3.30.2009

MORE LONDON PICTURES

On my last day in London I got a chance to do a bit of sightseeing in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Although it was an early morning in mid-March, the temperature was a balmy 60 degrees and Hyde park was beautiful (if you like that sort of thing).

There were tons of joggers all over the park, which totally disproves my theory that all Brits eat sausage, drink Guinness and smoke.

There were also lots of dog walkers, as well as clearly marked Royal Excrement Depositing Stations all around the park. In New York, clean up after your dog is more of a suggestion than anything else. I've never seen any dog get a ticket for Pooh & Run.

There were also many fountains in the park. I encountered the first, by the Italian Gardens, when I walked in the entrance right behind the Royal Lancaster Hotel.

I couldn't believe how well maintained this whole area was. I'm not really sure what they call this fountain, but in New York it would be known as The Hobo's Tub. Unofficially, of course.

On the other side of the park is the Albert Memorial, which is so big it has multiple different sculptures within it.

This sculpture is one of the ones representing the four corners of the globe: Europe, Asia, Africa and this one, The Americas. The bull is apparently meant to represent that most Americans are full of shit.

Here's a very pretty row of houses right along the Park.

If you stare into the window on the top right, you can see a lady undressing. At least I can.

Speaking of undressing, there are many beautiful churches in London. Here's one: the Church of Christ Scientist on Curzon Street in Mayfair.

Fun fact: If I was a member of this church I would have died in 1997. Isn't that hilarious?

Finally, what trip to London would be complete without a visit to the pub? Here's a shot of Shepard Market, right around the corner from my hotel.

Along this small street were a tea shop, numerous restaurants and a pub called Ye Grapes.

The pub was housed in a Victorian building and had some rather odd rules: no football colors (because of potential for hooliganism, I assume) and "no work clothes."

Apparently my "work clothes" were okay.

3.25.2009

MY TRIP TO ENGLAND (IN PICTURES) - PART 2

After only six days back in the good ole U.S. of A., I was off again to London on Saturday March 14.

March 14 would have been my mother's 74th birthday, which is an interesting coincidence. I will always associate my mother with travel. And I have very distinct memories of my parents' first trip to London, back in 1978.

The preparations lasted for what seemed like weeks. The refrigerator and kitchen cupboards were stocked with non-perishable food items, as if preparations were being made for an H-bomb attack. My grandmother temporarily moved in to our house with a suitcase that seemed big enough to carry the contents of her entire apartment. And I secretly wondered if my parents would ever come back.


Remember, I'm adopted. And adopted kids can get a bit paranoid about that sort of thing.

That week seemed to go on forever, and I certainly didn't make life easy for my grandmother. I kept overriding Nanny's orders with passive-aggressive comments like "That's not what Mommy would do" or "Mommy wouldn't like that."

For example: "Mommy wouldn't like it if you ate all the Friendly's Butter Pecan ice cream." It was true, but not necessarily gracious. Yes, I was 10. But still.

I'm sure my grandmother couldn't wait for the whole thing to be over with, and neither could I. I found the whole trip to be rather traumatic, and I didn't even leave the house. I think that's, at least in part, why I have always dreaded international travel. That seed was planted in me when I was 10 and, 30 years later, it's grown into a mighty oak.


While the first trip out of the country for my mom and dad may have been difficult for me, they had a great time. They came home with plenty of pictures, presents and a travel bug. My mother and father spent the better part of the next two decades flying all over the world -- to places I would never dream of going: India, Russia, Israel, etc.

I credit this to my mother who, like me, was an obsessive-compulsive, all-or-nothing type. Once she started something, she did it right. If she had left the vacation decision-making up to my father, they wouldn't have gone anywhere further than Lake George, New York, where my grandfather had built a hunting cabin during the Great Depression.

That stay-near-home instinct may be the only thing my father and I share in common, other than an affinity for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Humphrey Bogart movies.


My first trip to London on March 3rd was on British Airways, and it was amazing. Both flights were probably my best experience with air travel to date. Unfortunately, my second trip wasn't on BA. It was an America Airlines and, well, what's the opposite of best?

The joy started at the American Airlines terminal JFK, where I was directed to self-service check-in area with a row of kiosks. The video screen prompted me to scan my passport, then asked me the questions normally posed by human reps: did you pack your own bags? did anyone give you something to carry? etc.

It seems to me that outsourcing international flight check-in to R2-D2 may not be the best way for the airlines to save money. I've got a hunch that international terrorists will have no problem fibbing to a video screen. How about we eliminate face-to-face contact for domestic travel first, and see how that goes?

Are you a terrorist? No? Okay. Have a nice flight.

One thing that I loved about my British Airways flight was the food. It was good and there was plenty of it, as well as seemingly endless beverage and snack services. And free wine, too. Not that I drank any of it, but it was nice to know I could, if I wanted to.

On American, I found the situation to be exactly the opposite.

The flight began with a rushed beverage service where I was asked if I wanted the can when I ordered a Diet Coke. As If I might say, "No just fill that thimble-sized cup with ice and then add a teaspoon of room temperature soda. That will be plenty for me."


Next came the meal service. There was a certain elegance to the process on BA, the illusion that I was actually ordering dinner in a flying restaurant. On AA, the flight attendants just trundled their cart down the aisle, banging everyone in the elbows, yelling "chicken or pasta! chicken or pasta!" And then they would throw it at you, like a newsboy. I chose the chicken and it wasn't anything to cluck about.

Um...Thanks?

And that was it. We were on a six-plus-hour flight, but no more food or drinks were offered until we were an hour from landing. But the most memorable experience on the flight was drink-related, and it happened early on.

A woman in the row in front of me ordered a small bottle of wine, paid for it and then spilled it all over herself. She wasn't drunk or anything -- at least I don't think so, but I didn't breathalyze her. Rather, she blamed the tray table, which was anything but level as the plane ascended to cruising altitude. I noticed the same thing, and instead chose to hold my cup in my hand, just to be safe.

The woman called her situation to the attention of a disinterested male flight attendant with frosted tips in his hair. He sort of glared at her, rolled his eyes and then made that chah sound that your teenager makes when you try to walk next to him or her in a public place.

The woman bristled at his customer-comes-last attitude and shot back, "At least comp me another bottle of wine."

"I don't think so," spat the flight attendant, in full dudgeon. "No. I'm afraid that's not going to possible."

"Excuse me?" said the incredulous passenger, who then took the bait and got into a minor argument with this chubby, bloated, miserable, 40-something, failed actor/singer/model/hairdresser/whatever.

"Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am," he interrupted, with much finger pointing and Ricki Lake-style head-bobbing. "If this continues, I'm going to tell the captain. And then we'll just see what he has to say about it."

And that's where it ended. The woman was not stupid enough to get on the wrong side of a petty idiot with the power to ruin her life. All that guy would have to do is claim that a passenger on an International flight was threatening him and causing a disruption, and the woman would be sent to Gitmo faster than you can say "Donald Rumsfeld likes little boys."

I was sitting there, a row a way, and trying my best to hold my tongue and not to interfere. But when did good customer service get replaced with infantile threatening and intimidation? And why is that okay? Nothing quells dissent like vague threats from the otherwise-powerless and self-hating.

You know that hacky song Proud to be an American that idiots like Sarah Palin play at all their rallies? At that moment I felt just the opposite which, come to think of it, is often how I have felt recently.

The plane landed at Heathrow at around 6 AM and, after clearing immigration and customs I decided to take the Underground to my hotel. A cab would have cost 70 pounds (sorry - I don't know how to make the little squiggly pound symbol on my computer) but the subway was only 4 pounds. Even though I would be reimbursed by my job, I still feel the need to reign in expenses in these troubled times. I'd rather be known as the guy who tried to save money and got lost on the Underground, than the guy who spent $110 on a cab he didn't really need to take.

Plus, taking the subway meant I would end up at Paddington Station, which has been a dream of mine ever since I was a young reader of the series of Paddington books by Michael Bond.

When I was little, I thought of this as a fictional place.

I had every one of the Paddington series of books, as well as Christmas ornaments and stuffed animals, including one called Paddington Bear's Aunt Lucy. My older cousin John referred to that one as "Billy's doll with a dress" which is exactly what it was. Perhaps not the best thing for a straight 12 year-old boy to ask for for Christmas. Whatevs.


I searched the platform, but found no bears in need of adoption.

After wandering aimlessly for awhile around the outskirts of Hyde Park, someone finally directed me to my hotel - the historic Royal Lancaster.


Fancy.

People are always amazed at the fancy hotels I get to stay in when I travel. But you have to understand one thing. When I am working on the production of a meeting, I barely see my room. On this job I never got more than 4 hours sleep each night. One night I got only ninety minutes. Having a nice room is meaningless, if you never see it.


I'm not complaining. I am well-compensated for those long hours and I get to go to interesting places, even though I rarely have time to explore them. In this case, I had time only to cross the street to get tea from a small cafe and various other supplies from a little corner shop, where I would play with the 7-month-old daughter of the Middle Eastern woman who worked there.

I'm not fat. My shirt is baggy.

After we finished the meeting, the executive producer took all of us out to dinner at Tom's Kitchen in the Chelsea section of London.


"Tom" is 39-year old celebrity chef Tom Aikens.

I had the best fish & chips I've ever eaten, with malt vinegar all over everything (including my new shirt).


Trust me. It's low fat.

Friday morning was my first and only chance to go sight-seeing. By the time I ate breakfast, packed and checked out of the hotel I had exactly 90 minutes before I had to leave for the airport to catch my plane home. So I pulled out my camera and walked over to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.


The Serpentine River is actually a man-made lake, but it certainly looked like the real thing on that hazy morning.

Looks like the establishing shot from "The Hound of the Baskervilles"

The bridge that crosses the Serpentine is the dividing line between Hyde park and Kengington Gardens, as well as a popular place for joggers. And I thought everybody who lived in London smoked, drank and ate sausage for breakfast seven days a week.


Note the foreground elements in this picture. Thank you.

As I walked along the "lake" I came upon the Peter Pan statue, which was commissioned by author JM Barrie and sculpted by Sir George Frampton in 1912. Another family connection for me: my father used to read a Disnified version of Peter Pan to me every night before I went to bed. I have distinct memories of certain words from that story, like hornswaggle.


Little known fact. This is the same pipe Michael Phelps uses.

Next came the Serpentine Gallery, which was built in 1970. From a distance it looked to me like the house on
To The Manor Born, one of the many British sit-coms I watched growing up.

I would like to sell this as a post card.

After a bit of a walk I came upon the Albert Memorial, commisioned in 1862 by Queen Victoria for her dearly departed
royal consort Prince Albert. It opened in 1872 and is over 176 feet tall.

Across the road is the Royal Albert Hall, which opened in 1871.


It looks strangely pod-like to me. Like from "Star Trek."

By this point it was almost time to leave, so I quickly walked back across the Park to my hotel. On the way I encountered a bronze cast of a sculpture by G.F. Watts called Physical Energy. The plaque below it said it was "a symbol of that restless physical impulse to seek the still unachieved."

I can definitely relate to that.

Me?

I got back to the hotel and shared a cab to the airport with one of my co-workers. And the best part about that was she paid.

Hopefully I'll get to go back again some time -- with a little less stress.

Me.

3.14.2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM

My mother was born on this day in 1935. She would have been 74 today.

Here's a post I wrote on her 71st birthday, three years ago.

Mommy and me, 1970

3.10.2009

MY TRIP TO ENGLAND (IN PICTURES)

My trip to England last week was a whirlwind, sleepless, 72-hour tour that took me from London to Manchester and back again.

My flight was scheduled to leave last Tuesday night at 10:30pm, so I called a car for 7:45. The ride to JFK took only about 20 minutes, which resulted in me arriving more than two hours early. There is no reason to be two hours early for a flight, unless the flight is on the space shuttle. And even then, it's ninety minutes max.


It turned out that my early arrival was a good thing, though.
As usual, that night I was wearing my Mets hat. The gentleman who checked me in at the British Airways desk took notice.

"So...are you a Mets fan?" he asked, as he scanned my passport.


"No," I said. "I only wear it for fashion. And because I appreciate consistent failure."


Undaunted by my sarcasm, the clerk proceeded to quiz me position-by-position on my predictions for the 2009 squad of Metropolitans. A point of clarification: I love to talk about baseball, particularly my favorite team. It's the straightest thing about me, and it helps to counteract my tea-drinking, pedicure-receiving, dance-remix-listening metrosexual tendencies.


So yes, I am always up for a nice baseball-related chat EXCEPT when I am in an airport about to leave the country. I have only left the United States on two other occasions in my adult life, and both times I had panic attacks.


I'm not really a panic attack guy -- at least, not since I started taking meds -- but, back in 1994, I had the biggest one of my life at the passport office in Rockefeller Center. I felt nauseous. I starting sweating profusely. And finally, I was forced to run outside and lie down on a bench in the middle of Rockefeller Center. Had I gotten sick, I would have been shit out of luck (literally) because there are no public bathrooms in or near the Rockefeller Center area.


Welcome to New York City. Relieving yourself is not permitted.


My second trip, four years later and also to London, was less problematic, in part because I was traveling with co-workers. But it still freaked me out.
And now I was back, ten years older and a lot wiser, but still fucked up in the biochemistry.

If it was up to me I would never leave the island of Manhattan. Everything I need is here. Everything I want is here. When I'm gone I feel disconnected, awkward, less-than-whole. I count the hours until I get back, regardless of whether I'm traveling for business or pleasure.


Oh wait. I don't travel for pleasure. Right, I forgot.

So anyway, back to the airport.
I've got Howard Cosell Jr. grilling me on the Mets' chances of signing Manny Ramirez (no), re-signing Pedro Martinez (no), taking the word "Citi" (as in -Bank) off their new stadium (unlikely, though strongly desired). Blah blah blah. The conversation went on so long that one of the guy's colleagues came over, I thought, to reprimand him. No. He wanted to join in too.

I finally extricated myself, got through security in moments and headed for the gate. I ended up there with exactly 1 hour and 55 minutes until takeoff. Everybody says, "You gotta get to the airport at least two hours early for international flights!" Why? I So you can buy those gigantic duty-free cartons of Marlboro Lights.

The British Air terminal at JFK is slick but, after 9pm, there isn't much to do. Most of the restaurants in the small food court were closed, save for the McDonalds. So I hug out, read David Sedaris's book Barrel Fever and ate French fries.

This was my first time ever on a British Airways flight and I found their staff to be shockingly courteous. Also, they leave pillows and blankets on your seat and don't ask you for money in return. And they serve you a real dinner on board. I don't remember the last time that happened on an American flight. And it was good too.

Beef with mashed potatoes, veggies, roll and better, cake and Kit Kat

With the time difference I arrived in London Wednesday morning around 10:30. I met my photographer Peter (he had flown in from Philadelphia) and we grabbed a cab for our hotel, the Hilton London Green Park on Half Moon Street in the Mayfair neighborhood.


I checked in, raced to my room and jumped into bed. And then the construction began. It sounded like there was a guy right outside my door cutting a hole in the ceiling. So I opened my door and there was a guy cutting a hole in the ceiling.

Tell me something. If you run a hotel in a city where tons of jet-lagged travelers arrive on early morning flights, would you do construction in the morning?
If you run the Hilton Green Gardens (or whatever the fuck it's called) the answer is yes, guv'nor.

So I groggily called the front desk and asked for a new room, which was equally tiny (like every hotel room I've ever had in London) and only slightly quieter. It didn't matter. I was so tired I fell right asleep.
Or maybe it was the asbestos I inhaled from the construction work.

That night Peter and I went to dinner in the neighborhood at an American bistro called Automat. I'm American and I go to Europe to eat American food. How very red-neckian of me.
The next morning I woke up, met Peter in the lobby and we headed over to our shoot location (the office of a pharmaceutical company). We shot there all morning (Peter took pictures and I conducted audio interviews), then went back to the hotel to check out.

As cheesily touristy-y as it might sound, before I left London I wanted to eat at a real British pub. I have no real interest in beer of any type, but I love the concept of the British pub. I imagine that people gather there at all hours of the day and night, eat, drink, sing songs around a beat-up old piano, watch football matches, meet their future husbands and wives and otherwise carouse until all hours of the morning.

In reality, the pub we went to was filled with clean cut businessmen on their lunch breaks. Oh well. But they were drinking beer at lunch on a work day. I guess that's a bit of carousing. Sadly, no fights broke out (if you don't count my inner debate about ordering French Fries, or chips at the Brits so charmingly call them).


Me in my fancy work suit outside of Ye Grapes Pub on Shepard market

After lunch we headed over to Euston Station and boarded a Virgin train for Wimslow, in Cheshire, near Manchester. The client had arranged for us to stay at a bed and breakfast called The White House Manor in Prestbury.

When we got off the train, the cabbie knew we must be working for the pharmaceutical company.
( I think it was my suit.)

"Well then, ya won't mind if I put an extra dollar on the meter," he said. "Just tryin' to make me bones."


I said yes, because I love guys who say things like "me bones."


"Do you lads (again, I love being called a 'lad') have any interest in football?" our cabbie asked. "Because all the footballers for Manchester United live around here. Would you care to see their posh houses?"


I'm pretty the guy was just trying to pump up our fare, but I said yes. he drove us around a beautiful tree-lined area with ridiculously, inappropriately large houses. It looked more like Houston than Manchester.


"Right there, that's where Alex Ferguson lives," he said. "Do ya know who he is?"


"Oh sure," I said.


We arrived at the White House Manor and thanked our cabbie -- his name was Harold -- for the tour. Then, as Peter checked in, I took some pictures.


The place was very historic looking, but my room was distinctly modern, which was a bit of an unpleasant surprise. I was hoping for some creaky old four poster bed, a fire place, maybe a small cobbler's bench in the corner. Instead I got something that looked more like Beverly Hills, California than Prestbury, Chester.

That night we had dinner at the similarly named, but unrealted White House Restaurant in the quaint village of Prestbury. I had a Fillet Mignon with my yet another order of chips.

The next morning I awoke to the smells of eggs, sausage and bacon as our hosts served us a lovely breakfast to us in the sun-filled conservatory.

Then we hopped in a cab and headed over to our shoot location -- a pharmaceutical R&D facility located on the grounds of a historic mansion. After a morning shoot another cab drove us nearly ninety minutes to the town of Nottingham (yes,that Nottingham) where we did some more shooting and then headed for the local train station.

It's pronounced "Luft boro."


The Friday rush hour trains headed for London were packed with commuters, but everyone was extremely pleasant. I'm come to the realization that British people are nicer than Americans, particularly New Yorkers. This will come as news to no one but me.

We got back to the city, rechecked into the same hotel and I decided to stay in for the evening. My flight was at 8:20 AM, and I was already in such a state of jet lag, exhaustion and overall time-related confusion, I didn't want to push myself any further.


Of course it ended up that I had to do work in my room until nearly 2 AM, which gave me about 3 hours of sleep before I had to leave for the airport.

Once again, I got there more than two hours early. I intentionally kept my hat in my backpack, just in case I ran into another baseball loving airline clerk.
Have you been through airport security in the United States recently? Most of the people who work there couldn't secure a neighborhood playground let alone an international airport. But the British Aviation Administration security staff were exemplary. And the female employees were hot. I was disappointed that none of them wanted to give me a cavity search.

The flight was very nice with great flight attendants, good food and an overall level of service -- in coach -- that just does not exist anymore in this country. In fact, a female passenger in the row ahead of me got sick mid-flight and the entire staff mobilized to help in an extremely caring and compassionate way.


By the time I got home I was exhausted, yes, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I had bopped all around England on planes, trains and automobiles and not once did I lose my shit. It helped that I had a co-worker with me, a producer back in New York arranging our itinerary and a client putting me up in fancy hotels.

But I'm going to give myself credit for a level of calm on this trip that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago.
It's good to know the meds are working. And that's, at least in part, why I don't mind being a propagandist for the pharmaceutical industry.


Sadly, I did not turn into Doctor Who when I got in this call box

3.05.2009

RON PAUL IS BIG IN LONDON

This picture was taken right outside the gate to Hyde Park in London, around the corner from my hotel (Hilton London Green).

Notice it's a "No Right Turn" sign. Appropriate.

3.03.2009

TALLY HO!


I'm off to London for the third time -- all for work trips.

The first time I went, back in 1994, I interviewed Sylvester Stallone at the opening of the European flagship Warner Bros. Studio Store. Sound bytes from my interview aired on TV in England, Scotland, Germany and France.

This time I'm going to interview workers at a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant.Sound bytes from those interviews will air at a pharmaceutical meeting to be attended by 101 people.

Am I moving up in the world, or what?
Pip pip!

3.02.2009

I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE MARCH 2nd