Monthly Archives: November 2013

Find Me a Flat, Stat! (Part 2)

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Having gone through a fair number of neighborhoods, scratching many off the list (see Part 1) I decided to focus on three areas:

Notting Hill– an eclectic area, famous for the Portebello Road outdoor market and the movie of the same name (which I still have not seen). I have friends in the neighborhood, and it’s just north/west of Kensington Gardens, with the most expensive street in England dubbed ‘Billionaire’s Row‘ with all of the mansions and embassies. The day I explored the area, I happened upon a restaurant named Julie’s, where I had eaten years ago with some good friends. I remember walking up the block to Julie’s thinking it was such a nice block, maybe I could live there… Maybe!

Holland Park – a bit further west from Notting Hill, Holland Park is home to a few celebrities (Simon Cowell, Richard Branson). Holland Ave is a beautiful set of white mansion row houses, straight out of Mary Poppins. The actual park is beautiful, with magical little areas like a Japanese garden and peacock nesting area. 20131130-221248.jpg

The only down side of HP is that dogs can only go off-leash in a relatively small area, but when I visited there were a bunch of dogs running around and chasing each other – Lucy would love it I thought. And with the pink Hammersmith line a short 8-9 minutes to work, this looked great

Kensington/South Kensington – closest to the office of the three, the area has all of the museums, a top-notch high street, and beautiful streets of connected homes. Many large busy through-ways, but plenty of smaller meandering streets upon which to take the daily walks.

Now with the neighborhoods chosen, off to see some flats. To be continued…

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Find Me A Flat, Stat! (Part 1)

I’ve been living in Chiswick for the past month, on a short term lease in order to give myself time to explore London a bit before committing to a long term location. Chiswick is lovely, but a bit far out of Central London, more for the ‘yummy mummies’ and families. So I have used several weekends to go scouting areas of London in which to eventually look for a flat (that’s British for apartment).
What I am looking for in a neighbourhood (note the U):
– Close to fun, manageable for work – I decided that if I was going to do London, I wanted to be able to easily access the fun part of the city, which for me means Soho, the West End, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
– Easy commute – under 25 minutes, preferably one line, definitely one form (either bus or tube [British for the subway]).
– Near a tube stop – even though I have fallen in love with the bus system (shocking, I know), I would feel disconnected not being near a tube stop
– Access to parks – Lucy has loved being able to run off-leash every day on the morning walk, and having a good run on the weekends.
– Social atmosphere, nice pubs – having friends nearby would be nice, having a general positive vibe. Gay-centric wasnt necessary, and besides there is no gay ‘hood like Chelsea, Weho or Hillcrest. The closest is Soho, but that wouldnt work for the dogs, and would be like living in the middle of Times Square, too busy for everyday.

Here are some of the areas I explored:
Chelsea\Fulham – more south London, but north of the river, this is a very posh area. Beautiful streets, some lovely parks, and some slivers of green space by the river. The negative was that its a touch far from Soho and no large green park unless you crossed the bridge to Battersea Park – which is immense and beautiful. While doable, I didnt relish the idea of crossing the park in the colder months.

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Marylebone – north\central London, close to Hyde Park, and Baker Street, home of Sherlock Holmes. But most of the streets were very busy with lots of foot traffic, and the ways into Regents Park were massive multi-lane streets which would not be fun navigating with the dogs.

Bayswater – this is a smaller area, north of Kensington Gardens, just east of Notting Hill. It had appeal in terms of location and value, but once I explored it on the ground, there were way too many 3 and 2 star small hotels – too many transients and collections of smoking tourists hanging out on stoops.

Earls Court – west of the parks, lots of interesting streets and gardens peppered throughout the area. A bustling high street with plenty of shops and restaurants, this was starting to look interesting.. until a good friend said he had lived there and got broken into several times. While I doubt a burglar would choose a flat with 130 lbs worth of Boxer inside, the neighborhood lost appeal.

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Shoreditch – the recently gentrified area, akin to the East Village. Very cool, hip restaurants and pubs, great shopping. But not enough green space, very far from work.. if I were 10 years younger and dog-less, would have definitely considered.

Bermondsey – south of the river has undergone a lot of development in the past 5 years, and Bermondsey is just over the London Bridge. While the river views are stunning, this was again too far of a commute.

Hampstead Heath/Islington – Hampstead Heath is a magical park on a hill, with great views of London. Nearby Islington has charming pubs and shopping. But the Northern line which services both is unpredictable and often closes on the weekend. The stops have interior elevators which feel a bit like death traps. So pass on these.

So where did I focus the search? Stay tuned to find out. Have I missed any areas or made the wrong call on any of the above?

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A Hall and A Mall: Two American Experiences

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This past week I had two completely opposite American experiences here in London.
I needed to go to the US Embassy in London yesterday to have a document notarized. This is one of several services offered by the Embassy, including (not surprisingly) passport and visa services. I made an online appointment a few weeks ago for a 9:45AM appointment. The Embassy sits on Grosvenor Square in the heart of London. The Square is an open park space, with a nice statue of FDR.

20131122-090013.jpgOur Embassy, I’m a bit embarrassed to say, is a hulking 70’s monstrosity of architecture. It’s no wonder we recently broke ground of a new one in South London. (The US will make a killing on turning the land into residential real estate, converting the building itself will take some imagination.)

One of the quirks of the Embassy is that you can’t bring any mobile devices inside nor do they have a place to check them in. I learned later that two nearby pharmacies make a pretty pound by running a phone check business, and the Embassy is exploring doing their own with money to go to Veterans’ causes. So naturally I got completely lost on my way there, having grown dependent on my phone GPS. And this was the coldest, stormiest day here so far (and I had the first moment of missing LA as I trudged through the mess).

I arrived at the queue outside around 9:45, and eventually got through security. I was sent around the side of the huge building to a side entrance, and once up a grand set of stairs entered the building. Let’s just say our tax dollars weren’t wasted on updating the interior. I checked in, got a number and went into the waiting room. Imagine a DMV mixed with a nursery with heightened levels of desperation. There was a play area filled with the siblings of the dozen or so babies brought in for their passports. Thankfully the visa people were in a different holding area altogether or it would have been a real madhouse.

The array of people was fascinating. Many bi-national couples, Americans and folks that sounded like Brits but were American by birth. American efficiency was in as much evidence as the indoor decor, ie limited at best. After bouncing between 5 windows and waiting 3 hours I got my notarized document. Lesson for the next time – bring a newspaper or a book!

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum was my visit to Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. A full-on American style mall in the middle of London. I realized I was missing some key warm clothing items (gloves, hat, a long wool overcoat) and my friend Ed recommended Reiss, a UK-based clothing chain. Reiss carries men’s and women’s clothing and the nearest one is in Westfield, so I took the bus (yes the bus) over there and was happy to find a very familiar set-up.

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One of the big adjustments from LA living is going back to a car-less existence. The largest change is in how I shop – gone are the Costco days of filling up my Audi with bulk toilet paper and Pelligrino. Most neighborhoods have a “High Street” where all the shoppes you need are in one stretch, but the shoppes are smaller and tend to be specialty shops, requiring multiple trips to get what you need. I’ve tried a few of the supermarkets, and have settled into Sainsbury and M&S Just Food for now. But I can only buy what I can carry half a mile home. My shopping strategies have completely changed. So it was nice to have multiple options all in one place like the Mall.

Westfield has UK style anchors such as Marks & Spencer, Next and Debenham’s, as well as UK/Euro faves H&M, Zara, Thomas Pink, Uniqlo and Ted Baker. They also have plenty of global stores like Disney and Apple. There is a high end fashion annex called The Village with a variety of shops like Prada and Louis Vitton. Overall Westfield felt a lot like home, bigger and airier than Sherman Oaks Galleria, Pasadena or Westfield Sherman Oaks. It was a fun experience, and in the crappy weather, easier to navigate store-to-store than fighting the crowds on the typical High Street. But I don’t want to give up the joys of the smaller specialty store experience so I expect my visits won’t be too frequent.
In the end I did buy a new grey wool coat at Reiss, gloves and scarf at H&M, and a wool cap at Marks and Sparks that I need to return – it’s just way too Olde Man British.

Any good London shopping tips before the holidays kick into high gear?

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Once More, With a Deal

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When we were younger and living on Long Island, our mom would take us into the city now and then and get us ‘twofers’ as she called them – the two for one half prices Broadway show tickets at TKTS. Thus was born my love of discount show tickets, and many an early Sunday morning has been spent on line (or in the queue as they say here) getting half price tickets for shows – recently with nieces and over the summer, my sister Deborah. It was this past summer when Deborah and I got tickets to see “Once: The Musical” on Broadway. We both loved it – the music and songs were fun and touching. The characters well-drawn, and the skill of the actors remarkable – all of the company played instruments and sang, all of which were key to the storyline.
The songs made their way to my iPhone, and were the soundtrack for the next weeks – which included my trip to London to discuss my new role. Playing in my ears as I jogged through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, the songs from “Once” became linked to my journey here.
And so it was fitting that my first West End show would be seeing ““Once: the Musical”” once more, this time with my dependable theatre date Anna. We’ve seen many shows together, hitting the twofer shop at the Liecester Square tube entrance – Encore Tickets. This one is always pretty dependable for a good selection, and last week was no different. We went on a Tuesday night, which is a good night to go as there are more tickets available to shows in general – once at the theatre we saw there were plenty of available seats.
If you see “Once,” go early, as you can get a drink at the working bar on stage (semi-working, the bottle of Macallan turned out to be a prop). About ten minutes before curtain time, the cast comes on stage with their instruments and perform a few songs with the theatre-goers on stage. Once the ushers move the audience to their seats, the lights slowly dim and the performers segue into the show. The West End cast did not disappoint. The Irish accents were (not surprisingly) a bit thicker over here, but the performances were top notch. The leads had great chemistry and the full
cast delivered strong performances and top-notch musical abilities. The joy of seeing a work for the second time is to catch the early moments which carry deeper resonance upon the conclusion – I was moved to tears quite early on, knowing how certain moments pay off later.
I look forward to the next West End Tuesday trip, and will check out more of the twofer venues to see what the comparable selection is like. Have you any good suggestions on good theatre deals in London or elsewhere?

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Get the Fawke out of here!

I had first learned of Guy Fawkes through V for Vendetta. The original comic, published by Vertigo, the more mature label of DC Comics.

20131110-202722.jpgWritten by Alan Moore, this was his big follow up to Watchmen, and I remember reading it at the time and being a bit on the confused and disappointed side (will need to re-evaluate given my new locale). It was very British and a bit more challenging and mature than the super heroics of Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. The movie adaptation was interesting if for nothing else, seeing Hugo Weaving take on a lead role post-Matrix.
Guy Fawkes Day is the 5th of November, and commemorates a foiled assassination plot by a group of militants. Guy was the bomb expert who was caught by the British and eventually tortured to give up his mates then executed, head on a spike as the Brits do. To celebrate the survival of the King, the holiday was created and fireworks displays are held.

20131110-202836.jpgOur office park held one this week as part of its ‘Enjoy Work‘ betterment campaign and it was pretty impressive. A group of us hung out with some beers (natch) and enjoyed the display. Something fun about seeing stuff explode over your office.

A couple of things I find interesting:
– there are full-on fireworks stores here in London, open year round. Who knew?
– even though the holiday is on the 5th, fireworks are displayed the entire week on and off. It’s like living in a war zone. Very different than the US – after July 4, we’re pretty much done

– people have no problem bringing said fireworks into the public park and shooting them off, brining the kiddies along. Lucy and Ronnie actually loved these on our walk, watching each bottle rocket shoot up and explode
Overall, a fun little holiday, next year will seek out some bigger displays and see how big a blow out the Brits can deliver – maybe check out how they do it in Lewes.
Side note: every time I see the ‘Enjoy Work’ slogan at work, I can’t shake the phrase ‘Work Sets You Free’ out of my head. Yeesh.

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English Opera at an English Pub

20131101-203929.jpgTo celebrate my first week in London, I did what any expat would do – see a show. But not on the West End and not a splashy musical. I had the opportunity to see a press performance of an English language version of La Traviata at The King’s Head Theatre in Islington, a lovely neighborhood in the North of London. An old friend Michael had introduced me to a new friend Natalie, and she invited me to join. The show was put on by the Opera Up Close company, and they mean it when they say up close. The theatre is situated behind the pub, and holds maybe 60 people. We sat in the front row – our toes literally touched the stage.
The company became well known with an English version of La Boheme which went on to win an Oliver award. As an entry point into opera, and as a moving piece in its own right, I found La Traviata to be a lovely piece of theatre. I’ve been to only a few operas, with musicals more my thing. It took me through the first song to really get into it, getting used to every moment sung including the entrances and (usually protracted) exits. The story is simple – Violetta, a “fallen woman,” sacrifices her own happiness for the sake of her lover’s family and future. The setting is the prohibition, with tuxedos and clapper dresses in full effect, and the small stage was versatile for the few set configurations needed.

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They have a rotating cast, so I cant be sure which actors were in the roles, but they were all top notch. Violetta and her lover Alfredo had stunning and powerful voices – Violetta admirably singing several passages lying down or fully on her back. The trio of musicians deftly handled the score.
I highly recommend checking out the production. At 10-25 quid, it’s a good deal, and there are no bad seats in the house. There will be a new production of Die Fledermaus in December and I will definitely be attending.
Ever been to an opera in English? What did you think?

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