Home Again, Home Again

And by home I mean back to London. After being home in the States.  Ah, the divided loyalties of an expat.

There are certain things you fantasize about when you prepare to spend time in your country-of-origin.  Visiting friends, spending time with family, eating at favorite restaurants, shopping, seeing if anything changed while you were gone. My fantasies focused on eating. No surprise there. Darling daughter and I made a list whilst (I love using that word) we were on the flight from hell:

20090213-shadyglen

My/our list:

Eat a cheeseburger at Shady Glen.

Enjoy a pie at Pepe’s in New Haven

Eat a hot dog loaded with sweet relish and yellow mustard. Anywhere.

Order a gigantic steak

Have a chocolate milkshake at Shake Shack

Endless cups of strong, hot coffee

Order a Ride The Wild Donkey, Roll of Milk and Honey and a Tokyo Fro at Miya’s 

I know my food list is very American, but you miss what you miss and the UK comes up short for burgers, hot dogs and pizza and shakes.  Now that I re-read my list, I’m kind of embarrassed.  Eh.  If you’ve been to any of the places on my list, your list would be exactly the same. If you haven’t been, I suggest you go.  Even better?  Call me and I’ll go with you.

We also came Stateside with a shopping list and an empty suitcase.  My list involved shoes of many varieties…crossfit shoes, olympic weightlifting shoes, flat shoes, vegas shoes, sparkly shoes…you get the idea.  It sounds insane, but shoes in half-sizes are almost impossible to find in the UK.  I don’t know why!  Maybe I have mutant feet, but I’m not walking around with my toes curled in a shoe a half-size too small or flop around in a shoe one half-size too big. I wish someone could explain how the Brits do it.  Do they all have regulation sized feet? Anyway, lots of shoes.  We also had to buy king sized sheets (also not in the UK…who knew?), teeth whitening strips and,clearly, many other things based on the sizeable to-be-packed pile in the hotel room.  I hope customs isn’t reading this..

and I hope I can fit everything in the suitcases for the return trip. Wish me luck!

What do you miss when you are away from wherever you call home?

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A Quiet Afternoon in London/ The Electric Cinema and Diner

The Mister and I finished off a long week of festive get-togethers with an epic Crossfit party Friday night and a pub take-over for the Army-Navy 2012 game on Saturday night. Enough was enough. We both needed a quiet afternoon in a dark room with a comfortable chair and some carb loaded snacks.  The Electric Cinema was just the ticket (ha).
Electric Cinema screen-1

Situated in Notting Hill, bang in the middle of Portobello Road, the Electric Cinema raises the bar for movie-viewing comfort.  Look closely at the picture above and note the large sofas, complete with cashmere blankets and overstuffed pillows. Ahhhh….

Electric Cinema seats-1

The theater also provides oversized leather chairs and leather footrests for those individuals unable to procure a sofa or a date with whom to share the sofa (reservations needed, book ahead. Dates not provided. Sofa-based funny business strictly monitored by the audience and management).   The bar has a decent selection of drinks, snacks and coffee (which was good).   Watching a good film whilst cradled in the comfort of the Electric Cinema has truly spoiled me for any other.

Electric Diner-1

Adjacent to the Electric Cinema is the Electric Diner, which provided the perfect way to finish off an afternoon of pure laziness.  The place was packed and had a waiting list.  The hostess kindly took our name and cell-number and told us to go shop  Portobello Road while we waited for a table.  We did manage to do a little Christmas shopping before our phone rang and we hustled back to a table at the bar.

Electric Diner meal-1

The atmosphere was true diner.  The chefs were hustling, the waiters were yelling orders, the service efficient and friendly.  I went for the sure thing…double-cheeseburger and fries with a side of tomatoes (no, I don’t know why either).  The Mister was disoriented after his long week of celebrations and ordered breakfast.  The burgers were good, the pickles excellent and the fries crispy.  The Mister’s eggs and ham steak were phenomenal. He commented “that even the toast is perfect.” What more could you ask?

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon.  A great cinema experience, a good diner and a little Christmas shopping along Portobello Road.

Things to know:

If you have your heart set on having a sofa, book early.  Really early.  There are sofas in back as well, but people who walk in front of you on occasion. If that’s going to bother you, stick with the front sofas.

The theater also sells donuts and coffee in the lobby.  I can’t vouch for the donuts (I have very high donut standards), but the coffee was hideous.  Wait until you go into the theater and order coffee from the bar.  Much better…for a pound more.  You decide.

The diner does not take reservations, but they will take your cell number and call you when your table is ready.  Get your name on the list and go shop Portobello Road while you wait.

Shopping along Portobello Road on a Sunday in winter is a far more enjoyable experience than shopping on Portobello Road on a Saturday in the summer.  Take note.

Weekend Away: Day 2 Zurich

Our first morning in Zurich was filled with glorious sunshine and puddles of melted snow.  A perfect day for walking Zurich. The Mister enjoyed his hotel breakfast (very good) for the astronomical sum of 30CHF while those of us not on business accounts wandered into town for a more reasonable breakfast at one of Zurich’s department stores.  Little known fact…department stores in Zurich have lovely little cafes and restaurants that serve good food for a (more) reasonable cost.

I topped up on a coffee and an egg-ish tart in Globus and decided to buy a few snacks from the downstairs food hall before venturing out for the day.

The food hall had a great selection of ready-made food and a huge assortment of candy and pastries. As tempting as everything looked, I didn’t buy anything as  I’m saving myself for an apple strudel with warm vanilla cream.

Zurich is well-known as an expensive, exclusive place to shop.  I started my walk on the Bahnhofstrasse, famous for designer labels and posh boutiques.  The section closest to the train station is more high-street than high-end, but the vibe changes as you walk south toward Lake Zurich.  Even if you don’t plan on  purchasing a Gucci handbag or diamond cufflinks, it’s a fun place to window shop and people-watch.  I stopped in the Sprungli store to examine the chocolates and test some of the sample coffees.

I reached the end of Bahnhofstrasse at Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), usually a bustling hub for boaters, swimmers, residents and tourists.  Since it was the very end of October, the lake was very quiet with the exception of one lake cruise boat filled with a handful of passengers.  I passed on the boat tour  (I’ve done this before..a great way to relax and see Zurich from a different perspective) and  continued my walk back along the river north to visit the Fraumunster.

The Fraumunster abbey was founded in 853 by Louis the German.  It has beautiful frescos in the cloister and 5 beautiful stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall in the choir of the abbey.   Sorry, no photography allowed in the church, but you can click here to see information about the church and windows.  After admiring the Fraumunster, I abandoned my tourist map and started wandering the side streets of Zurich.

I fell in love with this little seating area outside the Sibler shop (fabulous for well-designed kitchenware and household goods).  Did you notice the red, fuzzy throws on the chairs?  The fuzzy-throw-on-chair concept is everywhere in Zurich…cafes, restaurants, anywhere with outdoor seating.  Good for keeping you toasty warm while you enjoy your coffee and pastry!  I love this idea and plan on using it at home, as soon as I have an outdoor space.  And some chairs. And some of the fuzzy things.

The Teuscher chocolate shop won the prize for the most beautiful, festive window display (says me).

So many little shops and boutiques …

I followed one of the cobbled streets to a small park  at the top of the hill…

Originally the site of a Roman citadel, the Lindenhof  is now a public park with spectacular views over the city.  It is  a great place to take panoramic pictures of the city and soak up the sun on a park bench.


It was well past noon and I still had things to see, so I crossed over the river and walked to see the 12th century, Romanesque Grossmunster.

The Grossmunster, according to legend, was founded by Charlemagne after his horse stopped on the graves of three Christian martyrs.  The three martyrs were tortured, beheaded and miraculously carried their own heads up the hill to this spot and commenced burying themselves.  A beautiful, 15th century statue of Charlemagne, originally placed in the south tower, now sits in the crypt below the church.

For 4CHF, you can climb to the top of  the Grossmunster’s towers and enjoy a spectacular view of Zurich.  I don’t know why I even contemplated this since I have a paralyzing fear of heights.  I watched little kids, fat old men and grannies pay their money and haul up the stairs.  Surely, if they can do it, I can do it. Ha.  I was doing quite well until the tiny stone steps turned into steep, ladder-like wooden steps.  I stopped at one point to consider  1. Who does one call in Switzerland if you need to be blindfolded and carried down 187 steps?  2. What does a panic attack in a church tower look like from the street?  3. What would I look like climbing backwards down the stairs, whilst sobbing loudly on my hands and knees?

I eventually shamed myself into finishing the climb and was rewarded with spectacular views over the town and lake.  I took quite a few pictures, but most were overexposed, blurry or taken through the barrier rails.  Sorry!  My hands were shaking and I couldn’t see.  Haha.

Back on terra firma, I found a tiny grocery store offering hot soup and sandwiches…

which I happily ate in one of the many “hidden” parks and public sitting areas …

The hidden green areas, winding streets, the feeling that something interesting is just around the corner…all contribute to Zurich’s charm.

I found this fabulous bakery on my way to Kunsthaus Zurich and vowed to return to sit in the fuzzy chairs, play with the dog and have a coffee and that elusive apple strudel with vanilla cream.

The Kunsthaus Zurich museum of fine arts holds an impressive permanent collection, as well as an excellent selection of current exhibitions.  I was particularly interested in the Gauguin, Giacometti and Great Art and Architecture exhibitions.

After a few leisurely hours at the museum, it was time to think about picking up dinner and getting on the train.  Of course, I had to stop at a few design stores on the way to do a little Christmas shopping, Bookbinders on Oberdorfstrasse and Changemaker/Ethik Kusst Asthetik on Markgasse 10 are two fabulous choices.

After a few final photo-stops and a quick pass through the train station coop for a take-away dinner, it was time to leave Zurich and head for a weekend in the Alps.

What I liked:

Getting around Zurich was effortless.  While I enjoy doing everything on foot, travel connections within and surrounding Zurich are efficient, clean and frequent.  There isn’t really any need for a car.

Food was very good, albeit expensive.

Residents are tolerant and encouraging of any attempt to speak their language.  They are also generous enough to switch to English when necessary.

The city itself is beautiful, especially at night.

Good coffee, finally

Chocolate.  Lots of chocolate

Good to know:

Switzerland is EXPENSIVE. Consider using Swiss Pass if you are in the country for more than a few days. It allows for unlimited travel on rail, bus and boat system throughout Switzerland as well as 50% discount on mountain trains and cable-cars. It also gives free admissions to over 400 museums and sights. There are a variety of passes available, so check here before you go.

There are a large number of smaller cafes and supermarkets throughout Zurich that carry the supplies for a picnic lunch/dinner.  Also try the cafes in the department stores for a quick lunch or coffee. The price differential is significant.

Where to stay:

We stayed in the Zurich Marriott this week.  It is a nice hotel located on the river, about a 10 minute walk from the train station.  It wins points for location and cleanliness.  It loses points for charging 35chf a day for internet (please) and a similar amount for breakfast.  It has a big following with corporate clients.

We’ve also stayed at EMA HOUSE when we were traveling with children.  We had a very modern, well-designed two bedroom flat with a galley kitchen… wonderful when you want the option of eating in. EMA HOUSE is just up the hill from the Marriott and enjoys the benefits of being close to town, the river and everything Zurich has to offer.  This is not a hotel with hotel services…if you need personal attention, daily maid service and chocolates on your pillow, this is not for you.  It is, however, a great place to stay.

I have a policy of not recommending/reviewing anything I haven’t done or any place I haven’t stayed :).  There are countless of other places to stay in Zurich, and we might try something new the next time we come. I’ll update this page if we find something fabulous!

Weekend Away: Day 1 Zurich

I’m not a morning person, but I’ll happily get up early to board a plane to anywhere.  The Mister and I decided to pair business with pleasure this week…a few days in Zurich followed by a weekend in the Alps.  Perfect.  We’ve tried Gatwick, Heathrow (shudder) and Stansted Airport in our bid to find the easiest way in and out of London.  Hint:  It isn’t Heathrow.  This morning’s flight departed from London City Airport, easily accessible by tube, light rail (DLR) and cab.  Getting to City was easy, but getting out wasn’t.  We arrived at Swiss Air check-in desk at 6:00am to find our flight was canceled due to technical reasons (ie, they aren’t telling you why and they aren’t buying you a compensatory breakfast either, so don’t ask).  Flight re-scheduled for 3 hours later, meetings shuffled, etc.  At least the lines at security were short, the City Airport staff pleasant and the waiting area filled with comfy chairs and a Cafe Nero.

I checked the weather before we left and the report promised sunny skies and temps in the mid-40’s/50’s and so, I packed accordingly.  I started to question the accuracy of the report as we flew in over snow-covered mountains, fields and houses.  Oh oh.  No worries since Switzerland wins the prize for outstanding natural beauty no matter what the weather.  I’d just have to admire it with fashionable shoes and frozen feet.  Our arrival in Zurich was blessedly Swiss…no lines, efficient immigration and rail connections to the city center.  We were checked-in at our hotel within 45 minutes of our arrival and back out the door to find a late lunch within an hour.  Zurich is a great walking city, and our route from the hotel to the city center was along the Limmat River, past the Landesmuseum and through the picturesque side streets.

We found a little cafe off Niederdorfstrasse 31, filled with students and locals.  We took that to be a good sign and it was.  The cafe was cozy and warm, complete with faux fireplace, local newspapers and a welcoming atmosphere. I managed to get through translating the menu and sprinkled my English with the bits of  German I remembered from high school and college.  I ordered the pumpkin soup with tiger prawn (fabulous) and The Mister ordered the tomato consomme’ (also fabulous).  We both ordered Edi’s chicken special which came with a pile of side salads.  Perfect.  The portions were huge, the coffee was excellent, the staff was friendly, the prices decent (for Switzerland).

The Mister ran off for his first meeting and I headed back to the train station to figure out train tickets and travel passes.  Swiss Rail has an endless variety of travel passes that can be a very good value if you plan to spend more than a few days in Switzerland. The passes are expensive, but purchasing tickets separately can be stunningly more so.  Do the math and see what works for you and certainly talk to the knowledgable people in the rail office at the airport or at the train station in Zurich.  We planned on seeing most of Zurich by foot, taking one train to the Alps and one gondola, so we passed on the pass.  After an hour or so of mental math and linguistic gymnastics, I decided to walk through the city a bit before meeting friends for dinner.

I love exploring a city by foot.  I did bring a few travel guides and grabbed a map from the tourist bureau, but decided to leave the formal planning until later.  I walked for hours along the river and through the cobbled streets, window shopping and people watching.  I was very tempted by the “hausgemachter apfelstrudel mit warmer vanillesauce” at the cafe next to the river…

I’ve noticed that Europe starts the Christmas season much earlier than we do in North America. The windows in Zurich were already filled with Christmas decorations, foil wrapped candies and twinkling lights. Yet, somehow, it seems more relaxed. No inflatable snowglobes, no flashing XMAS 110% off signs, no hints of 3:00am black Friday stampedes.  I like it.  I stopped in Schweizer Heimatwerk next to the bridge to admire the Christmas decorations and the traditional Swiss Scherenschnitt (papercuts) hanging in the window.

The shops were closing, it was getting dark and it was time to meet some friends for dinner at Hiltl Vegi, Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.  I was a little leery about eating vegetarian as I am a dedicated carnivore and definately phobic about substituting meat with lumpy white globs of soy, but his place was amazing.  The restaurant itself is situated over multiple levels and offers a choice of take-away, buffet  or a la carte menu.  The Mister and I both ordered a la carte (blessedly from an English menu, happily provided upon request) and were pleasantly surprised with the endless choices and the quality and freshness of the food.  The restaurant offers cooking classes in their studio and impressed me enough to consider signing up for some the next time I’m in town.

We finished off the evening with a walk home along the river.  I think, perhaps, Zurich is  prettiest at night.

Part 2 tomorrow!

Vintage London

I had a mild case of the expat blues just before the weekend so The Mister decided to surprise me with a man-planned day out to cheer me up.  Knowing my obsession with all things vintage (vintage jewelry, dresses, houses (especially falling-down houses), maps, etc.) he did a little internet surfing and found the Primrose Hill Vintage Fashion Fair at the Cecil Sharp House.

This isn’t necessarily the largest vintage fair in London, but it is very well-curated.  No plowing through piles of musty 1980s shoes and moth-eaten jumpers to find the one treasure at the bottom of the pile.  I managed to find a bespoke 1940’s party dress (perfect for the Gin Palace!) and a gorgeous leather handbag for a song and mourned my inability to stuff my big feet into a pair of tiny, fabulous designer shoes.  I also had a painful epiphany…some of the things I used to wear are now considered vintage.  Ouch.

This vintage fair comes to the Cecil Sharp house again on 11 November and 2 December.  If you can’t catch them here, you can try and catch them on the 3rd Saturday of every month at Spitalfields Market .  If you are fortunate enough to have any money left over after paying for your vintage treasures, make sure you stop in to the downstairs cafe.

The Nice Green Cafe offers simple, comfort food and a cozy atmosphere all for a very reasonable price.  We chose a table tucked into the corner, adjacent to the dance studios (lunch and a show!). I felt like I was sitting in my Nana’s kitchen on a rainy, Sunday afternoon.

We enjoyed a bowl of homemade vegetable soup, bread and tea, while the ladies next to us enjoyed coffees and gargantuan slices of cake.  Delicious.  This was a great introduction to the myriad of vintage options in London.  I can’t wait to explore the options around Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Clerkenwell.  If you have a favorite vintage haunt, please let me know!