letting us stay at their flat until Friday. Both have the endearing qualities of computer geeks, and for a while we geek out with them, comparing purchase histories of personal computers at one point.

Since we’re in London, it seemed only natural for us to have our first meal at a Portugese restaurant. A television in the bar area displayed a Portugese news network. Most of it was directed at the events in Afghanistan, and footage was shown that hasn’t been seen in the US — most of it directed at the results of American bombing in Afghanistan, and its effects on the civilian populace. I really wonder how much of the conflict we’re seeing. We’re only beginning to hear about the dark side of the Persian Gulf ordeal.

According to mlb.com, the Mariners were winning game 5 in the bottom of the fourth. Dammit, I wish the Cubs would make a playoff series… (Addendum: they won 3-1… but they’re playing the Yankees now. Comment withheld.)

Design, graphic and industrial, is so well thought-out here — it’s compact, without excess, and elegant.)

Jetlag sets in. Seattle seems far away.

“Say you’re Canadian!”

Sunday, 14 October: At least they’re not showing “The Animal”

I love British Airways, and I’ll never fly non non-stop again. After a hellish journey to and from our nation’s capitol last week, which consisted of one layover to DC, and two (!) layovers back (one on a Buddy Holly-type aircraft), and choice movie selections (in order: The Animal, The Animal and The Animal, Evolution, and The Animal) on said airline (In these difficult economic times, I wouldn’t want to keep anyone from flying this particular airline, so I won’t say it was America West or anything like that), I looked forward to my flight on British Airways.

I wasn’t disappointed. If America West is a Yugo, BA is a Cadillac, and on the Cadillac of airplanes, the Boeing 777. The stewardess offered my neighbors and I (middle and window seat, respectively) a large bottle of wine, which was really two mini bottles, but made supper oh-so-much nicer. (Mental note: Don’t eat supper while watching ‘Enemy at the Gates’. Should have gone for British film ‘Lucky Break’ with some guy from ‘The Full Monty’ and the breathtaking Olivia Williams, who played the teacher/love interest from ‘Rushmore’.)

Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’ was one of the selections on the plane. Sweet.

I recommend only ordering vegetarian meals on flights. Meat looks funny at 35 thousand feet.

I hadn’t really left Seattle. My neighbor was a Canadian from Toronto who lived in Seattle and worked at Microsoft and regaled me with tales of 50- to 60-hour workweeks and her boyfriend, also a Microsoft employee. The fellow in the window seat was an American staying in London for six months (!) to work at Price Waterhouse Coopers. He didn’t seem to be looking forward to the trip. I doze off to BBC Radio’s John Peel.