London–Day 4: Churchill, a ghostcam, and pickety-boo

Natl Museum entrance
National Gallery courtyard

Well, Duncan and Ellen had to go back to work today, which means Dave and I were on our own navigating London. It may be slower than the Tube, but you can’t beat the top of a double-decker bus for great sightseeing. There is no way on Earth I could have figured out which bus to take because it is truly the most complicated transit system I’ve ever encountered, but Dave got us everywhere we wanted to go.

We started out at the National Gallery, which is free! Unfortunately because of a strike, the museum was forced to make do with volunteers and had to close off the wing housing pieces from the later Renaissance and Rococo, the ones Dave was keenest to see. But I’ll never turn down an opportunity to see Impressionists. I got to rediscover Théo van Rysselberghe and saw one of my favorite Monets, as well as several other lovely pieces.

Our next stop turned out to be a much longer one than we thought it would. Who knew we would spend over two hours in Churchill’s underground war rooms? Of course it was connected to a whole museum devoted to this adored statesman, and it was quite extensive. Several upper-level officers, code-breakers, Morse code readers, and personal secretaries spent day after day underground, never seeing sunlight. In fact everyone was required to spend a few minutes under the sun lamp for health reasons. One woman fell asleep under the lamp and suffered quite a sunburn. There was a sign posted daily below ground to let them know what the weather was like above. The sign that read “Windy” however, came to signify the frequent air raids. Another tidbit: old Winston was a talented and prolific painter. He also took two baths a day and drank Johnny in London phone booth

We arrived at Westminster Abbey around 3:35 but couldn’t find an open entrance or anywhere to purchase tickets for a tour. Apparently, they don’t admit anyone after 3:30, although they don’t close until 4:30. So we made plans to get an early start on Tuesday. Walking among the abbey across from the Houses of Parliament, I heard an American voice declare to his companion, “It’s just more tall, old buildings!”

Walking along the Thames we spotted The Rising Tide‘s four horses of the apocalypse from the other side, only now they appeared to be wading in the water.

I didn’t actually make a phone call from one of London’s iconic phone booths, but I still got Dave to take a photo of me in one.

Morpeth's ghostcamAround 4:00 we were tired and decided to fortify ourselves at Morpeth’s pub, where the floor above was supposed to have a lovely view of the Thames and the basement was haunted. A private party prevented us from checking out the view, but the ghostcam allowed us to keep tabs on any paranormal activity that might be happening below the pub.

That night Duncan ordered Indian food online and had it delivered. (What we call “takeout” in the States is called “takeaway” here. In fact, these crazy Brits have a different word for just about everything. I already knew many common ones, like “loo,” but there’s so much more! Sidewalks are referred to as pavement. Exit signs say “Way out.” Someone who’s really upset is gutted. And my favorite is a fun way to say okay: pickety-boo. I haven’t actually heard that one yet, but Ellen swears her colleagues use it all the time. I’m going to do my best to promote its usage back home. How fun will that be? Let’s start a campaign!

London–Day 3: Brick Lane, a moss-covered lorrie, and a boat called Audacity

Brick Lane Cereal Killer

We took the overground rail to London’s East End, which is buzzing on Sunday afternoon. We started at the beigel place, and I do mean “beigel” because that’s how it’s spelled in London. One might expect an extra “l” or even a wayward “u” from Brits, but for some reason, the round, chewy staple of New York delis is spelled with an “i” in London. We also saw a line out the door of the popular new eatery, Cereal Killer Cafe, which actually serves little boxes of cereal.

Brick Lane marketSpitalfields Market is a huge indoor marketplace where you can buy inexpensive scarves, unusual earrings, hot samosas, funny T-shirts, handmade crafts, and a range of cheap, plastic items that you could get lots of places. Of note was the vendor whose truck was covered with moss. I didn’t even see what he was selling, but it definitely stood out. And outside the market toward Brick Lane are temporary booths selling vinyl LP’s, fruit drinks, and every kind of ethnic food you can imagine.

Brick Lane musician & dancersBrick Lane itself is teeming with local color. A reggae musician set up a small performing area for himself, prompting some elderly folks to move to the beat.

We dove into Brick Lane Books and found a hysterical fake children’s book and some gorgeous post cards. After braving the crowds in the food tent, we managed to wedge ourselves into a bit of available space at one of the few picnic tables out back so that we could eat lunch sitting down.

Brick Lane Coffee lego straw holderI bought a matted photo of toppling phone booths and sampled four different mouth-watering flavored chocolates, including  liquid sea salt caramel and orange vodka. We relaxed a bit with a latte at Brick Lane Coffee, where straws and lids are stored in a container made of legos.

We strolled along the Regent’s Canal to get back to home base at Duncan and Ellen’s, where graceful willows hung over  uniquely decorated boats that proudly displayed their names–names such as Scrumpy, the Hedgehog, and Audacity.

Regent's Canal willows

As we left the East End, we stopped off at a farmer’s market to get salad fixings for dinner. Then after a light supper back at the mews, we headed into our evening in West End’s theater district, where we saw a fabulous show called Showstoppers! (The exclamation point is part of the name.) It’s musical improv, in which the director asks the audience to offer suggestions for a premise that the actors can build a story around. Given the setting of a haunted brothel, the six players were instructed to sing and dance in particular styles that were shouted out, including The Lion King, Once, Grease, and Carousel. All of them were quick on their feet, had wonderful singing voices, and did an amazing job of pulling off a funny and engaging musical on the spot. I highly recommend it to anyone. If I lived here, I would probably see it again and again, since each night will be a different experience.

Brick Lane button people
the button people

And judging by what we saw in the East End, every visit there is likely to offer new surprises. We’re taking a guided walking art tour there on Wednesday…

London–Day 2: Windsor Castle & some rugby

windsor panorama
panoramic view of Windsor Castle

Ellen had gotten us tickets to Windsor Castle in advance, which was very smart. It allowed us to bypass the long queue of people who were buying their tickets onsite. But it still took a while to get through security, which made us late for our tour of the great kitchen. The tour had already begun, but we were welcome to come back in 45 minutes for the next one, which was fine, as there was a lot to see.

The doll house was an amazing array of precisely created miniatures, and the two “French dolls” that had been given to the princesses circa 1940 had an extensive wardrobe made by top fashion designers of the day, including a real ermine coat. One tween remarked to her companion, “Those dolls were more spoiled than any human girls!” Although I’m sure the princesses themselves did not suffer for lack of lovely frocks.

Our guide was delightful and clearly loved her job. She knew more than anyone should have to know about the castle andwindsor turret the royal family. We were not allowed to snap photos in the kitchen or in any of the special rooms we toured, so I had to content myself with outdoor pics. Because of the current celebration commemorating Queen Elizabeth reigning longer than any of her predecessors, there was a special exhibit, and more of the residence was open for view. We saw the state apartments, St. George’s chapel, the grand dining hall, and so many rooms I couldn’t possibly remember them all. The most curious one was the king’s bed chamber, which indeed featured a bed with elaborate purple and gold curtains, but it was not actually where the king ever slept. It was where he went to after he awoke for the official rising ceremony. Imagine having such pageantry before you’ve even had your first morning coffee…

In what used to be the building where the royal fire engine was housed is now a gift shop with royal jams, commemorative trays, and furry slippers, all with big price tags, as well as royal guard teddy bears that are priced at £250.00. You could even buy a royal corgi iPad cover. Even the smallest items were beyond the budgets of most tourists, with small fabric crown Christmas ornaments going for the equivalent of $22. I did splurge on a double-decker bus fridge magnet for my friend, Evey, but that was the extent of my shopping spree.

windsor castle pubAfter touring the castle, we launched on the famous “long walk” trod by many state visitors over the centuries that was a straight path that was a five-mile round trip to the Thames. But my feet were tired, so I detoured to the Windsor Castle pub, where I had a pint and watched a rugby match on the telly while I waited for the others to join me. From the pub’s parking lot, a wedding party crossed the busy street to the wooded park area that bordered the pathway to take wedding photos. I don’t know where they had the ceremony though.

We were hungry and couldn’t find the eatery that had been recommended, so we dove into a place and took our chances. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This time it didn’t.

The last stop of the day was at a cute little neighborhood pub where we drank some beer, watched Wales play England on the big screen TV with a few regulars, and contributed to the good-natured banter around the question of how much longer the human race would survive.What better way to end the day?

London–Day 1: Big Ben, steak pie, and a rose called Nostalgia

Big Ben at night
Big Ben at night

The Tube took us right from Heathrow (Zone 6) to the Green Park station (Zone 1). Since we were on it from its starting point, we got seats, which was good because we were toting luggage and made 16 stops on the Piccadilly Line, where Duncan was kind enough to meet us at the station so we wouldn’t get lost transferring to the Jubilee Line, which took us to north London where our friends and hosts live.

It was just a few blocks to their mews house where we dropped off luggage before venturing out into the immediate environs. We walked up Primrose Hill, which, as the highest point in London, afforded us some lovely views. Then we walked around Regent’s Park, which includes Queen Mary’s Garden, a lovely spot with several varieties’ of roses, all with wonderful names: Ingrid Bergman, Dawn Chorus, Adriana, Ice Cream, Valentine Heart, and–my personal favorite–Nostalgia.

As excited as I was to be walking around London, my loss of sleep hit me rather suddenly around one in the afternoon–not surprising since my body thought it was 5 am and I hadn’t slept in 22 hours. We hopped on a bus after a few false starts, and I plopped into bed for a nice long nap.

Rising Tide girlI awoke shortly before 5 pm, took a quick shower and headed out with Dave and Duncan to meet Ellen at Vauxhall, close to the site where famous underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor is exhibiting his piece “The Rising Tide.” I’m pretty sure that Taylor doesn’t actually sculpt while he himself is underwater, but it didn’t really clarify that point. The piece is essentially the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the form of oil rigs. It’s a  political comment on the impact of fossil fuels, strategically located within sight of the Houses of Parliament. Because it was low tide, the figures were completely exposed and firmly on land. Despite the clear request that the artwork be viewed from the walkway, everyone passed beyond the gate and was moving among the four horses taking photos–us included. I can’t say that I loved the piece, but it was certainly interesting, and the detail was impressive down to the sandals on the little girl atop one of the horses. To learn more, read this piece from the Guardian:

steak pie @ Duchess of WalesThe walk along the river and across the Westminster Bridge Street provided many opportunities to capture Big Ben from different angles. And as dusk gave way to evening, the lights imparted a beautiful glow to the Houses of Parliament and the surrounding buildings.

We had a traditional English meal in the Rudyard Kipling Dining Room that was part of a larger establishment called The Duchess of Wales. My steak pie and mashed potatoes was delicious, and the London lager on tap was perfect. The greens were an odd mixture of peas, green beans, and kale but were perfectly edible. Dave adored the vegetarian gravy that accompanied his vegetable pie and even coaxed our charming waitress wearing polka dots to bring him more.

A perfect first day in merry old England.


Getting to London

I defy you to find I (as in a capital i) on this map.

(This was written on the plane from SF to London on 9/24, but I couldn’t post it until the next day.)

I can now attest to the fact that one can go all the way from north Berkeley to the airport via BART in under an hour and a half. I cannot confirm that money was well spent on so-called improvements to decrease the noise in the transbay tube, however. Its deafening screeches are still painful.

While circling back round the small city that is the San Francisco International airport on the AirTrain, I mentally noted our departure times, the names of the various terminals, and our ensuing adventures when things did not go smoothly, but now I think I prefer to sum it up this way: “Terminal 1” looks identical to “Terminal I” on an itinerary. What I want to know is why would one use a mixture of numbers and letters to designate terminals?

We left the house at 9:30 am, yet had just enough time to grab lunch at the airport version of Il Fornaio before boarding for our 12:55 flight. Thank god we didn’t have an early morning departure…

Am delighted with the size of my new-ish laptop as it fits compactly in the little soft, inexpensive, and reasonably priced case that I ordered online (before I vowed to buy local). Unfortunately I was unable to locate said case before my trip abroad—I love the way those words look together  trip abroad—leaving me with the option of stuffing it into the day-pack I was bringing along for day trips or using the heftier case that housed my old laptop, which is much larger and heavier but would offer better protection. So I’m lugging around my cute little laptop in the dinosaur case. The  laptop also fits nicely on the fold-down tray-table with room to spare on each side. However because the person in front of me is reclined fully, I cannot tilt the screen back enough to read my text very well. Ah, the sacrifices we make as writers.

I’ve been enjoying the occasional glimpse of the monitor showing our progress. We’re now over Greenland, have covered 5413 miles, and are currently traveling at a speed of 942 mph. (Just thought you’d like to know.) Oh, wait, make that 5447 miles ad 944 mph, yet that little white outline of a plane looks so still on the monitor.

I can hardly believe I am going to London. The land of Dickens, Beef Wellington, and the Beatles. Of course when we arrive it will be just past daybreak for the local Brits but my body will think it’s midnight. So that should be interesting. I wonder if we will be served breakfast, in deference to our destination, or dinner, according to our stomachs.

And I wonder if our cat Cartwheel has figured out that we’ve gone, or if he’s just as happy with the housesitter. Better not to think too much about it…2011-10-30 09.55.31


I totally shop local. Except when I don’t.


I’ve been to many, many Solano Strolls, but among the fixtures I see every year are always one or two booths that I’m unfamiliar with. This year I looked past the solar panel people, ignored the massage therapists, and even resisted those delicious high-end vinegars and oils. But I stopped at a booth promising free tote bags–even though we have more than we can use already–because it had a sign that read “Thank you for shopping local.” I try to buy locally when I can, but I don’t always know if a product is local, so I was curious how this organization would assist in that endeavor.

The first postcard I was handed listed the reasons why one should buy local. Although I knew most of them, this one caught my attention:

For every $100 you spend at one of our local businesses, $68 will stay in the community. What happens when you spend that same $100 at a national chain? Only $43 stays in the community.

I’m not sure how arrived at those figures, but I found them interesting. I tried to imagine someone tracking a particular dollar bill from, say, Target versus a dollar spent at Pegasus Books and got lost almost immediately myself. But it makes sense that if I want to support California and create a smaller carbon footprint, I should pay attention to where my dollars go.pegasus books

Through Localwise, I can get recommendations for local businesses from community members. (Or I could if their website was up and working.) Some of the examples on the postcard include web designers, bankers, and bookkeepers. So I thought about it, and in each of those cases, we are definitely supporting local folks. Dave met the guy who is redesigning our business website at the dog park. Our money is in USE credit union, which serves mainly but is not limited to California university and state employees. And our bookkeeper, Susan, lives in nearby Emeryville and comes to our house/business to do our books, so that’s pretty darn local.

Lately, we’ve been looking closely at where our dollars go because they seem to be going rather quickly in general. So I’ve been keeping track of every penny spent so that we can analyze it at some point and hopefully figure out a way to spend less of it. Although we are only in week two of our budget experiment, I can already tell you this: except for expenses surrounding our daughter in Baltimore (college tuition, room & board, airfare home), most of our dollars are spent right here in Berkeley at local businesses.

no-amazonLong ago I swore that I’d never buy anything from Amazon, and I made a recent pledge not to order anything online if I could get it at a brick and mortar store. (Okay, it was only a month or so ago that I bought a phone case online, but I swear that’s going to be the last thing.) Of course I own an iPhone, which technically is a local company since it’s only an hour away, but I know it’s anything but a mom and pop operation. So I guess that doesn’t fit in with the whole buy-local mentality…

But we are avid theater goers, which means we’re supporting the arts in Berkeley, San Francisco, El Cerrito, and Oakland. And I buy books at Pegasus and Books, Inc., which are both in Berkeley, and at Book Passage in Corte Madera (just across the San Rafael bridge, so still pretty local). About half of our groceries (all the produce) comes from Monterey Market (in Berkeley, despite the name), while the other half comes mostly from Safeway (locally started but huge and national) and Trader Joe’s (definitely national, but it has a local feel, and the checkers there are so nice!) Of course it gets complicated when you start to consider where those local businesses get their stock from. A lot of produce at Monterey Market comes from nearby corn flakesfarms, but of course I’m lucky enough to live in a place where veggies and fruits can grow all year long.

Oh god, I just realized that my corn flakes are Kellogg’s, which is a huge company. And my laptop is a Dell, and I don’t even know where their headquarters is or where their parts are made. Sigh.

I guess we just do what we can do. I will continue to record all of our purchases and make a point of noting whether or not they’re local. And I will report back.

Kind Berkeley cop made me smile

parking vehicleI arrived a block away from the library just before noon for my weekly date with Playreaders. When I tried to use my brand new debit card, the parking machine wouldn’t accept it. I made three attempts, but someone was behind me waiting, so I let him go ahead of me. It worked fine for him, which led me to believe it was my debit card that was the problem. I had dollar bills, but the machine accepted only coins or cards. I contemplated my situation for a few moments and decided to risk it since there was no time to walk up to one of Shattuck Avenue’s businesses to get change for my bills. I didn’t have enough coins to cover the hour I needed, but I figured it was better to buy a pass that would expire rather than not pay anything at all. I fed the machine what I had, which gave me only 15 minutes. Then I went to the library and read The Gin Game with my fellow Playreaders.

Returning to my parking spot afterward, I saw the parking meter vehicle stopped next to my car. I jogged the last bit, hoping to prevent the officer from writing a citation. He was speaking to a woman in a mini Cooper parked in front of me until he saw me and asked if the Honda was my car. I sheepishly admitted that it was. He almost laughed as he said it was way over time, but if I went to the machine then and bought the minimum  ($.35), he wouldn’t write me a ticket. I told him about the difficulty I had using my card, so he tried on my behalf, without success. Then he used his own card to see if the machine was broken. It wasn’t. I asked if he had change for a dollar bill, but he didn’t. I offered to give him the whole dollar bill to put toward the parking fee, but he wasn’t allowed to accept fees directly. I looked at him helplessly and sighed. He smiled and told me to forget about it. I thanked him profusely and jumped in my car.

I couldn’t believe it! I should have gotten that ticket, but the officer gave me a break. That positive interaction filled me with good will and sincerely gave me a better outlook on life. I didn’t even get his name, but I will remember his kind act. It’s nice to know that in these days of such high distrust in law enforcement that at least in my little corner of the world, cops can still be nice guys.

Tell It on Tuesday

TIOT logo

Stories can take such different forms. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and as an adult I’ve turned into a regular theater-goer. But I also love listening to good stories. This American Life and Serial are my favorite radio shows, and recently I’ve started downloading podcasts from Live from the Moth. Although I’ve enjoyed attending TMI, Gina Gold’s live storytelling event at which performers share intensely personal (and often hilarious) stories onstage, I was disappointed in their new venue in Oakland, which has overly bright lighting and poor sound. So to get my storytelling fix I tried out a newish Marsh offering: Tell It on Tuesday. Conveniently located (for me) in downtown Berkeley, it’s a pleasant way to spend a Tuesday evening.

It’s cabaret-style seating, and the bar serves a variety of beverages from fruit juice to cocktails. Hostesses Bridget Frederick and Rebecca Fisher introduce local talent that includes a musical guest who plays while people are settling in and getting drinks. The night I went, we were treated to smoky chanteuse Bekah Barnett.

Tim Ereneta
Tim Ereneta

The storytellers themselves represented a range of styles, providing an eclectic and entertaining mix. Tim Ereneta is a professional storyteller who ordinarily favors folk tales and fairy tales but shared a true story of his recent appearance at a storyteller conference. Poised and professional, he was my favorite of the night.

Nina G’s piece was titled “Going Beyond Inspiration,” and it relied mostly on her experience as the best-known stand-up comedian who stutters. (She frankly admits that she is perhaps the  only serious stutterer who chooses to make her living as a comic.) It was great to see someone live her dream and not be afraid of her circumstances interfering. She sees herself as an activist who lets the general public know that stuttering is not connected to intelligence and is only as debilitating as one allows it to be.

Theresa Donahoe is currently working on a full-length one-woman show and presented excerpts, which she titled “Confessions of a Late Bloomer.” Her humor was more in the realm of everyday thoughts and focused on sharing the person who she has become, shaped by her childhood. Barefoot and energetic, she embodied her own family members with gusto.

The most interesting offering was performed by Gary Walker, an actor who has added writing to his repertoire. Handsome and engaging, he recounts a seminal evening in a luxurious home in such an open, detailed, and matter-of-fact way that the reason he is there is unknown until he reveals it halfway through the performance with a calm deliberateness.

These are not children’s bedtime stories but lived moments that are sometimes poignant and often funny, shared in an intimate setting.  Catch the net show at the Marsh in Berkeley on September 29th.

See much theater? Why, yes, I do.


Recently Dave and I joined a throng of enthusiastic supporters to see Disclosure, written by my friend and fellow Playreader* Carol Lashof. Afterward a mutual friend of Carol’s asked my husband and me innocently, “Do you see much theater?” Dave sort of laughed and just looked at me. “Yes,” I answered without equivocation, “We see a lot of theater.”

Last year I saw an average of one play or staged reading per week. And if I really liked it, I probably wrote a review. (I’ve always figured there’s no reason to comment on either a bad or perfectly ordinary play.) But I’ve seen quite a bit of worthwhile theater recently and I just haven’t blogged about it. It’s gotten to the point where I see so many plays that by the time I get around to writing about one, I’ve seen two or three more.

It’s possible that I’m overdoing it.

Let’s see…the last theater post I penned was about CCCT’s rendition of The Sound of Music at the end of June. Since then, I’ve seen five professionally staged full-length plays; five staged readings at established Bay Area theaters; four different festivals, each consisting of several short works or excerpts of longer plays; and a couple of storytelling events. Mind you, this does not include literary readings or the comedy show I saw (W. Kamau Bell at the Berkeley Marsh). And I even squeezed in a few films during that period.

Forgive me for just providing some highlights.Stereotypo1-900x400_c

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Don Reed’s one-man show currently at the Berkeley Marsh, Stereotypo, in which he inhabits several characters who are all waiting their turn at the DMV. He’s a great talent and never disappoints.


  • The Revolutionists, Lauren Gunderson’s brilliant take on the French Revolution from a female perspective, is clever, funny, and insightful. I was lucky enough to see a staged reading at the Bay Area Playwright Festival. Watch for it when it gets a full production, which it must if there are theater gods.
pint-sized plays
A bear in a tutu opened this year’s festival.
  • If you Google Pint-sized Plays, you’ll probably find the competition in Wales. But SF has its own Pint-sized Play Festival that is a great evening of short pieces, all set in a bar. Specifically the bar at Pianofight, which is the newest hip venue for a variety of theater forms. To be included in the festival, each piece must present at least one actor imbibing a full pint of beer before it ends. How could it not be lots of fun? It’s an annual event, so you probably won’t get a chance to see this again until 2016.
  • Carol S. Lashof’s Disclosure is a smart, thought-provoking play that resists easy answers, delving into those frustratingly gray areas of love and parenting. It’s too late for you to catch this iteration by Those Women Productions, but I sense that this play has legs and might just pop up again. We can only hope.

*Playreaders is a marvelous free program at Berkeley’s central library downtown, at which a bunch of us sit around a table and read plays aloud at noon on Wednesdays. It is led by my favorite librarian, Debbie Carton.