Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nail Fantasy

On my last day of work, in preparation for flying back to the US tomorrow to serve as bridesmaid in my cousin Natalie's wedding, I spent my lunch break today at Nail Fantasy to get a nice French mani-pedi. The place next to work was fully booked all week, so I walked around the corner to Nail Fantasy, whose appointment book was wide open.

I should have recognized the red flag, but had no choice as there are limited options in Woking and time is running out.

On a scale of 1 - 10 with 10 being proficient in English, these ladies ranked about a 1 (which is better than the staff at my hotel in China -- for more, see the China Day 1 entry). The pink color she used on my toes was more like clear-ish magenta and made my toes look purplish and dead so I made her use a nice pale pink, which she just painted on top of the magenta. I thought the fingers would at least turn out better since we'd had our practice run on my toes, but they're pretty awful as well. All-in-all, it's probably the worst nail job I've ever had and cost me $36 (could have been a LOT worse). Reminded me very strongly of this video (thanks Tatum)...

Post about Stockholm this past weekend coming shortly...

Monday, June 18, 2007

June 14: Shere (English village from 'The Holiday' movie)

On June 14, some of our client colleagues took Houman and me out to lunch in a nearby town called Shere since we're almost done with our project. This is the village where the recent movie 'The Holiday' was filmed, you know, with Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet? SUCH a cute movie ... and such a cute town! Here are some classic photos below.

After lunch, we walked around the quaint town, with little bitty windows and doors, and lots of English rose gardens. It's definitely not a cheap place to buy property, however, because we saw lots of flashy BMWs and Mercedes parked outside...

We also saw a gate leading to a grassy path that we speculate might have been the entrance to the looooooong drive in the movie.

I miss the USD!

Yeah, London is officially the second-most expensive city in the world, and I know you New Yorkers and San Fransisco-ans think you have it bad, but according to this CNN Money story, you don't...

World's Most Expensive Cities

OUCH! Please note that I have also been to #10, #13, #16 and #20 during my time here on half-salary. Also please note that Chicago is not in the top 20, can't wait to be back!!

Only a few more days and then I'm back to States! Posts coming soon about my lunch in the town of Shere, where the movie The Holiday was filmed and my last weekend spent in Stockholm (just got back this morning, phew).

Friday, June 15, 2007

June 13: Dinner in London

A group of us got together Wednesday, June 13 for dinner in London before Houman and I leave the UK. It was a great set of folks:

Jon - friend from Core Consultant School
Penny - Paddywagon tour (see blog entries from March)
Anna - Paddywagon tour (see blog entries from March)
Georgette - Anna's friend (see blog entry from Stonehenge, end of April)
Lara - Penny's friend
David - instructor from Core Analyst School almost 2 years ago
Houman - my manager
Leslie - good friend from college
(we don't know that guy in the photo with his arm around Houman, but he was kind enough to take the photo below for us.

We ate at a fun place called Ciro's Pizza Pomodoro in Knightsbridge. The walls are covered with photographs of the owner standing with celebrities. We didn't see any celebrities, but we did see the owner wandering around. Thanks go to David for suggesting the place, where he is well-known by the staff, and setting us up with a reservation. Great choice!

It was so wonderful spending one last night with everyone. I'm really going to miss my Aussie friends from the tour and hope to keep in touch with them. Facebook should come in handy for this! And one day I will go to Australia and hope that most of them have made their way back to Oz by then so I can visit.

It's really starting to feel like my time here is wrapping up as I start saying my 'good-byes'...


June 8-10: Barcelona, Spain

Finally. I get to 1) visit Carrie and 2) go to Spain. Yes, my first trip to Spain, it's about time!

For those of you who have been, you know that Barcelona is absolutely beautiful. I heard this, of course, before I went, but didn't really understand how it was so beautiful, or what about it was so beautiful. I understand now. Barcelona has the best of both worlds in my opinion: bustling metropolis / city center AND direct easy access to beautiful beaches. The architecture of the city is beautiful in a way that's difficult for me to put my finger on. There is a blend of modern and historic architecture, but not in the stark contrast that you see in Berlin, for example. Somehow, the new and the old coordinate in this lovely warm way that is Barcelona.

I arrived Friday evening and took the Aerobus to its last stop in Plaça Catalunya. Carrie and her colleague, Luis, met me and we went to dinner nearby: tapas of course. I thought I was arriving on the late side to be going to dinner, but apparently 10 PM is perfectly normal to sit down to eat in Barcelona. After a delicious meal (sorry Cafe Iberico, tapas in Spain win) the three of us walked along the huge La Rambla avenue that was thronged with other pedestrians and vendors to a small bar in historic Barcelona for some authentic mohitos and caipirinhias. Along the way, we walked through the Plaça Reial where there was this weird art display of life-size human figures made out of trash. Kind of strange... The old part of Barcelona is this really neat area with little winding streets that are too narrow for cars, lined with shops and restaurants.

Saturday, we slept in late as I learned from experience that the Spanish day is pushed back a couple of hours from what I'm used to. So breakfast at 11 - 12, lunch around 3 PM, then dinner around 10 - 11 PM. Out until 2-3 AM, then sleep until 10 - 11 AM. Shopping was our first activity. I know, not very good of me, but London is too expensive. Carrie introduced me to this AMAZING store called Bershka. It was so cheap! I got several fun things. Thank goodness you can carry on the normal 2 bags when flying TO the UK, just not leaving the UK, so I could bring my shopping bag on board with me.

After a quick lunch, we took the subway to the beach where we discovered a pro beach volleyball tournament. We sat and watched for a while, which made me miss Bryce so much. Catalonia was playing Bulgaria. When the match ended, we walked along the beach a bit and found a table overlooking the ocean to have a late afternoon aperitif. The beach is so nice, and we had perfect sunny, balmy weather to go with it. I only wish I could have stayed several days to enjoy it! As it was, we didn't end up having enough time to lay out in our suits and relax. Guess I'll still be neon white when I come back...

We then quickly took the subway to La Sagrada Familia, the famous church designed by Antoni Gaudí, but still has not been finished, though Gaudi died in 1926 and construction has continued, on and off, since then. The church is designed in many ways like your standard European cathedral, but then deviates from that model. It's not designed on the typical N-S, E-W axis, but rather either side flanking the center is different. Also, the towers don't rise to a straight peak, but rather curve upwards. The friezes carved on the exterior of the church, rich with Christian symbolism, are designed in a neo-modern, geometric way that reminded me of Matisse and Picasso.

I wish I could have made it to the Park Güell where I hear you can find many of his great works and gain a better understanding of his style, just outside Barcelona. But alas, my day-and-a-half trip didn't accommodate such sightseeing. :)

At this point it was time to go back and get ready for dinner and our night out with some of Carrie's friends. We didn't end up sitting down to dinner until 11 PM, and had to take a spot at the bar because the restaurant was so full. We ate tapas again, of course, then took a 'green' taxi (meaning the little green light on the side of the taxi sign on the roof was turned on) up into the mountains to a club called Danzatoria. There were many different levels and a lavish outdoor patio with splendid views of Barcelona down below. We met Carol there, a long-lost colleague of Carrie's who just finished her masters in business in Barcelona along with her girlfriends who came out to the club as well. Around 1:30 AM I was starting to get a bit tired, and claimed I had 'cultural jet lag' since in the UK people go out at 5 PM immediately after work, eat dinner at the pub, then go home at 11 PM. It's all pushed back several hours in Barcelona. We left Danzatoria and climbed further up the mountain to another bar (Carrie, please comment with the name of this place... I can't spell it and can't find it online...) for a more chill late night place. I learned a little Spanish dancing from a local before we started an incredibly painful climb down towards the main road to find a taxi. Carrie and I even traded shoes to try and relieve our unique suffering. But we made it, finally.

The next day there was not much time to do anything other than eat and take the Aerobus back to the airport. It was a great weekend, very relaxing. Carrie was an excellent hostess. :) But I must come back one day, there is so much more to see!

Monday, June 11, 2007

June 9: Awesome travel map

Check out this awesome map that Carrie found through Facebook. This is not helping my travel bug in the least. So many places in the world to see...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

June 2-3: Istanbul, Turkey

Well, after a lazy long weekend in Woking, I am back in action flying to Istanbul, Turkey for just about 28 hours. I met my high school friend, Adrian, there who had flown out from London on the 1st.

I arrived at 1:45 PM in Istanbul, skipped bag claim because I carried on, went through customs (had to purchase a Visa for either GBP 13 or US $20. Yeah, the exchange rate doesn't check out. Grrrr. Oh well. After passing through, I did my usual arrival routine: find a bathroom, find a cash machine, buy a water to break a large bill into smaller change. I took a taxi to the hotel, and circled around with him a LOT in these windy cobblestoned streets in the heart of Sultanahmet on the Golden Horn of Istanbul. Finally found the lovely Sultan's Inn and met Adrian in the lobby.

Our first stop was the famous Blue Mosque, just about a 5 minute walk from our hotel, and named as such because of the blue tiles adorning the interior. We took our shoes off and walked into the very elaborately decorated interior on the soft carpet in the 'tourist' section. There was a gate separating us from those who came for religious purposes. The ornate interior really separated this attraction from the other major churches and cathedrals around Europe, which tend to have bland stone interiors (with the exception of St. Chapelle in Paris).

Next we walked to the Topkapi Palace, the heart of the Ottoman Empire, where the royal families lived and administration took place. The buildings were all set apartment from each other amidst beautiful green grounds shaded by many trees in the compound. We saw European-style portraits of former emperors and family jewels and other fine relics. Adrian and I commented on the use of fancy feathers as a mark of status in the crowns that you don't see adorning the crowns of European royals.

We stopped in for a quick drink and bite to eat at one of the very touristy restaurants that had a great rooftop view of the Hagia Sophia in the backdrop. We paid for the view, but it was worth it.

Recharged, we walked up a main street and managed to find the Covered Bazaar, which is a LOT bigger than it looks from the entrance we used. I felt like I was back in the Silk Market in China with rows and rows of vendors all beckoning us inside. At each crossroads, the hallways seemed to extend forever into the distance. Too bad I'm not in the market for a rug, I bet they're a lot better priced in Turkey than imported in the states. But I did find a good Father's Day gift. :) But I still need to brush up on my bartering skills.

By now, it was time to get ready for the evening out on the town. We enjoyed a beer on our hotel's rooftop deck, which is even better than the pictures online. Then changed, and grabbed a cab to Taksim Square in the Beyoğlu district north of the Golden Horn. We strolled down a street with endless strings of lights across the wide pedestrian walkway to find a restaurant. Two appetizers and a large main course later, we left to find another watering hole. There were endless streams of people going in either direction on this large street. I couldn't believe how many people were out, and the volume didn't die down the whole time we were out. Our next stop put us at a table on a little balcony at a bar where we had an excellent bird's-eye view of the street below us, and of the guy grilling corn on the cob directly beneath us. For some reason, that's a big thing in Istanbul: grilled corn on the cob. Yeah, I don't get it either...

The next day, Adrian had to leave for the airport right after breakfast on our gorgeous rooftop terrace, so I spent my last few hours in Istanbul hitting the remaining key sites.

I started with the Hagia Sophia, the greatest cathedral of the Middle Ages. Remarkably, it was completed in 537 AD, with a soaring dome over 55 meters high. It was converted into a mosque in 1462 and so the interior is an interesting blend of Christian and Muslim art. Much of the Christian murals had to be uncovered in preservation work done since the Hagia Sophia opened as a museum in 1935. The murals date back to the 11th and 12th centuries and are some of the most impressive I've ever seen. The stones are tiny in a huge myriad of colors so the images they portray look more like paintings they are so detailed. Unfortunately, my camera flash is stuck on automatic, so my pictures of the interior came out really dark. It would be better to turn the flash off and hold it steady to allow the natural light come through for longer to get a good image. Check out the wikipedia link Mosaics (lower down on the Hagia Sophia page) for some great images.

After a long tour inside the Hagia Sophia including wandering around the upper hall where there were much better views of the mosaics, I answered my grumbling tummy's request and purchased a grilled corn on the cob from a
street vendor. I had to try it! It was grilled, salty and delicious.

I only had time to do one more quick tourist attraction, so I took Adrian's recommendation and descended into the ancient Basilica Cistern serv
icing Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace. It was dark and cool inside, with the incredible 'forest' of columns stretching out in every direction. I walked to the far end to view the Medusa heads, and cursed my dead camera battery. Again, you can check these out on the Wikipedia link provided. These Medusa heads are carved into the base of two columns and are deliberately not placed upright. One head is on its side and the other is completely upside-down. Scientists maintain it was deliberate, but no one has figured out why. Click here to catch up on your Medusa Mythology (it's not wikipedia this time!).

Next it was time to go to the airport and so my jaunt in Istanbul ended. It was a great (though far too short) trip.