Egyptian Festival

On Friday, August 21, 2009, I headed across the bay for an Egyptian festival, the King Tut Festival, in Hayward. I learned about the festival from a flyer in my dentist's office. (He's Egyptian.) I guess the Coptic community is small--I was amused the girl greeting people at entrance knew him. :)

I arrived at the festival an hour behind my intended schedule (due to running around getting things in order for my trip the following day), so I went straight for food. Due to my hurry, I accidentally left my camera in the car. Once at the festival, I scouted it, gulped some food down, then took a church tour. The tour, with a dozen people and one energetic guide, was cozy. It took twenty minutes during which I learned a good amount on the history of the Coptic church. Maybe my knowledge of Christianity is sparse, but I never realized that there are five original organizational units of Christianity ("the pentarchy"), each started by a different significant figure, and each associated with a different originating city: Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople. The Coptics are from the branch started in Alexandria by Apostle Mark; they're commonly referred to as Egyptian Orthodox Christians.

After the tour, I explored the festival in more detail and got more food.

Though run by the Coptics, the festival was similar in style to the many Greek festivals I've attended. Like the Greek festivals, this festival occurred at the community's local church and had a heavy emphasis on food. Most of the tables were set up in the church's parking lot, adjacent to the playground. Non-food items for sale included jewelry, posters, t-shirts, boxes, plates, and pots; all of these were patterned/decorated in a style that felt appropriate for Egypt, some like what an Egyptian tourist might buy. The costumes/clothing were hokey, making me think more of Egyptian Halloween costumes than anything an Egyptian might actually wear. There was also a bookstore which mostly sold religious books, and some videos too.

Like Greek festivals, there were many tables of food: kebabs, pita, falafels, dolmas, stuffed cabbages, zucchinis, peppers, hawashi sandwiches, feteer meshaltet, and a wide assortment of desserts (basbousa/bassbousa, kunafa/kunafah, baklava (in rolls), katayef/qatayef, kahk, lokmadis/loukoumades). I got to see the woman make pita bread (roll it, bake it). You can buy it fresh from the oven. As for the Egyptian food, if you haven't heard of most of those, you're not alone. Incidentally, gosh it's a pain that there aren't standardized spellings of many of these dishes. I guess it's because they come to the roman alphabet from a few different languages.

The coolest thing about the festival is that I heard more Egyptian than English. The analogous statement cannot be made about Greek festivals, which I think try more actively to bring to the festival people outside their community.

The only disappointing feature compared with Greek festivals was the lack of live music. Although there was a stage, all the music was pre-recorded. However, I think this may have been due to the time I attended the festival; according to the schedule, the festival often should have live music.

Although I left my camera in the car, I nevertheless managed to take pictures of what I ate using my cell phone's camera.

London: Aug 8: Borough Market (again), Clockmakers Museum, Spitalfields, Notting Hill, and Edgeware Road

This was a busy day. We visited a number of neighborhoods in London, plus countless markets (literally).

In the morning, Di Yin and I returned to Borough Market. Again, we wandered through, sampling as we went. By far the best item we sampled was an amazingly good, refreshing "first discovery apples" apple juice. It enticed us to buy a number of these apples.

For lunch, we bought:

  • a small pear yogurt: the pears were good; the yogurt was average.
  • the Thai green curry chicken (in those huge pans) that we spotted last time, served with coconut jasmine rice: good.
  • an eggplant kibbeh (bulgher crust wrapped around an eggplant filling): neither of us liked it.
  • a sandwich with chorizo, roasted pepper, and frisee: fairly decent.
  • cannelés / canneles (those French pastries we bought last week and liked so much).
From Borough Market, we walked across London Bridge and through the empty financial district to the Clockmakers Museum. It's a small, cute museum filled with displays of clocks, pocket watches, watch keys, and more, as well as signs describing the history of clockmaking in London over the centuries. I learned why having an accurate clock makes determining longitude really easy, and recalled that one can easily determine latitude from the stars.

Sometime around now, I took out my camera and began taking pictures. Di Yin, meanwhile, had been taking pictures all along, beginning with this one. The rest of her album is pictures from this day. If you're in slideshow mode and you begin to see another batch of pictures from Borough Market, you've cycled to the beginning and are seeing pictures from our first visit. I already linked to those pictures.

As we left The City financial district, we entered livelier parts of town as we walked over to Spitalfields market. Spitalfields itself was also lively, full of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating, plus other shops. Nearby are regular pubs (no gastropubs) and cute tea-houses.

A few blocks away, we found a line of food stalls: Tibetan, Indian, Thai, Moroccan (two of these), Chinese, risotto balls. There was also someone running a grill out of a converted trailer truck, and another joint running out of a converted double-decker bus. Walking by these, I decided I liked the smell of this part of town. Further along, we found stands selling clothes. It turns out this area is part of the Backyard Market.

On another block, we found a "pop-up market", this one an indoor, low-end jewelry market, and, later, another small indoor market with items for the home (kitchenware, furniture, etc.). Next we came across a large indoor market with clothing.

This was getting absurd. These markets just go on and on. By the way, there were people around, but I wouldn't call the area crowded.

We walked and learned we were at the end of Brick Lane, the Indian district we visited before. This time we found the dense part of Brick Lane -- we must've not been far enough along on our previous visits. We popped in a large Indian grocery store, walked by desperate Indian restaurateurs (why is it that it's more likely Indian restaurants have people on the sidewalk recruiting patrons than other types of restaurants, and why do these people always look more desperate?), and looked in another grocery, Bangla City, one that sells two-foot-long frozen fish.

And now, for something entirely different, we took the tube to Notting Hill. To get there, we passed through Liverpool Station, which has a high-windowed roof, giving it a nice, open feeling.

Notting Hill has a nice mix of dense, small, retail shops and residences. We walked down Portobello Road, passing through a series of street markets (antiques then food then fashion) as they were shutting down, but we still appreciated the neighborhood without them. Given Borough Market, Spitalfields, and Notting Hill, I guess Saturday is a big market day.

We headed east down Westbourne Grove road. We discovered an entirely organic grocery store: yogurt, bacon, ice cream, pastas, etc., all organic. Farther east, we began to see Middle Eastern places. The area around Queensway Road looked enticing, but we would not be distracted from our goal of discovering the Middle Eastern food along Edgeware Road.

On the way to Edgeware Road, near Paddington Station (one of the most important interchange stations in the city) we found places clearly for travelers on the go, such as fast food joints and 7-11-type markets.

Eventually, we made our way to our evening/dinner destination: Edgeware Road. Edgeware Road is famous for being the Middle Eastern/Arab/Persian/whatever neighborhood of London. This area is where wealthy people from that part of the world live and eat.

From what I'd heard, I expected Edgeware Road to be a small, neighborhood-y road, not the wide road with five lanes of traffic that it turned out to have. We walked down Edgeware Road, sorting through the restaurants to select one with good food from all those that had large crowds sitting outside simply because people needed places to smoke cigarettes and hookahs. We passed many specialist restaurants: Iran, Lebanon, Damascus, Beirut. Even cities have distinctive cuisines. In neither in New York nor San Francisco have I seen restaurants concentrating on particular parts of the Middle East so specifically. Eventually, we spotted a darling little Persian place, Patogh, slightly off Edgeware Road, and went there to have dinner.

After a good dinner, a short stop for ice cream, and a long tube ride, we arrived home.

London: Aug 7: V&A Museum Part 1

On Friday, August 7, 2009, I disappeared from work to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. I saw about half of it; here are the pictures I took, along with captions I wrote 6+ months after the fact. (I originally wrote captions on the same day, but lost my copy of those.)

The museum is hard to place. I guess I have to say that it covers applied art from all eras and cultures. It includes ceramics and metalworks (serving dishes and the like), rugs, fashion (dresses, etc.), furniture (cabinets, chairs, etc.), lamps, and wall decorations (tapestries, paintings, etc.). The British section even has multiple period-rooms on display, transplanted to the museum from old houses elsewhere in London.

The museum also has a strong emphasis on sculpture (South Asian, Asian, Western, etc.). Indeed, the "cast court" is definitely the best section I visited. It's incredible. I have no problem with the fact that the casts aren't original. So what that they're copies--the pieces that they're copying are extraordinary.

I also visited a special exhibit that showcased furniture and that felt like a haunted castle. Everything was a warped or a strange combination of real objects, such as a bathtub that looks like a boat, a teapot than looks like an animal's skull, and a seemingly-melted wooden wardrobe. Weird.

London: Aug 5: British Museum Part 1

On my break from work on Wednesday, August 5, 2009, I decided to explore the British Museum. I made it through most of the ground floor, which mainly consists of the museum's Egyptian and Greek collections. Both these collections are impressively extensive, made all the more so by the notable cleanliness of the items (i.e., they're well-preserved).

For details on what I saw, see the many pictures I took in the museum.

Incidentally, on the way to the museum, I realized how common it is to walk by pubs that are over two hundred years old. This certainly isn't a common occurrence in the U.S.

London: Aug 4: Tate Britain Part 1

On Tuesday, August 4, 2009, I disappeared briefly from work to visit the Tate Britain. It was yet another museum where every painting comes with an explanation.

First, I walked through the odd special exhibit of contemporary art: Classified. It had three works that I want to comment on:

  • Gillian Carnegie managed to a paint a forest, Black Square, using only a single color of black paint. The appearance of trees, ground, etc. is simply due to texture variations.
  • Simon Patterson's piece, The Great Bear, is a tube map with stations and lines renamed after people and professions, thus drawing connections between them. Something similar could make a good Game clue.
  • The Chapman Family Collection is a group of primitive-looking statues that reference McDonalds: a totem with what looks like a big mac as a head, a mask that looks like a bag of fries, some eyebrows that makes the shape of the golden arches, a person with smile like Ronald McDonald's, etc. This room certainly makes a statement about art and authenticity.
In a stairway, I found William Reynolds-Stephens's sculpture A Royal Game, which display Queen Elizabeth I and King Philip of Spain playing a chess-like game with ships (symbolizing war, obviously).

I made my way through some of the rooms of the regular collection of historic British Art, and found I could appreciate the lushness of the 18th century portraits. I also saw John Brett's The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs and felt it captures the idea of a clear, tropical, relaxing day.

I took a picture along the way to Tate Britain, and a few more at dinner.

In the evening, Di Yin and I ventured out to try a Bengali restaurant on Brick Lane. It's a dried- and fresh- fish-heavy cuisine. We didn't like our meal because we felt everything was significantly oversalted.

London: Aug 3: National Gallery Part 1

On Monday, August 3, 2009, I stole out of work to visit the National Gallery. It was such a beautiful day, I decided to walk along the park (St. James) to get there rather than take the tube. On the way, I took a few pictures.

The museum provides an incredible amount of detail on its paintings. Not only does every painting have a description, most (yes, most) paintings have audio guide explanations! There are thousands.

I visited about half the museum this trip:

  • 16th-century paintings. In this section, I was amazed how vibrant the colors are. The museum must have the best-preserved (or best-restored) paintings from this era. Nevertheless, I found (as I expected) the section had too much religious imagery for my liking.
  • 18th- to early-20th-century paintings. This section has all the painters you'd expect at a quality museum: monet (some decent ones), pissarro (half a room of his paintings), manet, gauguin, cezanne (half a room), van gogh, and degas (a whole room). Although photography wasn't allowed in the museum, here are some of my observations of this section:
  • the special exhibit on French landscape painters, Corot to Monet. I was amused by this quote I spotted in the exhibit:
    "[Monet] takes pleasure in discovering traces of humanity everywhere; he wants to live continually in a human environment. Like a true Parisian he takes Paris with him to the countryside, he cannot paint a landscape without including well-dressed men and women."
    Emile Zola, "a close friend of Monet"
Though clearly a first-rate, well-presented museum (if you don't believe my comments above, simply examine the extensiveness of the gallery's web site), I'm surprised to admit I have fonder memories of other museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago. I think I enjoyed the Art Institute more because its scope is much wider/larger, meaning there's more opportunity to find exhibits I like. Meanwhile, the National Gallery, including the parts I haven't yet visited, is entirely limited to paintings.

London: Aug 2: Tate Modern, Hyde Park, and Green Park

On Sunday, August 2, 2009, I took the train to see the Tate Modern, located in a renovated old power station. London's contemporary art museum, it shows the true expanse of 20th-century art in all its many styles. It's organized by form or subject, not chronologically as at most museums. I appreciated that almost every piece has an explanation. The museum is free, though I skipped the special exhibits (which charged) because I wasn't interested enough in them. Since it wasn't really my scene, I went through it in the relatively fast eighty minutes.

Though the museum didn't allow photography, I want to comment on some pieces that struck me:

  • Georges Braque. This artist, who I'd previously never heard of, surprised me the most of everything I saw at the Tate. His works were so typically cubist, they could've easily been Picassos. Given the identical look and quality of the paintings, I'm shocked he doesn't get more attention.
  • The large (7' x 16') canvas that is Monet's Water Lilies after 1916.
  • The similarly large, long (6' x 18') canvas that is Jackson Pollock's Summertime: Number 9A.
  • Robert Therrien's Table and Four Chairs. It's a table tall enough to walk under. Weird. It made me laugh and smile. Located in the small special exhibit on Scale.
  • Miroslaw Balka's column of stacked, colored soap (which looked like flat stones). Looks cool.
  • Alighiero Boetti's map of the world that has the every country colored/patterned like the country's flag--a neat idea.
  • Jeff Koons's room with large outlines of stuffed animals (scroll down) (a bear, an elephant, etc.) in colored, reflective plastic. Cute.
  • A set of thin, otherworldly, statues of standing women. These would've gone well in my collection of such pictures.
I also liked the Red Star Over Russia room (in the State of Flux collection): a room with a collection of Soviet communist propaganda posters, which reminded me of my visit to Shanghai's Propaganda Art Museum. I also like the Ruscha room (he has fun with text) and the look of the unusual material sculptures in the Arte Povera and Anti-Form room (in the Energy and Process collection).

After the museum, I began taking pictures as I walked along the Thames, past the reconstructed Shakespeare Globe Theatre, and through the historic pubs and other brick buildings in the neighborhood that is Southwark / the borough market (closed this day) to get to a tube station. Grabbing lunch on the way, I took the train to Hyde Park and walked part of it and saw that it has a feel and functionality like New York's Central Park.

Later, I met Di Yin and we strolled through Green Park. Green Park has many pleasing grassy expanses and artistic, tree-lined, crisscrossing paths. It looks like a great place for a picnic.

Incidentally, Di Yin took some pictures after I met up with her. I linked to her first picture. While flipping, when you see a picture with the caption "The next weekend, we went back to borough market" (it's 18 pictures after the one linked above, or picture #103 in the album), you're done with the relevant pictures. I'll link to the other pictures at the appropriate time in later posts.

London: Aug 1: Borough Market and British Museum

On Saturday, August 1, 2009, Di Yin and I ventured to Borough Market, London's largest and oldest food market. It's the scale and caliber of other major markets such as Vancouver's Granville Island and Barcelona's Boqueria, including everything you'd expect from a huge market: fruits and vegetables, meats, fishes, cheeses, breads, sweets, etc. Vendors were fairly liberal with providing samples, and we tried countless items (cheeses, spreads, hams, drinks, desserts). Given its size and popularity, it's no surprise it was extremely crowded on this weekend day.

I took some pictures this day, mostly of the market. Di Yin took many more. Her pictures do a better, comprehensive job at capturing the market's flair. When you hit pictures from Hampstead Heath (picture 72), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the other pictures at the appropriate time in later posts.

After some mis-steps with the national rail system, we arrived, passing Southwark Cathedral on the way to the market. Once there, we met one of Di Yin's friends who'd lived in the city for a couple of months, and toured the market with her. In the market, I got to try a (raspberry) Turkish delight. I decided I must try it because I'd recently seen The Chronicles of Narnia. The sweet wasn't my kind of candy. In contrast, we brought some cannelés (canneles), delightfully-light mushroom-shaped French pastries made of egg-batter with a caramel-y outside. (The name comes from the fact they have groves on the outsides, i.e., they're fluted = cannelé in French.) I also assembled a lunch from a wild boar sausage on a bun, strawberries and cream (oh my god this looked so good every time we walked by, we had to try them), grilled halloumi cheese (which was served, oddly, on bread), and a chelsea bun (a sticky, fruity loaf). We also bought a bunch of good stuff for later meals.

Next, we headed to the British Museum, where we met two other friends of Di Yin. I don't have much to say about the British Museum this time because we mostly stayed in the South, South-East, and East Asia section of the museum, which isn't where my greatest interest lies. At least it was clear this collection had quality, well-preserved, well-presented artifacts. I noticed a column which, though shorter, appeared identical to those I was so impressed with in Ranakpur (India).

Near the museum, we walked through Russell Square and saw some other Bloomsbury sights.

After the museum, we re-met the Borough-market friend and grabbed dinner at her recommendation: Lowlander Pub. It's a pub with a great beer selection. I had a La Trappe Dubbel that I liked so much I'm writing the name down so I can get it again. I made everyone else try it too, and they agreed my enthusiasm was justified. It's a very smooth, balanced, dark ale. It's got a pleasant smell that includes caramel, and a taste that includes aspects of fruit (which made one person say it "feels like fall").

London: July 31: Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, and more

In the morning of Friday, July 31, I walked by Buckingham Palace and through St. James Park to arrive at Parliament Square to visit Westminster Abbey. I took these pictures on this excursion. They're good (especially the first half).

The pictures document the whole excursion with the exception of Westminster Abbey (and vicinity), to which I devote this blog post.

Immediately before visiting Westminster Abbey, I stuck my head in St. Margaret's church, which is next door to it. The church is requesting donations for "urgent conservation." I can't imagine why they need it--it's quite nice inside. It has very detailed stained glass windows and intricate stone reliefs lining the walls.

As for Westminster Abbey, I kept saying "wow" / "holy cow" / "holy crap". Whatever expression of amazement you choose, it's impressive. (Sorry, pictures weren't allowed inside.) It's the most impressive religious site I've visited, and yes that counts Ranakpur, a highlight of my trip to India. Even the Abbey's side chapel puts major sight-seeing churches to shame. It's everything: the architecture, the statues, the stained glass, the rose windows (including the world's largest), the countless bas reliefs, the numerous memorials. Yet, even if there were nothing in the abbey, the building alone would be worth the (expensive) price of admission.

Henry VII's Lady Chapel took my breath away. It's not just the design of the vaulted ceiling ("a wonder of the world") and the knightly flags but also the elaborate wood carvings above the monks seats (each unique?) and again the stained glass and innumerable reliefs (also all unique?). I also want to point out the high altar's resplendent gilded screen and Victorian mosaic.

By the time I made it to the nave proper, I'd exhausted my quota of gasps and effusive words.

I can see what Gaudi wanted with his Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. If it, whenever it's completed, gets anywhere near the quality of this monument, it should be considered a success.

By the way, I listened to the good audio guide as I studied the abbey. Due to the density of tombs (many of royalty or nobility), in the process of touring I learned a good amount of history from the audio guide and the epitaphs.

Given my reaction to the Abbey, it's no surprise that I spent much longer wandering around here (two hours) than I intended.

During my visit, I realized I was glad photography is prohibited. Because there were so many quality shots ready to be taken--even such easily overlooked nuances as the outlines of the doors or the bronze roses surrounding one tomb--, I'd never have made it through the abbey without being overwhelmed by the photographic choices. Furthermore, if other people were stopping everywhere to take pictures, it would be impossible to navigate/move through the chaos.

On the way back to work from Westminster Abbey, I spotted a small street market on Strutton Ground, off Victoria Street, complete with a couple of fruit stands and food stands. Nothing exciting, but I'm happy I spotted something like this by chance. The street itself has a number of sandwich shops selling long, narrow sandwiches. Also, one take-out/eat-in joint along the street, The Laughing Halibut, a fish-and-chips place, had a queue well out the door.

London: July 29: Chinatown

On Wednesday, July 29, 2009, Di Yin and I met to explore London's Chinatown (near Leicester Square). Due to complications, by the time we ended up in Chinatown, we were both famished. Hence, I didn't get to see much of it. What I did see surprised me: a couple of pedestrianized blocks filled with well-dressed, well-heeled, mostly white people. It felt like the place one goes to for a (Chinese-food) night on the town, not a place where anyone lives, let alone a community of Chinese people. This is not a neighborhood with an everyday, working-class Chinese vibe.

I took one picture on the way to Chinatown. We also walked by the National Gallery (pretty) and its large square on the way. I didn't take a picture of either, but I'd visit them again on later dates (1, 2).

London Overview

I lived in London over about six weeks in between Sunday, July 19, 2009, and Sunday, September 13, 2009. (It's not longer because I made other trips and also flew home for two weeks.) I found it to be a decent / good city.

Architecture / City Design
There are two architectural features of London that distinguish it from all other cities I've visited.

One, its narrow streets (a.k.a., mews, closes, passages). Throughout the city (in both wealthy and less-wealthy neighborhoods), I'd constantly find little (often one-lane, if cars are allowed at all)roads fronting residential buildings. These cozy streets make it easy to escape a busy street, making it feel like you've suddenly dropped into a town's hidden backroads. Sometimes these streets have shops. Even if not, they often have a pub on a corner, near a sign warning patrons not to be too loud when relaxing outside. (It's clearly legal or at least generally acceptable to drink on sidewalks near bars.)

These lanes likely exist because they pre-date modern transportation planning (which requires wide thoroughfares). In fact, most of London's road layout pre-dates this era, the era of straight city grids.

Two, its parks. London has many parks (frequently called squares, gardens, grounds, or lawns) throughout the city. These parks are often lovely, a nice combination of grass, trees, water, and flowers: great for strolling, lying in the sun, sitting on a bench and eating, admiring flora, and appreciating the surrounding buildings. The generally high quality of these parks combined with their near ubiquity make for a very pleasing, green city.

Incidentally, many of these parks are privately owned. Indeed, it's often hard to tell whether a park is public or private without reading the sign. The majority of privately-owned parks are open to the public, making the distinctive between public and private generally unimportant. Only a minority of privately-owned parks are restricted, usually to residents of the adjacent block.

Generally, the city has attractive buildings, as do most cities with some history. Often these buildings have character, whether an old duke's residence or a centuries-old pub. Indeed, it felt as if medieval pubs were everywhere. These old bars had appropriate, timeless wood decors. I enjoyed wandering, looking around, examining buildings, and reading plaques about buildings' history.

London contains an incredible amount of tourist attractions: countless museums, preserved houses, impressive churches, large street markets, etc. In fact, I claim London is inexhaustible. (Anyone who knows me knows how much, how fast, and how thoroughly I explore. Thus, a statement such as this one, meaning that it's impossible to list everyplace worthy of attention, should truly be taken as incredibly strong as it is.) I leave London with tons left to do. For instance, I didn't visit a single site related to U.K.'s government.

Because there are so many sights in the city, it would make a great place to run a Game. In addition to the famous sights, many buildings in London (in touristy and non-touristy areas alike) have circular blue plaques attached to them, saying that a particular person (who, almost always, I've never heard of) lived or worked there. If one needed a clue site in a particular location and couldn't find any real attraction nearby--which would be surprising--, these plaques could be an easy answer.

London, while awash in history, has surprisingly little physical remains from early periods, such as when the Romans ruled. Sure, there are a few remnants of walls scattered around, but not much else. They've all been demolished during the city's various periods of rebuilding. The city's disproportionately proud it discovered about two vertical feet of stone that made part of the foundation of a Roman-era temple. They moved the foundation one block, raised it to street level, and put it on display, a sign of their inordinate happiness at finding even such a small piece of their lost past. Barcelona, in contrast, has substantially more remains from the Romans.

Also, most major museums, especially the large/famous ones, are free! :) I found this especially convenient because it meant that I, without feeling ripped-off, could sneak off from work, browse a museum for two hours, and go back to work, returning to the museum another day.

Incidentally, I explored London, getting the feel of each neighborhood and seeing the sights, by doing many walking tours. In particular, I brought with me a copy of Frommer's 24 Great Walks in London and ended up doing two-thirds of them. Some days I'd sneak off from work for two hours (more or less) and do one. Occasionally, on an ambitious weekend day, I'd do two or maybe three.

The city is a bit expensive, costing probably 1.5x costs in the bay area for similar goods (transportation, food, etc.). Roughly this means if the price is reasonable when you think of the listed number as if it were in dollars, it's reasonable for London.

Restaurants in London are decent enough on average. It's certainly no New York or San Francisco. While I did go to some good restaurants in London, I never went to an amazing one, never one that I would tell a friend to go out of his way for. Also, London simply doesn't have the diversity of cuisines of those latter cities. Yes, London has a wide variety of Indian regional cuisines and a sizable Middle Eastern selection as well, but it lacks a lot: e.g., much of the rest of Asia and most of North and South America as well. (That is, London's good for places where Great Britain had colonies in recent times, but omits most of the rest of world.)

London's restaurants aside, the U.K. does have some appealing aspects to its food scene. For instance, they really care about their cream and yogurt: clotted cream, single cream, double cream, etc.

The tube and rail system are amazingly extensive. More than ten tube lines cross the capital. Each tube line is itself complex; for instance, the one I take to work (the District Line) branches three times on its western end and two times on its eastern, making the one line by itself as broad as many major cities' whole subway systems. That said, the system can be confusing at first, especially when figuring out when to swipe cards, especially during transfers from tube to national rail and back. By the way, I rarely used national rail.

At the height of rush hour (6pm) on a major line in a non-interchange station (i.e., not many people are getting off), sometimes trains are full--not even standing room remains. This isn't so bad because people are generally good at queuing, meaning you wait in line and get on a train a few trains/minutes later.

The most interesting (impressive?) feature of London's transportation system is that one cannot see train tracks when walking around London, even when the tracks are above ground. The bridges over the tracks have high enough walls to entirely hide this piece of infrastructure. (I think this is a generally a good thing, but I'm not sure.)

England drives on the left. Most crosswalks have "look left" or "look right" signs painted on roads; I found these very helpful. Initially I snickered when I read about them in a guidebook. I was wrong -- they provided important, life-saving reminders at times.

Incidentally, almost all intersections have railings nearby to prevent jaywalking / to enforce crossing at the crosswalk. I think in crowded cities such as London that this helps coordinate pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

By the way, some large, enclosed rail stations feel open, outdoors, perhaps due to how they're covered. I liked being in those stations.

It was partially cloudy most of the time I was there. But, London weather is fickle. I learned that even if the prediction was for mostly sunny skies and no chance of precipitation, I should carry an umbrella. Even on days with such a forecast, one cloud with rain was liable to blow overhead at some point. Only once over my entire stay was the rain truly a downpour (and in that case the forecast predicted it). Most rains were gentle and accompanied by only a mild wind; thus, it wasn't unpleasant to walk around using an umbrella in these conditions. All that said, the weather during my last two weeks in London was great. It was often sunny during those two weeks, and I think it only rained twice, and the forecast was right every day.

The clouds in Great Britain are large and puffy. Also, they move quickly: when you look up, you can see them racing across the sky. This probably is related to the variability of London's weather.

I won't mention things that appear in every guide book, such as the famously difficult licensing test for cab drivers. Rather, here are some observations you may not have read elsewhere:

London has many people on the street giving away or selling newspapers. Thus, many people on the tube read the same newspaper, e.g., the metro. When I walk by the newspapermen, I always think of the people doing the same job centuries ago. The image pops into my head, perhaps because it's London, or maybe it's the Dickens I had to read in high school.

For safety, much of the city is covered by closed-circuit TV, especially on narrow streets and under bridges. One often sees signs about this.

I noticed all high, exposed surfaces where people don't walk (e.g., building ledges, on top of billboard frames) had spikes facing up. I realized these were placed there to prevent birds (especially pigeons) from landing, roosting, and pooping.

I'll close with a final interesting facts: TVs require a license fee (which is used to subsidize programming). The organization that enforces and monitors this even drives around a van with TV detecting equipment. People sometimes offer interesting excuses about why they didn't pay the fee. (I thought that list of excuses, published in 2008, is pretty funny. The 2009 list of excuses (scroll down) is also available, but I found it less humorous because the anecdotes/statements are shorter, with less set-up.

Norway: Day 7: More Bergen, then home

I took these pictures this day. Di Yin, for a change, took about the same number of pictures as I. The link goes to the first picture she took this day; the rest of the album is all from this day. If you're in slideshow mode and see pictures from a ferry, you've cycled to the beginning of album (which started two days earlier).

After breakfast, Di Yin and I took the funicular, Fløibanen (Floibanen), to the top of Mount Fløyen (Floyen) and hiked back down. Viewing Bergen from on high again emphasized that it's a pretty city surrounded by many mountains. The top of Mount Floyen is pleasantly forested, with troll statues in glades and also a lake. Due to time, however, we hiked straight down (or at least as straight as we could given the many switchbacks). Near the bottom, we found a patch of small wild raspberries and picked some: super-sweet.

It started to rain as we reached the bottom. We split up and I spent the next hour visiting one church, a museum, then two more churches.

The museum was the Hanseatic Museum. Located in an actual, old Hanseatic house on the waterfront, it shows the life of German traders in Bergen in the middle of the last millennium. The building includes traditional decorations, some original (faded painted patterns on walls, hung paintings), sleeping rooms, and old ledgers. It also displays objects used in preparing fish oil and dried fish, the main products the merchants traded. I learned the German merchants governed themselves and even had their own legal system. I also found out, in the display on old Hanseatic seals, that the seals are so detailed that some people are using the drawings of ships on the seals to learn about old boat design. Despite the length of this paragraph describing the museum, I think I spent only twenty minutes there.

Actually, before I went to the Hanseatic Museum proper, I walked through an outpost of it that served as a common area and dining hall. (Food preparation was prohibited elsewhere due to risk of fire.) The outpost has three common rooms, no signs, and took less than five minutes to see.

I spent the largest part of my day in the Bergen Art Museum. The museum's wide scope ranges from Norwegian art (through various eras), old masters (including many dutch ones), to religious art, photographs, modern mixed media pieces, and contemporary art (by both Norwegian and international artists). It's a surprisingly respectable museum (and big, spread over three buildings) for such a small town. Though not first-class, it nevertheless has no crap. In support of its quality, consider that it has a room of Picassos and Klees (though admittedly not their best work). Also, each exhibit has a detailed handout with lots more information.

The first building I explored, the Lysverket, has a whole wing on J. C. Dahl, who I discovered I kind of like. I learned Dahl exemplifies the Dresden period of Norwegian romantic art, and also like other artists who painted in this style. I also apparently like some painters in the Düsseldorf school, the main school that, when it started, took some of Dresden's fame.

The second building I visited, a mansion-like place complete with furniture, houses the art (and furniture) collected by Rasmus Meyer, a businessman from around 1900. As I explored, I realized that when he collected, he collected, meaning he bought lots from the same artist. Some artists, such as Astrup and Sørensen, I didn't appreciate, but I generally found his tastes agreed well with mine. For instance, he collected Fearnley, Munthe, Erichsen, Gude, Morgenstern, Tidemand, Dahl, and Munch. Indeed, the collection has half-a-dozen rooms of Dahl! (I wonder how many of J. C. Dahl's works aren't in this museum.) It also includes three rooms of Munch, meaning that, though missing some of Munch's famous pieces, this portion of the collection is half the size of the Munch museum.

The third building I stopped by, the Stenersen, holds the contemporary art collection (meh) and a special exhibit on German expressionism (both paintings and drawings) (okay, because I sometimes liked the colors used).

From the museum, I walked quickly to meet Di Yin once again in the fish market for lunch. After lunch, we picked up our luggage and walked to the bus to the airport, arriving one minute before it was to leave. (We did this without knowing the timing--we got lucky.) Once at the airport, we got some tasty gelato (I was looking forward to gelato all day), carried it through security, and enjoyed. On the flight to Copenhagen, Di Yin and I hapened to get seats on the same row with an empty middle seat between us. (Again, this happened by chance--neither of us picked seats. Airplane luck. :> ) As it turned out, the flight was mostly empty, meaning we'd have gotten to sit together even if we weren't assigned to do so.

Our short transfer in Copenhagen was surprisingly easy. We even had time to kill. Then, after a completely-full flight to London and some long tube rides, we arrived at the apartment we were renting in London, thus ending our Norway excursion.

Norway: Day 6: Bergen

I took these pictures on our first full day in Bergen. They omit some places we visited; this blog entry is the more complete record of our activities. I built a route map for our walking path, but it's confusing because we criss-crossed ourselves so much. (The sites--well, really, the city proper--are compact.)

Di Yin also took pictures. The link goes to the first picture she took this day. When you a hit a picture with the caption "We took a furnicular [sic] to see a view of all of Bergen" (picture #258), you're done with the pictures for the day. The remaining pictures are from the following day's activities; I'll link to them in the next post.

First thing in the morning, we walked through the Bryggen area of Bergen. It's the area where German merchants settled in the middle of the last millennium. It's pretty, with cozy narrow streets. Quaint. It's composed predominately of wooden buildings (mostly timber-clad houses), which is surprising given Bergen's history of fires.

From Bryggen, we walked across town to University of Bergen's campus. There, we first visited the Bergens Sjøfartsmuseum (Bergen Maritime Museum). We didn't intend to go in, but we paid for the tickets before I realized it wasn't the museum we wanted. The museum traces the history of Norwegian seafaring from 350 to the present day. It was an okay museum, and we ended up spending 45 minutes there. It has many model ships. I liked the small wing of the museum that displayed detailed history about the submarine branch of the Norwegian military. Though I didn't have the patience to stand and read everything, some of the history was neat.

We then went in the museum we came for: the Cultural History wing of the Bergen Museum. Its exhibits cover religion (which, due to its section on stave churches and stained glass, was more interesting than most religious displays), the history of theater in Bergen, the growth of the city, folk art, and more. Many exhibits weren't translated into English, though a few made up for it by offering paper handouts with translations. Overall, it was a decent museum; we spent just about an hour there. I learned that Saint Olaf always carried a battle-axe. (Yes, a person so much a warrior was sainted.) The museum also had exhibits on Egyptians and on American Indians, but we walked quickly through these because there's nothing special to Bergen about them.

I skipped the Natural History Museum, the other half of the Bergen Museum, because natural history museums aren't my thing. Di Yin walked quickly through it.

For lunch, we headed to Bergen's famous fish market. Though it does sell fish (fresh, fried, and cured), it also sells a lot more. In terms of other foods, we noted reindeer sausage, caviar (in both jars and tubes), fruits (mostly berries), and jams. There's also traditional street market stalls, selling things ranging from tourist kitsch (e.g., trolls) to hats, jewelry, and shirts, and even to seal rugs (fuzzy).

After lunch, we visited the Leprosy Museum. Norway was the most leper-dense region of Europe. Located in an old leper hospital, the museum was basically just posters in rooms, with effectively nothing on display. Nevertheless, the informative posters were surprisingly interesting and we ended up spending 45 minutes there. The first part of the museum covered how Danielssen and Hansen, two 19th-century Norwegian physicians, theorized and proved that leprosy was caused by a bacteria (i.e., it wasn't hereditary or social as was previously thought). The second part discussed the life of missionaries as they dealt with leprosy. The museum also showed how ethnographic and social treatises on leprosy / treatments of lepers shifted with the improved knowledge of the disease's cause.

After the museum, we randomly happened on a contemporary art gallery without anyone at the door selling tickets. Inside was an exhibit of architectural (drafting) style of drawings that were then painted between the lines.

Next, we returned to Bryggen--Bergen is a small, walkable town--for the Bryggen Museum. Bryggen, which literally means "the wharf", is the part of Bergen where the Hanseatic League merchants lived. The museum covered life in Bryggen and the occupations of the market-people. The buildings are rightly called tenements. The small permanent exhibit wasn't exciting; most text was only in Norwegian (but the museum staff handily lent us an English guide to the exhibition). There was, in contrast, an awesome temporary exhibit showcasing the game of cultural heritage Monopoly. (See the pictures.) Another temporary exhibit covered fashion and accessories from the middle ages. We spent 45 minutes in the museum, which I'd call decent overall.

Before dusk, we explored Bergenhus Fortress. The main part--the part mentioned in all guidebooks--felt more like an estate, not a fortress, though it did have walls. (It was the king's residence during the Middle Ages when Bergen was Norway's capital.) Sverresborg, the upper part of the complex (technically a different fortress), was much more defensible, more fortress-like. It's the oldest part of the complex yet is often omitted from guidebooks, which is surprising because it's the part with views.

Over the course of the day, we assembled food for dinner, which we ate in our hotel room. From the fish market, we tried whale, which was meaty (because it's a mammal?), and some smoked fish, eventually buying smoked herring. The herring, along with leftover shrimp and nectarines (both from lunch), and tasty bread and other smoked fishes (that we stole from the great buffet in Flam the previous day), made a fine Norwegian meal.

Norway: Day 5: Flåm (Flam), then to Bergen

I took these pictures today; Di Yin took many more. The link goes to the first picture that she took this day in the album; the rest of the album is all from this day. If you're in slideshow mode and see a picture of a train station, you've cycled to the beginning of album (which was taken on the previous day).

We woke up in our hotel in Flam, looked outside, and decided the view was still amazing. We ate breakfast on our balcony, ran some errands, then left to take a hike.

The route we chose combined two hikes listed by the tourist office into one. First, we hiked along the river and up the local waterfall, Brekkefossen. Then we walked to a nice housing estate, Lunden, and hiked on the other side of the river back to Flam. The houses by Flam look very clean, freshly painted, and well kept up in general.

Although the waterfall wasn't particularly impressive, the hike was well worth it simply for the views. Di Yin kept saying "wow" and "Norway is awesome." Indeed. I believe the view of the fjord from the waterfall is awesome in the full meaning of the word. Di Yin said Flam and this area was like Yosemite only more awesome and with a smaller tourist town. The views were so good that, as someone we met on the slopes observed, if I looked at a picture (such as this one), not seeing the scene with my own eyes, I would think it was a created backdrop. Nothing could naturally be so beautiful.

Once back in Flam, we had a good buffet lunch on the harbor at Furukroa. I'll remember it especially for the many different (delicious) ways it presented salmon. I was also amused to notice the hostess didn't speak Norwegian. How unusual.

After lunch, we stopped by the tiny Flam Railway Museum. I learned that all but two of the line's twenty tunnels were excavated by hand. No wonder it took twenty years to complete. I also learned the project's sponsors paid per metre of track, with no deduction for expenses/equipment. It's a different financing system than we use in the states, and certainly an incentive to make the most efficient use of labor and capital as possible.

Picking up our baggage, we boarded a high speed ferry to Bergen. Although my album (already linked above) contains pictures from this journey and our first night in Bergen, Di Yin has a different album that contains her pictures. The link goes to the first picture in the album. When you a hit a picture with the caption "we went exploring the next morning" (picture #100), you're done with the pictures for the day. The remaining pictures are from the following days' activities; I'll link to them in the later posts.

The ferry took us out the short, narrow Aurlandsfjord and into the wider Sognefjord, where we spent the bulk of the trip, before dodging islands in the narrow sounds near Bergen. Whereas the fjords passed through steep, sweeping, forested terrain, the islands, especially the smaller ones, had a different character: rugged, low-rising, and often windswept. Incidentally, the larger islands we passed at the very end of the trip were more green.

I was excited that the sun came out as we left dock, but the boat moved quickly and we were soon under overcast skies again. Indeed, the boat traveled so fast that it was difficult to stand on the side because the wind pressure was so great. In Di Yin's pictures, you can look at my hair to see how windy it was. Though we spent some of the journey outside on the boat's side squatting under the height of the railing--it blocked some of the wind--, we spent more of it outside in the back of the boat where the boat's bulk protected us from the wind. (The views from inside didn't look as good, so we only spent time there after having gotten our fill.) During the last segment of the trip, the boat had to seriously slow down at times because the passages were narrow, sometimes not more than two boat widths.

Once in the pretty town of Bergen, we trotted to our hotel, had a small snack for dinner (given our lunch, we weren't hungry), and called it a night. (Recall that I already summarized my impressions of Bergen.)

Norway: Day 4: Oslo, then to Flåm (Flam)

I took a huge number of pictures and movies this day. They're more detailed than this entry, and also provide the atmosphere--the color if you will--that this entry lacks.

After breakfast, I took a fast metro to Vigeland Park, a park designed by and filled with sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. (Oslo is so compact, even places I think of as far from the city center are only a ten minute metro ride away.) The whole park is stunning, and it reminded me of Gaudi's similarly-impressive Parc Guell I saw in Barcelona. Clearly, Vigeland made it his life's work. (Indeed, I think the reason he's not well-known outside of Norway is is because Oslo recognized his talents and gave him a lifetime appointment, hence obviating the need for him to market himself to the rest of the world.) It was a beautiful day to see and photograph the sculptures, not cloudy like the previous day. Everything looks better against a blue sky. I took a ton of pictures, and you may imagine from the sheer number that I took pictures of everything, but really I skipped photographing the vast majority of pieces.

After exploring the park to my satisfaction, I took the metro across town to the Munch Museum (Munch-museet). If your impression of Munch's paintings is that they're depressing or disturbing, you're generally right. Although he painted a few other pieces, most are depressing, with titles such as The Drowned Boy, The Hearse, The Operation, and The Death, and that's just one room room of the museum. As for disturbing, take, for example, the painting that includes sperm, skeletons, and embryos. In addition to paintings (of which many were portraits), it appears Munch did lithography and prints too. The museum took me an hour,and I went very slowly with an audio guide. I realized, by the way, why I don't seem to like audio guides in Oslo: the narrator speaks too slowly. I also realized that I'm mostly indifferent to Munch's work.

I returned to downtown Oslo to eat at Kaffistova, the same Norwegian cafeteria where I ate two days prior. I grabbed a light lunch because I knew I'd be having dinner at a reasonable time.

From lunch, I walked to the Akershus Fortress & Castle, and paid to enter the castle portion. It's not that exciting unless you like period furniture and tapestries. I took the audio tour because it was free and found it good quality for a change: vaguely interesting and read at a reasonable speed. By far the best part was the supplementary ghost stories (based on legends/real events). I only wish I'd planned my time better so I could've listened to all of them. Instead, I had to return to my hotel to meet Di Yin.

Once I met Di Yin, we returned to the fortress, walked around its grounds, then headed to the train station and managed to (yes, I was scared) catch our train. Now is as good a time as any to link to Di Yin's pictures from Oslo, which cover her week there. I wasn't with her for most of them except for a period in the middle and a longer segment near the end (which corresponds to this day's Oslo adventures).

The train we took, part of the famous Oslo-Bergen line, brought us from Oslo into the Hardangervidda, Norway's "highland plateau." We then transferred to a small train, the Flåmsbana (Flamsbana), that descended along a river to a tiny town, Flåm (Flam), at the edge of a fjord (Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the Sognefjord). When I say descend, I mean it: we lost nearly a kilometer in altitude over the course of a twenty kilometer journey. Much of the altitude was lost while in one of the rail line's twenty tunnels, many corkscrew-shaped within mountains. On the way down, the train stopped by a platform next to a waterfall so we could get out and photograph it.

The five-hour journey was pretty spectacular, especially the last segment, and not as monotonous as one might think: the landscape varied as we changed altitude. Early in the trip, we discovered that the children's playroom in the train had picture windows, and we hung out there sightseeing instead of staying in our seats. Once in Flam, we walked to our hotel, a building on the dock, and found its location no less impressive than the sights we saw from the train.

I took pictures (linked above) from our journey; Di Yin took many more. The link goes to the first picture she took from the journey. A picture of me in front of a breakfast/dinner table (picture #95) ends the set for the day. The remaining pictures are from the next day's activities; I'll link to them in the following post.

Norway: Day 3: Oslo: Bygdøy (Bygdoy)

I spent this day across the water from Oslo, exploring the suburban hamlet of Bygdøy (Bygdoy) and its many museums. I took many pictures

After an early start, I caught the first ferry (8:45am) to Bygdøy.

Once in Bygdøy, I walked first to the museum which opened earliest, the Vikingskipshuset (Viking Ship Museum). It's a simple little museum of three ships and the objects found on board. The Viking ships are the best-preserved ones ever found. I spent thirty minutes here, and probably wouldn't spent the entrance fee had I known what my interest level was. I did learn one interesting fact: there's no evidence that Vikings cooked on the ships--they probably only ate dried foods.

Next up was the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Cultural History / Folk Museum). This complex, in addition to a few traditional museum buildings, had a large estate with many wooden buildings in various designs (storehouses, farmhouses, bakeries, barns, kilns, guesthouses) from various eras, most open so people could look inside and see how they appeared at the time (objects, decoration, architecture). In addition to the buildings, there was an indoor museum which had:

  • an exhibit on Norwegian folk art and how it evolved over the last 500 years
  • a large exhibit on traditional Norwegian folk dress for all occasions
  • an exhibit on the Norwegian clergy
  • an exhibit on Norwegian church art
  • an exhibit on the Sami, Scandinavia's native people, their way of life, and much about their relationship to reindeer
  • a special exhibit on the 1980s covering fashion, film, furniture, food, politics, music, etc., all with a Norwegian tilt. (Did you know Chernobyl fallout rained in Norway?)
  • a small exhibit on old toys (dolls, blocks, etc.)
I spent most of my time in the outdoor areas. Though the most expensive museum I visited in Oslo, it was well worth it--I spent five hours wandering the grounds.

The Frammuseet (Fram Museum) came next. It's a museum mainly to show and allow touring of the famous arctic ship, the Fram. I didn't find the ship interesting, but the museum wasn't an entire waste of time. I enjoyed reading the museum's many documents from the explorer Roald Amundsen's trip sailing the northwest passage and trip reaching the south pole first. The documents come from Amundsen's lectures, and he can tell a good story, and, importantly, has a story to tell. I also enjoyed reading the brief history of Fridtjof Nansen's life; he's a previous winner of the peace prize. I spent an hour in total in the museum.

Finally, I went to the Kon-Tiki Museum, which covers the experiments (mostly ship-faring) of Thor Heyerdahl. I completed this interesting, though small, museum in thirty minutes. For details on the museum's contents, see the picture captions.

I skipped the maritime museum because I'd seen enough boats for one day, instead grabbing the ferry back to Oslo proper. Once there, I decided to use the opportunity (it was open late) to visit the National Museum of Architecture. Its main current exhibit was principally devoted to Snøhetta, an international Oslo-based architecture firm. One large room showed models of some designs as they progressed; another presented detailed information about some of their major projects (such as the Oslo opera house and the new World Trade Center buildings). In the back of one room were several large multi-touch screens with software that helps you design a building. I began designing a cafe, choosing its outline, roof slope/appearance, and more, before I accidentally leaned on the part of the screen with the reset button. In all, I spent thirty minutes in the museum.

The day's last museum was the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, also open late. I only managed to see its strange exhibit, Indian Highway, presented in a mixture of media by multiple artists, before it closed. I had thirty minutes in the museum.

Finally, I took a bus to the vicinity of Grünerløkka (Grunerlokka), a more happening (lots of alcohol) part of town. While on the short ride, I saw another cafe-lined street (more densely packed than Karl Johans Gates) and a big shopping mall. From where the bus let me off, I detoured to see Oslo's oldest church (built 1150), which I didn't deem worthy of photographing (though the green graveyard tempted me). En route, I saw some everyday apartment buildings and an average park, complete with less-well-off people. Once in Grünerløkka, I found a row of restaurants and bars facing Olaf Ryes Plass (a park), half of which were tapas places. I took this as a sign and picked one. Indeed, as I realized later, the preponderance of the restaurants in this part of town are Spanish.

I walked around Grünerløkka, picking up a ice cream on the way. The ice cream (gelato?) was lighter and more enjoyable than regular ice cream. Then, a quick bus ride home concluded this 13.5 hour day.

Norway: Day 2: Downtown Oslo

I slept poorly due to a combination of skipping dinner and eating a snack I was likely allergic to. I felt sick and had a headache the whole night. However, once I got a sizable breakfast in me (at my hotel), I felt a ton better. My hotel's breakfast buffet was mostly sliced breads, sliced meats and cheeses (like the pre-sliced kind you find in supermarkets), and jams/jellies I didn't recognize.

Feeling better, I ventured out to explore Oslo. As I did so, I took pictures. During the day I recorded my walking route on a paper map, a route which I later posted online.It was a beautiful morning which changed to intermittent drizzle the rest of the day. The drizzle wasn't so bad--I walked around in it without an umbrella.

Norwegian Parliament
In the morning, I took a tour of the Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament building. At one point, the tour guide asked various people when their countries' constitutions were drafted. The other Americans on the tour didn't know, saying 1776. (Sad.) I knew it was the late 1780s, though didn't recall the exact year. Most other people knew the answers for their countries. Norway, by the way, is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy.

Also on the tour, I learned that when the potato famine came, Norway survived because they had an ample supply of herring. Nevertheless, one quarter of the country (one million people) immigrated to the U.S. at this time.

The tour guide explained the government was eliminating the two separate houses of parliament and combining them into one, an event I don't think I've heard of occurring anywhere before.

Finally, he explained how the seating in the legislative chambers intentionally mixes up the parties, claiming that doing so helps legislators to get along and government to function, pointing out that governments that don't do so tend to have strong, visible conflicts. *cough* *cough*

National Gallery
Soon after the tour, I explored the National Gallery. It mostly included 19th and 20th century paintings by Norwegian artists, along with a few sculptures. There were also a few famous non-Norwegian artists represented, covering some contemporary styles too (cubist, abstract), including Picasso, Gauguin, Manet, Cezanne, Monet, and Degas. I generally liked the museum, considering it a decent museum for a major non-international city. I particularly liked the stunning Norwegian landscapes, in various sizes, such as those by Hans Gude and J. C. Dahl. The museum took about an hour to explore. The audio guide wasn't bad, but not particularly interesting to me.

Though photography wasn't allowed, I want to mention some pieces I particularly liked. (Sorry, I can't find pictures of these paintings online.)

  • A room of paintings by Munch, all in odd colors.
  • Knud Baade's Cloud Studies / Skystudier.
  • Asta Nørregaard's (Norregaard's) Marthine Cappelen, which looks real.
  • Harold Sohlberg's Winter Night in the Mountains, with its stunning vivid blue.
  • Thorvald Erichsen's luminous Winter Sun, View from Breiseth Hotel at Lillehammer.
  • Hans Andersen Brendekilde's The Forester and his Children. I like the carpet of leaves.
Historical Museum
Next on my agenda was the Historical Museum. Covering archeology (i.e., things dug up from various ages), medieval artifacts (mostly religious), Egypt (seen enough of that), coins (oddly, this room had no English), the arts (Africa, Asia, ...), and more, it didn't have as much as I expected/hoped for about Norway. Thus, I spent a bit less than an hour there. It's not that the exhibits were bad, though they were poorly documented (i.e., they didn't tell me why I should care about what was on display). The exhibit on pilgrims, in contrast, both Christians and others, was great--the museum people can do it right. It's just that most of the time they didn't.

More Oslo
I grabbed lunch, then walked fast to the Royal Palace, intending to take a guided tour, but decided not to wait in the slow-moving line in the drizzle. On the way to the palace, I passed the royal marching band its two horse-mounted escorts.

Stenersen Museum
I then explored the Stenersen Museum. It had three exhibits: one experimental one on women and violence, which I didn't get, and two photography ones. One documented people with AIDS from all over the world, and the other was realistic photography by Bjørn (Bjorn) Opsahl that, though I didn't like, I respected. All together, it wasn't possible to rationalize the museum's cost given how many museums in Oslo are free.

City Hall
See the comments accompanying the pictures.

National Museum of Contemporary Art
The day's last museum was the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Museet for Samtidskunst). Aside from a special exhibit by experimental artist Matias Faldbakken in which every piece seemed incomplete / not even set up, the museum was okay. I spent fourty minutes there, some of which I spent watching a neat video, 12 Studies on Shit, covering sewage, fertilizer, waste in space, ...

In between and after these museums, I saw other sights in Oslo. See the pictures.

In the evening, I met Di Yin and we walked around a bit, mainly through the waterfront area Aker Brygge, where I found dinner. See the pictures and my evening route.

Norway: Day 1: Oslo: Arrival

After working for a while, I took the tube to my hotel, picked up my luggage, made my way to the airport, and flew to Oslo. It was an unexciting journey except for the customs official who seemed surprised, perhaps due to my appearance, with this answer I gave: "No, I'm not visiting family."

As I landed at night, I took an express train to the city center, checked into my hotel, and planned the next day's adventures.

Norway Overview

I toured parts of Norway from Tuesday, July 22nd, through Monday, July 27th. Di Yin was my excuse for the trip: she attended a graduate student summer school in Oslo that week, so I went there to explore a bit on my own and then explore with her over the weekend.

My itinerary brought me to Oslo and Bergen, Norway's two largest cities, and along rail and boat lines through Norway's inner wilderness and fjords. Norway's a sizable, long, narrow country; one week is nowhere near enough to see most of it. In fact, the distance from Oslo to the Norway's northern tip is roughly the distance from Oslo to Rome. I only visited a small part of Norway, but at least I know I visited the highlights because my route mirrored the famous Norway in a Nutshell tour. I'm not going to bother listing all sites I missed because there are so many, whether near a city that I visited (such as the fortress Fredrikstad near Oslo) or far from cities (such as Jostedalen Glacier National Park and the hikes one can take on the Nigardsbreen arm of the glacier).

The highlights of my trip were Vigeland Park, a large sculpture garden in Oslo, and the views along the fjords, especially looking down at the valleys and water from high up. Stunning! When I arrived in Norway, the train from the airport to Oslo introduced me to Norway's sloping grass fields, trees, and greenery. Later I'd see this greenery fade at higher elevations and, elsewhere, come back in more dense, forested forms. Regardless of location, the country is full of unspoiled nature. Perhaps this why water from the tap tastes good?

Neither Oslo nor Bergen feel like large cities. In both, the part of downtown tourists visit is compact; one can walk across it in ten minutes. Making them feel further less like a city, neither has tall buildings: most buildings are five or so stories. Also, both downtowns are pleasant to stroll, with sculptures or fountains in the small plazas scattered around. They're both on water. They both have large nature parks not far from downtown. I liked walking in both, though their size did make me feel like I'd seen everything each city had to offer in a surprisingly short time.

Both cities have culture as expressed, for instance, in their large number of museums (an unexpectedly large number given their official sizes, made even more surprising by their small feel).

Regarding Oslo in particular, its city center is bracketed by two large parks, elegantly designed and, this time of year, covered in a thick bed of grass. Art deco is the most common architectural style. A good chunk of the museums are run by the government and therefore free. Finally, accordions are the musical instrument of choice of Oslo's street musicians.

Bergen, though smaller, felt livelier than Oslo. It's also prettier than Oslo, with pastel buildings rising up the many hills in the city. Indeed, Bergen, a port city built among hills, is geographically like San Francisco or Seattle. Also, Bergen has history; the city dates back to the first half of the last millennium and the German (Hanseatic League) traders that made Bergen a base. As such, many of its buildings (often wooden) come from this time or were built in a similar style, a contrast to Oslo's buildings more recent (last century and a half) style. Also, Bergen's longer history means its buildings have a slightly greater variety of architectural styles than Oslo's.

I know the above paragraph makes Bergen sound a lot more enjoyable than Oslo. It's not -- they're both comfortable, likable, walkable cities. They're much more similar than they are different. Re-read the earlier paragraph about their commonalities.

The first thing a visitor to Norway notices is its cost. Everything (entrance fees, transit tickets, food, etc.) are about twice what I'm used to in the bay area. (Norway is a wealthy country due to its abundance of oil and fish.)

Language was not an issue or even something worth thinking about. Everyone spoke English. The language I heard most often besides Norwegian and English was Spanish; I guess that's the most common source for tourists this time of year.

Regarding food, seafood is common. This time of year that means salmon and shrimp. The fish comes in many forms--cooked, smoked, cured--and generally they are all good and fresh. (The Norwegians know how to prepare their fish.) Also this time of year, Norway's a great source for fresh, quality berries of all types; we ran into them everywhere.

From what I read in guidebooks, Norway is something of a mother state, and not just in terms of the social safety net. It's also firm (firmer than the U.S.) in areas such as driving rules: mandating seat belts and child seats throughout the vehicle, strictly enforcing speeding limits, and having stringent limits on blood-alcohol content for drivers. However, this philosophy didn't seem to have much impact on my experience in Norway. The only effect this may have had was, when booking hotel rooms, I noticed most hotel rooms only had single/twin beds. If you booked a queen bed for a couple, you'd generally find two singles pushed together. Perhaps this is a sign of propriety or a sign people are used to sleeping alone? On the other hand, I think this smaller-bed phenomenon might simply be more common in Europe, so I'm reluctant to read too much into it.

In contrast to these strict rules, Norway has one interesting law that reflects a philosophy that you can do whatever you want as long as you don't get in the way of anyone else: in Norway, you can camp anywhere for short periods, regardless of who owns the property, as long as the land isn't cultivated or fenced and as long as you aren't too close to a building. Pretty cool. :)

Incidentally, I feel obligated to compliment one particular guidebook. As many people know, when I travel I often bring along a couple of guidebooks, mostly to get independent viewpoints and also to make sure I don't miss anything. This time one of the guidebooks I brought was the Insight Guide to Norway. Of all the guidebooks I've read on all the trips I've done, this had a history and culture section heads above the others. Not only was the section very extensive, it was written in a interesting and, most importantly, lively fashion as it ranged over topics from the evolution of language and the evolution of the transportation system to Norwegian history and governance. Also, the guide provided insights into the culture; for instance, in the sports and nature section, it observed that the most popular sports are individual ones, not team ones as in most other countries. For these reasons, as I didn't finish the book during my trip (the majority of the book was devoted to these topics, not individual destinations), I felt compelled to continue reading the book for months after the trip, a strong testimony to the enthralling nature of the writing. This writer is simply better than other guidebook writers I've read. (One caveat, however: the book wasn't useful as a sightseeing guide; e.g., it often lacked details about particular places, listing only name and address, not what's interesting about the place.) I believe people who don't travel to Norway may nevertheless find reading this guidebook enjoyable.

Neat linguistic facts:

  • The Nordic Language Convention gives "citizens of the Nordic countries have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs."
  • The Nordic languages are, to some degree, mutually intelligible.
  • According to wikipedia, "The Norwegian language has been jokingly said to be 'Danish spoken in Swedish' due to the Norwegian and Danish vocabularies being so closely related while the language's phonology and prosody is more similar to Swedish."

London: July 19-21: Tower of London

I spent several weeks in London in July, August, and September 2009. I'll save my general impressions of London for a post after I've been here longer.

I arrived in London at 10am on Sunday, July 20, after an unremarkable overnight flight. Meeting Di Yin, we left for the hotel where I'd be staying for two days. It allowed us to check in at 11am. We dropped off our luggage, noticed that the room was impeccably clean, and headed into the city.

Di Yin took some pictures this day after meeting me. The link goes to the first of the sequence of relevant pictures from the album. If you're in slideshow mode and begin seeing pictures of Heathrow and Oxford, you've cycled to the beginning of the album. Those pictures aren't connected to this day's adventures, and I wasn't there when they were taken.

On the other hand, I only began taking pictures this day after lunch.

It was a blustery, pleasant day, and we enjoyed seeing the greenery on the outskirts of London on the train ride into the city. We took the train (tube) through London, all the way to the East End. Walking down Brick Lane, one of London's Indian neighborhoods, we chose a restaurant and had a decent buffet for lunch. From this stroll, I decided Brick Lane was nothing special (so much so, I didn't take any pictures), though visits weeks later to other parts of Brick Lane and areas nearby altered this impression somewhat.

After lunch, we walked to the Tower of London. On the way, we walked through an underground tunnel (from the tube-station side of a road to the tower side) filled with impressionist prints of armor, tower scenes, etc. that I liked.

Don't think of the Tower of London as a tower; it's more a castle/palace. We took a history-filled tour with an entertaining guide (yeoman warder). After the tour, we stopped by one building to see numerous crown jewels, spotting some impressive crowns (and others not-so-much), many sceptres, a brilliant sheath, and a huge, ornate punch bowl that could hold wine from 144 bottles. We also browsed a special exhibit on Henry VIII that displayed lots of his armor and weapons. Finally, we walked atop some of the Tower's walls. Along the way, we discovered cute modern-art statues of guards (e.g., one, two).

We then took the tube back to our hotel. On the walk from the tube station in Hounslow back to our hotel, we stopped by convenience stores/small markets (the grocery store was closed). One had Polish, Russian, and Romanian foods; another had Indian.

For dinner, I bought "pierogi rushkie" (potato and cottage (?) cheese pirogi) from a nearby take-out joint. I enjoyed them, especially when topped with the deep-fried, minced onions: greasy goodness. The accompanying cabbage salad went well with the yogurt we purchased separately.

On Monday, I went to work. Because I was there early enough for breakfast, I tried the black pudding and thought it tasted like a moist, nice, somewhat-sweet bread, nothing like I imagined when I read the description and ingredient lists online. As I explored the office, I noticed it has great (small-company-type) perks. Other than making a long trip with two large suitcases, I didn't do anything besides work this day. (I had to drop the suitcases off at the apartment where I'd be staying for most my time in London and pick up the keys.)

I also worked most of Tuesday.