Chicago December 2010

I meant to spend Sunday, December 19, 2010, through Sunday, December 26, in Chicago with my parents, my grandma, and (for some of the time) my aunt S. We were there to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday (!) and Christmas. Thus, we spent most days hanging around the condo, not doing much other than being in each others' presence. At times I tried to work remotely using my cell phone as a modem--this worked surprisingly well.

I stayed in Chicago two extra days, through Tuesday, December 28. A blizzard on the east coast on the 26th caused our flight to the east coast (to Boston) to be cancelled.

The weather in Chicago was gentle during our entire stay: various minor snowstorms, mild cold (30s).

We generally ate either in the condo or at whatever restaurants my grandma was willing to tolerate. Here's the list:
19th dinner: Macaroni Grill (also with grandma's nephews and nieces) (I had the pasta milano, which was so garlicky I could barely eat it)
20th dinner: Outback Steakhouse
21nd lunch: Cheesecake Factory (the usual eggplant mozzarella sandwich and kobe beef burger)
22nd lunch: Pita Inn (without grandma) (the usual lamb pita)
23rd lunch: Portillo's (I had a grilled vegetable sandwich)
23rd dinner: Thai takeout and Chinese takeout (forgot the names of the restaurants, and what we ate isn't important)
24th: didn't leave the condo
25th (Christmas dinner): Johnny's (I had ribs)
26th dinner: India House (vegetables!: spinach and mustard greens, cabbage and spices, tandoori roti)
27th lunch: a Chicago-style pizza place (I forget the name). It was okay. Even my parents admit that it wasn't as good as it should be. They've ordered from this place before and thought it was good before.
28th lunch: Kentucky Fried Chicken

Flying east on Tuesday, December 28, was easier than I expected. Grandma drove us to the train station. We took a train to the dedicated airport bus to the airport tram to our terminal. Our flight's airplane was changed at the last minute to a 777 that just arrived from Shanghai! That meant there were many more seats than originally allocated, and we got upgraded to premium economy. :) I bet you I know why they used a larger plane: due to the numerous cancelled flights to the east coast, 150 people flew stand-by on the flight!

Once in Boston, baggage claim took a while so we missed the bus we wanted to take and had to wait for the next one an hour later. That bus--a pleasant ride on C&J--dropped us off at the bus station in Maine around midnight. We were anxious about cleaning off the car from the large east coast snowstorm, but I guess it didn't hit Maine much--there was nothing to clean! :) We were relieved.

Incidentally, in the Chicago airport, I discovered I like the smoothies I make better than Jamba Juice's--Jamba Juice's smoothies taste too sweet for me nowadays.

Maine mid-December 2010

I returned to the states from London on Wednesday, December 15, 2010. I stayed with my parents until Sunday, December 19, when we all boarded a flight to Chicago to visit my grandma. Di Yin, who returned to the states via New York on the 15th, came up to Maine on the 16th to stay with me and my parents until the trip to Chicago.

Sorry, I didn't take any pictures during this visit to Maine.

I didn't do much during these couple of days other than to rest and recover from the flu I caught the previous weekend. Thus, we ate at home a lot. Here are my notes:

On Thursday, we had bean soup for lunch and quite a spread for dinner: lamb chops, kugel, potato pancakes, and vegetables. I had pumpkin pie for dessert.

On Friday, for lunch Di Yin made us all sandwiches of fried pork, bok choy, and cilantro on baguette. Di Yin also cooked dinner: udon noodle soup, plus more pork, plus her oyster sauce eggplant dish that I love (this time it included pork). We sometimes ate the eggplant straight and sometimes ate it on toast. For dessert, we split some baked goods (a chocolate cake, almond macaroons) that Di Yin brought from Clear Flour in Boston. I was reminded again that although it's a shockingly expensive bakery, it's nevertheless worth the price. It's certainly the best bakery in New England.

On Saturday, we headed to a pizza joint, La Festa Brick & Brew, in Dover. I keep thinking this is the misspelled name of a Mexican restaurant, but it's correct. The decor feels like Round Table. The restaurant sells pizza by the slice in a large variety of styles. The pizzas are made in a brick oven. I tried the plain cheese, the bbq chicken, and I think something else, along with the (intense) garlic knots. The pizza, made in a doughy style, was respectable.

Afterwards, my parents showed Di Yin and me the most remarkable place in Dover: an amazing waterfall and rapids in downtown Dover! They're near an old mill. It's a shocking sight. We heard it before we saw it. I wish I had my camera. I'd have photographed especially the rocks with ice crystals that looked like fractals.

By the way, I looked for pictures of the waterfall on the web. Of the few I found, fewer still were taken during the winter, and none show the ice crystals. I would've been the first person to visually record the phenomenon! But I did not... :(

For dinner, we had more pork, eggplant, and another vegetable soup from Di Yin.

London: Dec 12-15: Sick Last Days (Kew, Chiswick, Flying Home)

I was sick with the flu my last few days in London, from Sunday, December 12, 2010, until I left on Wednesday, December 15. As such, I didn't get to do any of my regular outings. I also stayed home from work. In addition, I missed my company holiday party. I didn't even bother bringing my camera on the limited things I did do. This entry is the abbreviated, picture-less notes about my final days in London.

Our big activity on Sunday was switching apartments because we didn't have our apartment reserved for the final few days of our stay in London. Luckily, Di Yin has a friend in London, A, who let us crash with her and her husband for those days. In fact, during most days we had their townhouse to ourselves--A had already left London for the holidays and her husband left the day after we moved in.

On Sunday, we dragged our luggage (dragged is the operative word) across London to Kew, near Kew Gardens (which I still haven't visited). Their townhouse was cozy. Also of note are its great appliances. It has one of the best gas stoves--powerful flames with even heating--that I've ever used. One day I made an omelette without trying. (This should also be taken as a compliment to their pans.) The townhouse also has a spacious dishwasher and heated towel bars.

The neighborhood, however, leaves something to be desired. There's not much in it. There's even less in it than in Southfields (!), the area in the suburbs that we lived in during the summer of 2009.

We met A's husband S for dinner at a local restaurant/pub, The Inn. I ordered the night's special, pheasant, for which my reaction was meh. I tried Di Yin's and S's food too; their dishes were a little better but still only okay.

On Monday, lacking any food in the place we were staying in, I dragged my sorry self along with Di Yin to a restaurant about ten minutes up the road. The restaurant, Kew Greenhouse Cafe, was adorable. It's over a hundred years old and family owned. Though inside had lots of character (art from local artists on the walls, funky trinkets hanging from the ceiling, and lots of plants), we decided to eat in the glassed-off patio/greenhouse, a leafy, garden-like space with small tables and, naturally, also lots of plants. I ordered the English breakfast and, after a while, managed to eat most of the toast, the tomato, the mushrooms, and a bit of the eggs. I had enough trouble with those; hence, I avoided the meat.

For dinner, we cooked and ate in the townhouse.

On Tuesday, I ate lunch at the townhouse we were staying in.

In the evening, we headed two underground stops northeast to the town of Chiswick. There, were ate at Cote, a U.K. French brasserie restaurant chain. It's a cute bistro. I had a good (pureed) mushroom soup and, as a main course, a French take on fish and chips. (It looked fancy. :> ) Both the fish and chips were remarkably fresh, and the tartar sauce was tasty as well. I think the fish and fries were unsalted, but that may just have been my illness speaking. We arrived early enough to do the early-bird set menu, making the restaurant a notably good deal for London.

After dinner, we strolled for a spell on Chiswick High Road. It's a long high street--we walked for a while in both directions and didn't see the end of it--and fairly nice. I appreciated the band of trees lining the sidewalks. There were definitely more trees here than on most high streets. They made strolling (even in the cold and dark while sick) more pleasant.

On Wednesday both Di Yin and I flew back to the states (she to New York, me to Boston). We shared a taxi to the airport even though my flight left a few hours before hers.

On my flight, I had an aisle seat at the end of a middle row of four seats where the middle seats were empty. I spread out, making the flight more enjoyable. Furthermore, Virgin Atlantic was willing to put my dinner on hold and heat it up when I asked for it. (I did this because I was sick and wanted to time my meal in order to better manage my blood sugar.) By the way, the food was pretty good.

I watched lots of tv and a movie (Toy Story 3). Virgin has a pretty good selection of videos. I listened to podcasts when my eyes got tired. (I didn't want to sleep much because staying awake would help me get onto east coast time.)

Neat observation: my flight left a bit before sunset and kept up with the setting sun most of the way.

London: Dec 11: Imperial War Museum

On Saturday, December 11, 2010, Di Yin and I headed across the Thames to the Imperial War Museum, a place she wanted to visit on our first trip to London but only now got around to visiting.

I took pictures.

The museum's lobby, overflowing with military vehicles, reminded us of the Air & Space Museum.

We spent a while in the special exhibit on The Ministry of Food, about food and rationing and production during WWII. The modest exhibit mostly comprised photos and posters (mostly propaganda ones such as "dig for victory" promoting growing vegetables), accompanied by wall labels of quotes and statistics and also short propaganda films. It was only about eating, getting food to, and growing food in Britain, nothing about the front lines. I learned a couple things at the exhibit. For instance, rationing lasted from 1940 through 1954! Kids received special dispensation not just of orange juice but also of cod liver oil. There were communal eating places during the war known as "British restaurants" that were designed so that people can go there and eat without worrying about rationing cards.

We also glanced through the museum's section on war art, and wandered through the exhibit on WWII through children's eyes (evacuation, etc.).

There was one other exhibit I wanted to see in the museum, saving the rest of the museum for another visit. This last exhibit was on the Secret War. I wanted and expected a James Bond thing, as conveyed by the advertising, but was disappointed. I was hoping for cool technology, but the technology in this exhibit was invisible ink, wireless transmitters, and an enigma machine. There was a bit about undercover agents who sabotaged things overseas, and about secret forces behind enemy lines, but everything lacked the 007 flair.

After the museum, we ran some errands near Oxford and Piccadilly Circus then headed to dinner. Di Yin picked Koya, a Japanese udon noodle shop. It's a cute, spartan canteen that feels authentic. (Most of the customers and all the waitstaff speak Japanese.) The food felt clean, making me feel more righteous than eating ramen. It was good all around.

London: Dec 10: V&A Museum (again)

On Friday, December 10, 2010, my outing was once again to the V&A Museum, a museum I've visited numerous times before. I was there to see its new displays. I want to comment on two of them.

I took some pictures in the museum during this outing.

I went to a cute exhibit on Charles Holden and on the many tube and rail stations he designed in the 1920s and 1930s as chief architect for the Underground / London Transport. He was a prolific architect; the exhibit proclaimed he probably designed enough buildings in London to rival Christopher Wren.

The other interesting exhibit was on Isotype, a method to "present social facts [statistics] pictorially" in a way young and old and even people who don't read the language can understand. I liked this exhibit because I'm always interested in how to present detailed, complex statistics in clear, elegant ways. Maybe Isotype over-simplifies at times--one practitioner said that "to remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures"--but it's still commendable for its clarity. (Besides, maybe precision isn't as critical as people make it out to be.) Also, this exhibit showed examples of using similarly simple, Isotype-like presentation methods to teach (e.g., science) and to convey instructions (e.g., in case of disaster do this).

This was a fun little outing.

London: Dec 8: Saatchi Gallery, Theatre, and more

Wednesday, December 8, 2010, was a great day. Every place I went for both day and evening outings was fun.

First, I stopped by Leicester Square to pick up theatre tickets from the discount theatre booth there. I like walking by Leicester Square because many blocks surrounding it are pedestrianized. I continue, however, to think that the "Chinatown" one block away is an embarrassment to real Chinatowns everywhere.

Next, I trotted over to the National Gallery to see two small, new displays. Both turned out to be pretty cool.

One showed works by Ben Johnson. His pieces, actually paintings, are photographic but linear. He converts everything in his original photographs into line stencils, then spraypaints through them. It's a unique look in the full meaning of the word.

The other exhibit showed works by Bridget Riley. Most of her works play funky optical effects on your eye. For instance, Composition with Circles 7 (note: not a repeating pattern) makes one see weird bumps in the wall and double-vision in places. Meanwhile, Saraband looks like it has depth and that the lines wiggle. Similarly, Arrest 3 looks like it's moving, like waves, and has depth.

After these two exhibits at the National Gallery, I was in an exuberant mood and craving additional high-quality art. I headed over to Chelsea to visit the Saatchi Gallery. I loved it, actually more than almost all museums I've visited in London. It reminded me that some contemporary art truly is amazing. I took a picture in every other room. Here's a link to the pictures. In addition, the gallery space is open and welcoming, and, best yet, some art pieces have a sense of humor--admittedly a raunchy one--but one that nevertheless livens up a museum visit.

In the evening, I was to meet Di Yin at Waterloo Station so we could grab dinner and see our play. (Yes, our play's theatre was not in the West End, a.k.a. the theatre district.) We couldn't find each other at the station for a long time--Di Yin forgot her phone and our meeting location directions weren't clear enough--so we didn't end up having dinner together, but we found each other in time for the show.

We saw A Flea in Her Ear at The Old Vic theatre. Built in the early nineteenth century, The Old Vic is (naturally) an old building with an ornate, pretty interior. The play is a fun farce, a madcap romp of mistaken identity and comically disastrous rendezvouses. The plot revolves around a wife trying to trap her husband into revealing an affair (which doesn't exist) at the same time as other members of their household staff attempt to meet up (for their own affairs) at the same hotel.

The case of mistaken identity--the husband / master of the house, and the hotel's bellhop--were played by the same actor. This was an impressive feat that meant frequent changes in voice, physical habits, and costume. The actor did it seamlessly.

Beside the absurdity of the situations, many jokes come from pronunciations: the guy who drops his consonants, and the Spaniard (who speaks Spanish and also English with a Spanish accent). Sometimes I understood enough of what was being said to get the joke; other times I did not. Most laughs in the play, though, come from the situations.

The play is much in the style of Moliere. (An additional connection: the play was written in French.)

London: Dec 7: Cartoon Art Museum & British Museum

My Tuesday outing, December 7, 2010, brought me first to the Cartoon Museum.

One room in the museum traces the history of cartooning from Hogarth in the 1700s to modern day, mainly through political cartoons, many using caricature and satire. Another room follows British cartooning in particular. The third room contained a special exhibit on cartoons about drinking. I found I liked those cartoons that connected to historic or political events such as showing particular pushes by the temperance movement or reflecting changes in licensing laws.

The entire museum has a British orientation, meaning that I missed many references to people and events and also wasn't familiar with some particular comic strips and magazines. (Sure, I could read the labels that explain the cartoons, but needing to do this made them not hit home for me.) Given this bent toward cartoons with a message, I found the pure humor of a book I spotted in the gift shop more entertaining than anything in the museum.

The museum took me less than an hour to see everything at the level of detail I wanted.

Because I was in the area, I headed to the British Museum. There I browsed three temporary exhibits, two of which aren't worth mentioning (they turned out not to be interesting to me). The third was a tiny but eloquent display of money and stamps African countries issued after their independence, showing their nationalism and celebrating their heritage.

I also revisited the British Museum's rooms on money and on Greek & Roman life, two rooms that I regretted when I visited last summer that I didn't have time to examine in detail. Now I have. The Greek & Room life room covers topics ranging from games and theatrical festival to exercising and household design. Not for the objects but for the information, I think both those rooms are my favorites in the museum.

I took two pictures at the British Museum.

London: Dec 6: Tate Britain

My afternoon excursion on Monday, December 6, 2010, was to the Tate Britain. I'd visited it twice before (1, 2); this visit was to see the new displays and special exhibitions.

I took a few pictures on this excursion.

One special exhibit I visited showed the contestants for the Turner Prize. As it turns out, I wasn't excited by any of the artists in the running. The neatest thing about the exhibit was actually outside it: a scrolling display of recent tweets about the competition. The winner was to be announced that night, so there was a lot of chatter.

One special exhibit I planned to see was closed--inclement weather over the last week caused such an increase in humidity in those exhibition rooms that they had to close them to do something to the rooms to fix the problem.

I wandered through the Turner section again and found a painting of someplace I'd seen recently in person: the Roman forum and Arch of Titus.

In one display, I spent a while watching a re-enactment of a 1963 interview (printed in Playboy) with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke about what life would be like near the end of the century. I wish I could read/watch the whole thing. I don't see it online.

I wandered through all the new or reconfigured displays (a substantial chunk of the museum), but found only one that interested me this trip: the room contained paintings so heavily painted that they became three-dimensional. Neat stuff.

On the walk back to work, I happened to pass Westminster Cathedral (not the same thing as Westminster Abbey). It was so stunning at night that I had to go in. The inside was respectable but paled in comparison to the churches I saw recently in Rome. The cathedral's most notable feature is that the upper levels (the giant arches, the ceiling, etc.) are made of dark brown--almost black--stone so that it's almost impossible to distinguish the building from what would be a pitch black night sky. It's an odd feeling, looking up and sometimes being unable to determine if there's a roof over your head.

London: Dec 5: Lazy Sunday

I had a lazy Sunday, December 5, 2010. The only thing I went out for was food, as documented in these photographs and described a bit below.

For lunch, I headed to Gail's, a high-end bakery/cafe chain that I've been to before. I ate at a small set of tables in the back, a place I didn't know existed.

For dinner, we headed to Betsy Smith, the local quirky pub we visited before. In spite of the large number of pictures I took on my previous visit, I nevertheless spotted some new picture-worthy oddities this time.

London: Dec 4: Wellcome Collection (again)

On Saturday, December 4, 2010, I had a slow-moving museum day, over which I took half a dozen pictures. I spent an hour in the British Library exploring its special exhibit on English (see the previous day's entry for details), then met Di Yin and one of her relatively new but close friends for lunch, M, who, like Di Yin, also works at the British Library. After lunch, I spent another hour and change at the special exhibit, then headed to the Wellcome Collection for its special exhibit. I'd previously visited the Wellcome Collection, a museum about medicine and the culture surrounding it, but the special exhibit wasn't open yet.

For lunch, Di Yin and M led me to Drummond Street, a street that's a short walk from the British Library and that's famous for its many Indian restaurants, especially buffets. After some discussion between them, we settled on Raavi Kebab.

Lunch was respectable, though nothing inspired me much. Di Yin was more enthusiastic about the dishes, saying everything was good or very good.

Incidentally, it's amazing how balmy 4 C is when you're used to -2 C. Yes, it was a cold week.

After finishing the British Library after lunch, I walked the short distance to the Wellcome Collection. Its special exhibit on mind-altering drugs (both legal and illegal; the exhibit shows that these lines are poorly drawn and highly culturally relative) was punily named High Society. The exhibit ranged widely (as I expected given the rest of the collection). The exhibit showed lots of documents written by explorers and scientists as they first discovered/saw the effects of the drugs. I learned Sherlock Holmes was originally a cocaine addict! It also showed art about the drug trade and its effects. In addition, the exhibit discussed historical uses of various drugs (mostly about opium, I guess because it had worldwide impact and had lots do with the British empire's ascendancy), and how their use has changed through education, criminalization, and medicalization.

The coolest display (besides the ones shown/described in the pictures) was the one showing how spiderwebs look different depending on which drug you give the spider.

By the way, I noticed the Wellcome Collection's cafe, located in the lobby, was hopping and lively, just as it was last time I visited. I wonder why it's such a hip place to be. The scene--the crowd it attracts--is nothing like the cafes at other museums or the nearby British Library.

London: Dec 3: British Library

On Friday afternoon, December 3, 2010, I stopped by the British Library to explore its displays. In effect, it's not just a library but also a museum with exhibits on old books, on famous books, and about language. In the two and a half hours I spent in the library this afternoon, I finished most of it except for the large special exhibit on the English language. I only managed to spend forty-five minutes in the English exhibit. I returned the following day, a Saturday, and spent another two hours at the English exhibit, finishing it completely. Rather than divide my impressions of British Library over two blog posts, I'll describe everything in this post.

I took some photos on this excursion.

The British Library's permanent display has an incredible quantity of old works. I especially enjoyed the hand-written ones; they feel intimate. Items on display included:

  • old books, including Shakespeare's first folio (and similarly old books about Shakespeare's works) and a book of fonts from 1500.
  • old letters (in original hand-writing) by famous people such as Darwin, Ada Lovelace, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf.
  • illuminated manuscripts, mostly religious but from a variety of faiths and from all over the world.
  • sheet music in books from the 15th century and later. Some of these, including Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Ravel, have annotations hand-written by the composer.
  • maps from every century over past millennium.
  • original copies of the Magna Carta. (There was no canonical version.)
  • Leonardo da Vinci's manuscripts.
  • various illustrations of Alice in Wonderland--I didn't know so many different people illustrated this text--including one by Salvador Dali.
  • Auburn's huge book of birds. When I say huge, I mean it: the birds are drawn life-sized! (Pages measure 100 x 67 centimeters, more than 3 feet by 2 feet.)
A multimedia display, Turning the Pages, allows one to flip through digital copies of all the pages of many works on display rather than only view the pages each physical book in the display cabinet happens to be open to. I flipped through some of Leonardo's manuscripts.

The British Library also has a huge philatelic collection. Given the number of sliding cases, I can believe its claim that it's the best and most comprehensive collection of stamps in the world. As support, it appears to have every country stamp issued from 1840 to 1890. I looked at and read about some of the collection's stamps, including some stamps from countries that no longer exist (e.g., Bechuanaland, the Confederate States of America). Many stamps on display are rare--many labels I read say that less than ten copies are known to exist, or even that no other instances of the stamp are known to have survived.

There was a small exhibit on how the library conserves books (rebinding, etc.) and recordings (tapes, etc.).

I walked by a special exhibit on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was roped-off, so I saw what I could (a little). I only mention this exhibit to give a further sense of the kind of exhibits the British Library tends to have.

I spent a large chunk of time over the course of two days in the special exhibit on the evolution of English. Wide ranging, it started from the Germanic and Scandinavian migrations to England and traced English through the evolution to Old and Middle English. There were old books, including early dictionaries (Caudrey's, Johnson's), an early edition of The Canterbury Tales, and a 1440 cookbook.

One section showed books from the last two centuries describing how pronunciation reflects social class. It was an interesting presentation, and interesting to see how this changed over time.

Actually, large parts of the special exhibit explored pronunciation, dialect, and word choice. For instance, there were recordings of how Shakespeare's works would've been pronounced in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In addition, I found a copy of the BBC pronunciation guide, and learned that George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion / My Fair Lady) helped establish the committee for this. There were also recordings of people talking about expressions. I found this part great because I enjoyed hearing people's accents and manner of speaking. This multimedia display also had songs sung in different English dialects: Caribbean, Nigerian, Valley (as in San Fernando valley, Southern California), Appalachian, etc. Another multimedia display had more entertainment value: it showed a series of television skits that played with language (e.g., Abbott and Costello's baseball skit, Monty Python's argument sketch) from different eras. My favorite skit in this line-up was by a group I never heard of it. The sketch is The Two Ronnies spoof of Mastermind. The guy answers not the most recent question but the one before it, yet the answer is often incredibly funny when applied to the most recent question. Good scripting, brilliant and witty.

Another section looked at the creation of words and phrases, and included a list of common expressions that came about from their appearance in the St. James Bible (which, incidentally, was on display). But, this section didn't simply cover old words; there was a bit of information on modern text messaging.

Other sections looked at language used in propaganda, and at the evolution of poetry.

Other things I spotted worth noting:
  • the riot act actually exists. It's Great Britain's The Riot Act of 1715. It's meant for dispersing groups; once the riot act has been read to the crowd, the group must disperse within the hour under penalty of law. Incidentally, the sign explaining this in the exhibit accompanied a big newsprint-like poster that reads: "THE RIOT ACT HAS BEEN READ."
  • Alaric Watts' alphabet poetry
  • the library has a copy of the original "It was a dark and stormy night" book, and described the author's background and how the phrase evolved into its current meaning.
In the evening, Di Yin and I had planned to go to Betsy Smith, our local pub, but we discovered it was really loud so we redirected ourselves to our local Indian standby, Spice Grill. I had sag aloo, which was good and also spicy. Di Yin had chicken kirahi, which was also good and in fact better than I remember when I had it before. Roti were good as usual. Sorry I forgot to bring my camera to dinner.

Rome: Nov 30: Departure, and snow

We flew out of Rome on Tuesday morning. It was an uneventful day in Rome: breakfast at the hotel, train to the airport, and waiting for our plane, which was delayed a bit more than an hour. The plane was delayed due to weather at Gatwick, where it came from. This was the first hint that the day would be exciting.

Indeed, we landed at London Gatwick in the snow. Customs was a cinch. We caught a train to Victoria, stopped by work for a late lunch, and grabbed a bus home. Gosh, it was cold. And our apartment was cold as well; it took many hours with our heat on full blast to return it to a pleasant temperature. Six hours after we got home, we were still in many layers of clothes and often walking over to stand next to the radiators. By the next morning, however, the apartment was comfortable (we kept it so the rest of our time in London).

Incidentally, the flight was mostly full, but Di Yin and I managed to claim a row to ourselves.

It was lucky we returned when we did: Gatwick airport was closed due to the weather the following two days. It kept snowing on and off during this time. (The storm wasn't actually bad in my mind; it's just that the Gatwick is a smaller airport and also I don't think Great Britain is used to dealing with snowstorms.)

I took some pictures this day, mostly of the snow. Di Yin also took a handful. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #465). If you're in slideshow mode and see a picture of people Di Yin recognized on the overland rail or pictures from Thanksgiving, you've cycled back to the beginning of the album and are viewing pictures unconnected to our Rome trip.

Rome: Nov 29: Vatican, Saint Peter's, and more

On Monday, unlike our day exploring Ancient Rome and not wanting to wait in line at the Colosseum, I planned ahead. I bought tickets online for the Vatican. Hence, after breakfast and the metro ride to the Vatican, we got to skip the lines! :) Lines or not, I was disappointed the Vatican doesn't stamp passports.

I took a lot of pictures in the Vatican. They provide a good sense of the place. The Vatican Museums are vast, probably equal in size to the British Museum, which took me three visits to explore. We spent over 3.5 hours in the Vatican, and saw some of the museum only perfunctorily. Their collection is large and not limited to religious oil paintings, altarpieces, iconography, and religious artifacts. They also have an astounding amount of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan items, sculptures by Bellini, and numerous reliefs, tombs, and tapestries. Furthermore, offshoots of the museum have exhibits on Australian aborigines (!), the Vatican mail system, the Vatican monetary system, the pope's vehicles, and recent art. In terms of recent art, they have 19th and 20th century art and modern art, including Max Weber, Diego Riviera, and Salvador Dali, and also cubist and abstract pieces, all with varying obviousness of connection to Christianity.

In the postal museum, I learned the history of the Vatican's mail system. The Vatican issues about half a dozen commemorative stamps each year in honor of popes, saints' anniversaries, international events (olympics, world's fairs, eucharistic congresses). Interestingly and oddly, some of the stamps designed in the 19th century weren't ever used as stamps.

In the monetary section, I learned the Vatican used to issue its own lira (on par with the Italian lira) and now uses and mints Euro coins.

As for the Michelanglo's Sistine Chapel, it wasn't as impressive or awe-inspiring as I expected. Nevertheless, it's commendable for its size--it's a massive undertaking for (mostly) one man. Plus, it's nice to sit and simply take it all in. I was surprised to see that The Last Judgment (on the wall) has a lot of non-Christian-canon imagery. For instance, there are Charon and Minos from Dante's Inferno.

I learned that the Sistine Chapel was restored in the 1980s (yes, that recently) and that the restoration was controversial at the time. After using fancy imaging technologies, the restorers think they identified Michelangelo's original colors, separating his work from those of later restorers, and returned the frescoes to their original colorings. These tones were quite a bit brighter, more lustrous, than people were used to (after looking at the faded frescoes for too long), and many claimed these new colors couldn't have been what Michelangelo selected. The controversy, however, has mostly died down as experts have analyzed the data and techniques used by the restorers and agreed with the conclusions and result.

By the way, I decided I couldn't live in the Vatican. Everything is too heavily decorated.

Incidentally, Di Yin also took many pictures in the Vatican and out and about this day. The link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #311). When you see a picture captioned "Back at the hotel at last" (picture #464), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

Hungry after our long stint in the Vatican, we hunted for food, eventually selecting Ristorante Pizzeria Porta Castello.

From lunch, we walked to Saint Peter's Basilica, traveling through Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter's Square) on the way in. I know I've seen pictures of the square full during Christmas, but the piazza seems so enormous to me, I can't fathom how many people it can hold. Likewise, the basilica is a mind-bogglingly large space. (Yes, my mind feels boggled.)

From the basilica, we decided to walk to our hotel, stopping for dinner along the way. Though it would be a long walk (over an hour even if we didn't stop to look at things or eat), at least half of it would pass through parts of the city we never saw before.

We first walked along the River Tevere, which is quite dirty. On the other side of the river, we strolled by assorted sites, most notably Campo de'Fiori, Rome's oldest food market. Although we arrived too late for the market--the vendors had packed up--we saw that the area around it is exciting and thriving. Near the market we found a tasty bakery. After we finished our snacks from it, we decided they were so good that we bought more, planning to eat them on the plane the following day.

In this area, I wish I got to see Borromini's corridor ("perspective gallery") (scroll down a bit). It appears to be a great optical illusion, but Palazzo Spada, which has it, was shut when I passed.

We walked through the historic Jewish ghetto/quarter. The area is more a run-down version of the similarly medieval nearby area Campo de'Fiori but with many fewer shops. There are lots of kosher restaurants, however.

Tired, we stopped by the Pantheon to sit for a bit, then headed home, hunting for food along the way. But, we got lost, were frustrated (it turns we walked in the exact opposite direction we were supposed to for several blocks), found ourselves, walked to the nearest metro station, took it most of the way home, and found food for real.

Rome: Nov 28: Misc Rome

This day we hit a large number of sites in Rome with no coherent pattern. During the day, I took quite a few pictures (though fewer than on other days of our trip). Likewise, Di Yin took many pictures. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #183). When you see a picture of me putting money into a train ticket machine in order to avoid walking home in the rain (picture #307), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

First thing after breakfast, we trotted down to visit the notable church Santa Maria Maggiore, a church we walked past the previous day but didn't go in. As I read and heard more about it, I realized how prominent it is among Rome's churches (parts of it date to the 5th century, and multiple popes are buried there), and decided I should visit. I'm glad I did; it's an impressive, ornate church, with a nice blend of styles (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.). It's got history, such as mosaics that range in date of creation from the 5th to the 18th centuries. It was an atmospheric place to explore at mass, listening to chanting in Italian or Latin (I'm not sure which).

After the church, we walked to the metro station near our hotel and took it a couple of stops to the Spanish Steps. The area around the Spanish Steps is a nice area for strolling, with more pedestrianized streets than I'd yet seen in Rome. The streets were crowded with shops selling luxury fashion goods.

In the vicinity of the Spanish Steps, we visited another impressive church, Sant'Andrea delle Fratte, though this one didn't look like much from the outside. We also climbed to the top of the Steps to take in our first view of Rome's skyline, then entered the church at the top, Trinita die Monti. Though this church, lacking ceiling murals, was less impressive, it had nice murals/mosaics along the side.

After visiting three churches on this Sunday, I can say I like visiting churches in Rome during mass (if they let you in). They're very atmospheric. The first and third church had lovely choral singing, making the experience more magical. This compensates for the fact that during mass you're not allowed to walk around and look at things up close.

As we left the area, we noticed a model posing on the Spanish Steps. Both professional and amateur photographers took pictures of her. I admit it is quite a backdrop.

We then began walking to our scheduled noontime meeting with a friend of one of Di Yin's friends. On the way we passed the Piazza del Popolo, a large, remarkable plaza. The friend, S, was doing research in Rome for the year as part of an academic exchange program. Once we met him, my picture frequency slowed dramatically.

S brought us on a tour through the backside of Borghese gardens, passing the National Gallery of Modern Art, to show us his residence in the British School. The little of the gardens that I saw were attractive, and the National Gallery appropriately stately, but what shocked me the most was that he was living in an equally-stately porticoed building that could just as well have housed the National Gallery! It even has art on display. (Okay, the building is smaller than the National Gallery of Modern Art, but it's no less impressive architecturally.) He gave us a full tour. It felt like a large mansion/villa. Its central garden felt like a cross between a Mediterranean courtyard and one of the quads in Oxford/Cambridge.

S then led us back through the piazza to a lunch place, then from the lunch place into the old center of the city. Rome's city center reminded me of Barcelona's old town, with lots of cobblestone streets, small, hidden plazas, and no cars. It's cute.

One reason S brought us to the city center was to show us his favorite gelato shop, Giolitti. It was good, exactly on par with the excellent San Crispino from the previous day.

After gelato, S left us, and Di Yin and I continued exploring the city center, beginning with Piazza Navona (said to be the social centre of the city). The piazza has three appealingly extravagant Baroque fountains and a street market.

Incidentally, it had been drizzling on and off for most of the afternoon. We saw lots of umbrella vendors emerge.

After exploring Piazza Navona and some surrounding streets, we trotted over to the Pantheon. Though dating from the first century, it's amazingly well preserved and remains majestic, with something magical and right about its interior dimensions. We sat for a while to rest and enjoy the space. That said, it's not perfectly preserved--for instance, the center of the floor was roped off because the roof leaks. To me, by the way, the Pantheon was even more striking because I didn't think they could build domes that large in the first century CE.

In the rain, we hunted for a dinner restaurant. We followed a zig-zag path (partially because I had trouble with directions). Somehow we walked along Via del Corso, a big shopping street, and also down another big shopping street (Via Fontina?), and also hit both the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. At some point we found Sant Andrea restaurant near the Spanish steps and decided it looked good. Indeed, it was good. By the time we left, the clouds had truly opened and it was pouring. We decided to take the metro to our hotel (even though it wouldn't have been that long a walk), a good decision as even with the metro's assistance my shoes got wet enough that they were still a bit damp the next day.

Rome: Nov 27: Ancient Roman Buildings

After a late start and a basic buffet breakfast at our hotel, we left to explore Rome. I took a lot of pictures this day, and also managed to record from memory our rough walking route. This is actually the only day on the trip I managed to do it--all other days I either followed someone and didn't pay attention to how I got places or got lost and hence didn't know where I was for a while.

Incidentally, Di Yin also took many pictures. The link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #15). When you see a picture captioned "Home at last" (referring to our hotel) (picture #182), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

This day, we explored the ancient Roman center of the city, especially the Colosseum, the Forum, and Capitoline Hill, and also Trevi Fountain.

As we walked to the Colosseum, we passed lots of CGIL union marchers, many blocks long. We also saw a few churches. See the pictures for details.

We found the Colosseum, built in the first center C.E., but decided not to wait in the line to enter, instead deciding to find lunch. Before and after lunch, we wandered around the edge of the Forum, a complex built in the first couple centuries C.E. (We tried to find the entrance but never did. It turns out my guidebook was out of date.) After seeing it and other buildings, we didn't actually make it back to the Colosseum in time to go inside.

We walked north-west to Trevi Fountain, an impressive sight (more so than the Colosseum for instance), and stopped at the nearby San Crispino Gelateria, a famous gelato shop. The gelato was perfect! The sorbets were ethereally light yet bursting with flavor. We ended up trying seven flavors.

After more walking and dinner, we returned home. I enjoyed seeing the sites this day, but ended up sad I didn't go in anyplace.

Rome: Nov 26: Arrival

On the morning of our flight to Rome, a Friday, we stopped by my work for a quick breakfast and to make sandwiches for the plane for lunch. When I say quick, I mean it--it turned out we had only ten minutes to eat. We then caught a train to Gatwick Airport. I like watching the world go by from a train, especially under blue skies like this day. Gatwick Airport's train station is in the airport terminal--much more convenient/a shorter walk than from Heathrow's train station to the terminals themselves.

We flew easyJet, a discount carrier. Our plane was late, which might've been a blessing because when scheduling our timing I didn't realize that gates can be up to a twenty minute walk from the security checkpoint. I wasn't keeping an eye on the time but I think we had enough time that we would've made the flight without hurrying even if it wasn't delayed. Boarding was, as Di Yin described it, "a cattle call." easyJet doesn't assign seats, so once the gates opened, people jockeyed their way forward. It was definitely more polite than it would have been in China but it certainly lacked the orderliness of Southwest.

The flight was easy. As we landed, I noticed Italy near Rome looks like California: sea and ground, hills and plains, and the coloring and style of the vegetation. No wonder people say the bay area has a Mediterranean climate and geography.

We landed at Leonardo Da Vinci Fiumicino Airport, Rome's main airport. It was surprisingly empty on this Friday afternoon. I can't explain it. Immigration/customs was the easiest ever. The staff-person barely even looked to see if my passport had a picture in it, and asked no questions.

We took a train into downtown Rome. I began seriously taking pictures at this point. Di Yin, meanwhile, had been taking pictures since we arrived at Gatwick Airport. The latter link goes to her first picture from this trip (which happens to picture #4 in this album). When you see a picture of Di Yin posed in front of our hotel window (picture #15), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

Once downtown, we walked a couple of blocks to the hotel where we'd stay for the length of our trip: Yes Hotel. It was a perfectly nice, comfortable place to stay; certainly not luxurious but exactly the level of quality we intended and expected when we booked the hotel. Modern, linear decor, neutral colors, soft lighting. I took pictures of the hotel and our room on the following day.

We left our hotel to walk around and find food. We passed some large, old buildings (ruins?)--they were hard to make out in the dark (I'd photograph them another day)--and a piazza. Eventually we decided upon dinner at L'Angolo di Napoli, a pizzeria/restaurant. The food made us happy; it was a good indication that random restaurants in Rome are good. Details are in the pictures.

Rome Overview

Di Yin and I spent three full days in Rome, leaving for Italy on Friday, November 26, 2010, and returning on Tuesday, November 30. I liked the trip and the city. Below I summarize my impressions of the city. I often found myself mentally comparing it to Barcelona, but I think that's because it's the only other mainland European city where I spent any substantial amount of time in recent memory. In the discussion below, I'll attempt to explain my impression of Rome on its own terms, not in reference to this artificial comparison point.

First up, the food. I enjoyed all the food: pastas, pizzas, meat dishes (secondi piatti), and gelatos. Even those restaurants that weren't uniformly tasty had at least one dish that was better than simply good, i.e., something remarkably good and certainly better than most versions I've had. Also, in particular, the Romans know how to do sauces such as tomato sauces or wine sauces. Yes, even simple tomato sauce is better in Rome. In addition, I like how the dishes are balanced. Roman chefs know moderation: for instance, in pasta dishes with meats, cream sauces, etc., they don't use too much meat or cream, thus keeping the dish light.

Incidentally, restaurant menus list whether the fish or, often, the vegetables were previously frozen. :)

Getting Around / The Feel of the City
I liked walking along the cobblestone streets and through the scattered piazzas in Rome's large historic sections (just as I enjoyed doing the same in Barcelona). They're atmospheric and, with fewer cars than the rest of the city, nice for strolling. Best yet, the older section of the city is large; it would take at least fifty minutes to walk a straight line across at its widest point. And who walks straight lines in parts of town like this anyway?

Outside this area, there are still many interesting sites (more on that later), but walking was harder: outside the (mostly pedestrianized) medieval section, the streets, all wide enough to have two (or more) lanes, are in use. If you as a pedestrian are at a crosswalk and have the walk signal, the cars keep coming. They don't stop as in California and wait for you to cross the street. You must be fearless and begin crossing at a measured, predictable pace and trust the cars will stop for you. They do. Nevertheless, despite this negative, because there are things to see throughout the city and because we quickly adopted to the crossing customs, we often chose to walk rather than take public transit.

The only form of public transit we took was the metro. It was efficient, but as there are only two lines, it doesn't go everywhere you want to go. In particular, it doesn't go to the medieval part of the city--what I think of as the nicest section--and consequently if you're there and tired of walking, you must take something else (bus, taxi, etc.) or stop to sit for a while. By the way, the metro trains are fine but the stations need polish: they require long underground walks through tunnels that feel like they're still under construction.

There are old buildings everywhere in Rome, not just in the cobblestoned medieval/Renaissance section. Rome's architecture is the highlight of this trip for me. When I first wrote the previous sentence, I tried following it up with "especially" and then listing some sites I particularly remembered, but I found my list growing to cover pretty much all the famous sites we visited. I decided not to bother listing them here.

It's neat walking around and stumbling upon old buildings, whether from the Italian Renaissance or old Roman ones dating back from around the time of Christ. Colonnaded buildings, fancy churches, ancient temples (sometimes adopted by Christianity and rebranded as a church), old ruins, and historic city walls abound. And it's not just the large structures that make Rome so absorbing but also the flourishes: the odd fresco on the side of a building, the statues in piazzas, the reliefs on street corners and on eaves. I was particularly fascinated by seeing how old structures get incorporated into new, such as how a segment of a Roman wall became part of a building's wall or how the corner of an older flat-stone building got reused as the corner of a not-quite-as-old brick building.

With the Vatican making Rome the center of the Catholic world, churches in particular are omnipresent. Imagine a checkerboard overlaid onto a grid of streets and you'll be an idea of how common they are. Sometimes a church's exterior belies the quality of its interior; sometimes it does not.

Incidentally, I was amused to see lots of hotels, again a higher density than in other cities I've visited. At first I thought this might just have been the section of the city I was in, but no--they're everywhere (though nevertheless not as common as churches).

Language was not a problem. Rome seems to be a tourist-oriented city; most of the people with whom we interacted (hotel clerks, restaurant waiters, and museum staff) all spoke English (or at least enough to communicate easily with us).

Rome seems to be a fashion hot-spot. People dress well. We saw a great many clothing shops/boutiques, a higher density than I remember seeing in any other city. Relatedly, Di Yin, who's certainly been shopping in Manhattan, was impressed with the beauty of the shoes for sale.

Hotels and food are expensive. I can't speak to much else. The clothing covered a wide range, though it tended toward what I would call expensive. The only form of local public transit I took, the metro, was cheap.

Neat Observations

  • While Euro notes are identical from country to country, Euro coins differ. Here are pictures of the different two-euro coins; use the navigational bar on the left of that page to view other denominations in various countries.
  • There are sometimes pedals in the floor of bathrooms that, when pressed, turn the faucet on (with pressure corresponding to how hard they're pressed). There is no handle on the faucet itself. In addition to providing the benefit of not having to touch the faucet after washing your hands (to turn it off), this mechanism also ensures that faucets cannot be left running unintentionally.
  • People here smoke as much (not more) as those in London, but they smoke unfiltered cigarettes so it smells more.
  • A number of statues throughout the city have wolves in them (certainly a reference to Romulus and Remus).
  • There are many always-on drinking fountains everywhere.
  • Rome's postcards are more advanced, more sophisticated, than those in other countries I've visited. I saw two types of postcards that I'd never seen before: panoramic postcards and archaeology postcards. Panoramic postcards are postcards that fold out to 1.5 feet long, yielding a full panorama of a place. Archaeology postcards look like regular greeting cards with some parts of the cover cut-out. Inside the card is an image of what the archaeological site (e.g., the Colosseum) looks like now. If you look at the cover, you see a rendition of the site in its heyday, with the cut-out portions (showing the card's inside) revealing parts of the ruins that remain in roughly their original appearance. These cards put the existing ruins into context. Sadly, I didn't allocate time to shop for/select any postcards of either type, but I'm nevertheless impressed with the designs' ingenuity.