Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hiatus to hopeful auroras

Hello dear readers,

I will now be off on another adventure (this one to Iceland) starting tonight. So there will be a pause in postings until I return, which will be on Tuesday, February 4th.

Until then enjoy your weekends and hopefully better weather than we're having here in London (Iceland is sunny and hovering around freezing...not nearly cold enough for what we be explained later).

Cheerio for now!


Roadtrip Day 3: Sequoia and Barstow

We all unanimously agreed that we would spend the next day in Sequoia, rather than hurrying to get to Barstow, which I'd genuinely described to them as: a place where people are looking to find any excuse to leave and are known for unfortunate things like meth. This is not an untrue statement - my sister and I made the unfortunate stopover in Barstow one time when we were on a roadtrip through California and into Vegas, somehow getting into our heads that it was a cute crafts town with antique shops. We could not have been more wrong. We stayed at the best hotel in town - a Ramada Inn, and ate at the only restaurant that was given a good score on Yelp - a Sizzler. I would rate the experience as awkward and sad. My sister was so worried for my safety that when I went to make a nightly catchup call with my then-boyfriend, she had me pace the hallway so she could see me the entire time. That kind of awkward drug-enhanced dangerous.

Anyway, we drove down the road a few miles to get more gas and spotted our morning restaurant. An adorable place called We Three Bakery and Restaurant, as we were in the city of Three Rivers. We sat outside in the sunshine, taking in the calm environment...

...and super filling and delicious omelettes, pancakes, and other American specialties. It was lovely - I had the chili omelette which came with huge crispy hashbrowns and an egg omelette covered completely in cheese and vegetarian chili. With a side of wheat toast, which I was way too full to eat. Ahhhh, America.

We were then ready to explore Sequoia to its fullest. The park entrance ticket we bought the day before, similar to the one we'd acquired in Yosemite, was valid for 7 days. No need to pay for reentrance. Yes!

It was another gloriously sunny and warm day and because of our scout the day previous, we knew exactly where to park and catch the free shuttle. We had just missed the shuttle as we arrived, so we putted around the Giant Forest Museum until it was time to board again. It then dropped us off at the General Sherman spot, home of the largest tree in the world.

There was a little trail off we followed to find General Sherman, then we took a longer trail to see the rest of the gorgeous landscape. It was wonderfully silent. I haven't heard anything so silent since my time living in Finland, possibly the roadtrip thru the Turku archipelago. I miss the silence - London never has any.

And the trees, glorious trees! I had forgotten how large the sequoia trees actually are. As a kid my sister and I constantly came here for various summer camps and the like. It's never occurred to me that this might be incredibly unbelievable to those who haven't. It was great seeing it with my adult eyes simply because of this - remembering that I grew up in a beautiful place. The forests here are incredible.

We had a hilarious story involving General Sherman. There is a misleading sign at the beginning of the trail to see this largest tree in the world, and it literally says, "Here it is!" and talks about General Sherman's specs. The tree that is directly behind the sign is not, in fact, General Sherman. We were all confused at this point though, since we hadn't seen the actual General Sherman tree, and as we were looking at it we all muttered, "I dunno, doesn't seem that big." "That tree," which we could see from this sign, "looks bigger."

It turns out that tree was the actual General Sherman.

We continued up the trail and another 5-10 minute walk is where the actual General Sherman tree resides. He even has a sign, as he should, being the largest tree in the world (not the tallest or the thickest, but in actual volume and weight he is the largest tree in the world).

We all had a good laugh about how we correctly identified the real General Sherman and how confusing the sign is. Glad we had our doubts; we would have felt dumb taking pictures next to the "fake" General Sherman. Huuhuu.

We then walked in peace and quiet via the trail that wove about 2 miles around the nearby forest. Gorgeous and quiet. So peaceful. 

We then decided it was time to go as sunset was coming upon us and we had a very long drive to Barstow. This was slowed down by the reduced speed through the park (that we had to go all the way back out of, not the way we came in that morning) and the fact that there was no cell service, so only the GPS to route us.

Eventually we made it to Barstow, but it was pretty late. We stopped at a grocery store or two so people could dinner in the car - I waited until we reached our next hotel (a very nice Hamptons Suite, which gave me points for my Hilton rewards card) to devour the half a turkey sandwich I had lying around. I also snarfed the rest of the honey mustard pretzels that were my favorite of the snack pack. Ah, sweet desirable snacks.

And to sleep in Barstow.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Roadtrip Day 2: Sequoia

I woke up like clockwork at 8:27am. My body has a tendency to wake me up anywhere from 8-8:30am, even when on vacation or weekends. I guess it's just the time my mind thinks I should wake up, even without the curtains open or any indicator of sunlight. It's pretty handy, actually. No alarms need to be set.

We were starving, having fulled up on only snacks and wine the night before, but unfortunately the restaurant associated with our hotel closed for the 11am-dinner time period. What restaurant does that anymore? Apparently this one, in all its unwelcoming glory. We quickly decided to move on.

We loaded our next destination, Sequoia National Park, into the GPS and were off. 

It was still awhile before we found an appropriate restaurant to dine at, needing to go the seeming long way around to get to the entrance of Sequoia.

The place we stopped was called The Hitching Post, and according to my FB friends, stars in the movie Sideways. Whatever; we were hungry enough and curious enough to take the friendly rest stop atmosphere in stride:

Hilariously quaint and small, very country-rest stop. It even had a tiny gas station next door, which we used straight after to fill up our tank.

I ordered a turkey sandwich. It was huge and fabulous. Everything was fresh and surprisingly inexpensive (my entire meal ended up being $10...including tip).

Fresh turkey sub with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles, plus side salad with ranch (surprisingly nice side salad - green onions, croutons, lettuce, tomato...the works). It was glorious. Unfortunately I could only eat half of the sandwich with the whole salad, so I took it to go.

We arrived at Sequoia/King's National Park a few hours later. It was gorgeous once again and a little warmer, but there was still snow on the ground:

It's so strange seeing snow in California but not anywhere else.

We headed through the park to the giant tree forest and hoped to see what we were seeking. We definitely did, but sunset was heading our way rather quickly as it'd taken us forever to get through the park (it's huge, much bigger than Yosemite, and a lot slower with its windy roads). So we headed out of the park (took us over an hour) and went to find our digs for the night, not having booked beforehand.

We exited one of the southern entrances of the park and within half a mile, found not only a AAA-friendly hotel (AAA is the insurance that my family has and in addition to supporting your car and insurance needs, also gets you sweet discounts at things like restaurants and for the win), but also a restaurant for dinner.

We went in to ask the going rate for a night's stay and found it pleasantly inexpensive. It is off season but you never know, and the place was adorably woody and foresty, like living in a cabin. We were also offered a free movie rental from their selection of DVDs and we found a coupon for the restaurant next door that got us 10% off the bill or a free bottle of champagne (customer's choice). Yes for financial responsibility!

We walked over to the restaurant and sat down for a much-needed restful meal.

I was surprisingly not hungry still after the huge turkey sub and was wondering when I would be able to find the time to eat the other half (which was now faithfully in our hotel room fridge), so I ordered their soup of the day which was delicious split pea soup with ham. Starting to really love soup again - gotta get on that when I have more time in the London kitchen.

Churches ordered homemade chips with her meal. Hilariously we've both now been in the UK long enough where both of us thought these would be fries (the chips/fries conundrum). So when they came out as kettle cooked crisps instead, we were both surprised. Mistake I've made several times now. Oye.

They were fabulous though, especially with their accompanying side of buttermilk ranch. Gotta love ranch dressing - it's one of the things I miss most in American household foods. Man oh man.

The meal was lovely, and we decided on the 10% off instead of the bottle of champagne. None of us had been really drinking and meh, we still had half a bottle we'd opened from the first night and a extra large bottle of red (it was the equivalent of 1.5 bottles, put into a larger bottle). We were good on booze.

Everyone ended up letting me choose the movie and I went with "Water for Elephants." I'd read the book several years ago (it was great) and had never gotten around to seeing the movie (a constant problem for me in the last several years). It starred Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. Surprisingly good movie, though I'm almost certain the ending was changed so it ended happily (the book, as I recall, had a much harsher ending).

And thus ended our second night - peacefully and comfortably. The hotel even had fresh coffee beans and a grinder so the coffee drinkers in our group could have really fresh coffee whenever they wanted. At least two pots were made.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roadtrip Day 1: Yosemite

We started off perfectly on time and were in high spirits despite the early hour (it was only 8am, but for some in the party *cough, Hong Kong P and Churches, cough cough* this was horribly early for holiday hours). We drove with ease through Gilroy and down towards Yosemite, our first stop.

Unfortunately within about an hour or two we figured out that the configuration for using my American iPhone4S as our navigator wouldn't work - the device was lame enough to where charging it while having the navigation on and music playing through Pandora, wasn't enough to keep the battery afloat. If I continued on this configuration the battery on my phone would be dead after about 2.5 hours everyday. Not enough time to safely navigate us toward our next destinations.

Luckily at the last minute I, with my dad's help, decided to bring my portable GPS system with us. It does require a cigarette lighter adapter to power, but only until the battery is fully charged. Then it's fancy free and untethered.

The only bad thing about the GPS system is it doesn't have online capabilities - so traffic wouldn't be taken into account when routing and maps were not automatically updated. This could make a huge different in the routes we would take, but there wasn't anything we could do about it other than reaffirm with Google Maps beforehand on our phones to check route similarity and then go from there, hoping it never changed as we traveled.

That last part we ended up not being able to do, either. As it turns out, a lot of the areas in and around the national parks are complete network deadzones. I guess it only makes sense that national forests wouldn't bother putting up hotspots. You're not going there for that reason. But it was very sobering for us to remember that sometimes, you need to be utterly well-prepared. Because help isn't just a call away. Even a car full of 5 smartphones won't save you.

We ended up stopping in Mariposa along the way as it was just too cute to pass up. Plus everyone didn't mind stretching their legs and getting some much-needed coffee:

It's an adorable tourist town. Filled with antique shops, craft shops, little coffee cafes and one or two snug boutique hotels. We enjoyed walking around in the wonderful sunshine before getting back in.

We got to Yosemite after that with little problem. It has been unseasonably warm in California as well (as with the rest of the world, more or less) for the winter, so we were a little surprised to find snow here, of all places.

It is still funny for me to think that Finland and the UK had been bereft of snow this year, but California was still packing!

We drove around the park and eventually hopped onto the free shuttle that circles the valley floor. From there we got a sort of whirlwind tour of what Yosemite had to offer. I pointed out Half Dome as we were driving past and whenever we were stopped outside.

One of the most hilarious anecdotes from our time there - we wanted to see waterfalls that were mentioned on the park map, so we took a short hike out to lower Yosemite Falls. It's supposed to be spectacular, if what I remembered from last time I was there was any judge.

Apparently I was slightly wrong...

As we approached it we could barely see the trickle of water coming down. My only explanation was that the drought has been so severe in California, all water is pretty minimal. My hometown got 15% of their normal rainfall by the end of 2013. Devastatingly low.

It was still nice to walk around and take in the sights, either way. We were approached by two male deer on the trail back to the shuttle. We froze, not knowing what to do (would it charge us? does it find us threatening?). We stood like dorks until the deer all silently moved past us. It was magical, but also slightly terrifying (who knew vegetarians were so scary?).

Ah, Yosemite. Beautiful from all angles.

We even saw our patron mascot in the rocky configurations - an outline of a fish on one of the boulders below us (so strange...not sure how this came about).

We left Yosemite after having a small meal at one of the food lodges. It was starting to get pretty cold, unfortunately too cold to do more trails with our clothing. It was alright - everyone was pretty tired from the first journey and we were anxious to get to our hotel for some warm room excellence and maybe open one of the three bottles of wine we'd brought with us (obtained through a White Christmas wine exchange with Rhinda and friends).

So we got back to the hotel, brought all the snacks in, and proceeded to drink through one and a half bottles of wine together. Fun times. We even watched some movies on the TV before passing out completely.

And thus the roadtrip began.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Roadtrip rulez!

I picked up all of my friends from their various arrival ports (German K and Hong Kong P flew in before Christmas to enjoy San Francisco, as we wouldn't be exploring this during our trip, and Churches flew in after Christmas so we picked her straight up from the airport) and took them to meet my family. Everyone was eager to meet everyone else; everyone had heard of everyone else so much and it was finally time to have everyone meet in person.

We did this over several family dinners at my parents' California home and all enjoyed the company, discussion, and especially food.

As my mom met everyone in turn and got to know more about them, it became obvious that we'd have to put down some rules so my parents wouldn't worry as we went out and explored the vast California landscape:
  • Trading of phone numbers and other contact information was necessary so in case one of my two phones failed they could still get ahold of us (and vice versa, should something have happened to me)
  • Rules about sticking together and watching out for one another while in Vegas especially
  • Correspondence should we deviate from our original plan
My parents also did the awesome thing of loading up our car (which was my dad's midsized luxury sedan, rather than us squeezing into my extremely tiny Mini...this was an exceptionally great decision as our suitcases barely fit into the sedan as it was): we had roadtrip snacks galore from the best of American goodies, chains for our tires for our explorations into the many national parks of California, several torches/flashlights, reusable metal water bottles and thermos cups, and even a very convenient configuration for cigarette-lighter adapters so multiple people could charge their phones while we were driving. Oh, and the portable navigation system/GPS from my San Diego days.

The plan was purposefully made simple since I would be the primary driver:
  • First stop in Yosemite National Park to see one of the most famous parks in California and the US
  • Sequoia National park to see the giant trees
  • A necessary stop in Barstow on our way to Vegas (I warned them about the...undesirable characteristics of this city, which I'll detail out later)
  • Vegas for new years eve 
  • Joshua Tree for the last of our national park stops
  • Bakersfield as another stop along our way to somewhere better (I also warned them about this city)
  • Paso Robles for some much needed wining and dining
  • Back up Highway 1 for a spectacularly beautiful end to our trip and completing the circle back in my home town
My dad and I had planned it so the amount of driving was kept at 3.5 hours or less per day. We would be changing location everyday, taking a solid weeklong trip for our explorations.

Our plan, minus mileage to account for various other small things we would invariably do (like stop at cafes, shopping, going out for dinner, driving to hotels, etc) was to cover 1700+ miles in that week. Solid.

We booked our first hotel in Yosemite, loaded the car, and went to sleep early to take advantage of an early start to our first destination. We were set.

California here we came!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hullo Murrika!

It has never been my intention to write about my adventures while in America because it seems silly to blog about my homeland. But sometimes, adventures are just too big not to be recorded (as was the case when I broke this rule the first time, during Rhinda's bachelorette festivities in Boston).

My time home for Christmas was the same way. This time, instead of just having quiet time at home with my family and celebrating Christmas multiple times, my friends were following me. That's right - German K, Hong Kong P, and Churches were all convening in California so we could go on a massive roadtrip. We explored a lot of California and even into Vegas for new years.

Let's just say that it's not a trip I'll likely forget anytime soon, even if I weren't blogging about it.

So, without further ado, I present you with our roadtrip adventures.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

London's Christmas markets galore!

Right before I was leaving for the States I had a jampacked weekend. Thursday was the design Christmas party, Friday the meeting of the worldly ladies, Saturday was Greenwich Christmas market with Churches plus a drink catch up with Salads, and Sunday was Southbank Christmas market with a man I'd met at Internations who I'll simply call Slovenia.

I was to fly out on Tuesday.

And Saturday ended up being more busy than I had even planned.

It started out simply enough - waking up late after the night out with worldly ladies, feeling excellently rested from a quiet amount of booze and a relatively early tuck in (in bed around 11pm, which is great for having gone out that night...this does not include reading time...which likely spiked my bedtime to somewhere well past midnight). Then I met up with Churches at Greenwich - my first Christmas market in London.

Granted no Christmas market would likely match up to those I'd seen in Austria or Germany, but I still love the idea of them and the holiday cheer. Plus I still had some Christmas shopping to do.

It was pretty cold outside that day, but man was the market beautiful:

There was an inside sheltered part, like the above photo, and also an outdoor section, like below:

There is a market that happens here regularly (I'm guessing on the weekends), hence why the shelter existed already. I was happy about this.

The market itself was great - filled with local craftsmen and women selling their homemade wares. I bought several Christmas presents here and was giddy, especially when I reached a man with a used paperback book section.

Lord almighty, never let me near used books. I go insane.

And so I did with this man's selection, since it was more up my alley than previous used book selections I'd seen in London. The deal was 4 for £10. I had no problem fulfilling this deal. Granted I didn't buy the greatest of books when it comes to reputation or writing style, but they were in fact books that I was interested in reading, and I knew I would get my moneys worth (which was close to nothing anyway).

What did I so embarrassingly buy? Well...

...The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. The man had them all, a single copy each, and I took all three. To redeem myself I also picked up a book by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who wrote The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game. Yes, gotta balance that horrible trashy reading with something of merit. Yes, merit.

As I was buying my books the man manning (harhar) the stall asked me where I was from, recognizing from my accent that I wasn't from around there. I politely responded that I was from California but living in London now. He took a look again at my book selections (which he'd put into a nice plastic bag for me), smiled, and wished me enjoyment while reading. Lol! Sigh, of course someone from the US would be reading the Fifty Shades trilogy...oye. -_-

I smiled meekly at him, thanked him, and rushed off to find Churches and tell her about my embarrassing purchases.

After we'd gandered all the merch, we decided it was time to have a bite to eat. Food stalls are also a constant in this market and so we got our pick of the lot - middle eastern food with its lamb toasties, Thai food, Indian food (of course), various sweets dealers, and of course the token African food sellers. I guess someone's gotta cater to the vegetarians other than the Indians.

Churches eventually decided on a Brazilian churro, which unlike its Mexican counter part, has a creamy filling. She had hers half filled with liquidy fudge and soft caramel. Ohhhh boy. I was a little more bland in my selection and ended up getting lentil and onion samosas. They were cheap, vegetarian, and I was just trying to kill my hunger. Did the trick, though not spectacularly. Well, it was hot and cheap, that's all I really asked for.

After this it was determined that I would follow Churches to a dinner invitation she had that night from someone she was interested in getting to know more from her church. Apparently it was to be a Chinese banquet style meal with friends. I was a friend and Chinese, so, the perfect wingwoman. Especially since Churches didn't know anyone else in the group except the man she'd been texting with.

But first, drinks with Salads.

We originally planned to go to Aqua, a bar in the Shard, but after seeing their massive queue (for the bar!...not for the restaurant that is attached and you can make reservations queue for the bar O_O), we decided against it and walked down the street to find something quicker and less pretentious.

After a few stops into local sports bars and vetoing them (we wouldn't be able to hear each other speak), we settled on a nice restaurant bar that had three seats available to the side. Perfect. We each ordered a glass of their mulled wine (something I love about Europe) and settled in for catching up. Salads agreed that I would be the perfect wingwoman for the upcoming dinner.

Soon enough it was time to go and we left Salads to her night at home with wine and movies (sounds wonderful). We met up at Joy King Lau in Chinatown and awaited the rest of the people in the party.

To sum things up shortly, her man of interest was a Malaysian Chinese guy who grew up in Canada. So, sort of the Canadian male version of me. We ended up judging each other on how Chinese the other was. He poopooed my lack of Chinese language skills and I poopooed his not knowing about Chinese funeral rites. A standoff. Needless to say despite these things, I didn't have a favorable impression of him by the end of the night.

The food was lovely though. Unfortunately I have no pictures (I thought it would be horrendously awkward if I started taking pics of the food, considering I'd only met these people minutes before), but one thing I count against this restaurant: it had no Honey Walnut Prawns. What the what!? I told my grandma about this later when I was visiting her and grandfather for Christmas and she said, "What? Is that restaurant Chinese?" She was appalled. I feel justified.

The rest of the food was good - we ordered the Peking duck platter for starters (crispy skin in little steamed buns with hoisin sauce and green onions), eggplant with sweet and spicy sauce, garlic choy, fish with sweet and sour sauce, beef with peppers, and a fish maw soup. Everyone enjoyed everything thoroughly and we were just short of finishing everything.

We went to a bar afterwards for a drink and to ease out the night until we all realized we would be missing the last tube and rushed out the door. Guess London still has its priorities, haha.

And that's how I finished my experience of the Greenwich Christmas market (and more).

The next day I was meeting up with Slovenia for the Southbank Christmas market. I still had some more xmas shopping to do so this was fortuitous.

It became clear after some minutes of talking though, that instead of being able to shop and calmly talk about various things, Slovenia saw this as a date and was insistent that I try these things or look at this. Granted the man is great in a party because he's so social and knows just about everyone (I met him because Iron Man and I were introduced to him and then he quickly introduced us to three more people before disappearing until the end of the night, trying to introduce us to more people), but in larger doses he's just downright overbearing. He's the friend you love having as an acquaintance friend.

Anyway, back to the market - it was just as big as Greenwich and on the waterfront. The weather was terrible that day, being rainy, but we still managed to look at everything. I did get the rest of my xmas shopping done despite his insistent talking. It was a good day, despite my annoyance.

Unfortunately I took no pictures; was too busy being talked at I reckon.

My conclusions: London Christmas markets are lovely, but Austria and Germany still hold the gold star in these areas, from my experience. Well, I'm glad I know now. :)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A meeting of worldly ladies

I take every opportunity I get now to meet new people I might find commonalities with. London has taught me the hard way that good people are hard to find and breaking into a friend group is the hardest thing of all. Making new friends has been surprisingly difficult here in comparison to Helsinki. I've understood that my experience had more to do with timing than anything else (at least for Helsinki), but I still hold to the fact that the expats in Finland are more open and willing than those in London. Especially considering London is 90% expat.

In any case, when Churches invited me out to a women's night out with a few of her girlfriends and their friends, I definitely agreed. Lovely to meet new potential friends and we would already have something in common - our friends.

Churches and I went straight after work, despite being tired from the week and all the Christmas parties. It was to be at Cafe Rouge. Trying to find a table for eight women on a Friday night is pretty difficult if you don't plan ahead by several weeks. Every other restaurants that was tried was fully booked and reserved. That's London for you.

I had been to Cafe Rouge once before with Books, on a Sunday night many months ago. The food is surprisingly good, though authenticity I can't say anything about.

Churches and I were the first to arrive, not wanting to stand out in the rain anymore. A bit later we were joined by two other girls, both friends of someone else who hadn't shown up yet. One was from France (Churches was horrified that we were at a French restaurant with a French person - what horrors of critique would await us?) and the other from Malaysia. We were soon joined by another from Norway, who was friends with the two who had shown up after us. Then very slowly we were joined by Churches' friend from Russia (who I'd also met through Internations) and Charmaine. Our eighth, Salads, never arrived.

Being hungry from the cold, we took no time ordering and getting our food started. Women arrived surprisingly slowly and we weren't about to wait around. It was just what we were looking for on that cold day:

Rye toast with mushrooms in cream and garlic. Fabulous. I was so happy with this appetizer I can't even describe. This was the first of a three course meal special that was going on for the winter. All for £25 total. What a steal!

I ordered the trout as my main dish, wanting to be a little healthier after all the office parties and finger food. It came with brussel sprouts, red kraut, roasted parsnips, and potatoes. The fish was dry but the lovely buerre blanc that came with it made up for it.

And then for oh so wonderful dessert. Britain has ruined me into liking sweet food more than I have ever before. This is a noel Christmas cake. Basically like a toffee pudding with vanilla sauce. It was hot, spiced, and fantastic. Just what I was looking for after the lighter meal I'd chosen. No regrets. It was like licking the floor of Michaels, my favorite craft store back in California.

Conversation flowed as did the wine (though I kept myself to a hardfast single glass). Everyone was so interested in everyone else since no one knew everyone. I guess that's one way to icebreak into a group - make sure that no single person is friend to all. Everyone there was linked to at least a few people, but other than that, everyone was a stranger. Really interesting dynamic.

Malaysia was working in pharmaceuticals, having lived in London for 6 years. Her British accent was impeccable and I could tell that she really enjoyed living here. It's strange but Churches and I have been meeting a rash of people from Malaysia recently. I guess London is where they all flock to. :)

France was working at an agency but did a lot of technology industry analysis, sort of similar to what I do, though without the design influence. She and I talked a lot of shop and had a good time comparing people's present phones. She was intelligent and well-spoken. A delight to talk to.

Norway I didn't get a chance to talk to much, since she was sitting on the other side of Malaysia from me, but she seemed nice. She works at the NSN (Nokia Siemens Network, it was previously called) and worked with Russia, Churches' friend that I had also met previously.

Russia I knew from meeting her at several Internations meetings. She works at NSN with Norway and lives in the same neighborhood as Churches. They have become fast friends because they're basically the same person but from different countries - both 30, living in Clapham, and with very similar views on men and other subjects. They hang out a lot from what I can tell.

Charmaine is wonderful Charmaine and it's always a pleasure to hang out with her.

And so our night wound to an end after much conversation, wine, and delightfully inexpensive good food. We all discussed going for a drink after dinner but after the week we were all having and the rainy cold weather, we all decided to go another time. Leave it up to a group of women to make the comfortable decision, one that I was in total agreement with.

Meeting of friends is the best. I hope to have more outings with these ladies in the future.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Double office parties, double trouble

I guess it should have not been so shocking that after our initial office Christmas party notice went out, another followed almost immediately. Apparently the design department in London has a precedent for not wanting to mix with the rest of the office riff raff so we have our own, individual department Christmas party as well. Hmmm. I can see why the rest of the site doesn't like us. That and our free cereal and fruit service. Plus the fancy coffee machines. Plus the free breakfast every Friday. And other things. Wow, they have a lot of reasons not to like us. I wouldn't like us if I were an outsider either.

Anyway, the first office party began right after I came back from the States for Thanksgiving. I had two weeks in London and those two weeks had two office parties. Perfect timing. Some might say that they planned the parties just so I could make it...I would not be one of those people.

The first party was for the whole site. All departments under one roof for literally unlimited booze and a few catered goodies. The day started off with the office "Santa" (one of the heads of marketing, so I have learned), coming around to our desks and delivering some Christmas cheer:

Yes you are seeing that right. Shots of Jameson whisky on a tinsel-covered cart. Ho ho ho and a Merry Christmas to you all!

This was just the beginning of a booze fueled night. Another hour or so later (and there was free booze in design already before Santa came because the Ginger was leaving and therefore a hasty farewell do was thrown together), we were herded outside to load onto no less than four double decker buses that were to take us to our party venue:

Being locked away in Design all the time, I didn't recognize 85% of the people standing outside with me. Design is maybe 100 people of a 250 person site, but some reason, that doesn't mean I'll know who people are. I have a feeling people from other UK sites might have been joining us, because the numbers simply do not add up.

In any case we loaded onto the buses and 45 minutes later, arrived at our party venue: Shoreditch House. We were told on the invitations to bring our swim suits. There was in fact a heated outdoor pool there. I didn't stay long enough to find out, but I heard rumors the next week that people got drunk enough to go in. No thanks; it was surprisingly cold that night.

The venue itself (which I have no pictures of) was really nice - we were on the top floor in a penthouse with a roaring fire in the middle of it. Booze was served all-you-can-drink style starting off with bubbly, then white wine and red wine, then beers, then tables full of all of the above so you could just grab what you wanted without harassing any of the staff. You could also pay at the bar and get something stronger, should that be your thing.

Assumedly learning the lessons from our design gathering a month or so ago, catered food came out constantly, though the variety was slow in coming. We had things like oven baked flatbread pizzas, cold meat terrines, then more real meal things as the party went on - bowls of fish and chips, hot pureed soups, even some fried cheese, things of that nature. I guess they wanted to make sure people had enough to eat with their drink this time. I still didn't do a good enough job. No hangover the next morning, but way too much free booze.

Waking up with regrets and swearing to myself I would never do such a thing again, I braced myself for our second holiday party the following week. This was going to be just our Design department, which could either be way cooler or way worse, depending how you looked at it.

In any case the party was being held at the office, all the money going towards the booze and plentiful food that they also provided. I guess they really did learn the lesson hard from the design gathering.

It started off less early than the previous party but still earlier than strictly necessary. Loud Christmas carols started blaring at 3:30pm and we were forced to stop working because it was Christmastime and we should celebrate.

Once again there was unlimited free booze from our accounts. They stayed with the bubbly, white wine, red wine, and beer combination. At least they had juice. And an extreme amount of food.

Our catering service did themselves a solid and we were plied with great and curious finger foods - chicken fingers with bbq and ranch sauces, pastry cups filled with cream and salmon, bacon wrapped sausages, egg quiches, raw veggies with hummus and chive dips, and bowls and bowls of snack foods like rice cracker mix, pub nuts, chips (or crisps, as you would say here), and others. Snackers heaven.

Needless to say people got even more drunk at this party than the last one (me excluded, as I was keeping to my strict "never again" principle). We have a new Xbox in the office as part of our partnership and as the night went on, the dancing got worse:

Notice the stools that have been turned upside down to hold more booze. Someone was drunk enough to think we were running out of drink (which was not the case) and went down to the local grocery store to replenish our supplies. Jaegar was introduced. Needless to say many people did not come into the office the next day (we have a horrible habit of celebrating all of our parties on Thursdays...thinking that somehow, people will still work the following day...right).

But I did myself a great one and kept the booze at a minimum, going home with no regrets.

Double parties, double trouble. I am glad to have kept myself from trouble the second time.

I can see how working here over the years may in fact be a detriment to my health. Good to be here while I'm young. ;)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pearl Liang

I guess it shouldn't be so surprising that I haven't tried that many of the restaurants around my office despite not loving the cafeteria in our building. Something something trying to eat healthier and being cheap to my core about my food, I usually bring my lunch as much as possible now and when I do buy lunch it's usually something cheap and fast, like Pret a Manger or maybe Itsu, the sushi place that lacks seaweed salad.

In any case, the Chinese restaurant in the amphitheater below our offices, called Pearl Liang, had come up many times in conversations with colleagues. Everyone said it was incredible, even its dim sum. I was skeptical. Up until this point all my Chinese food experience in London had been alright...not great, and particularly expensive. So I wasn't so inclined to try it.

One late day after work, however, I was supposed to meet up with Two and Olive for dinner before we all set off for our winter holidays. I asked if it would be alright if they came to me since I didn't really want to go to somewhere more central in the city just to go home afterwards. Not after all the work. So I suggested we go to Pearl Liang. Right outside my office, and an excuse to try it with other people. Two birds, one stone.

We sat down, ordered a bottle of Spanish red wine (this has become a custom with them, which I love), and then decided on the shared several course meal. Hey, if you're gonna try a restaurant, you might as well actually try the restaurant. To its fullest.

Silly enough this was the only picture I got during the entire meal. Wine makes me forget what I am doing. And the food was actually pretty good, though not what I would consider traditionally Chinese. The plate you see above was our starter course (of many). It had (from top, going clockwise): prawn purses, deep fried soft shell crab, crispy seaweed, and a chicken lettuce wrap.

Strangely the best thing on this place was the crispy seaweed salad. It's like someone had shredded strips of teriyaki nori and then added peanuts or something to give it even more crunch. The taste was fabulous.

The slew of dishes that came afterward were steak and mushrooms (surprisingly thick and confusingly tough cubes of steak, though the mushrooms were fabulous), a spicy chicken dish, noodles of some kind and...

The rest of the meal goes quite fuzzy actually. Consequence of the long work hours and the bottle of wine, no doubt.

In any case my conclusion about the place: good, but not traditional. Expensive for what it is. I think with the wine and dinners split we ended up paying something like £40 each. it was a multi-course meal, sure, but that's pricey for Chinese food. I will likely not come again unless there's a good reason. Just far too expensive to keep up.

Next door a burrito place is opening up and I've been named the burrito deity for my floor. I'm supposed to try it and determine how authentic and good it is, since I'm the only person in the office who has lived close to Mexico. We'll see how this goes. So far though, the amphitheater restaurants are only so-so. Expensive at worst, but flavorful at least.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Making a statement

As the year ticks to an end, other things are ramping up. This is just the way of life.

Well in my life, as the year ends and work slows down for a microsecond before picking up again in the new year, going full speed ahead towards integration and new projects, colleagues, and situations...I need to get my grad school application in.

I'd gotten all my ducks in a row several weeks ago, before I went home for Thanksgiving. Having read the application how-to PDF guide several times, one day, I sat down at my laptop and started filling the thing out. Figured I could rip it out in a few hours and be done with it. Have everything tucked away by the time I was eating turkey with my family.

As I was happily typing in all the information they had said they would ask for, I pushed a button to get to the next screen.

BOOM. I was met with this:

What the what!?! You mention nothing of this "personal statement" in your how-to application PDF guide! What do you mean I still have to make a statement despite the fact that you're asking for references, my work history/CV/resume, academic transcripts, and all the location information you can possibly collect on me? You're going to interview me later! You can ask me all your questions then!

But apparently not.

Not only was this not mentioned in the guide, I was at a loss in how I would fit in all the answers to their questions, which could be found on my major prospectus page, in less than 3000 characters:

You're asking me to answer five very important questions, in 3000 characters or less. That's 600 characters each, including spaces. Oh, and no special characters, because that might ruin your application.


I had me some work to do.

So one night, when I was between The Hunger Games book 1 and 2 and couldn't sleep (it was already 4am), I had a brilliant flash on what I would write. I scribbled the entire idea down in a notebook near my bed and then continued on with The Hunger Games book 2. Needless to say I didn't sleep until 7:30am. Terrible idea.

But what resulted from that brain lightning strike was the beginnings of my personal statement. Something that hopefully college admission advisers will like in a few weeks when I finally submit it (fingers crossed that I can finish it before Christmas and the new year, when things will get hectic again).

Who am I? Why do I want to go back to school? Why do I want to go to this school in particular? Why this major? Why this major at this particular school?

Why why why.

And here that was the question I wanted them to help me answer. Just about a different subject.

And so the second step in my journey really begins. The first was meeting the universities and getting the right school and major decided. Check. The second will be turning in my application completely and waiting for the reply. The third will be getting through the gauntlet of the personal interview. Then waiting for the response again. Could take up to 7 weeks from the time I turn in the first application OR from when the deadline closes for them to get back to me. But that's okay because time is finally on my side (I need to delay my decision until I have more information).

So I go forward. And I look forward, to what else will be in the future.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Getting to know Nelson Mandela

Sometimes you just luck out in funny ways. As it happened, Two had double booked herself and before she knew she was traveling to Krakow with Olive, while also having bought movie tickets to the new Nelson Mandela movie called "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."

Instead of wasting the tickets she asked if I wanted them (which I did, after asking her what it was about, since I'd never heard of it...I'm slowly starting to lose my touch with the movie industry, sad as that is), and emailed me all of the appropriate information. I just needed to find a date to come with me and make it a night. A Monday night.

Naturally I asked Churches. We work at the same place and the movie time was surprisingly early (starting call was at 5:45pm in the center of town, so would take us about 30 minutes to get there). She said definitely yes, as she'd heard about it and was interested, so that was settled.

We got there right on time and got in with no problems. Turns out it was a free screening of the movie that only card members are allowed to see (Two is one of these card members) and they sometimes overbook the screenings to ensure a full house. Glad we came early, because the theater was pretty full by the time the movie started.

And then we watched the life of Nelson Mandela.

I knew a few things about him - he was the president of South Africa. He helped overthrow the apartheid. He was in jail for a really long time. His wife stayed with him even though he was in jail that entire time. Beloved by all.

That was kind of it though. We did study him in school all those years ago but it's a relatively small section, mostly included because of its ties to colonialism and racism, which America covers extensively.

The movie went into much more detail about his life before he became the man that so many people know. How the movement gained momentum and he felt compelled to do something about it. It was powerful, seeing how much race was a differentiating factor in people's lives. Something that made you live comfortably or horribly unequal. The ability of someone to disrespect and blatantly overpower someone else, simply because of skin color.

I know I live in a time that is not completely past all these things, but I also know I've never lived in a truly racist time. Not in this way.

Again I'll admit that I know not much about his life and what he had to go through, but the way the movie portrayed it, it almost looks like his jail time wasn't that bad after awhile. I'm pretty sure that was a prettied up version for the movies. I guess the way I viewed it was how it is in The Shawshank Redemption - you have your friends around you, so maybe life in prison doesn't seem so bad. At least you have company. It might even be a little easier to settle into things because there is no expectation.

Similarly, I was surprised at how negatively they portrayed his second wife, Winnie Mandela. They show her getting so caught up in the violence of the movement that she forgets what the fight was for in the first place, instead focusing on the anger she feels, the revenge she feels she needs to repay. Again, I don't know what this is like in real life, but I'm kind of impressed it went this way, especially since she's still alive. And went to the premiere. How awkward would that be. I guess no more awkward than Mark Zuckerberg going to see The Social Network and seeing himself portrayed as a selfish asshole. Some people are probably just cool with that.

All in all an enlightening movie and I'm glad I went to see it. Thanked Two profusely for the free viewing on her awesome membership.

Just another Monday night. And thanks for everything, Mr. Mandela.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A black and white roof party

For the rest of the day we shopped around for accessories. There was a goal behind this - we were going to a black and white themed Internations party at the Kensington Roof Gardens later that night.

As soon as I saw the invitation go out, I emailed American J to see if she was interested in going. As you may remember, Sweden and I had tried to go to this very venue during the summer when she was visiting me. Unfortunately due to our misunderstanding of London's party scene, we arrived 45 minutes after the doors had opened and there was a line down the block. Needless to say the policy became one-for-one (one person in for every person that leaves the already-full club), so we waited there for about an hour and a half dancing with each other before giving up on the night, not wanting to pay the ridiculous taxi fare should we wait too long and the tubes close.

I was still interested in seeing this venue though, since its first recommendation from DP Steve. It was supposed to have flamingos. Live flamingos. When I checked their site originally, it welcomed the newest member to their family - a flamingo named Mike. There were rumors that they lost one when a drunkard threw a flamingo off the roof one night. Sounds like an urban legend, now that I've been there. That would have been very difficult. And I bet flamingos don't like to be touched. Plus they smell.

Anyway, back to my adventures with American J. We shopped and had lunch at the Shepherd's Bush Westfield. I figured we could get all the stores we wanted (more or less), it would be warmer, and there were plenty of good restaurants around. Plus it was on the way home so getting ready would be a breeze going back out.

We had lunch at a nearby Asian fusion restaurant:

Beef with peppers and veggies. Surprisingly good but also pretty spicy. I was liking this place already. Of course we were also starving so it could have tasted like almost anything and I think we would have liked it.

Veggie mussaman curry. This was pretty good and also spicy. I was impressed with the liberal use of actually spicy peppers in their concoctions. It's not usual that you find super spicy food in the European food arenas (not the super commercial ones, anyway). At least that's the impression I always have. London could be different though because of all the mixed cultures here.

...and because I was still hungry even after our first two dishes, multiple glasses of water, and a small thing of rice we shared...I ordered more. A deep fried fish with extreme garlic and onions and more spicy peppers. This was kind of a letdown in comparison to the other things we'd ordered in that it was overcooked and a bit tough to eat (like literally, not smooth fish chunks, sort of spiky in the mouth with the way they cut, battered, and fried it). But still tasty. We killed it easily.

And then we let loose in the mall and found our appropriate accessories. I actually bought a pair of earrings (something I don't do often) and American J picked up a nice necklace.

Then we went home and got ready for the Kensington Roof Gardens. Which I made sure we made it to on time in order to get our free drinks. Totally made it in like a pro this time.

It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was just as snazzy. Bright LED lights lit up the modern bar and interior and everyone was there looking glam in their black and white outfits. One of the better themes Internations has come up with (I've also been dragged to a tiki-themed bar, which was not one of my favorites though I can see the charm for someone who likes that sort of thing).

We got our drinks and settled in for the night of conversation.

Eventually American J and I got curious about this outdoor garden with supposed flamingos though, so we separated from the group in search of that and the apparent bbq that was being offered.

We found the outdoors (with heat lamps). Bbq was present. Flamingos were unfortunately not.

Pretty gorgeous place though. Looks like what I imagine the Babylonian gardens looking like before it was all destroyed. My pictures don't do it justice because I didn't take pictures of the most beautifully foliaged parts.

There was a clear view of the city, fountains, and even another bar outside with tons of seating around the perimeter. I am pretty sure now that that drunkard throwing the flamingo off the roof is an urban myth because the walls are pretty high. That person would have had to throw that bird pretty far.

Near the end of the courtyard was an awesome tented area, sort of like what you'd imagine a sultan setting up for his harem as they lay around and wait for him to beckon them in the summertime, being lazily fanned by their servants while being fed grapes and other sweets.

Minus the fact that it had a Madonna and baby carved into the wall, I guess. Whatever, still a nice place with nice decor. Very luxurious yet calming.

I think you can see what I'm getting at here.

American J found the bbq and waited in line for it. It was a full-on service with hambugers and chicken burgers. You could dress it any way you want - lettuce, tomato, onions, with all the condiments. It smelled great and the heat it was giving off was priceless. I kept having terrible images of accidentally falling onto the grill in my black heeled boots though (the slate walkway wasn't that even), so I stood a safe yet still warm distance away.

Eventually we left early, having seen the venue and feeling good about the entire thing. Glad I introduced American J to the international group I've now associated myself with and finally gotten to see the Kensington Roof Gardens. Check and check. :)

Monday, January 13, 2014

To Stonehenge!

It is not so rare now that I get to check things off the bucket list of my childhood, and for this I am eternally grateful, despite the things I feel I have given up in the trade.

When American J expressed interest in seeing Stonehenge when she visited me, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. It's not everyday one of my friends initiates adventures on the weekend and is so willing to coordinate everything for me; I love it. Plus this is something I've had on my list since I moved to London and as you can clearly tell, never got around to. I was thrilled someone was excited enough to get going on it.

So we booked our tickets and made our reservation. I made sure we got to the appointed place on time and even got a fabulous discount for all of American J's travel for the weekend (the benefits of the not so futuristic rail pass I am a holder of).

Our tour was pretty simple - coach ride out of London to Stonehenge, free entrance and audio guide at the site, then a drive back to London. It was called Simply Stonehenge and is done by Golden Tours, one that has a very good reputation, according to internet sources. It's also an incredibly good deal for the money - only £30 per person, which at £8 per person for admission and audio guide at Stonehenge, and a hearty discount you can get by searching for a promotional code on the internet giving you about £5 off, leaves you at about £17 roundtrip for the coach transportation. That's nothing in comparison to the train fare you'd likely have to pay to get there, and you'd have to coordinate it all yourself.

There is nothing around Stonehenge but empty landscape. So getting there would be quite a feat from any train station.

American J and I enjoyed the warm bus and chatted about things on the two hour drive up. It is quite a ways out of the city and the view was beautiful. We were lucky; it was sunny and completely clear that day; no rain in sight. Though cold, at least we got to see Stonehenge this way, instead of miserable.

We were also lucky in that next month they are opening up a system where visitors can only see Stonehenge by train; they'll no longer be able to walk around the stones. Photos of the stones will confirm why they are doing this - even as recently as ten or fifteen years ago the formation of the stones was beautiful, circular, and whole. Now it is close to a ruin, with many stones missing, fallen over, or simply damaged by the number of tourists who see it everyday. They no longer allow tourists to even walk among the stones without private appointments because there has been so much damage previously. It is a shame that only now they are doing their utmost to upkeep the site.

We arrived and we see Stonehenge emerge before our eyes. Because it is on a barren hill it is easy to spot. Breathtakingly recognizable.

We get our audioguides and listen to the history unfold as we walk around the stones. Fabulously sunny yet bitterly cold despite there only being a slight breeze.

Basically people don't know why this was built or what it was used for. The original site is over 5000 years old and was not made of stone but rather was a ring dug and structures possibly made of wood. It used to be a heavily forested area rather than the grassy hills we see today, so this would make more sense.

Though some of the stones seem to align with cardinal or solstice directions, not that much is known about this area except that there are human ashes spread around it and the hills surrounding the area were burial grounds for important people. This is known because these important people had other items and sometimes animals buried with them.

Though many theories say that sacrifice was performed on the center stone of this formation, most of that stems from the fact that when wet, some of the stones turn red. This is because of the presence of iron in the rock and not because of lingering traces of blood.

There are also over 90 types of plant life on the rocks themselves which are not found in the surrounding modern day vegetation. These rocks were mostly brought from other parts of the UK - Scotland, Ireland, etc. There are theories on how they were moved here but generally not much is known.

Overall the audioguide tour was very fun and delightful. Just seeing the stones on their own might have been majestic, but it does lack something. In all honesty, though it was great to check this off my bucket list, the formations were a lot smaller than I had imagined. This didn't make them disappointing, mind you, but just...different. I guess as a child I always imagined them being these behemoth stones. Something like the Easter Island heads where no one could even conceive how ancient man could have moved them. Though they've done studies and these stones are at least a third buried, if not more, that doesn't make them that huge. Given that it all had to be done by hand and simple levers, pulleys, and the like, it is...but's the arrangement that makes it fascinating more than the stones themselves.

I should note also that while we were walking around getting our prerecorded tour, the sun faded behind a mass of clouds and it became bitterly cold. Two had come earlier in the year when she and Olive first moved to London and warned me of how cold it was then, in the springtime/early summer. Since we were closing in on winter by this point, we figured it would be freezing. Good we prepared with down jackets, gloves, and in the case of smart Californian J - a hat. Something that I have yet to break out for this winter season because it's been so unseasonably warm.

We tutted around the gift shop a little bit so I could buy my customary postcard and we could warm up a bit, then it was back in the overly warm bus (this time, too warm) and into town.

From there we had an adventure around town, where I showed American J the Internations ropes.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Being a hostess again

It's been a long time since I've really hosted anyone at my place. Yes I held the linner party not so long ago but it's been quite a few months since anyone has actually slept over at my place, took it in as a guest on my fold out sofa bed.

So when American J emailed to tell me she was going to be in the area again - first visiting German K and Hong Kong P in Helsinki then me on the way back to the States, I was quite flattered. A homeland guest! How exciting. I do love being a hostess, especially for those I know and love. There's just something so satisfying about sharing your space with someone you trust and can provide for (versus strangers, which apparently for me is just nerve wracking and slightly scary).

Friday night, American J arrived. We had possible plans to go check out a banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich) place I had been interested in, but traveling is tiring so I decided to introduce her to the pub around the corner. To Drayton Court we went!

It was a bustling Friday night, as I imagine all Friday nights (and even Thursday nights, with the pub quiz) there are, but we found a seat near the radiator and made ourselves at home looking at the menu. There were so many good items to choose from, it took us awhile to decide, but finally we decided to share two dishes (to increase the variety of things being tasted!):

Pumpkin ravioli with rocket salad and a roasted red pepper sauce. Fabulously smooth and a taste of autumn in your mouth. This was my pick for sure and I was delighted by it. So tasty in my mouf.

And a pan roasted chicken after their chicken Kiev was sold out. Candied beats and bubble and squeak were also served with it (bubble and squeak, I had to reaffirm via google, is a pan fried cake made from bits of vegetable mashed's fabulous and I love it..I imagine it gets its name from the noise it makes frying on the pan).

Very tasty, both of these dishes, American J was right impressed with my neighborhood pub. We chatted happily and caught up on the news of the time.

And then it was time to go back and head in early for the night; American J was tired from her travels and we had a long day ahead of us the next day, having booked a great weekend of fun for ourselves.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Continuing the nerd tradition

It has now become a nice steady presence on my calendar, Nerd Nite London. Two and I plan to go to it whenever we can, and so far we've not missed a single one together. I enjoy this. We've invited other friends to come but in general their interest and allegiance to nerds must not be as strong as ours; they always end up being too tired or having other plans or simply forgetting...this does not a meeting make.

Since I had just come back from Vienna the day before Two allowed me the excuse to back out due to jetlag or simple traveler's exhaustion but I refused: no way to meet new people and learn new knowledge if you just stay at home and do laundry or watch Breaking Bad. Those are all good things and all, but surely, learning about new interesting topics and putting yourself out there should be more rewarding in the end. I guess we'll see if over the next year or whatever, this proves to be true.

So I stayed late after work, doing various other things until it was an appropriate time to leave and meet her for dinner. It is starting to get cold now, which is kind of nice while it sucks, since winter has actually come pretty late this year, holding off until late November. It doesn't bother me so much maybe because of this. On the flipside I have heard that we are in for an extremely cold and long winter because of it. As long as it doesn't affect my flights going home for the holidays, I care not at all. I can deal with the cold with more clothes. I know now what to expect. Thank you Finland.

We met up at Liverpool Street station and headed towards the customary vintage clothing shop venue. Scoping out restaurants along the way we eventually choose a Vietnamese place that is literally right next door. To be honest I'm not really sure it even had a name. It probably did but extensive Google Map searching (even to the detail of street view) has yielded nothing. In any case I guess I know where it is should I want to return.

We sat down and I looked over the menu. All the normal things were offered: egg rolls, spring rolls, vermicelli with fish sauce, pho, and broken rice dishes.

My problem with delicious Vietnamese food is I'm always drawn to the vermicelli with fish sauce and egg rolls, despite what the weather is like outside. But today was particularly cold and I was still suffering from some illness that resembled a mix between allergies and a cold. So I relented.

Instead I chose something I've never had before - spicy beef noodle soup (forgive me but the Vietnamese name eludes me). Two ordered the pho, striving to find the best pho in town that rivaled that which she could find back in Sydney.

But first, appetizers:

Beef wrapped in betel leaves with fish sauce. Two knew about this dish, being Vietnamese herself, and said it was unusual to see it on the menu (apparently betel leaves are hard to come by, and so most menus will not have this). I hadn't had it before, though I'd heard of betel leaves, so was more than happy to try it.

Delicious, of course, as all Viet food is. Sweet, juicy beef on the inside, slightly resistant chewy leaves on the outside. They did have a flavor, the betel leaves, but it was very faint. Fabulous, all around. This sort of cured my need for vermicelli because it gave me most of the things I looked for - noodles and veggies (which were on the bottom), in sweetened fish sauce. The meat in leaves even sort of acted like makeshift eggrolls, though I still missed their crispiness.

Next, the spicy beef noodles that I'd ordered:

You could see the fabulous chili oil resting on the surface. Fatty beef slices, onion, and cilantro all floating nearby with thin noodles (thinner than vermicelli; I think they called it capellini on the menu though I don't think that's correct).

I actually loved this dish. Maybe it was the cold weather or my sickness or a combination of just right circumstances, but I actually thought this was fantastic. Two was wary as she thought her pho was still substandard (I have a suspicion that her standards are quite high for pho, or Vietnamese food in general, though she admitted she had never really thought they were until she moved to London and tried several, only to dismiss them all as not quite good enough).

The broth was subtle and flavorful; spicy but not too much so. There were hints of anise, Chinese five spice, onion, garlic, and other things I couldn't even tell. It wasn't oily to eat, despite the chili oil droplets visible, and the fatty meat was heavenly. I ate the entire thing, which is quite a feat for me, because even in San Diego I would be hard pressed to eat everything - usually I'd leave a carnage of noodles at the bottom of any soup bowl (they being the least interesting part of the soup, to me).

Feeling revived and quite satiated, we moved to Nerd Nite next door. We were in for some interesting talks.

Here is what we heard about:

Drugs - the messy intersection of science and policy making

I think we can all see where this one is heading. Why are policy makers so against some drugs, not others? Science has shown that drugs are not as bad as we've made them out to be in policy and propaganda; given choices most drug addicts will make rational decisions about drugs when given a choice of other incentives like money, even when they need to delay their receiving of these rewards. People are people.

Though I find this subject interesting always, I found this talk not particularly scientific. The man speaking had many valid points, but unfortunately put a lot of emphasis into his talk by calling policy makers "stupid" instead of getting to the more infallible parts of the argument, which can be backed up with science or reason. I think there are many reasons why policy makers have waged the war on drugs; I think perhaps the way you should try to convince them to change their ways, is to do exactly what scientists have been doing for drug addicts - show the incentives.

For example, by legalizing drugs and eliminating the black market, governments would now be able to tax and take a piece of that rather large and lucrative pie. Medical costs would go down as people would spread diseases less through unclean drug methods and in general, there would be less incentive for people to be curious about drugs. Countries that have completely legalized all drugs have seen this happen; this is no theory.

Perhaps we should be looking at the reasons why policy makers went into this battle in the first place, and see if those reasons are still present. Science is great, but if the discussion is about something other than evidence, then you're speaking two different languages.

This is heavily simplified but hopefully you get my drift.

The Technology of Terminator

This talk was quite good and interesting and fabulously given by a woman, which is rare and so vigorously encouraged by those at Nerd Nite. This woman was also very knowledgeable about programming and various types of engineering and science, though I would say she was surprisingly unaware of other technologies that are happening now (such as Google Now or nanotechnology) and I thought fairly well-known concepts such as the Turing Test. But I digress.

All in all she talked about the inconsistencies in technology (e.g. a technology sent from the future that is left in the past gives the ability to be reverse engineered and therefore brings itself into creation...this is hilarious in theory and is sort of like shooting your own grandfather in the past therefore changing the course of history so you'll never be born, therefore never enabling you to shoot your grandfather in the first place) and made quite a few good jokes.

She even tried to reverse engineer the chip shown in the movie, to see if it could actually do some of the things it promised, as apparently many other people before her have tried. Apparently something similar to it exists in the world made by IBM but alas, it is larger, cube-shaped, and does something completely different.

A good talk and sorry I don't have more examples for you; I was sharing a fabulous pitcher of St. Germain's elderflower spritzer with Two and having a grand time listening, rather than mentally cataloging information.

Why Australia is called Australia

This was perhaps one of the most interesting talks I've heard, and certainly one of the best presented. The man speaking had studied ancient Greek and Roman mythology and was also a keen linguistic academic. Combining the two you get the roots of most words in English, as well as many other languages.

Through a series of pictures, examples, and words, he shows us how words were developed: things such as the names of our months - the first eight of which are named after famous Romans and the last of which (because their calendar only had ten months), simply mean seven, eight, nine, and ten (since they started from March).

Every word has a base in history, and through a fascinating process he went through all of them to eventually come to how Australia was named Australia. Similar to how the Aurora Borealis is named, which is a combination of Aurora, or dawn and Boreas, referring to a strong northern wind, so the southern equivalent is named Aurora Australis, referring to the lights and Australis, meaning south. So, Australia is named as such because it is the south land.

And there you have it.

I am starting to get very comfortable at these Nerd Nites - recognizing faces that have shown up every time just as Two and I have; the ones that aren't afraid to ask questions at the end of each talk or simply comment without politely raising their hands. I will have to say there is a good mix of people at these things, and many of them are not British.

I think I may have the potential for good friends at these meetups.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Happy new 2014!

As 2013 came to a close, I celebrated it in Vegas, of all places. But I'll get to that in a future blog post.

Just wanted to say welcome to 2014. I hope that it is a significantly better year than 2013, and I have confidence that it will be. 2013 was for the lessons, 2014 will be for improvements and developments. Yes and yes.

So here's to living it up and more adventures. Happy 2014 everyone. :) Thanks again for staying tuned.


The food of Vienna

And now the post you've really been wanting to read (haha, and not my posts that weave over my emotional problems regarding the city).

The food.

I'd have to say that the food in Vienna was much better this time around, but that shouldn't be too surprising considering last time I was a backpacker, alone, and basically not eating almost anything but snacks and various things my hostel might have been serving. Something something starvation abroad with the occasional good meal thrown in if there was someone to share it with.

Nacho cheese Bugles. These were not original brand Bugles, as are sold in America, but some off brand that still used the word "bugles." I guess that means they're not trademarked. In any case, the general verdict about these is that they were a bit dry, very corn tasting, and the cheese powder was not salty enough nor cheesy enough. If I'm going to eat an entire bag (which I did, it was medium sized), it better be up to fatty snack standards. This one didn't pass that test but I eat junk food so infrequently now that I still wanted it. I was fat and ate it all in one day. Perhaps not justified. I bought it from SPAR, a grocery store I sorely miss from the relative east.

Pretzel bread vegetarian sandwhich. Also bought from SPAR when I bought the nacho cheese bugles. Unfortunately did not have the remoulade so celebrated and popular in Germany. Had some sort of herbed butter spread instead, which was not very noticeable, just visible instead (couldn't taste it). It was filled with sliced cheese, lettuce, and cucumbers. It was filling for what it was, but in general I feel this could have been better. I think I set my standards high having had many pretzel bread sandwiches during my time through Germany, and they tended to come fresh from train station restaurants. Perhaps SPAR was not the best place to test this memory. And Austria is a different country known for its more rye-like bread. I'm confusing two different places and this is probably why I did a bad job. I was hungry though, so that's why I bought it.

First real Viennese food. Sausage salad with green salad was the English translation on the menu. Clearly just sausage salad, really. It was tasty though; this is clearly something I would make for myself at home if I lived in Austria. Their sausages are more like hot dogs, especially since they feel the need to remove the skin (making them less like wurst, in my opinion). I liked this though; it was like everything was super easy edible. The green salad had butter lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers in yellow and red, and cucumbers. There was a very light vinegar and oil dressing on it, very light. It was lovely and heavenly. I ate the entire thing (this was actually quite large).

Martini goose with potato dumpling, red cabbage kraut, and lingonberry sauce. Apparently it's goose season so everyone and their mom is doing goose stuff on their menus. I was curious enough to try it, especially this way, which is the traditional way of cooking it, so I ordered it the first time it was mentioned. Fabulously interesting. It's like a more dry duck. The skin is wonderfully fat but the meat is pretty lean. The red kraut was wonderful, as it always is - being a little vinegary with a sweet twist (more sweet than the normal kraut), and the lingonberry sauce was a nice tart edge. The potato dumpling was like a large ball of chewy potato. It had spices in it as well. Not my favorite. Overall I thought it very worth trying this dish. Goose; so tasty and gamey.

Tofu salad with yogurt dressing and regular kraut on the side. The tofu was slightly fried and crispy. This was at the World Cafe. There were so many good things at this cafe that I'm a bit sad that I went with this in the end since it was good but not amazing. I wanted to be healthy though, after all the meat and potatoes we were likely to be having and I've not been going to the gym recently. So it was the right choice from that perspective. But I really did want that moussaka. Or the beef burrito. Sigh.

Desserts from Aida. Aida is a large dessert chain that is all over Vienna. We were told by the daughter to try the pink squares, which are cake with rum punsch inside them. They were good, but very sweet. They reminded me of much more moist petit fours. I also had the chocolate one on the top left, which was a Mozartkugel flavored one - filled with cake, marzipan, and pistachio paste. Tasty and light. Mozartkugel is really well known in Vienna, since it's where he played the majority of his career, so it was worth tasting. So famous. The other flavors in the picture are coffee (which was a coffee cream, much to Hong Kong P's dismay), and cherry, which German K thought was okay. I think all of us aren't that interested in sweets.

World Famous wiener schnitzel as served by Plachuttas Gasthaus Zur Oper. We were recommended the restaurant by a friend we met with German K's cousin and she was not wrong. The interior of the restaurant was gorgeously modern and the prices surprisingly reasonable. This wiener schnitzel was also huge - two large pieces of pounded viel with German potato salad for 19€. I ate the entire thing, which surprised everyone at the table. It was really good veal and really nice batter though...I just couldn't resist.

The German potato salad. Unlike American potato salad (which I infinitely prefer), it isn't made with mayo but rather with vinegar and oil and onions. Perhaps not the best for meeting members of the opposite sex afterwards but certainly very tasty. I enjoyed this immensely, though it was a bit intense to have a large bowl of this plus the two pieces of veal as the only things in a meal. Hong Kong P and I agreed it would have been better to halve everything and give a veggie side dish as well.

Pancakes with plum jam covered in powedered sugar. We stayed long enough at the restaurant to have dessert and several dessert drinks. This is a common German/Austrian dessert of pancakes with powdered sugar and plum jam, something that German K grew up with and hadn't had in awhile. It was lovely but I was stuffed after the entirety of my wiener schnitzel. Both Hong Kong P and German K enjoyed it immensely though.

And thus the foods of Vienna are summed up. Lovely food and so much good Austrian white wine. Larger variety and type of veggies than what I've seen in Germany, which makes me believe that I would do better in Austria than Germany overall.