Bulldog Sunday (no BS) at Kensington Gardens

I finally got a chance to take the dogs on a long run this morning to Kensington Gardens. Less than a mile from house, Kensington Gardens is the western part of Hyde Park, the Central Park of London. So named as they are the gardens around Kensington Palace. I’ve always liked Kensington side of Hyde Park, as there are great running paths and the trees make the park seem quite different in winter or summer – the leaf-less trees open up the park in the winter, and create great foliage-filled canopies in summer.

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Running selfie in Kensington Gardens Summer 2013

Running selfie in Kensington Gardens Summer 2013

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Most of the trees are still bare this time of year, but some flowers are fighting their way out as spring isnt too far away, and we’ve been deluged with water which must be helping the early flowering.IMG_4157
As we hit the inside of the park, we stumbled upon a not-so-random gathering – of bulldogs, lots and lots of bulldogs. On the first Sunday of every month, bulldog owners from London meet up and share information about the breed – and let their little babies run and play together. It drew quite a crowd as the sight of about 30 or so of the little guys snorting and cavorting is quite humorous.

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Turns out the group has been meeting every Sunday for the past 6 years – and during the summer can get up to 60 dogs per meet-up.

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Lucy felt quite tall amongst the crowd of bulldogs and had a blast meeting the little guys… there was a wide mix of breeds and types. Ronnie stayed on leash and didn’t quite to know what to make of it. In all, a fun visit to the park on a lovely Sunday morning.

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March 2, 2014 · 6:21 pm

Some Fun in Funcheal (Portugal)

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I decided to get out of London for a quick weekend, to catch some sun and relaxation before the mad dash to the end of the year. I was hoping to accumulate enough miles to make 1K this year, but a mess up on another flight has put it out of reach this year. I wanted to go as far as I could without leaving Europe, get some sun, spend less than 250£ on airfare, and ideally visit a country I had never been to. The Portuguese island of Madeira, with the main city of Funcheal, fit the bill.

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I flew TAP Portugal for the first time, and I liked the attendants cute lime green and magenta outfits, and the safety video starring actual passengers reading the lines (very cute, surprised I haven’t seen it ripped off). A quick 4 hours from Heathrow and I landed – the airport is built on the side of the mountain, with the runway propped up on huge columns, originally over the sea, now over landfill. I’m glad I only learned of this construction until after I landed.

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Funchal is a port city at the base of a mountain range. The most interesting part of the city for me was the old section. I spent most of the day time there, with its charming streets, including Rua de Santa Maria, which had a lovely gallery and the doors were all painted with different designs.

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The weather was a bit overcast so I didn’t get an opportunity to take the cable car ride up to the top of the mountains, which is a highlight of the city. I had on day of solid sun – I would recommend coming back when you have definite good weather as there isn’t as much to do in the rainy weather.
I stayed in the Residences at Porto Mare, to the west of the old town and city center where the action is. I had a full apartment, which was quite nice, and if I was staying longer would be a good deal with the full kitchenette. I only ate breakfast there, but the buffet was well presented, with all the usuals, including an omelet bar and lots of fresh fruit. The spa was mediocre – even with a facial treatment (which was a challenge as the clinician couldn’t explain what she was using), they charged extra to use the steam room/sauna which were tiny.
As it was holiday time, the town really came alive at night. All throughout the town were hung different electric light designs, creating a very festive atmosphere.

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I had a few good meals – Tasca Literara Dona Joana on Rua de Santa Maria was a nice spot for tapas, mostly good, slightly inconsistent. A pianist played a nice selection of ballads and show tunes as accompaniment. Taverna Da Esquina is a great fish restaurant with outside seating in the street as well as a cool room in the back. I had parrot fish for the first time, and I recommend Espada-com-banana – a local fish dish prepared with the banana sauce.
One of my favorite things to do when travelling is go horseback riding. I checked on Tripadvisor, and the top rated ‘Attraction’ was riding with Quinto do Riancho. For a very reasonable price, I was picked up (and taken back) by Paulo, and taken on a 2.5 hour ride . As it was a little off-season, I had the ride to myself. I took easy with a slow pace and took in the scenery – all in all a very relaxing ride.

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Madeira is known for its sweet wines – port wine originally comes from Portugal (get it… port – Portugal.. this was news to me). I bought a few bottles of the local wine – the most popular brand was Blandy’s – they have a fun wine lodge and store (don’t buy the wine at the factory store, its cheaper in the smaller bodegas in the town). I have yet to open mine up.. I look forward to doing so soon.
In all, Madeira was a reasonably priced excursion from London, definitely on the lower-key side, which is what I was looking for. While not in any rush to go back, for a quick trip for calm sun, I’d definitely consider a summer hop over when the London grey gets to be too much.

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January 1, 2014 · 7:38 pm

Find Me a Flat, Stat! (Part 3 – Conclusion)

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So to remind you – I narrowed down my neighborhood to Holland Park, Notting Hill and Kensington. The key aspects I was looking for was close to parks for the dogs, close to fun on weekends, and manageable commute to work.
Before looking at actual flats, I spent a fair bit of time looking at flats online. There are a few good sites – rightmove.co.uk has great pictures and is fairly easy to use, and Foxtons is one of the larger agencies with lots of listings. What I used most though was an app called Zoopla.
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The app has the standard search parameters along with a text box so I could put in specifics – but I quickly learned there were a few tricks… “garden” means backyard and a “mews” house is one of the small homes down a side street. “Communal gardens” were tricky, as there are lots of rules with them even if you have access, a common one being no dogs allowed, and very likely no dogs allowed off-leash. “Reception” rooms are basically living rooms, and “en suite” meant a private bathroom.
The company does a great job in helping you relocate, and they hooked me up with a guide named Erryl Tudor. Erryl is a nice Australian gent, and he and his wife wrote a book on moving to London, so I was in pretty good hands. The best thing about Erryl was that he was paid on a day rate basis, and his only job was to set up the appointments, take me to them and advise me – he had no financial interest in any of it, which made him a great resource. I had three days with Erryl set aside, and he would pull together the viewings based on my criteria.
I had done some research on my own, but the challenge I had was that the pet policies were not searchable on line, so many of the places I liked in the end were not going to work. The one set of homes I was interested in were a few on a particular street in Holland Park – Hippodrome Mews. There were a few of these mews homes that had been sitting available on line – and I took a walk down the block in my earlier exploration and had a good vibe about it. A few of these allowed pets, so they were added to the list of homes we looked at.
On the first day, we started off nice and early in Notting Hill and headed out to see our first flat – up on the third floor of an older building. This wasnt going to work – while the dogs are in good shape now, in a few years they might not be able to take stairs as easily. We had a few in Bayswater, which I wasn’t really that interested in.. and we saw an amazing flat on Holland Park Ave, a few doors down from the Ukranian Embassy, and down the block from where Richard Branson bought two houses and combined them into one stellar mansion. This flat was fairly spectacular – on the high end of my price range, and not quite enough space for the dogs.. but if it was just me this would have been an amazing place, with a very posh address.
We also checked out a few mews homes in Notting Hill. Lurot Brand is a real estate agency which specializes in mews homes, and one of their brokers took us to several in Notting Hill and Kensington Gardens. Mews homes are interesting in that they are converted carriage houses. The mews homes are generally around on the backs of the grand mansion blocks or row houses. Each mews usually has two to three floors, a roof deck or terrace, and some have garages or extra storage. Given the combo of outdoor space and overall size, I was quickly gravitating to this type of home.

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Towards the end of the day, we saw the first of the Hippodrome Mews homes – this was a three level home, with the kitchen and reception area on the bottom floor, and the garage converted into a storage area. The two bedrooms were on the second floor, with a dressing room in lieu of actual closets – this was another facet to get used to, no closet space, everyone uses wardrobes to store clothing (and few go to Narnia unfortunately). The top floor had a terrace, with a view of the tree-tops of the park across the street. I got a good vibe off of this place, and there were two more on this street that were available which we would view the following day.

On the second day, we continued to look at places throughout Notting Hill and Kensington – one was a block north of Kensington Gardens, with a grand room – but no outdoor space. Another had not one but two Murphy beds in the same room – very strange. We also got into see the other Hippodrome Mews homes – one had a full garage, and the other fronted the Main Street and the interior street, but both also looked out across into the other mews – a strange lack of privacy.
On both days we had lunch at Daylesford Organic Cafe which brings in (virtually) all of its produce and meat from its farm out in the country. They have a great lunch special of three salads, with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and meats.

20131216-211458.jpg I highly recommend a visit, and taking home some of the great food and produce they sell.

Erryl continued to take me to a variety of flats, including one actually on the famous Portobello Road, home of the open air market and yearly carnival. This one was a second floor walk-up with a roof terrace and two large bedrooms – set over a corner tea/hookah joint. If I was 25, dog-less and straight, this would have been a killer pad – being none of those things, it didn’t work.
Having seen about 30 places as the second day was drawing to a close, we made a return trip to the first Hippodrome Mews, measuring tape in hand. The floors were connected by a small circular staircase, and in order to get my California King bed into the home, we would need to go through the second story window – with a bit of a squeeze, it would fit. It seems that as doorways and stairwells are narrow in London, all sorts of moving techniques are common place here – from cranes, to pulleys to conveyor belts through open windows.

At the end of the visit, we prepared an offer in the car around the block, and by the time I got back to my office Erryl sent it to the landlord. After some back and forth about some needed repairs, we had a deal. I didn’t even set out on the third day I had with Erryl, as we had secured the new place. In the beginning of January, the London Levine pack will have a new place to call home – Hippodrome Mews, Holland Park, London. When will we throw the housewarming party?

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Tipping Some Back at Tishbi

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Today we took a trip to the Tishbi winery about an hour north of where my folks live. A lovely young woman named Edom took us on a tour.

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The Tishbi gallery was founded in 1882. Baron de Rothschild acquired land throughout the area, and hired Michael Tishbi (great-grandfather of the current owners), to plant vineyards.

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The estate produces several series of wines, and each barrel has 300 liters and at 750 ml bottles, each barrel generates about 400 bottles – the winery produces approximately 1 million bottles a year. They use French and American oak – the French is used for the reserve wines (natch).

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For 40 NIS each, we did a wine and chocolate tasting, going through about 7 different varieties (I lost count, I wasn’t spitting as much as I was swallowing). The Shiraz was our favorite, followed by the dessert wine.

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After the wine tasting we had lunch at the cafe. The family shared a generous cheese plate (I introduced the nephew in law to Roquefort and Camembert), delicious fettuccine with mushrooms, ravioli in cream sauce and fish and chips.

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Next we took a short trip into Zichron Ya’akov, a small town known for its vineyards and lovely pedestrian mall. Lined with interesting shops and boutiques, this was a fun place to look for atypical gifts and curios. One shop was the Goren Sculpture featuring the works of Danny Goren.

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Danny’s story of overcoming MS and fulfilling his dream of becoming an artist was inspiring and my sister and I both bought a few items – I got a small bowl perfect for teaspoons and tea bags (now necessary with the increased tea
consumption).

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Last stop was poking my head into the synagogue named after the father of the Baron – Ohel Ya’akov.

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In addition to beautiful stain glass windows, the ceiling was painted with stars, reminiscent of the stars in the dream of the Biblical Ya’akov (Jacob).
In all, a fun filled day in the north, with fun sights and good wine, and a good memento to come home with.

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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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