Monday, January 26, 2009

A Little Housecleaning

Just adding a couple of links to the sidebar. It's not often I find two cool London blogs in one day, but thanks to Jaz's writeup on Londonist, I found The Cabbie's Capital, by a black cab driver, and Jane's London, by a girl who likes to take kickass pictures of unusual things and may live somewhere near me, judging by the number of pictures of things on Holloway Road.

London Underground Station or Fictional Fantasy Location?

Congrats! You're about 100% knowledgable of fantasy worlds and/or London Tube stations.

I certainly hope you made this score without cheating, because no one likes a cheat. I'll assume you didn't and congratulate both your nerd knowledge and / or your knowledge of London's geography. Show this score to someone so they're proud of you.

London Underground Station or Fictional Fantasy Location?
Take More Quizzes

A little unfair since I made the quiz, but hey, have fun with it!!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Iceland: Cold. Dark. Beautiful.

If you're looking for a good weekend travel break right now, there's probably few better than Iceland. did me an excellent deal for three nights and a flight, and the exchange rate is extremely favorable while inflation hasn't caught up. Which doesn't exactly make Iceland cheap, but it's no worse than London and in some cases much better.

But enough of the advertising piece. I've always wanted to visit Iceland, which fits very well into my travel MO of 'remote places,' 'islands' and 'cold places.' Iceland fits two and a half of those three - it's not all that remote, only two and half hours from London - but for the price, I couldn't pass it up.

I arrived on Thursday around 4 in the afternoon and found Reykjavik to be more light and less cold than I imagined. The sun set around the same time as it does in London, so I figured the reports about daylight hours might be slightly exagerrated.

What I didn't realize is that it would be about 18 hours until I saw it again.

I checked into the hotel, grabbed my gloves and hat and set out to explore Reykjavik. I had a spotty WiFi connection in the hotel and a vague idea of where the one well-reviewed and inexpensive restaurant WikiTravel recommended: the Sægreifinn (Seabaron), whose Lobster soup is world-famous (it made the New York Times' restaurant guide in 2006) and who serve whale kebabs. I ordered both.

Whale tastes like beef that's been soaked in fish. Fishy beef. Nothing special, except that hey, you're eating whale. The lobster soup was amazing. Icelandic lobsters are smaller than their American cousins, slightly larger than jumbo shrimps, and taste about halfway between the two creatures. Not quite as buttery as a lobster, and not quite as, um, shrimpy as a shrimp. But they're perfect in the soup. So yes, Sægreifinn is highly recommended.

I walked around town for a while in the dark, stopped for a Viking beer - because hey, why wouldn't you - and made my way back for a good night's sleep.

Next morning I realize just how dark things are in Iceland. I woke up around 8.30 and it was still pitch black out. By 9.30, when I was showered and dressed and ready to go, it was a little light - enough to turn everything a strange and beautiful blue color, like you're trapped in a French avant-garde film.

Speaking of the shower, I should mention that hot water in Iceland works a little differently than you might expect. A lot differently. It's all geothermal, and there are hot water mains that carry pure hot water directly from the planet itself into a shower. It comes out smelling like sulfur and can get extremely hot if you're not paying attention. Here's myself, giving you a little demonstration of how it works:

By the time the sun was up, I was walking along the harbor. The economic crisis that made Iceland such an attractive place to travel was obvious only here, where the hulks of half-constructed buildings squatted, some of which might never be finished.

It didn't take long to explore most of Reykjavik; there are only about 180,000 people in the metro area, and the city is not like other European capitals in that it was only a small collection of houses until the 1850s. The national cathedral is little bigger than an English country church. The National Museum though has an amazing exhibit on the colonization of Iceland and its transition from a collection of farms and viking holdings to one of the most modernized, green nations on the planet with the highest standard of living and health care possible. By the time I made it back towards my hotel and the Hallgrímskirkja. The church was covered in scaffolding, like every other famous landmark you want to see, and I opted out of the ride to the top of the tower for the free walk around the church instead.

That evening, it was too cloudy for the Aurora so I turned in reasonably early to rest up for my tour into the countryside. A Nissan Patriot with 44" tires rolled up at 9, we picked up two other Americans and headed out of the city. Here's something interesting about Iceland: once you get outside of Reykjavik, especially if you aren't in another one of the (very small) towns, there is a lot of wide open space. The snow was blowing as hard as I've seen in any midwestern snowstorm, visibility damn near nil, and I asked our guide if we were driving through farmland. "No, this is wasteland," he said. Wide-open plains of volcanic rock and not a hell of a lot else.

We saw Þingvellir National Park, where the planet is literally coming apart at the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. It was also the location of the first democratically-elected parliament in the world and home of Iceland's largest freshwater lake. Then on to Geysir, the geyser for which all other geysers are named. And Gullfoss, Europe's largest waterfall, a mass of churning glacial water.

Then it was up to the snowfields, where the other two in our group went snowmobiling (not my cup of tea) and the guide let me drive the Patriot around on 4m of packed snow; now I can say I've driven in extreme winter conditions.

Here's what it looked like up there:

That night, it was once again too cloudy to see the Aurora.

And the next morning I was on my way home.

This trip wasn't one about profound cultural experiences, or profound personal experiences; it left me more with a feeling of having been slightly farther off the map then I've been before, and a desire to go even further when I can. Iceland seems like one of the last places you can do that and still be a reasonably comfortable tourist. Much farther and you're into adventure territory. Not that I would have a problem with that.

It was also a hell of a way to kick off what will likely be my last year in London, travel-wise. Liz and I vowed to travel more this year and take full advantage of what we could, and this trip was the beginning of that: good exchange rates, proper timing, and just getting out there and doing it.

Gonna be a great year.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cold War Modern Revisited

The Beautiful Competition and I headed to the V&A yesterday for the last weekend of the Cold War Modern exhibition, which I visited on my own last year. It was definitely worth seeing again (and if you're in London and reading this, you have about three hours to see it today! Hurry!) Bigger crowds and less room, same great stuff.

I managed to take something else away that I had not previously: a much greater understanding and appreciation for the Cold War from a European perspective. I grew up with the American-side jingoism of course, Big Bad Commies that have to be defeated, better dead than Red, and the shadow the mushroom clouds cast over everything - although to be fair, my parents probably had it ten times worse. By the time I was aware of what was going on, Glasnost and Perestroika and McDonald's in Red Square were turning the USSR into Russia and the American military-industrial complex would soon have to find a new enemy.

But from a European perspective, things were far less black-and-white. To put the Cold War into context, I realized, you have to think about the end of World War 2 and what Europe looked like; when the Americans were done, they came home to smiling wives and cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs. When the Europeans were done, they looked around at a continent largely ravaged by the war; entire cities levelled in some instances, and lives completely disrupted in others. The competition between the USA and the USSR was not so much about defeating bad guys, but about which system of government would prevent such a thing from happening again: the freedom of an open market, or the control of a strong central government? And it was a question various people answered in various ways, sometimes as puppets or pawns of the superpowers, sometimes fighting proxy battles of their own, sometimes willingly but many times not, and sometimes divided by age or class or religion.

It was certainly an eye-opening experience, and one of the things I truly value about my time here; these realizations are much harder if not impossible to come by when you're not living in the places where these things happened.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Perhaps my proudest day as a Londoner so far was when my countrymen told me what this term means in relationship to Americans.

That's trust, daddy-o!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

I <3 The National Portrait Gallery

It's not exactly the most glam museum in London, but the National Portrait Gallery is still one of my favorite places to kill a couple of hours in an afternoon, especially when it's bitter cold outside and you're looking for something to do on the cheap. It's a slog through the tourist crowds to get there (the NPG is the National Gallery's caboose, right between Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square) and the gallery is smallish - you can do the whole thing in the aforementioned couple of hours if you want - but what a gallery.

It's like walking through the Head Museum in Futurama, except that the heads are paintings and they don't talk. OK, it's only remotely similar to the head museum. But for people who enjoy a good romp through history's halls, it's like being with the characters from your favorite book. Richard III? Henry VIII? Charles II? All there. The symbolism in some of the earlier paintings is like a Where's Waldo for history buffs.

The NPG is one of the little unsung heroes of my city. And I do love it.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Home to Go Home

It's amazing how business-efficient you can be when you're seeing friends and family, and that's how I'd describe my first trip back to America since moving over here: efficient. The Beautiful Competition and I were gone thirteen days, the longest we've left our cats alone since we moved, and certainly the longest trip we've taken since coming here.

Almost immediately after arriving in Tulsa I turned around and flew to Denver for a day to see my grandparents, who seem to be hanging in there. It was great just to spend some time with them (especially without any other family members), play cards, tell stories, and so forth; I even heard a couple from my grandfather I hadn't heard before. Then it was on a plane to Kansas City for Angela and John's wedding. They normally hang in Seattle but KC is where Angela's family lives and John's family isn't far, so it made a good central meeting point. Crabby, Roger and Roger's girlfriend were there as well so it was an excellent opportunity to hang out with at least some of the old crew and get to know new crew members. The wedding was perfect; not overwhelming like some weddings can be, and about intimacy and love, as weddings should be.

Then it was a frazzling late-night and early-morning drive back to Tulsa for the holiday fun. We did our usual two Christmases, one on Christmas eve with my family, the other on Christmas day with the Beautiful Competition's much-larger family. I also met my brother's new fiancée and quickly learned she's going to make a great member of the family.

The stay was just about the perfect length; family vacations, especially ones where you have to see everyone with business-efficiency, are never relaxing but this one was exceptionally low-key and almost 100% stress-free.

I expected that this trip home would solidify for me the tentative plan to come back in a year's time, and I did in fact feel like I should be heading 'home' to Seattle rather than 'home' to London. But the strangest thing happened on the cab ride from Paddington to our flat - I realized that London itself was very much becoming like home, where things no longer seem strange and unfamiliar here but are instead very much recognizable for me on many levels. Which is to say that London, oddly enough, feels like a new home.

This is my city as much as it is anyone else's now, I reckon. And if there's anything that 2009 will bring, and any kind of London-related resolution for me, it is this: so far I've had a relationship with London first as a tourist, then as a working resident. Now, the Beautiful Competition and I both agreed that it's time to treat London more as a lover, something we do in fact like and even adore from time to time, temperamental as it can be. As with anything, we'll get out of London what we put into her, and we've put quite a bit in this last year in the way of time and energy - so it's time we started taking a little more out.

Here's to a great 2009 in our home.