Monday, May 23, 2005

My trip to Oman

I am home safely from my trip to Oman. What a great place!

We took an overnight flight from Heathrow. I'd allowed two hours to get to the airport since I had be there by 630 and motorway traffic can be a bitch. It only took me 55 minutes. Killed time at the airport Holiday Inn with a cup of coffee, and then headed to the airport to valet my car. There were 10 of us on the trip, plus the two hosts. Everyone holds a position similar to mine at one of the competitors. All quite likeable, and ended up being good travel companions.

We flew business class, so we were very comfortable. They had 21 channels of entertainment to choose from, but since I'd been sick I thought I'd best try to sleep. Should have watched the film. Didn't get a second of shut-eye, so by the time we arrived in Oman seven hours later I was totally blitzed by tiredness.

Muscat has a small airport...the kind without jetways. By the time we'd walked down the steps to the tarmac we were sweating. It was 7 AM, and already 39C (around 100F). We waited while our DMC processed our visas, and then the welcomed us through customs. Took a coach to our hotel where we checked in and had a few hours to freshen up. I hit the pillow and slept, then took a quick shower (the first of three that day....showering is imperative in Oman in the summer.)

We stayed at the Chedi Hotel. It's a little boutique hotel on the beach with an Arabic theme to the decor. Really nice. I tried to take pictures, but since I am still new with the camera their funky lighting foiled me and my pictures are crap. Check the website. I had a suite, so if you go to the accommodations tab you will see the flash show of pictures...the bedroom with the candles and mirrors was mine, that little living room the show was mine, and best of all, the sunken bath tub was mine. In fact, the building you see the external shot of was ALL MINE...there was even a silver dome over my bed. It was absolutely amazing.

Thursday afternoon we took tours of hotels. (See, my job is not all glamour.) We walked around the Hyatt, which is a perfectly acceptable hotel with your bog-standard decor. It looks kind of like the Hyatt in Minneapolis if it were on a beach and had an Arabic decor influence. We had to tour the space around meetings that were happening. Here is one of them:



What is Hugo Boss Fragrance Training, you may ask? Well, it's for overly made-up women (and men) wearing all black, and they teach them to give free sample sprays and to discuss the "woodsy notes" of the scents. Who knew they had training for that?

We had a quick lunch, then moved on to the construction site for the new Shangri-La hotel. It's a 600 room resort nestled in a private cove just outside of Muscat. There are three hotels on the property, two five-stars and one six-star (means really nice, really-really nice, and oh-my-gosh-this-is-posh nice.) There will be a spa, a cultural centre, six pools, 20 restaurants, and a fabulous beachfront. We had a slide show in the construction offices, and then we put on hard hats to walk around. It was now 49C (about 120F+), and the site is still all cement and no air-conditioning (except for in the sample guest rooms they've constructed in each hotel.) Talk about unpleasant. It's good to walk around and visualize the finished product, but after an hour in that heat you're hallucinating instead. There were hundreds of Omani and Indian laborers working that day, and as we'd approach them they'd all stop and stare. I think it was partly that we were westerners doing something CRAZY in that heat, and partly it was fascination at all the flesh. Many of the women in the group were wearing spaghetti-strap tshirts and shorts, and since Omani women cover that is a rare sight. ("Cover" means that westerner expats wear trousers, relatively modest shorts and skirts, and tees that at least have some sleeve and a modest neckline, and Omani women only show their hands, feet, and faces.)

Here is my favorite sign from the construction zone. Mind you, this was posted all over the six-star hotel but the five stars had nothing similar.



I guess real luxury means you've never been used as a toilet.

We were exhausted by the time this was over, so we all fell asleep on the coach.

Back to hotel. Shower number 2.

Dinner was at the home of the Shangri-La's General Manager. Their chef had just arrived from Dubai (or Mauritius...something like that,) and so he and his sous chef (from the SL Bangkok) made a multi-course meal. Tuna steak on a niscoise salad, then choice of whole seabass, Moroccan roasted chicken, vegetables/couscous, and roasted lamb. Dessert was ice cream and berries. Lots of wine. Lots and lots of wine. The GM's home is lovely...he has a westernized Arabic home, which means open-planned living instead of separate tiny rooms for women and men to entertain separately. His decor was kind of expensive Pottery Barn with lots of Lladro figurines.

Back to hotel. Shower number three. Sleep of the dead.

Shower number one. The next day was about the water. We had an 8AM start for dolphin watching, and then transferred to a dhow for a lunch cruise and swimming in the gulf. The coastline is craggy and deserty and beautiful. The water is crystal clear and kind of green. It felt like bath water. We swam with sea turtles and lots of cool fish, though we didn't actually stop at a reef. The same chef made a load of food for lunch, way too much for us to actually eat. It was still crazy hot, and I wore my factor 40 sunscreen, so while it wasn't comfortable at least I didn't burn crispy. My British colleagues were exactly as they're portrayed in Shirley Valentine...total sun-whores who burn themselves bright pink within minutes, and don't understand why they're the color of beetroot. To each his own. It was a lazy day, and we had great conversations and lots of fun. I got lots of grief for being American. Not mean-spirited mind you, there was just a guy who wanted to wind me up to see if I could take it. I could, and shoveled right back. By afternoon I got the feeling that I'd passed the test and officially belonged to the club.

(sample coastline shot)

Back to the hotel. Shower number two.

Dinner was at an Indian restaurant on top of a hill. Great view, great food, flaming coffee served after dessert. Our waiter kept encouraging us to eat by telling us things were "good for your heart." Last I checked, ghee was not, in fact, heart healthy, but bless him for trying to sell the food. I loved it, actually, though it could have been spicier. (Darlene, you would have been in heaven.) The woman next to me doesn't eat exotic food, so they kept bringing other dishes to give her something she'd like. They lost. Lots of lively conversation, then home to the Chedi for drinks until 2.

Shower number three. Bed. Sleep of the dead. (Really comfortable beds, and they had the candles burning when I came back to the room.)

Shower number one. Day Three was for seeing the city. We'd already had a tour as we'd been driving around, so some of it was familiar by now. Everything has Arabic styling to it, and building code keeps it no more than four-stories high in most of the city. The streets are perfectly manicured and clean. The people are friendly. Women are stylish, though covered (as mentioned above,) and you must ask permission to take their picture. Men wear dishdash and embroidered little caps. (A dishdash is a white or light-colored shirt/robe that is loose fitting, long-sleeved, high-necked, and goes to the ankle.) Everyone wears this except westerners and Indians, so we're talking about 70% of the people you see are dressed traditionally.

First stop was the Grand Mosque. In order to go in, we all had to cover, as well, so we wore trousers and high-necked blouses and pashminas on our heads. (The men could just wear normal clothes, the lucky bastards.) Very hot...like 45C that morning, so walking around with only your hands, feet, and faces showing sucks. I don't know how those women do it. The tour took an hour or so. Saw the gardens, the shower rooms (Muslims wash before prayer, so there are bathing rooms for people who showered before the got there and who just need a touch up, and there are full shower facilities for those who haven't had time. We went in the main chapel, which holds 20,000...we couldn't walk on the carpet and had to stay to runners, but it was amazing. The walls are all ornately tiled, the pillars are white and grey marble from Italy, and the chandeliers are all Swarkorski Crystal. Here are pictures of the dome/main chandelier and a close up of the tilework on EVERY SURFACE.



After the Mosque, we went to a little museum to learn about the culture, toured a traditional home, and then stopped at the souq to shop. (A souq is an open-stalled market.) Pashiminas were crazy inexpensive, so I bartered my way into a few. They sell frankincense and spices and silver...the silver daggers are ornately beautiful, the bracelets are spectacular, and there were many beautiful earrings...and then there are lots of little shops with products for locals. You could even get a Hulk Hogan tshirt here. The souq is in the old city, so I wandered a little bit there.



Then we met up and went to lunch. We ate at an Omani restaurant in an air conditioned tent. Omani food consists of things like lentil soup, green salad, roasted lamb and chicken, hoummous and pita, and kind of a pizza-like thing full of feta and olives and tomato. Yum. They don't serve alcohol, but they make some wicked fruit concoctions. I had minty lemonade.

There was a strip mall by the restaurant. Here is the western influence in the city.



The afternoon was ours to enjoy. We went back to the hotel, and I decided to try to stop coughing. I took a long nap, I read my book, and I took a bath in my gigantic tub. (Took a quick shower, too, because I had to get the bubbles out of my hair.) Even watched a little tv. Did you know that Omanis are given Paris Hilton and David Spade as typical Americans? We're lucky they still like us. (They do, by the way...they were pleased an American without connections to the military was visiting, and asked me to invite you all. I highly recommend it, FYI.)

Dinner was at the Chedi, and then I came back for shower 3.

Took a walk Sunday AM. Read the paper. Took shower number one, checked out, and flew home. Got back around 8pm, drove home, called my folks, and went to bed.

My overall impression of Oman is really positive. The people are so kind and friendly, and they have virtually no crime. They are family-focused. They don't drink or smoke much. You can't buy pork unless you go to a special section of the grocery store. (Women are a bit hirsute, and there's a sculpted uni-brow style that is locally beautiful but odd-looking if you ask me, but that's just a minor detail. )

You can't help but think about our politics when you're there. These people let us put up military hospitals before we invaded Iraq, they let us visit without paying for our visas (Brits pay £6), and they have influences of us all over their city. Yet we keep talking about how everyone needs to be democratic like us, and we are proving mighty aggressive to those who resist in the region. Frankly, they're a little worried we'll turn on them. Oman is a Sultanate, and their Sultan has been ruling unchallenged for 35 years. They love him. He's improved their living conditions, he's built fair and balanced courts (something the US seems hell-bent on finding a way to destroy in our own judiciary these days,) and education and health care are leaps and bounds ahead of many nations in the world. All schools are taught in English so that their children will be competitive in the world. Omanis worry that the US will try to intervene since they don't vote for their ruler, and they worry about us intervening militarily if they try to maintain their current system. Mind you, they are hopeful that their friendship means something, but by Sunday I was having to answer for the new stories about prison abuse. (By the way, they don't believe that it was just low-level military rogues as President Bush keeps telling them.) The editorials in the Sunday paper were scathing...and they want the US, as a moral nation, to denounce this horrible behavior and to make it STOP.

This is a fabulous place, and it makes me think that maybe not everyone has to vote to have a meaningful government. Perhaps we should worry more about spreading moral leadership and open discussion rather than electoral voting in the world. Just because you vote for leaders, it doesn't make them worthy. You can abuse power just as easily in a "democracy" as you can in a dictatorship. (Hmmm...are you referring to someone in particular, Mindy?)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Real v. Fake

I was standing in line to buy a sandwich at the garage today, and happened to glance over at the magazine rack.

One of the lad's mags was carrying the cover story of the top 100 boobs in the business.

Another was touting 100% REAL boobs in theirs.

Couldn't help but wonder if there was any overlap. And it seems a lot of press for breasts, really. There are probably 200 pairs between the too mags. And that doesn't include the editing staff.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Edinburgh

We left around noon Friday for Edinburgh. We had a couple of errands to run...a bigger photo chip for the camera, a coach ticket to the airport to be sure Ben had a seat...and then we hit the highway. We made it an hour up the road to Nottingham before stopping for lunch. Ben loves truck stops and I love general road-trip culture, so we decided to stay on the motorway and eat at the "services." All over the UK there is a roadside chain called the Little Chef. Their logo is this happy little guy holding up a plate of food. He looks not unlike Ben if he gained 50 pounds, put on some footie pajamas and a chef's hat, and grinned like a moron. It's kind of like a down-market Denny's. Here's what we had for lunch:

My Lunch - veggie burger and salad


Ben's lunch - tempura vegetables with chili sauce and mayo

We continued north, first on the motorway and then on the A1. We passed Newcastle and then drove along the North Sea coast until we made Scotland. The views were beautiful. It took us about 7 hours in total, but we had a nice chat, listened to many cd's (thanks Tom), and found our hotel before dark.

I was tired and cranky so I sent Ben foraging for Chinese food. He returned triumphant, although he almost had to resort to speaking Mandarin at the restaurant since he couldn't understand a word the Scots were saying. We enjoyed a satisfying dinner of passable kung pao before hitting the hay.

I slept in, Ben wandered. Brought back coffee and muffins, and then we headed out for the castle. Made a stop for cash, and wound up the hill past some pretty great shops.



Edinburgh Castle sits on this craggy piece of rock and looms over the city. It's really quite amazing.



This picture is from our hotel side. On the other side, there's a giant expanse of park with lawns and amphitheatres and museums. It's quite the hub on a sunny day, let me tell you.

We waited in the queue for the castle and took a quick little guided tour before exploring on our own. This castle is MUCH easier to see than the one at Warwick. It just keeps winding up the hill, so you can walk instead of climbing endless dark twists of old stone steps that aren't wide enough for a modern foot. The guides are friendly and tell stories and jokes. There's something about the Scots...they're so good natured you laugh at the stupidest puns and obvious jokes, even though you know they're not that funny. We wandered through the state apartments and the chapel and the prisons (that held colonists during the Revolutionary War), through the War Memorial and past some actors in kilts.



We just missed the cannon blast at 1 because we were still in the prisons. Made a last stop to enjoy the view and mourn the faithful, and moved out into the city for lunch.



Bought sandwiches at a very crowded Marks and Spencer Simply Food and sat in the park for a quick bite. I was pretty knackered, what with my cold and all, so I went to the hotel and slept. Ben wandered.

After my nap, we went to an cute little Italian place and ate antipasto and pasta dishes. Yum. Back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. The Farm just happened to be on, so we had to watch...they're down one porn star, FYI (the Italian, not Ron Jeremy.)

Next morning we headed home, but took a quick bypass north to a giant suspension bridge across the firth (name escapes me now, and I don't feel like looking it up. I'll come back later.) Since Ben and I both have dads who love bridges, we felt it necessary to view this amazing work of art, and it was worth it. Very cool. (This is the artsy shot, Dad...more coming.)




We did a little photo stop on the North side of the bridge, then drove back across and headed home. We took a different route, this time passing through the central part of Scotland. Saw many sheep. We laughed because the landscape actually looks like central California. Stopped by a really cool abbey (and have good pictures but am too lazy to load them in tonight,) and then hit the motorway in Newcastle.

My favorite public sculpture to date is in Newcastle. It's called the Angel of the North, and it's a giant iron angel that sits on a hill overlooking the city. I mean a GIANT iron angel. It's anchored 50m down into the hill with concrete and steel to be sure it doesn't fly away. It is positively magical.



We pulled off the motorway to spend some quality time admiring its magnificence. Really, really cool. Oh. And I liked the ice cream truck stopped in the car park, so I took a picture of the menu for you.



Got home by 7, ordered pizza and sat and jawed a bunch more before getting another good night's sleep to kick this cold in the butt. Feeling better today, so am hopeful that I am finally on the mend.

Have good weeks. Pictures from Oman next Tuesday.

Monday, May 16, 2005

In Development

Ben and I were discussing our shared fascination for the miracles of shipping. And he mentioned that there are hundreds, nay, THOUSANDS of shipping crates that fall off liners on their way across the oceans, falling to the bottom of the sea. I'm thinking WOW! Imagine what's in there! Jewels! Precious paintings! Plutonium! 1986 Hondas!

I'm thinking we write a script that has sea pirates raiding these containers, perhaps lead by Vin Diesel. And then some sassy young woman (maybe Scarlet Johannson in an offshoot to action adventure, or perhaps Jennifer Garner in an attempt to jump-start her sagging one-note career) shows up. She knows the TRUE SECRETS of the EVIL CO. and will convince the pirates to help her prove their menace to society by unearthing the stolen plutonium lost at sea. They can fight off man-eating Humboldt squid, maybe some Arab terrorists who want the plutonium for a bomb, and of course EVIL CO's dastardly minions who will stop at nothing to save face. We'll have the obligatory sexual tension between Vin and Scarlett/Jen (as well as everyone in the theater, for that matter,) and then it will all end in success and vindication as EVIL CO. is sent packing for their sins. (Unlike real life, where Martha Stewart does the time instead.)

I'm thinking this has real possibilities. Heck, I'd go see it on a 90 degree day. Ben is skeptical. He doesn't understand what people of 2050 will need with 1986 Hondas.

Hello??? Surely Cuba will be ready for new models by then?

Ben is NOT here

One week gone, and now Ben is, too.

I was sick, my flu turning into a cold that settled into my chest like an anvil. Been coughing and weak pretty much since last Tuesday, and I need a doctor. Called NHS Direct for advice on how to deal with getting medical care with US health coverage (to summarize: good bloody luck,) and I think if things go my way I can get to the doctor tomorrow.

In spite of my health, we still had fun...just mellower than expected. And since Ben is a 39-year-old med student who's been working 16 hour days in a research lab for the last month, he didn't much complain when I demanded we get some sleep. He had a nice visit to his retired minister friends in Cromer. (Folks he met when he was living in Eritrea, who've since retired and moved home. They live in a nice little town on the North Sea coast.) Since I missed work with the flu I had to work some on Thursday, so we ended up taking the train to London in the afternoon instead of heading to Scotland right away.

We had our hearts set on theatre so we spent the train ride narrowing down our list. It was pretty easy to rule out some basics...Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were right out, what since they admit one kid free with each adult ticket. Fine if you have kids, not great if you're childless thirty-somethings. Most of the other musicals right now are lame...with the exception of Billy Elliott, The Producers, and the soon-to-open Guys and Dolls with that dishy Ewan McGregor, it's all Andrew Lloyd Weber and remakes getting panned by even the soft touch critics.

So we focused on serious thee-uh-tah. There's a bang-up brilliant version of Hecuba that's all the rage. The Birthday Party is getting good reviews (though I have to plan ahead for Pinter because he works my last nerve with all that allegorically existential hooha.) And they're doing the Henries IV, which I haven't seen since I went to a day of Shakepeare history plays at the Guthrie on a sunny Saturday in...could it have been 1990 (?!). Yikes. (Back then they were treated as one, bookended by Richard II and Henry V in a 12-hour Shakespeare-a-thon. Veritably a Wagner's Ring Cycle in sore-butt-fidgeting, by the way.)

But nothing was grabbing our attention. Then on the escalator to the Tube at Euston we saw the adverts for Death of a Salesman with Brian Dennehy. We were sold. We made a lame attempt at bargain ,but ended up going straight to the theatre box office for tickets. We got nose-bleed balconies at a relatively reasonable price. Killed some time at Fortum and Mason shopping for gifts, and then had a cup of coffee before we headed to our seats for a prompt 730 curtain.

The play was amazing. You forget that DoaS is, in fact, a perfect play. Willie is a complex analogy for all of the failures and memories that make up our lives, and Brian Dennehy inhabited the role like you wouldn't believe. He did a mix of insecure bravado/braggadocio and kind old man that made you feel like you'd sat next to him on an airplane or met him at some sales conference.

Ben is a logistics guy, so he thought that once you got beyond Dennehy the cast and the directing kind of fell off into nothingness...a satisfying production, but not a whole one. I, on the other hand, am all about the words and feelings. It hit me head on and I thought it rocked. The guy who played Biff (last seen on Midsommer Murders just days ago!), did a fine job of illustrating the struggle to be honest about one's life, and Linda made me weep with her devotion to her sad, flawed husband. But even more so, now that I'm older I understand this play on a level I didn't back in the Olaf days when I first saw it. I know more about the compromises and the distractions that keep us from living our dreams, and I understand how easy it is to avoid addressing the less pleasant realities with which we are faced. Willie is no longer just a pathetic, sad man. He's a guy who did the best he could with what he was given, and he let himself forget the sad things so that he could keep on living.

Arm chair criticism aside, though, we both enjoyed the show. Our knees were stiff from sitting in the narrow seating row for three hours, and I almost had a row with a cheeky woman who was whining about us sitting in her seat during the first part of the show, but all in all it was well worth the time and money.

We finished the night with a post-theatre curry at a nice little place around the corner. Delicious, and we were thrilled to be someplace with restaurants that stay open past 11. Caught the 0034 train to MK, possibly the most local train you can find, FYI. I swear they added stops just to piss me off. Slept in on Friday, and made a noon-time start for Scotland.

Will add pictures and talk about Edinburgh soon. Must go to bed and focus on health.

Oh. And if I don't get to it by Wednesday, I'll then be silent for another week. I'm in Oman for work W - Sun.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Ben is here

After a two-month stretch with no guests, finally I have a visitor. My friend Ben arrived yesterday afternoon. Ben's attending med school in Iowa City right now and had a little break to spend here in the UK. We have a big week planned...he's traveling to other parts of the country today and tomorrow to visit other friends, and then Thursday we head to Scotland.

I've known Ben since I was five years old. In fact, if we calculated anniversaries we just passed our 33rd earlier this month. We met on the kindergarten bus shortly after I moved to Decorah. We both had a geeky affinity for dinosaurs which proved an immediate source of bonding, and general geekiness and assorted misanthropery has kept us close since.

Ben remembers when I had a lisp. Ben knew me when I experimented with odd haircolors and combat fatigues. (Okay, many of you would argue that I still experiment with odd haircolors...and I'll concede the point for now, though I've been sticking to enhancing my genetic dark brown lately and would argue that that stage is over for awhile.) It was Ben's idea for me to move to Seattle, he stayed in the Vashon teepee with Soni and me, and he bought me beers when he was flush and I was skint. He's listened to me whine, he's whined right back, he's dated many of my friends, and he's always encouraged me to do great things. Basically, he has witnessed as much (perhaps more) of my life than anyone I know and has helped determine the course that life has taken.

The thing about people you've known for so long is that they know all your backstory, so they perceive the depth of your life and the changes that you've been through. And that shared history brings inside jokes and goofy behavior and a freedom that gets lost with the demands of being an adult. It's why my friends Susan and KB and I bust up when we eat potato chips, or why I think of my Seattle friends when I eat corn, or why Pillow Talk and W.E.B. Dubois are so important to Tom and me. And it's why I'm so looking forward to this weekend with Ben. I get to share my new life with someone with whom I share three decades of camaraderie. It somehow makes it more real, makes it seem like an accomplishment, makes it seem cool.

El Ben blew in to MK Central around 5pm. We dropped stuff off at my house, he reaffirmed his jealousy at my good fortune and admired the duck pond. I gave him a quick tour of the "splendor" that is Milton Keynes, we admired some sheep, and then had dinner at a Thai restaurant in Stony Stratford. I was still sick and he hadn't slept in 72 hours but we were talking over each other with stories of photographing skin cells and espionage in the field of dermatological research and of driving on the left side and of forcing Britain to bend to my will. We came home and kept talking until midnight. And we marveled that two kids from podunk nowhere were sipping tea in the lounge of my semi-detached in England, something we'd been dreaming about in various permutations for pretty much forever. Who would have ever guessed this would be our life? If we had, perhaps we would have been a little less angry as teenagers.

And I know this sounds stupid/cliche, but for the first time in a while I was not just 38 and sliding into 40, but I was 5 and 15 and 25, as well. I had that feeling you get when you're around someone whom you're meant to know...that harmonious heart-singing euphoria of people who laugh at your jokes and adore your idiosyncrasies and think you rock. (Message to the rest of those people...fares suck until September so I'm coming to you June 25 - July 10...but after Labor Day you, too, should come have PG Moments on my couch.)

It's going to be a good week.

PS. We found a GREAT new reality show that will dominate the 1030 - 1130 PM segment of our days...it's called The Farm, and basically the premise is that 10 has-beens move onto a farm, and are forced to manage it for their subsistence while cameras film their interactions. There are two former porn stars, Charlene Tilton from Dallas, and washed up tabloid glory hounds (British Kato Kalins, if you will) living in this house, as well as a 72-year-old Canadian lounge singer with too much energy and a fused neck. (Too bad he can't turn his head to look at the guy with the big green duck puppet, who will have a hard time milking a cow with his hand up a three foot bird.) This should be reality tv at its lowest/best. You'd think book-smart nerds like us would be too hoity toity for dreck like this...but you'd be wrong. We were already discussing it this morning.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Flu

I've had the flu this weekend. On Friday I was getting a sore throat, by Friday night I couldn't swallow properly, and by Saturday AM I had the whole fever/chills/headache of a full blown flu.

Being sick this far from home isn't fun. There's no one to whine to who will feel sorry for me and bring me things. Flu-time is when you want comfort food and a People magazine...we've already covered the unfamiliar foodstuffs issue, and while you've got lots of trashy magazines to choose from here there are none as innocuous as People. Worst of all, the cold and flu medications all have different names and different packaging, so I can't just go get what I normally take. I had to read every package to find the right combination of something that will ease my symptoms without making me pass out for hours or making my heart race at 100 beats a minute.

I had a difficult run to Tesco to get my flu-friendly arsenal of products, but somehow I figured it all out without passing out in the store. Came home to lay on the couch with the shades pulled for two days. (These couches are not long enough for laying, by the way, which makes me love my six foot long behemoth of a sofa even more.)

Watched lots of tv, though there was nothing that exciting on. Saturday and Sunday afternoons are full of tv mysteries. Saw Columbo, the Rockford Files, Rosemary and Thyme, Monk, and the Midsommer Murders in and out of my napping. I skipped Murder She Wrote. Even with the flu I'm still cooler than that. There were lots of documentaries about VE day, so I watched a few of those, too.

There are horrible TV ads for cellphone novelty ringers. There are the "Rock Chicks", ostensibly cute little yellow things that chirp popular songs. There is the "crazy frog", which sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk doing an impression of Ella Fitzgerald scatting to a dance mix beat. And the new one involves monkeys/apes who sing chimp noises and occasionally fart. The idea behind all of these ads is that you'd call a number and pay £2 or so to download them to your phone and then you can hear them every time someone calls. Lucky you.

My head was too achey to read, so I watched a few movies, too. Saw Fear and Trembling, which is like a French version of Office Space, meaning funny only in an ironic somewhat surreal way and with an overriding sense of message. Also saw Finding Neverland, which made me cry.

I'm staying home this AM because I still don't feel great, but I will go into the office at noon. I am scheduled to be out on Wednesday - Friday because my friend Ben is here visiting. The plan is to go to Scotland. He's also in possession of my digital camera, so there will be pictures.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lucky Ducky

My friend Lauren is so lucky. She just won the COOLEST thing ever.

WXRT Chicago had a contest to win an Ultimate VIP package for a week, and after an essay and an interview, she WON. She gets to go to 8 concerts in 7 days, escorted in a limo, and then she gets to blog on the radio website and do live commentary on the radio in the morning. She's seen Lenny Kravitz and the Wallflowers so far, and she gets to see Garbage (twice), New Order, Wilco, Coldplay, and U2 before the week is out.

I am so jealous I can't stand myself. Go to the Land of Lulu link on this site for her personal blog, or the VIP Lounge at WXRT's site for the professional one.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Palm Trees in England

Today is the May Day bank holiday.

Originally I had no plans for the three-day weekend, but then on Friday I sold a meeting later this month in Bournemouth at a hotel that we hadn't seen, so I arranged for a room and went to the beach yesterday.

Along the way, I stopped in Salisbury for lunch and had a chance to walkaround and catch a little parade, saw some kids dancing around the maypole, and the town band gave a little concert. Found an excellent thai restaurant for some tom ka gai and a spring roll and then headed on. I'd planned to go look at the big chalk giant, but there were pagan May Day plans there and I wasn't up to the crowds. Instead, went to Sherborne and toured Sir Walter Raleigh's house, wandered the garden, and spent some time on a bench amid castle ruins playing the ukulele. (Didn't get any tips, but got some funny looks and a couple of ovations.) There was an older woman named Elsie who had parked her three-wheeler on a bridge about half way around the lake, and she was kind of the troll that demands the toll, except nicer. Everyone who passed had to stop and chat or feel pangs of guilt for ignoring her. We had a nice conversation about America, traveling alone, and the companions she'd had in her life. Seems her first husband was the lazy stereotype of the British male...always round the pub, never helping with the housework, watching footie on the tv...and so she divorced him. After 20 years alone she found a nice companion named Herb who took her on trips and cooked Sunday dinner (though he couldn't make gravy, so she did that when she got home from church.) He passed away about 10 years ago, and now she goes to mass most Sundays and then wheels out to the garden of Sherborne Castle to enjoy the day. She sent me on my way when I shared that I hoped to stop in the Abbey on my way out of town, as it really is a must-see and she didn't want me to miss it. So I moved on to town and walked around until I found it. Elsie is right. The Abbey is amazing. It's really quite a modest church, but it's got a beautiful cove/buttressed ceiling and some very dramatic natural lighting. I'd say it's one of my favorite churches I've seen.

Finally got to Bournemouth about 5. My hotel was right on the water, and my room had a spectacular balcony with a panoramic view of the Channel and the pier. The water was surprisingly clear and pretty, and the beach is spectacular. It's like seven miles of nice sand and gentle waves. Went across the street to a little italian place for dinner...great food, but I always hate eating alone in vacation spots because no one else is. (Cities are a different story.) Took a walk around the area then went home and watched The Godfather.

This morning I took the tour of the hotel after breakfast and then headed out to explore. Bournemouth is really pretty for resort town. There's a great garden that starts/ends at the pier, and so I wandered around that for awhile. There are actually PALM TREES in this part of England. The air felt like California, actually. It was great. There were buskers and street performers all over the place, but I didn't have Howard with me so today I just observed. Eventually I decided it was time to hit the beach. There is a cliff walk and a beachside promenade, and I decided on the later since it's by the water (the cliff walk is about 15 stories up.) There are the obligatory cotton candy stands and icecream vendors of any beach, and the promenade is lined for miles by these great little sheds that people own/rent for the summer to provide shelter along the water. You couldn't really live in them....not enough space to sleep and no running water, but many had generators and tea pots and lots of comforts to make a day at the beach more like home. When open, they each had about a 10x10 covered space, and with the beach chairs clustered around they could make a nice little cabana for 6 - 8 people. Walked about three miles one way, sat down in the sun and finished my book. Helped another older lady in a three wheeler who hit the curb and tipped over...she wasn't hurt, but she couldn't get the thing upright again...and then headed back to the car. I've come away with a bit of a tan and the knowledge that you can be at the beach in an hour and a half.

Definitely a good weekend.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Barley Mushroom Soup

Chop up an onion. Heat a pan, add 1T of butter and 1T of olive oil, and when it's hot add the onion and a smashed clove of garlic.

Make the onions translucent, then add 1 cup of medium pearl barley. Toss around the pan for about a minute, then add two cans of beef consomme and two cans of water, plus salt, pepper, and tabasco. (Tabasco makes this scrummy, so be sure not to go light...there's a lot of soup there....) Simmer this for an hour. (I added some dill here, too, but you wouldn't have to.)

Meanwhile, chop up a pack of mushrooms...cremini, portobello, plain old button, whatever you want....and saute them until they release their juices in the same butter/oil ratio you used for the onions. Toss with some parsley and set aside.

When the hour is done and the barley is edible take 3/4 cup of low fat sour cream, put it in a bowl, and add a ladle or two of broth from the soup. Once the s.c. has melted into the broth you add that back to the soup, toss in the mushdogs and their juices from the saute, and bring everything to eating temp. DON'T BOIL, THOUGH...it messes up the S.C.

Eat. Toasted WW pita chips are good with it, as is roasted asparagus on the side. I ate mine with Lemonade Crystal Light, but sure it would hold up to a medium bodied red or a deep white.