Monthly Archives: May 2007

European Community

A couple of old friends from the days back in Flensburg came over to visit a couple of weekends back. I hadn’t seen Silke since 1997, when I popped up from work in Switzerland to see her in Heidelberg. Nicky I hadn’t seen since 1994 in Bad Oldesloe. So it was amazing to see them waiting for me by the fountain in Trafalgar Square. It was a sunny day, so we immediately hopped on the open-top London tour bus, saw a few sights, including my office overlooking Buckingham Palace Mews. Then in a fever of tourism, we took a round river trip, with historical and comedic commentary from a London geezer whose family had worked on the river for 10 generations. Then a stroll
around the world-famous shopping streets of London, before home. Later in the evening we met up in in Clapham for a taste of the genteel nightlife in those parts. All the time of course, reminiscing about times past and how none of us had changed in the slightest.

The next day we met up for some more shopping – Nicky especially was keen on this – before heading across to Portobello Road Market for some much-needed flea market browsing. It was a beautiful sunny day, and everything looked wonderful, silver glinting, brass shining like gold, colourful houses looking very expensive. Pausing only to grab a slice of pizza, we bussed back to the Albert Memorial, and napped for a couple of hours. Silke took some photos, Nicky ogled the men playing roller hockey, and I just phased out completely from pizza, sun and strolling.

Silke and Nicky had got hold of tickets for Spamalot for the evening. This proved to be as silly as you’d expect, and pretty good. They’d managed to weave a tortured narrative where none had existed in the film, and the numbers were all very enjoyable. My German guests were slightly shocked by the big number about how you had to have Jews to be successful in the West End, complete with illuminated Star of David – things are obviously still a bit sensitive over there.

After the show, and after we’d fought our way from the sweaty theatre catacombs out to the warren of the West End, we slurped back a couple of very nice cocktails in a quilted booth behind a beaded curtain, before tubing home.

Sunday was even sunnier, so I drove my guests, and Shuggie, Richmond Park, where we enjoyed a lovely lazy day of picnic, naps, reading, and trying to stop Shuggie raiding other people’s picnics – “cover up your hummus!”. It was a lovely weekend, all told. Fantastic to see Silke and Nick again after all this time, great to catch up, and interesting to wheel out my rusty Deutsch.

The day was so lazy that by the time we packed up, and I drove back and dropped them off at the tube station, and they got the Thameslink back to Luton Airport, they had missed their plane! Luckily, there was another plane 8 hours later from Stansted, so it all worked out fine.

Make The Incision

The Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Collection is open to the public and is a fantastic way of freaking yourself out, so where better to meet friends? Recently refurbished, it consists of several galleries, devoted to the body, instruments, diseases, oddities etc. I went along in February with my buddies Robin and Gren, as a way of actually spending some time with them. Gren brought along his son Art, which was a nice extra.

The first thing you see when you enter the museum is something that looks like a prop in a Clive Barker movie. It is the nervous system of a human, stuck to a wooden board. I was careful not to cut myself and drip blood on it, lest it start to regenerate and come back to life. And that was just the start. There’s too much to describe in full here, but a few
highlights were:

The drawers of medical instruments, each drawer labelled with the area of the body associated with it. As you opened each drawer, you generally had a sharp intake as you saw the various instruments. We opened one drawer marked ‘Female Genito-urinary’ (or something) and that was pretty gruesome, but you could see what they would do. Then we opened the
drawer marked ‘Male Genito-urinary’, and we (and the guys standing nearby) all had to close it quickly and walk gingerly away. You couldn’t imagine what the 18″ rod with the little claws on the end was for – until you saw the 18th-century ‘cartoon’ on the wall behind you, depicting an operation to crunch up and remove a gallstone via the male urethra, without anaesthetic. That’ll get you drinking enough water.

I was disappointed there was no drawer of ‘Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women‘, but then it’s probably best they don’t exist anywhere apart from the imagination of David Cronenberg.

Art was quite taken with the row of jars, each containing a foetus at a different stage of development, about 15 jars in all, on the bottom shelf, at toddler’s-eye level. It was an interesting sight to see Art standing, palms on the glass, face to face with a 9-month-old foetus.

Then we went for a sandwich.

Alright Once You Get To Know Him

I’ve met people who I instantly don’t like. This could be judgmental of me – but in the end, I believe life is too short to bother making an effort with someone who clearly isn’t making an effort with me.

I’ve met people who I instantly don’t like. Sometimes these people share a mutual friend with me. This mutual friend may say, “Oh Matthew he’s not so bad”.

“Not so bad”?”

“Yes, he’s alright once you get to know him”

“How long will that take? Only “alright”? Are you telling me that you stuck with it, and struggled to find someone worth knowing inside this person, and when you did, he was only “alright”?”

Call me a victim of today’s modern new-fangled instant-access instant-gratification culture, but if I need to make an effort to see something likeable about someone, and when I do the rewards are nowhere near the amount of effort I’ve made, then it ain’t worth it, is it? As I said before, life’s too short.

This pointless rant was brought to you in conjunction with the molecule caffeine, a slight headache, fatigue, and people.

LA Story 4 – Wednesday 28 March – The Pacific

Cassie had to work, so I tagged along, planning to pop off for lunch and shopping later. It was interesting to see the workings of a modern independent film company, with several widescreen Macs around the place, hard drives scattered willy-nilly, Sharpie-scribbled DVDs coating every surface, and for some reason, large (and surely extraterrestrial) insects in jars of formaldehyde.

After a small mishap with a film directors swimming pool, some time with a hairdryer was required. We went for lunch at the Broadway Grill by the 3rd street Promenade, where I had one of my favourite things I remember from Pittsburgh – a Ruben sandwich. Too much salt beef, toasted rye bread, kraut, fries, and ketchup. Yum. After that, Cassie had to get back to work, so she dropped me off in Santa Monica where I did some shopping, and wandering. I walked down onto the beach to get a good look at the Pacific. Try and get a feel for it, you know. It’s quite big.

After making my way back up to dry land (no shortage of that round here), I stopped for a rest and a pint at Ye Olde Kings Hedddddeee – a restaurant and bar in Santa Monica, within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Next door is an Anglophile shop selling packets of PG Tips for $15, and Marmite for $10. Lunacy.

The bar itself served a wide range of badly poured European lagers, including Harp, FFS. I had the worst, flattest pint of Heineken I’ve ever had – serve me right of course for wanting to drink Heineken, but I just wanted something sharp, cold and fizzy to sit in the sun with. Well, it was quite cold, at least.

Just to ensure I’ll never go there again, the place was host to a variety of boorish Australians and the sort of ex-pats who can’t resist telling you what a great time they’re having…

“Ah yeah, the birds love the accent”
“Innit, you can be yourself here!”

After the crapness of Yee Oldee Kinggsssseeess Heedeededededede, it was nice to get a decent beer in the evening in the Red Lion, a German bar with signs up saying Munich 4000 miles etc. We met Cassie’s pals Jacqueline and Chandra, who were very nice indeed. I hope to see them both again. I noticed that they were interested in meeting me – “So this is Petty…nice to meet you!”. Don’t know what that was all about.

LA Story 3 – Tuesday 27 March – First Impressions

During my all-too-short stay in LA with Cassie, we took Gordon (named after Dexter Gordon, and not after the character in Jilted John’s song, sadly) several times to Silverlake Dog Park.

We don’t really have these in the UK, but it is a fenced-off area for dogs to run, meet, socialize, chat, and swap human-handling tips, while the humans form cliques based on social class, dog breed, dog-handling technique and the time of day they visit the park. All mod cons available – water tap for thirsty dogs, benches and canopies for rest and shelter from the sun, and a selection of metal bowls, tennis balls, and of course shovels. It all seemed very well run, if a little dusty – all the grass had long since died, leaving a scorched Mars-scape which was fine, except when the wind went mad one day later in the week. I was sneezing orange for hours.

No such problems today though. After the clear blue (yes, blue, an aberration in LA, so I’m told) skies that greeted me, today’s skies were leaden and bulging, and eventually belched forth a rain storm of the kind that has people in the UK standing by the window muttering, “Bloody hell…”. This continued for a good while, forcing us to relax around the apartment, listening to Yo La Tengo and Calexico, who have grown on me as a result.

Later on, when the heavens closed, we went for sushi, sashimi, sake and, er, tempura, at an unassuming little place on a parking lot. Small and cramped, but the food was delicious, and another first, my first sake, was very welcome.

Author’s Note: For some reason, I couldn’t think of the word ‘tempura’. I kept thinking the word I wanted began with ‘v’, and that meant I kept thinking of Ventnor.

LA Story 2 – Monday 26 March – Arrivals

After taking off from SF airport, I was treated to my first view of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a lot like Brighton in the season. Then as we turned inland, I saw the great chessboard of roads and fields, shades of orange and brown marking the squares. I was reminded of the song Big Country (scroll down on that page) by Talking Heads. Not much I recognised, sadly. I took photographs of distinctive shapes to compare with Google Earth or Google Maps, but looking at them now I can’t spot anything.

When we landed at LAX I was looking forward to finding a bathroom and freshening up before collecting my suitcase and emerging to meet Cassie, my friend and host. But this was not to be, because on domestic flights you don’t need to get your baggage first – people meeting you can wait with you for your bag. So no sooner had I got out of the plane I was confronted (if that’s the word) with Cassie.

I hadn’t seen her since she had to go back to the US due to her visa expiring in 2005. It was very good to see her. Very good indeed.

So we said hello, and I tried to get my brain to work in it’s lagged state. Not good. The baggage conveyor was hypnotising me. But Cassie was able to help me to her car, then we headed off to her apartment. I demanded we stop to buy Mountain Dew, so we did. A whole litre of this poison that I’ve heard so much about.

On arrival at Cassie’s, I met Gordon who was very welcoming, with his jumping, and friendly tooth action. I flopped out on the sofa. Cassie asked if I was hungry. After consulting my brain and my stomach (a matter of some seconds) I decided I was. And so it was that I had my first steak burrito.

There were several firsts that day.

LA Story 01 – Monday 26 March – Right Back Where We Started From

Note: This is an earlier post, repeated here as part of a series appearing over the next few days, describing the life-changing events that took place in Los Angeles, March 2007

I’ve often thought they should make the tedious process of checking in for a flight more interesting by having entertainment laid on, especially if you are checking in at 7am, as I was. After being picked up by the car at 5.30am, and after a fun scoot through Hammersmith and out through Chiswick to the lovely Heathrow, with dawn just thinking about beginning to rise, I could have done with some fun.

One idea I had while standing around in this fluorescent low-ceilinged hellhole was Charlie The Check-In Chicken. This would be a full grown man, whose job it would be to dress in a full rooster costume, but not a very good one. Slightly tatty, with a face-revealing grille in the neck where you can see his underpaid face. He would say things like, “Hello everyone! I’m Charlie the Check-In Chicken! Please keep this area clear of trolleys, you f**kin’ clods!” or, “Hi Ladies and Gentlemen! I’m Charlie the Check-In Chicken! Did you pack this bag yourself, or did some Yardie give it to you?”.

Shuggie was confused about why I was up at 5am, as was I. He thought it was breakfast and let-out-to-wee time. Sorry mate. I was sorry to say goodbye to his cute face in the dawn half-light. I’m missing him now.

It was a pretty uneventful flight from Heathrow to San Francisco. It was my first time in a 747-400. It was like a reverse TARDIS – these things look big on the outside, but economy class tends to remove any sense of space or indeed legroom. I could have bought 5 extra inches of legroom from Charlie the Check-In Chicken, but it didn’t seem worth it, 60GBP for some comfort for 10 hours.

My traveling companions were a Berkeley chemist called Miller, who spent the flight doing quantum algebra (I saw the word quantum, and it looked like algebra). On the other side of me was a young lady of unknown profession called Miller, who had been to London for grad school, but was heading home after a visit. She slept and did the crossword. I read Stephen Fry’s ‘The Stars’ Tennis Balls’, which is very good, a real page turner, with a great Count of Monte Cristo theme, interesting characters, deserved revenges, but a weak ending, I thought. You know he’ll get revenge, and he does, the end. Much like Iain Banks’ ‘Whit’ in that respect. The in-flight movies were a top-notch selection, being ‘Night At The Museum’, and a Bruckheimer thriller with Den-ZELL Washington, both of which suffered from the sound cutting out for a second every 30 seconds. Hence I slept for quite a while, with my mask on.

The notes I’m writing this from were written in the departure lounge at SF airport, waiting for my connection to LAX. An example of the raw notes:

“I ate on the plane, so I didn’t really feel hungry. Maybe I’ll pop off and grab a bite just to kill time. Or perhaps not! as we board in 30 minutes. Laterz”

Move over Paul Theroux. Next up, arrival and transfer to accommodation, featuring hugs.