Monday, June 29, 2009

Summer time in London

We’ve had unusually warm weather lately! The forecast calls for high 80s all week!

Yes! Summer time is here in London and there’s no other way to celebrate summer than a glass of classic Pimms and lemonade. Ahhhh, Pimms…often associated with Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley Royal Regatta, outdoor concerts, and always a cheerful reminder of summer.

Speaking of Wimbledon, I am rooting for the two Andys – Andy Murray (U.K.) and Andy Roddick (U.S.A.). Apparently, Wimbledon tickets are extremely hard to get. Most people enter into a Public Ballot draw six months before the tournament, or queue overnight for day of tickets. We’ll try our luck with tickets next year; otherwise, I’d be happy to spend a nice evening on the grounds of Wimbledon in SW19 with my glass of Pimms.

As most of you know, Keenan works in Canary Wharf and on Friday he and colleagues organized a going-away happy hour in honor of his co-worker who is moving to Australia. How exciting and bon voyage!

Many countries including the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand have special bilateral arrangements, which allow young people to spend time in another country on a two-year working holiday. So naturally, there are a ton of young Aussies and Kiwis here in London and most of them reside in West London around Shepherd’s Bush, Earl’s Court, and Acton. We’ve not spent much time in West London until Sunday when our New Zealander friends whom we met in Turkey invited us to birthday celebration in Acton Town. It was good fun! The schlep to Acton was a pain b/c both the District and Piccadilly lines were down (stupid Tube), but we made it a fun day out including a fantastic sushi dinner at Sushi Hiro (Tube: Ealing Common) and watched the second half of the FIFA Federation Cup between USA and Brazil. As exciting as the game was, USA lost to Brazil 3-2. Boo!

But, back to Sushi Hiro. Keenan and I are Nipponophilia – we have an interest in all things Japanese. Keenan more so than me, having taken his fair share of Japanese history, Japanese literature/film (Ryunosku to Kurosawa), and Japanese language courses while at University, and not to mention the summer he spent in Japan when he was 16. We’ve been on a sushi kick lately, scouring the Internet, Harrden’s, Time Out, foodie blogs for excellent sushi/sashimi (we don’t mess around with teriyaki chicken, soba, udon, just the raw stuff please).

Sushi-Hiro is not pretentious at all with only 10 tables and the décor reflects Japanese minimalism. Like Tomoe, the clientele was largely Japanese. It is by far the best sushi I’ve had in a very, very long time, far better than Kirala in Berkeley or Uzen in Rockridge. I am still drooling over the glistening scallop and the delicious fatty tuna that just melts in your mouth. Even better, the damage was only £36.50 for an assorted sashimi platter, nigiris, several rolls and two Asahi! In the States, sushi of this quality will set us back at least $100 USD. I’m already planning my next trip to Ealing to visit our New Zealander friends and Sushi-Hiro, definitely worth the schlep.

I hope you all are enjoying your summer! We miss everyone!

Cheers! Lily

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Walking Tour: Little Venice to Camden

Last weekend was our first weekend in London without travel plans or visitors. With high travel season in full swing, we wanted to avoid central London and the usual tourist circuit at all cost. Yet we were determined to explore neighborhoods off the beaten path.

Saturday morning, we were off to North London for a walking tour along the Regent's Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock. Who needs Venice when you can head to Little Venice? It's not as picturesque as Venezia, but Regent's Canal does have its charm and is indeed a little oasis for us Londoners especially on a pleasant English day. The Regent's Canal was built in 1820 to link east and west London, and later opened to the public as a scenic walkway.

We tubed it to Warwick Avenue, the start of Little Venice, and followed a footpath along the canal lined with little colorful houseboats and willow trees. Somehow we got off path and ended up on Edgware Road, a major street lined with Middle Eastern groceries and kebab stands -- come here if you want good Lebanese food! After reorienting ourselves using our trusted A-Z map, we found our way back to Regent's Park where there were loads of people out -- not because it was a beautiful English day, but the annual Taste of London Festival was taking place in Regent's Park over the weekend.

Avoiding the crowds, we walked along the northern edge of the park and took a detour to Primrose Hill, the exclusive enclave where Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities have homes here. As the name implies, we hiked up the hill for an amazing view of the Gherkin, London Eye, and Canary Wharf. The view from Primrose Hill is far better than Parliament Hill in my opinion.

Back along the canal, we walked another mile to our final destination -- Camden Market, which is an area that comprises the High Street, Lock, and everything in between. I have not been to Camden before. I have to agree with Keenan's description of Camden Town -- it's like Berkeley's Telegraph on crack!! Strange, bizarre, weird, and lots of weirdos to go with it. Camden seems strangely out of place considering it is literally enclosed by highly desirable and expensive neighborhoods -- Hampstead, Primrose Hill, St. Johns Woods, and Regents Park. Strange. It is busy and more touristy than I expected. We made a stop at Keenan's favorite stand for some tasty Ghanese mutton stew, then walked around the High Street and the Stables before making our way back on the walking path to Regent's Park.

Back to Regent's Park, one of eight beautiful Royal Parks in London, is a haven for sport enthusiasts be it rugby, cricket, football, or tennis. It was the former hunting ground of Henry VIII, and now home of the London Zoo and Open Air Theatre. Many festivals take place in Regent's Park including the aforementioned Taste of London. Regent's Park also boast a beautiful rose garden of over 400 varieties -- all perfectly manicured and delightful to spend a lovely afternoon.

Then we made our way to Marylebone, one of my favorite neighborhoods in London. Marylebone High Street is not just any High Street -- it has beautiful boutiques, cafes, pubs, specialty food stores, furniture/hardware stores, and restaurants -- somewhat of Palo Alto's University Avenue meets Berkeley's 4th Street. Keenan discovered a fantastic bookstore - Daunt's. It is one-of-kind bookshop with stunning Edwardian architecture and its books are neatly arranged by places, so if you head over to the Russian section, you'll not only find travel guidebooks, but also memoirs and all the Russian classics from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky. If you are familiar with the Berkeley campus, my alma mater, then Daunt's Bookstore will remind you of the gorgeous Morrison Library.

We decided to stay in the area for dinner and went to a little sushi place called Tomoe on Marylebone Lane, a place I have been meaning to try since March after reading some great reviews on my favorite London foodie blogs. Walking into the restaurant, we noticed that everyone was Japanese including the staff who gave us a warm Irashaimasu! I miss Japan! An assorted sashimi platter, several rolls, and two Asahi later, we were two happy campers. The fish is really fresh here at Tomoe and quite reasonably priced for sushi. I think we might become regulars here! =)

Sunday was Father's Day -- Happy Father's Day! Hope everyone had a great day! In spirit of Father's Day, we went to a BBQ at a friend's flat near the famous Battersea Dog Home and had a nice time catching up with some of Keenan's friends whom I haven't seen since January.

While we had a fun weekend in London, my sister and brother-in-law spent the past few days frolicking in Paris, their last stop on their 3-week European vacation. They came back last night via the Eurostar armed with croissants, pastries, pate, wine, and delicious macaroons from LaDuree. I suspect someone did a bit of shopping at a very famous French institution...and remember those pumps I spoke about a few weeks ago? Well, it turns out that my sister is still on a hunt for those pumps in London despite having a 5:00 PM flight back to Hong Kong today.

It is sad to see them leave today but I don't think this will be their last trip to Europe! Hopefully, our kid sister can join us next time.

OXO, Lily

Friday, June 19, 2009

Calling London Home

So it has been almost one month since I moved to the U.K. The first half of the month has been busy with some weekend travels and hosting visitors. Besides that, you may wonder what else I do with my time. Well, let’s see. The past few weeks, when not out and about town with visitors, I’ve settled into a normal routine of having coffee with Keenan before he leaves to work (we’re making up for old times!), daily runs around Common, and playing housewife...just kidding. These days a lot of time is spent in front of the computer job searching, sending out applications, and attending networking events in the field of planning and urban development. With several people coming to visit in July, Keenan’s father and our couple friend from San Francisco, we try to keep a low profile during the weekdays opting to stay in our neighborhood of Clapham and cooking meals at home. I figure we can save the tourist haunts, museums, eating out, drinking, and other fun stuff for visitors. Let me say this, I’ve thoroughly enjoy being home, especially after living like a gypsy, or a vagabond, jumping sublet to sublet with no real home base my last semester of graduate school. It’s nice to be home…finally! There is really no place like home.

This week I attended one lecture on the New Plan for London hosted by Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and DTZ at their sleek new headquarters on Old Broad Street, and the presidential address at the annual RTPI Planning Convention, which is equivalent to the American Planning Association here in the UK, followed by a walking tour of the Cardinal's Place and drinks with the Young Planners Network. I felt very much at home at these planning events, as people discussed the latest regeneration projects, namely the new Crossrail and the Thames Gateway projects, which are both quite exciting. Being trained and educated at UC Berkeley, as expected, our planning program is very California-oriented – I think all of us planners have a copy of Fulton’s book, which we often regard as the “bible” of California planning. While I was the Planning Convention yesterday, I wanted to find the "bible" of UK planning, so I went upstairs to the at the Exhibition Hall on a mission to find a suitable book. To my surprise, I immediately recognized the lady at the Routledge book stand, and it turns out that she also remembered me from the December 2008 IASTE conference in Oxford. What a small world! She, along with a few other planners, recommended the Collingsworth’s Town & Country Planning in the UK, which will be my summer reading.

Summer is suppose to be quite lively and fun in London where the sun sets around 10pm -- BBQ, beer gardens, outdoor we come.

Cheers, Lily

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Roman Holiday

La Dolce Vita

On Friday we met up with my sister and brother-in-law in Rome for a weekend of eating and sightseeing in this Eternal City that is 2700 years old. The last time I was in Rome was half a decade ago on a post-college whirlwind European backpacking trip with a friend from university. Rome is exactly what I remembered it to be: an open-air museum and beautiful as ever. Unlike five years ago where my friend and I stayed in a spartan hostel, we booked an apartment on Via dei Coronari near Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most beautiful squares teeming with caricature painters, musicians, and tourists, and an area with great nightlife.

Roma, non basta una vita (literally, Roma, a lifetime in not enough) – every corner, every block has some sort of Roman ruin or cathedral; there is no other way to see this fascinating city but to walk. From Piazza Navona, we made a stop at the Pantheon on our way to lunch at a local trattoria called Enoteca Corsi on Via del Gesú. The Pantheon is by the far the best-preserved Roman structure built in 27 BC. The grayish symmetrical dome is impressive. I was constantly reminded of all my friends who studied architecture...I wish so and so was here for a architectural history tour!

The Pantheon:

Leisurely lunch at a local trattoria:

After that, we walked to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum via Piazza Venezia. Anyone who makes a visit to Rome cannot miss this imposing neoclassical monument built to commemorate the unification of Italy. You’ll probably walk by it several times during your trip to Rome.

Next stop, the Colosseum and the Roman Forums/Palatine Hill. No introduction needed for Rome’s most popular sights! It’s a must on your Roman Holiday. This 50,000-seat spectator arena was used to watch gladiators fight panthers, lions, and tigers, and other gladiators. The Roman Forums are largely in ruins; you’ll find yourself wondering around and ponder upon the greatness, that is the Roman Empire.

After dinner at Armando del Pantheon, which was recommended by Chowhound and was a miss (!), we made our way back to the apartment and enjoyed god-knows-how-many bottles of wine and prosciutto to make up for the uninspring dinner.

On Saturday, the sightseeing plan for the day was Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica – the church and the square are both truly magnificent. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, ordered to build a basilica on Vatican Hill. There is no church and its outdoor square that compare to St. Peter’s Basilica for the level of detail, ornate sculptures, masterful paintings, and sheer beauty. The Vatican is extremely busy – hordes of tourists, so expect long queues to get inside St. Peter’s Basilica as well as the dome, where we queued for at least an hour in the hot sun to climb 551 steps up to the dome of St. Peters for an amazing view of Piazza di San Pietro and Rome. Definitely worth the wait.

The beautiful St. Peter's Basilica:

On top of the dome:

Following lunch and a “siesta” back in the apartment (well, I took a siesta while my sister, Albert, and Keenan drank wine and was being mischievous by putting Michelangelo’s David-clad apron over my dress -- yes, imagine all you want; it was a Kodak moment) was another afternoon of walking in the blazing sun (it felt 40 C | 104 F) from Piazza Navona to Fontana di Trevi to Piazza di Spagna/Spanish Steps, and Piazza Campo de’Fiori. The Trevi Fountain was larger-than-life sculpture/fountain that took up an entire piazza. If you are foreign film buff like Keenan, then you should recognize that the Trevi Fountain was the famous scene in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where the blonde beauty, Sylvia, danced around the fountain in her sultry black dress. Unlike Fellini’s film where the fountain was deserted, the Trevi Fountain was swarming with tourists…lots of American tourists (yes, we do get a bad rep as being loud, overweight, and obnoxious).

Being goofy at the Spanish Steps:

We made our way back to Piazza Navona where we had dinner at Pizzeria da Buffeto, probably Rome’s most popular pizza institution for classic Roman-style thin crust pizza. Hiking up the dome of St. Peter’s was definitely worth the wait. Not worth the wait was the long queue at da Buffeto; the pizza was good and the atmosphere was fun, but not worth the wait in my opinion. Good thing the pizzeria was just around the corner from our apartment where we came home and literally crashed.

Sunday, we did what the Romans do best – people-watching over a cup of cappuccino at Piazza Navona (we like this square a lot!). We were leisurely all of Sunday --- lunch, gelato, and more vino. Lunch was another local trattoria, de Francesco, just off Piazza Navona. It was a sign when we stumbled upon this humble restaurant, and then later saw a painting of it on Piazza Navona.

We shared a cab to Fiuciumino airport in the evening where my sister’s 8:15 pm flight to Barcelona on Vueling was delayed by four hours!! She could have flown from Rome to Dubai in four hours! The airline gave them vouchers to a horrible self-service restaurant in the airport. Poor thing. Our own flight back to London had minor delays boarding, but once aboard the plane, we were delayed another 30 minutes. It was a long evening…we didn’t back to our flat until 2 am.

Rome is a must-see! We had a fantastic Roman holiday, even better was the quality time spent with family!

Roma, Italia

More photos here.

Ciao! Lily

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Tube Strikes Back

"I want a five percent pay raise per annum and fewer working hours...Yes, I realize we're in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the budget is already strained, and workers are losing their jobs all over the city, but those are all separate issues and I'm special. I also want you to reinstate those two guys who got canned for repeated and severe disciplinary offenses. I know that their indescretions were incompetent at best and bordered blatantly illegal at worst, but we're London Underground train conductors. We are untouchable."

That was essentially the message this week as labor talks between the London Underground and the RMT (Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers) Union failed and resulted in the subsequent 48 hour strike by all London Underground train operators beginning at 6:59 pm June 9, lasting until Friday morning "sometime". The RMT wasn't keen on the city's offer of an annual pay increase above inflation. As a result, I will be working from home for the next two days along with a good majority of the rest of the city.

This isn't so much of a rant as it is a commentary on an interesting discussion currently occuring in London about worker's rights in the midst of bank nationalizations, countless firms being taken into administration, and a continuing free-for-all of redundancies. To be clear, these are the guys who have one of the most rewarding and cathartic jobs in the entire UK. They have the opportunity every morning to piss off the entire city of London; and they can do it while sitting down, eyes closed if need be.

Generally, I actually really like the tube system in London. Combined with the lightrail, the overground, the bus system, and the ferries (all systems together comprising Transport for London or TFL), it's probably the most integrated, efficient and reliable public transportation system I've traveled on in any city. I also stand up for workers if their rights are legitmately being trampled on and believe that unions have a place in the economic and political processes. With that said, these recent demands were not only poorly timed given the current state of the city, country, and overall economy, but were also unreasonable in light of the city's counter offer.

According to both RMT and London Underground representatives, the London Underground offered a four-year deal of 1.5 percent this year and then the inflation rate plus 0.5 percent or a two-year deal of 1 percent now and inflation plus 0.5 percent in year two. Although its obvious this offer isn't going to make anybody rich, it's a much better deal than a lot of London workers are getting at the time (workers whose jobs are much less rewarding and much more demanding and do not come with the added perks of irritating Londoners the world over).

As the next 48 hours unfold, I will attempt to keep track and make a record of how the strike impacts London. Will it be on a scale similar to the great snowstorm of January/February 2009 and shut down the entire city? (see Snowy Day in Londontown) My prediction is no. From what I can tell, the RMT is more ruthless and scournful than Mother Nature ever could be.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Family Time!

My older sister and brother-in-law are visiting from Hong Kong, so I had fun playing "tourist" with them around Central London. Unfortunately, Keenan and I may have missed our "UK summer" while we were on holiday in Turkey -- Londoners had two weekends of sunshine and 70+degrees! No fair; why does the sun have to come out while we are away? It's back to typical London weather now, aka overcast and light showers.

However, last Thursday turned out to be a decent day for sightseeing. We started off the day at the Borough Market for some yummy chorizo sandwiches, then strolled along the Queen's Walk to the Tower Bridge.

Here's a photo of me being "emo" as my sister played with her new camera:

We headed across the bridge to the Tower of London -- full of school-aged children on field trips. Hungry again, I suggested lunch at El Vergel for cheap and tasty Latin food on the Southbank. It's one of many fun things about playing host -- making visitors try restaurants you've been meaning to go to.

Next off to the Tate Modern for an awesome view of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge from the 7th floor cafe, then to the London Eye, Big Ben, and ended our walk at Trafalgar Square. I haven't walked this much in a very long time. After resting our poor feet at Waterstone's (it's our Borders here in the UK), we made our way to Bond Street Station to meet up with Keenan for dinner at South Indian restaurant called Rasa. The last time I had proper Keralan food was with our good friend Mina over two years ago while visiting Cochin, India. The appam and savory coconut-clad fish dishes did not disappoint.

The next fews days involved shopping -- a lot of shopping. If you are on holiday with my sister expect to shop til you drop. Literally. Friday morning started off on Sloane Street and Harrod's (while it's crowded, it's a must-see), a quick detour to see Buckingham Palace, then to Old Bond Street where she was on a hunt for a pair of "champagne - colored" pumps, then to Selfridges, and TopShop on Oxford Street. Before that, I had to take them to Golden Hind, supposely one of London's best fish-n-chips restaurant in lovely Marylebone. It was quite nice in fact! You would think we had enough shopping for the day, but nope, we continued our day of shopping at the new Westfield Mall at Shephard's Bush. I'm telling you -- shop til you drop! We had dinner with Albert's old family friend who lives in Oxford at a nearby Italian restaurant and then went back to Clapham.

Still on the hunt for those pumps on Saturday, Keenan and I skipped out on what would be my third consecutive trip to Old Bond Street in three days. I passed on this one and met up with them at the Royal Festival Hall for dinner at Canteen, so - so modern British comfort food.

It was great spending time with my family! They are now in Italy; first to Venice, then Florence, and Rome where we'll be meeting them this Friday for a little Roman Holiday. And the forecast in London is 70F and partly cloudy for the weekend? How cruel is that? Let's hope for another brief UK summer. We'll be in town all summer, so sun, please be kind to us and come out every so often.

Love from the U.K.,

Friday, June 05, 2009

Turkish Honeymoon: Fethiye and Oludeniz - Part Deux

Our next stop on our Turkish honeymoon was Fethiye/Oludeniz on the Mediterranean Sea for four days of pure relaxation, sun, and beach. We booked a room at the Delta Hotel on Calis Beach with a balcony overlooking the spectacular blue Mediterranean Sea. We did absolutely nothing except be lazy on the beach or on a boat. We were in heaven – it was a fantastic sun trip.

View from our hotel:

An evening walk through Calis Beach:

The next day we took a 12-Island boat tour through the Fethiye Bay. The "12-island" cruise is a misnomer, as we only moored at five different islands and sailed by the remaining seven. Many of the islands we stopped at were undeveloped with the exception of Gocek Island, an exclusive yacht harbor for the rich and famous. Keenan and I took a dip in the Mediterranean whenever possible to cool off our sunburnt skin.

The next day we took a dolmus (small bus) to Oludeniz. Oludeniz is probably Turkey's most beautiful beach on the Mediterreanean Coast. The warm shallow waters of the Blue Lagoon makes this beach ideal for sunbathing, swimming, water sports, and even paragliding off the mountainous cliffs that surrounds this unspoiled, picturesque beach. While lazing on one of the docks in the middle of lagoon, a Kiwi couple who we met on the 12-Island boat tour the day before spotted us from their canoe! As they also live in London, we exchanged contact information and hope to touch base with them when they return from Turkey.

Back in the Fethiye Marina, we made our way to the Balik Market for a fish dinner that was recommended by our new New Zealander friends. Here, we purchase the fish from the fish monger, around 7-10 Turkish Liras each, and have it freshly cooked at one of the restaurants in the square. While deciding what fish to buy (tuna or sea bass?), our New Zealander friends spotted us again! It was our lucky day and we had an enjoyable meal with them, followed by drinks at an outdoor bar on the Marina.

Check Keenan out with his bronze tan and fresh fish:

Back in Calis Beach for our last day in Turkey before boarding a really late flight out of Dalaman Airport.

We could have stayed another day except we had to get back to London to welcome my older sister and Albert who are visiting from Hong Kong.

From Istanbul & Fethiye Turkey

Here's some photos from our Turkey trip.

Cheers! Lily