Two great things to do in Paris

Of course I mean eating and walking. If I weren’t here by myself, there would be at least one other thing to add to the list, but I am, more’s the pity — c’est la vie.

Last night, after buttoning up the computer, I realized I was slightly hungry, so I left my hotel, turned left down the Boulevard Haussmann and continued on as it turned into Boulevard Montmartre, eventually deciding to turn around just before reaching Place de la République. I spotted a creperie and got a crepe with marmalade to go, then took the Metro back to the hotel. One of the things I really enjoy about Paris is being able to take a nice walk and have a nice snack at 11pm — or even later, if I only had the energy.

This morning dawned early, and only slightly wet. The Louvre and Musee de Orsay had been closed yesterday due to a strike, and no one knew if they’d be open today (the hotel called and got no answer, but they weren’t sure if it was because of the strike, the time change, or both). I didn’t want to waste my only full free day hoping to find an open museum, so I decided to see if I could make the Paris Walks tour of Montmartre that the Mercury News had so kindly written about last Sunday. The article had omitted small details, like the time of the tour, but they gave the phone number (+33 1 48 09 21 40). The person who answered the phone didn’t bother saying “bonjour” — their clientele speaks English, and so do they. As it happened, I had about a half-hour before the tour, so I dashed to the Metro and made it to the Abbesses stop with ten minutes to spare.

Our guide, Iris, came from the Bronx and had been in Paris for about three years, with no plans to leave. She took us on a two-hour walk through Montmartre, mostly up! Unfortunately, it was cold and raining the entire time (and I’d forgotten to bring my sweater), so I wasn’t able to take as many pictures as I’d’ve liked to (those of you reading this page on a dial-up connection may be grateful).

We started by talking about the history of the district (even though there are churches in the area dating to the 12th Century, Montmartre wasn’t annexed to Paris until about 1860), then walked along Rue des Abbesses, where we stopped near the house where Van Gogh lived with his brother. I couldn’t get a picture of that house, but one of his neighbors was Toulouse Lautrec, who worked in a house about two blocks away (Lautrec’s house is the one behind the traffic light, with the “D”-shaped top window and the very large window beneath that):

lautrec house:  The house where Toulouse Lautrec worked is the one with the big picture window one floor down and the 'D' on the top floor.

We continued on our way towards Sacre-Coeur, with many stops along the way; at one, Iris told us the story behind this picture:

through walls:

The statue, at Place Marcel Aymé, is based on a story by Marcel Aymé about a mild-mannered man who discovers that he can walk through walls. Eventually, he builds a life of crime on this talent, uses it to escape from prison, finds a lover whose husband locks her in a room with no windows every night (no problem for this guy!), but then loses his power while leaving her one night.

sacre-coeur:

Our tour ended at Sacre-Coeur; most of the way, we’d been by ourselves, but here we returned to Tourist Paris, loaded with postcard vendors and overpriced restaurants. The view was good, but I bet it’s spectacular on a clear day.

paris from sacre-coeur:

The Mercury News article recommended spending the rest of the day wandering around Montmartre on your own, and even suggested a few cafés to try, but I was cold and wanted to go back to the hotel.

Once there, I grabbed my sweater and set out again; after a quick lunch (how un-Parisian of me!), I joined my second Paris Walks tour of the day, this one through the Marais.

The Marais is one of the oldest sections of Paris; the name means “swamp”, but it’s been drained for centuries. And it’s the heart of Paris’s Jewish community.

synagogue de Rue Pavee:

This is the Synagogue de Rue Pavee (this was the first paved street in the Marais, hence the name). It was built in 1913 to handle the influx of Polish Jews fleeing the pogroms; after World War II, the congregation was replentished with Sephardic Jews from the former French colonies in North Africa.

by Guimard:

Hector Guimard was the architect; he is probably more famous for having been the man who designed many of the original Metro stations.

parce que nes Juifs:

During World War II, the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews in the territory they controlled, and the Vichy government, which controlled Paris, cooperated in that attempt. This plaque is on the wall of the Ecole des Travail, in memory of the director, staff, and students of the school, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz where they were killed.

fallafel:

But, though the Nazis killed six million Jews, they failed to exterminate us, and there is now a large, vibrant Jewish community in Paris. Falafel and shwarma probably weren’t common before the war, but they are now, and seeing this shop gave me a pretty good idea of what I was going to have for dinner (though I wound up eating across the street at L’As du Fallafel).

goldenberg:

There are Kosher (err…Cacher) restaurants representing many cuisines in the area; I saw sushi, pizza, and steak, to name but three. And, of course, there’s New York style deli; this restaurant, Jo Goldenberg’s, isn’t actually Kosher, but it’s noteworthy because it was the site of a bombing in the 1980s. You can see a memorial to the victims, including newspaper articles about the bombing, on the rightmost portion of the left-hand wall, just to the left of the center of the picture.

hotel des sorbes:

There’s more to the Marais than the Jewish community, and we continued onward to look at some of the old mansions which have survived (many have had their courtyards filled in and been converted to apartments, stores, and the like). The Hotel des Sorbes (I may have misspelled that) is now part of the National Archives; it was owned by one of Louis XIV’s official mistresses.

louis xiv:

Only one statue of Louis XIV survived the French Revolution; it’s now in the Museum of the City of Paris.

Our tour ended at the Place de Vosges, a huge square dating back to Henri II (or before). I took pictures, but they don’t do it justice.

If you’re going to be in Paris, I highly recommend Paris Walks; they offer many more tours than the two I took, and I wish I could take some more on this trip.

After the tour, I visited some of the Judaica shops (I saw more Judaica in the Marais than I did on my trip to Israel last week; of course, I also spent more time touring this afternoon than I did during my entire trip to Israel) and picked up a Matzah platter (inscribed in Hebrew, of course) and had dinner. I tried to visit the Jewish Museum, but there were only 15 minutes before closing and they wouldn’t let me in, so I went back to my hotel.

Daylight Savings Time started here this morning, and it felt too early to give up and do e-mail, so I decided to do one traditional tourist thing and visit the Eiffel Tower.

The last time I was here, the front of the tower was adorned with a giant countdown to the year 2000; fortunately, that particular problem is behind us, and I was curious to see what the tower looked like without the timer, so I took the Metro to the Trocadero to take advantage of the view of the tower from across the Seine:

eiffel tower:

But some unsung genius, probably in the city government, decided that the Eiffel Tower wasn’t beautiful enough as it was. So they affixed a bunch of strobe lights which started flashing on and off in random patterns shortly before 8pm, like this:

eiffel tower with sparkles:

No one asked me, but I don’t think the tower needed improving — and they didn’t succeed, either.

I didn’t come to Paris to play tourist; I’m here for two days of internal IBM meetings out at La Defense. I’d like to blow them off and tour some more, but I’d probably be found out (hi, boss!), but I hope to do a little sightseeing in the evenings after the meetings end. If I can stay awake, that is — we’re starting awfully early, and I have a feeling the room is going to be hot, stuffy, and full. At least it’ll be a non-smoking hot, stuffy, and full room.

Though I have to admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well Parisians honor no-smoking signs. Why, I haven’t seen anyone smoking within nearly a foot of any of the signs I’ve seen!

And on that note, it’s time for bed…or maybe to go out for a snack. It’s only 11pm, so the evening’s still young!

Paris in the rain


paris in the the spring:

When I was a kid, our elementary school library had a book of puzzles, one of which is pictured above. The book claimed that if you look quickly at the picture, you’ll read it as “Paris in the spring” — if you did, take a closer look (and let me know that it worked!).

Well, it’s spring, and I’m in Paris — but the weather is not the stuff of legend — or maybe it is, but not the kind of legend I like telling.

My flight to Charles de Gaulle airport left late and arrived late (like almost every flight I take these days, now that I think of it), but was basically pleasant — even though we were only in the air for 40 minutes, they managed to feed us our choice of sandwiches, unlike US airlines, which have given up on food for flights of under 2 hours or flights which don’t take off or land when they think people should be hungry. The delay was due to weather, which should have made me think — but it didn’t, so I decided to save the company some money and take the RoissyBus into town (48 francs, about $7, instead of 250-300 francs for a taxi); I knew my hotel was only a few hundred meters from the end of the bus ride and I didn’t expect to have any trouble finding it.

And finding the hotel was easy, and it was only a ten-minute walk — but by the time I got there, I was drenched, because a weather system caught up with us, and it was pouring down rain. I managed to register (it’s not easy when you can’t read the form because your glasses are wet, and when you drip all over the form when you try to sign it) and went up to the room to dry off. A few minutes later, I felt far better, and the rain had stopped, so I went out to look around and have a bite of lunch (the sandwich on the plane wasn’t very filling, but it was better than peanuts). I also splurged and spent 35 francs ($5) on an umbrella, since the day was rather gloomy.

It was late enough in the day by this point that I didn’t think it was worth going to any museums, but I definitely wanted to be out rather than spending the afternoon in my hotel room, so I decided to do a favor for a friend and take a picture of the hotel he’ll be staying at in June, the Hotel de Trois Colleges near the Pantheon. Actually, I took six pictures, but I won’t post any of them here — but I did take a picture of the Pantheon as long as I was in the neighborhood.

pantheon:

Ever since my first trip to Paris, a few years ago, I’ve liked wandering around the city — it’s just a wonderful city to walk through. Everywhere you turn, there’s another typically Parisian scene, like this one on the Rue Lagrange (in the 6th, just a few blocks from Notre Dame).

rue lagrange:

By this time, it was drizzling again — which seems to have been very typical this year. The Seine is very wide and high (not to mention brown and fast-flowing); it’s so full, in fact, that there’s no sidewalk by the sightseeing boats.

sunken sidewalk:

And at other places, you can see that the river has taken out the paths which are normally a pleasant place to walk.

flooded seine:

Buildings near the river’s edge are in trouble, too.

flooded seine 2:

I wanted to visit the Musee de la Deportation, which commemorates the Jews (and others) who were sent from France to concentration camps, mostly to be killed by the Nazis. The museum is just across the street from Notre Dame, descending from street level down to river level, but the flooding meant that it was off limits.

musee de la deportation:

By this time, I was just across from Ile St. Louis, which houses one of the best ice cream makers in the world, Bertillion; I wanted to eat before having my ice cream, so I set off in search of a restaurant (not a difficult task in Paris!). I intended to follow Tim Bray’s rule — find a busy restaurant on a busy corner and the odds are with you — but I didn’t see anything I wanted to eat at the first few places, so I kept walking. And then the rain started. My umbrella kept me dry, or so I thought — but then the wind blew my pants up against my legs and I realized that I was soaked from the knees down. So I dashed into the next restaurant I saw and got the last table in the place.

The food was good, and they happened to sell Bertillion ice cream and sorbet, so I was happy and well-filled by the time the rain diminished enough to leave. I walked to the nearest Metro station and hopped a train towards my hotel. But I got off a stop too early and wandered around some more, first through Galleries Lafayette (entering that store 15 minutes before closing is a frustrating experience, but I guess it saved me money!), and then somewhat randomly around the area. In the process, I found an area with many kosher restaurants, but, of course, they were closed because it was still Shabbat. After a while, though, I decided I was ready to go back to the hotel and take off my wet clothes, so I took out my GPS and discovered that it’s very hard to see view of enough of the sky in Paris to get a position — but eventually, I figured out what direction I had to go in to find my hotel, and here I am.

I haven’t had the courage to check the weather forecast for tomorrow. Whatever it is, I’ll be out in it!

Foot-and-Mouth

On Thursday, I wrote about how Israelis didn’t seem to be letting the “situation” affect their lives too much and wondered how that reaction compared to what foot-and-mouth was doing to the English. I’d have to say that foot-and-mouth is having a much more significant effect — for example, the road into IBM had straw on it — straw with antibiotics, to kill any germs that might be on tires on cars driving in and out of the property (IBM Hursley is in a rural area). And there was a scare a week ago, where it looked as though foot-and-mouth had been detected nearby; if that had happened, no one would have been allowed in or out of the area, and IBM Hursley might have had to close down for a while.

There were also ads in the newspaper and on the radio telling people that the countryside was not completely closed for visiting, and giving a phone number to call for details — but many activities have been cancelled.

At the airport, every shop selling food had a sign informing customers that it was now illegal to take milk, meat, milk products, or meat products out of the country (even to eat on one’s flight), and that some countries (including the US) were banning the import of British milk chocolate.

In France, there were a few signs asking people who’d been on a farm to report to Customs to have their shoes disinfected and to stay off of farms in France, but there wasn’t any strong effort made to check, or even to make sure that incoming passengers read the signs — certainly, the person who glanced at my passport didn’t say anything to me (literally! Nor did he stamp my passport, but that’s fine; I already have a French stamp and I’m running out of room anyway), and I doubt I was alone in being ignored.

But when I looked at the 8pm French news, I could tell that foot-and-mouth was the lead story here, too. I just couldn’t tell if they were talking about the outbreak in England or cases on the Continent.

[23 March] 2001: A Motorway Odyssey

Today, I had to visit IBM Hursley to meet the conference director and my co-chair for the 2001 WebAhead conference (8-12 October in Hursley — IBMers only, sorry) and do some serious preliminary planning; phone calls and e-mail are wonderful tools, but somnetimes there’s no substitute for being in the same room, looking at the same whiteboard, and being able to interrupt in real time.

Chris and Simon had Real Work to do in the morning (or at least other meetings to attend), and I could be productive using the high-speed connection at the hotel, so we agreed that I’d plan to arrive in Hursley about noon, just in time for lunch. I left just before 11, and if I hadn’t turned the wrong way when I left the motorway, I would have been early — as it was, I could still claim to be “on time” by airline reporting standards.

The Hursley cafeteria is not terribly outstanding, so we gave it a miss and had lunch at a local pub (The Kings Head, which the 2001 Good Pub Guide rates as a “Lucky Dip”). Since I’m an American, I contented myself with a half-pint to accompany my food; Chris and Simon upheld the national honour with a pint each.

Then we went back to the lab, had a quick meeting with the Assistant Lab Director and an even quicker one with the new Lab Director, and spent a long afternoon making plans and drawing up schedules and rough agendas. At the end of the day, we had made great progress; I guess having done this conference three times already helps.

Then I got back onto the motorway to go back to the hotel, zipping right along. Until I got just past Junction 4, where traffic stopped. Completely. With no hope of escape. Every so often, I’d be able to creep ahead a few feet — and since I was driving a stick, that meant having to clutch and shift, then go back to neutral to wait again. And the car had a stiff clutch, too.

Radio traffic reports said that things weren’t going to get any better in the six or so miles before I reached the M25. Luckily, just before I left the hotel, I remembered I had brought a UK Road Atlas with me, and I went back to the room to get it, “just in case.” So I figured out an alternate route, eased over to the left lane (British drivers are far more cooperative than Israelis!), and, a mere twenty minutes and one mile later, I was off the motorway.

From there, it was relatively clear sailing, and I pulled in to the Hertz lot only an hour-and-a-half later than I should have (not so good for a one hour trip). In theory, I should have taken the Hertz bus to the terminal and then caught a Hotel Hoppa back to my hotel, but I was in a hurry, so I persuaded the Hertz driver to drop me at the exit from Heathrow to the A4 (Bath Road) and I walked the 0.8 miles back to the hotel.

Boy, is this place expensive!

The Marriott is a nice enough hotel, and their base rate isn’t insane (at least not at the IBM rate), but the incidentals here can kill you. My rate doesn’t include breakfast, but the hotel’s happy to supply the continental breakfast buffet for 12 pounds (plus tax and tip). Internet access is 12 pounds a night (again, plus tax) — that’s about double the going rate in the US (or Israel, for that matter), but it’s far cheaper than trying to connect by phone (about a buck a minute!). And laundry is obscenely expensive — it shouldn’t cost more to wash something than it cost to buy it!

Passing bad currency

The UK has this nasty habit of taking coins and bills out of circulation from time to time. When they do this, you have to bring your old money to a bank to exchange it for the new model — and that can be a real pain for an occasional visitor like me.

And apparently they’ve just taken some old 20-pound notes out of circulation — including the one I still had from last October. I tried to visit the bank branch at IBM to exchange it, but I was too late; fortunately, the cashier at Tesco’s was either nice or not too observant and accepted my bill. I’m sure Tesco’s will be able to exchange it for new money with no problem, too.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Paris. I intend to be sure not to bring any francs home with me, because I know they’ll be no good before my next trip!

Hatikvah

Last night, I was up fairly late doing work (I wanted to take advantage of the overlap with the US business day), but finally was ready to go to bed just after midnight. I had had the TV on for background noise, and was flipping through the channels aimlessly before turning it off, but the program on Channel One caught my eye and I took my finger off the remote control.

What they were showing on screen was a passage from the Torah (probably from this week’s parasha, though I couldn’t tell), with a yod pointing to the words as they were being read, almost as if it were being done during services (almost — there were illustrations on the scroll, which is not the case with a real Torah).

After that, they went to a still shot of the words (in Hebrew, of course) “Lilah Tov m’Yerushaleim” (Good Night from Jerusalem), and I realized that they were about to sign off for the night. I was ready to turn off the set, but before I could, the screen changed again, showing an Israeli flag waving, with the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah, playing, and the words scrolling up the screen.

Much to my surprise, I found myself singing along, with tears forming in my eyes — and that’s something that never happens when I hear The Star-Spangled Banner.

I’d had much the same reaction two years ago when our tour group stopped at Herzl’s grave and we sang Hatikvah together (it was the first time I’d sung it since finishing Hebrew school, many years ago — they made us sing it there during every class, and once I learned to sing it well enough to get by, it bored me). I thought it was largely due to the intense environment — we’d just come from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum), and we’d spent a couple of weeks touring Israel in a very Jewish environment, so I was clearly primed to react, and I thought no more about it.

But this time, it was just me, alone in my room on a business trip — hell, I’d just turned off my laptop after dealing with a day’s worth of e-mail, so I definitely shouldn’t have been affected.

But I was. Somehow, without noticing it, I’d turned into an ardent Zionist, and I felt truly at home, involved, and committed. Not committed to the extent that I have any plans to make aliyah (Diane will probably be relieved to know that!), but I certainly feel more than casually invested in what goes on in Israel, and I’m very interested in spending more time in Israel and visiting more frequently than I’ve done in the past — and that doesn’t just mean arranging more short business trips like this one (though I do think IBM has gotten significant value on my trips so far).

Watching TV can be dangerous.

Thinking about safety

When I originally planned this trip, it had three purposes. First, I was going to speak at the official opening of the Israel Office of the World-Wide Web Consortium. Second, I needed to meet with the team in Hursley, England, who will be hosting our internal WebAhead conference this fall (I’m the co-founder and permanent co-chair, but all the hard work gets done by the folks in Hursley — I just fly in, talk a lot, and visit pubs in the evening (that’s why we picked England for the conference in the first place: the beer is better there than at home)). And the third reason was to attend an internal meeting in Paris, where the people in the CIO’s office will be planning how IBM’s computing environment will evolve over the next year or so (my role there is simple; I’m a spy). Because the dates of the events in Paris and Israel were set by others, I found myself with a few spare days, and I decided to spend two of them at IBM Haifa and the weekend between events playing tourist in Paris.

Two weeks before I was to leave, terrorists set off a bomb in Netanya (between Haifa and Tel Aviv, on the coast, well inside the original boundaries of the State of Israel). And the W3C folks thought it might be better to postpone the grand opening for a few months. And I nearly cancelled my trip — or at least the Israel part of it — but after talking with my hosts in Haifa, I decided that they’d put together an interesting agenda, and that I wanted to come if it was at all possible.

So I kept a close eye on the news (mostly the Jerusalem Post, but also other Israeli English-language Web pages and the BBC). And I kept talking with people who were well-connected to Israel, like the Rabbi and her husband (who’s a physicist and makes frequent visits to his colleagues in Israel). And made sure my manager was still willing to send me. And, of course, I stayed in touch with my hosts in Haifa — I was using instant messaging with them right up until the car service came to pick me up at home last Sunday. Everyone said that I should be OK, and Diane didn’t seem too worried, so off I went…nervously.

Then I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, and I noticed that all of the Israelis I talked with were proceeding with life as usual. Sure, there were incidents reported in the paper and on the news — and the “situation” (as everyone calls it) was always the lead story — but for the most part, it seemed to have much less effect on the people I was with than the energy situation in California has had on my family (and so far, we haven’t been hit with a blackout). People were shopping, taking buses, going to work, planning vacations…business as usual. And pretty soon, the situation receeded in my mind, too.

I don’t want to make light of the danger — it’s quite real, and eventually, the Israelis and Palestinians have to figure out how to live in close proximity. They may never be friends, but they either have to figure out how to live together or plan to continue dying together.

But while I was there, I didn’t feel that terrorists were a significant danger. Israeli drivers, on the other hand, scared me every time I went outside — and especially when I was on the road (this trip, I chose not to rent a car, so I didn’t even have the illusion of control). The most popular bumper sticker in Israel isn’t political — it’s a small sticker on the back of about half the cars which reads “Sh’mor Mirchak” (keep your distance). It doesn’t work, of course — and there are far more deaths in Israel from traffic accidents than from terrorism.

At the airport today, I had to go through Israeli security. I arrived in plenty of time, and even had a letter from IBM Haifa confirming that I’d been specifically invited to meet visit them so that I could show it to the agent. Clearing security only took about five minutes, including opening my bags to verify that everything in there was mine (I had left them in a semi-public area today, so I couldn’t say that they’d been under my control the whole time), and I didn’t even have to use my letter. I suspect having other Israeli stamps in my passport helps; flying Business Class probably didn’t make the quiz any less thorough (I wish I knew why they asked whether I have any family in Israel), but it did mean I didn’t have to wait in a very long line for my turn.

And now I’m on my way to England, where foot-and-mouth disease is the big story, and supposedly the entire country is depressed by it. I wonder if that’s exaggerated, too.

Five minutes to play tourist

One advantage of clearing security so quickly was not having to rush to make the plane; instead, I walked back outside to enjoy the good weather for a few minutes. I even had time enough to cross the street and look at the Dali Menorah outside Arrivals:

Dali Menorah

While I was taking my pictures, some other Americans walked up, and we started talking — they were just arriving to start a ten-day tour (since they were planning to spend time in Tiberias and mentioned the Sea of Galilee as a special place, I doubt they were with their synagogue) and were worried about terrorism. I told them that I’d felt safe on that score while I was there — but to watch out for the drivers. Perhaps I would have been more effective at setting their minds at ease without making that last remark!

And here I am at the lovely Heathrow Marriott

I upheld my tradition of getting lost on my way here, but this time I recovered within only a couple of minutes (I think the Hertz person gave me bad directions) and had hardly any trouble thereafter. I may have to switch to automatic cars, though; I’m way out of practice on shifting and clutching.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Hursley. But for now, time to face a day’s worth of e-mail. Oh, boy!

Haifa Sights

I still haven’t had any time to do any real sight-seeing (and probably won’t; I thought tomorrow would be more or less free, but I now have meetings until the time I have to leave for the airport. sigh), but I did manage to take a couple of pictures.

The area I’m in is fairly near the harbor, and there are quite a few bars around — some of them have signs saying “US Navy Pub”, and my colleagues here advised avoiding them! I don’t actually have any problems avoiding bars in general (British pubs are an exception), so that was no hardship, but I did find the name of one bar here slightly interesting:

Bear Pub: For Cokie

Other than the businesses which cater to sailors (there’s even a USO here), this is not a particularly touristy area; most of the shops have signs in Hebrew only. Last night, I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant — unfortunately, it wasn’t a Kosher Chinese restaurant (I know they exist, but I haven’t found one yet). But the chicken was just fine anyway.

The view from my room is very nice, including the Bahai headquarters:

Bahai complex from my room:

I’ve just been told that they will be having a grand opening on May 22nd to show off the gardens, but I think I’ll have to miss it.

Last night was not a good one from the jet lag standpoint; I woke up at 4:15am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So if my writing appears incoherent, there’s a good reason! More later, perhaps….

Mongolian Barbecue is Different Here

After a very full day at IBM, two of my colleagues and I went to dinner at the Mongolia restaurant, about five minutes from my hotel. At home, Diane Reese introduced us to Su’s Mongolian BBQ, and now we go there several times a month. We like it because it’s fresh, fast, fun, and cheap — although the choices are somewhat limited (four meats, six vegetables, and a dozen sauces), that still gives more combinations than I’ll ever have a chance to try. And so, I had a mental model of what to expect at a Mongolian Barbecue place.

My model got jolted as soon as I saw the interior of the restaurant. Su’s is very plain — they’ve taken a huge step lately by putting up a few science-fictiony paintings; before that, the most interesting thing on their walls was the poster with the minimum wage notice. Mongolia is definitely not plain — it looked like a typical “yuppie” restaurant, with nice wrought iron on the walls, nice chairs, and lots of wood.

We sat down, and I got my next surprise — like Su’s, you pay one price for all you can eat, but unlike Su’s, it’s not all self-service. First, they brought out an assortment of fancy appetizers including ostrich liver and chicken sate, and even more surprisingly, bread (something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant in the US). Everything was tasty (though I chose to skip the ostrich liver — I’ve never met a liver I liked yet), and then we were ready to go cook.

Again, Mongolia far outdid Su’s — instead of four meats and six vegetables, there were a dozen of each, and many, many sauces (plus fresh herbs). Fortunately, everything was labelled in English as well as in Hebrew, but there were still things I couldn’t recognize (what kind of herb is “aspodhel”?). But I didn’t need to try everything — nor did I want to — I just wanted a tasty meal, and I was pretty sure I could manage to create one.

At a Mongolian barbecue, you control what goes into your food (though trained professionals actually cook it), and so selection is critical. Just like Su’s, Mongolia provided some suggested recipes; unlike Su’s, they were printed in Hebrew. And the font was quite different — at home, I often see posters in English printed in a Hebrew-looking font; here, they printed Hebrew in a Chinese-looking font (I wish I had brought my camera!), not exactly designed for the non-native.

I could have asked my colleagues to help me follow the printed suggestions (in fact, they offered to do so), but what fun would that have been?

Instead, I decided to adlib. I stuck with what I knew for the first bowl (chicken as the meat, and spices and sauces which seemed familiar), and I quite enjoyed it (though I probably went a little heavy on the peanut sauce). I experimented more on the second bowl (turkey as the meat), and it wasn’t as successful — the sauce I concocted went better with the vegetables than with the meat, so I was a good boy and just ate my vegetables.

And then it was time to pay the bill, and I discovered the last big difference between Mongolia and Su’s. Su’s is inexpensive: $8 for all you can stand (if you’re a big eater, it can be quite a bargain). But in Israel, Chinese food is one of the fancier options, and Mongolia was no exception; my share of the bill came to a bit over 100 shekels (about $25), the most expensive meal I’d had in Haifa. But it was a nice change of pace, and I enjoyed the company at dinner (and I think they liked the food, too, though they did stick pretty closely to the suggestions).

I wonder if I can find a decent Mongolian barbecue restaurant in Paris this weekend?

Old Home Week

I’m in Cambridge for the first W3C Technical Plenary meeting, along with about 150 other people from many Web-related companies. I had, of course, expected to see many old friends at the meeting — but I was surprised when I got down to the ground floor and bumped into Ian Brackenbury of IBM, who was not here for this meeting but happened to be staying in the same hotel. Since we needed to talk anyway, we had breakfast together, neatly solving my indecision about where I’d eat.

Then, after the meeting, I visited the part of my group which is housed at Lotus (across the street from this hotel). And again, I was surprised — this time by Carol Moore, who was the Webmaster of www.ibm.com in 1995, soon after we first put it on the air, and who was visiting from Amsterdam; we chatted for a while before I came back for the post-meeting reception.

And then I wound up going to dinner with two friends and co-workers from my days in Boca, Andi Snow-Weaver and Phill Jenkins, both of who are now with IBM in Austin. We verified our geek credentials by talking about long-departed hardware (Series/1 computers, to be specific) in the taxi, but then decided that talking about people and food was more enjoyable, and that’s what we did for the rest of the evening.

Then I came back to the hotel, flipped on the news, and heard about the quake in Seattle. I vividly remember the Loma Prieta quake in ’89, and I’m glad this one doesn’t seem to have been nearly as harmful.

How we spent our late-winter vacation

For the last couple of years, Jeffrey’s school has started taking the week of Presidents’ Day off, along with many other schools in the area. It’s unofficially known as “Ski Week”, but we’re not very big on skiing (certainly not downhill!), so we do something else. Two years ago, we put Jeffrey into the daylong childcare program at the Y, but they don’t operate on Presidents’ Day itself, and it seemed a shame to use up a vacation day near home.

Last year, we got rained on at Disneyland; Jeffrey would have been happy to go back, but I didn’t want to get near the place so soon after the new California Adventure park opened.

This year, we considered many choices, none of which really appealed, and then I suggested, half-jokingly, Las Vegas (I’d been there once, during Comdex, and thought it was an interesting place). Much to my surprise, Diane and Jeffrey thought it was a good idea, so that’s where we spent last week.

LV Trip map: Courtesy Microsoft Streets and Trips.

Sunday

We left Sunday morning, bright and early by our standards (10am); we had hotel reservations in Las Vegas beginning Monday, so we were in no great hurry. The drive was uneventful, and traffic was light; we had lunch at Harris Ranch near Coalinga. I recommend the Tri-Tip — beef is their speciality, and they do a nice job of it. Jeffrey and Diane had chicken and were not particularly impressed. We reached Bakersfield at about 3:30 and decided it was too early to call it a day; the next obvious stopping point was Barstow, about 130 miles away, so we used the AAA book to pick out a hotel there, the Best Western Desert Villa Inn, gave them a call, and made reservations. We arrived about 6:10, and, after some confusion, got checked into our room. Our noisy room.

I didn’t do enough research before choosing the hotel; this was one of the two three-diamond hotels in Barstow, and the price seemed reasonable, so I went for it.

Barstow map: Courtesy Microsoft Streets and Trips

I should have checked their location more carefully. The AAA book said they were a half-mile from an exit from I-15, which was true and useful for navigation — what the book didn’t say was that the hotel was conveniently located between an uphill grade on I-40 and some very active freight tracks, so that there was a veritable symphony of engine noises just outside the window. Fortunately, the room also boasted a noisy heating system, and that provided a steady roar which masked the sounds from outside. But I was glad we only were planning to spend one night there.

We found a nice Chinese restaurant nearby, the China Gourmet, and had a pleasant dinner. Then back to the room, and to bed. And, eventually, to sleep.

Monday

The next morning, we had the continental breakfast (also not outstanding) and took off at about 9:30. Again, the drive was uneventful; traffic was heavy coming the other way, as people were leaving Las Vegas to go home for work on Tuesday. We stopped at the Nevada Welcome Center in Jean at about 11 and picked up some brochures and coupons for two free buffets at the nearby Gold Strike Casino; we were ready to eat, so the buffet seemed like a good idea. Of course, since there were three of us, we had to pay for one meal, but that still seemed cheap. It was, but Jeffrey couldn’t find anything to eat, and we wound up feeding him at Burger King (he got the best meal, too!).

Then we continued onward, visiting the Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Cactus Garden. I have no pictures of the Chocolate Factory (the tour is brief; the candy is yummy!), but the Cactus Garden is another story.

Jeffrey at Ethel M:

Here’s Jeffrey in the garden.

Teddy Bear Cholla: Unlike teddy bears or challah, this is <b>not</b> something you want to get close to!

This stuff (Teddy Bear Cholla) looks tame compared to Jumping Cholla — I didn’t want to get close enough to the latter to get a picture!

Beaver Tail:

We see cacti that look similar to this (Beaver Tail) near us. I don’t know if it’s the same variety or not; I do know that Prickly Pear thrives as near as our next-door neighbor’s house.

Boxing Glove:

And last, this is a picture of Boxing Glove cacti.

By this time, it was nearly 3, so we went to our hotel, the St. Tropez All Suite Hotel, to check in and unpack. We’d picked this hotel because it wasn’t too far from the Strip, had mini-suites with a foldout couch in the living room for Jeffrey, and didn’t have a casino. Of course, staying in a non-casino hotel costs more! The room was nice enough, though the air conditioner in the bedroom didn’t seem to work right, and they could have used significantly more sound insulation between suites (we had neighbors on Jeffrey’s side one night; they watched TV until well after 11, and it was loud enough that he couldn’t sleep in his room). But it was far better than the hotel in Barstow.

MGM Grand: Our car was usually parked here.  Well, in the parking garage, a short fifteen-minute walk away.

We drove down to the MGM Grand and parked, ready to go exploring. We never quite made it into the hotel; instead, we took the monorail to Bally’s, got out to the Strip, and started wandering. We had a list of free shows from the Welcome Center; the closest was the musical fountains at Bellagio, so we walked over there and were enthralled (and only slightly dampened). Then, to the Mirage, where we admired the statuary

Buddah Mirage: This is at the Mirage.  I think.

and the tigers.

White Tiger:

After a quick trip to Treasure Island, we came back to the Mirage for dinner at California Pizza Kitchen, overlooking the sports book; we spent most of dinner trying to explain horse racing to Jeffrey, since that’s what they had up on the big screen.

Falling Pirate:
Then back to Treasure Island for the pirate ship battle,
and over to the Mirage for the volcano.

Smoke on the Water:

Fire and Water:

Then, to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace to see the Fountain Show, buy some shoelaces, and go on our first motion simulator ride of the trip, Race for Atlantis, which I thought was only OK — the 3-D effect was blurry, the story made no sense, and I didn’t feel at all caught up in the action.

After that, it was back to the room for Jeffrey and Diane, while I found a grocery store to buy some fruit. And then another grocery store, because the first one had no cantalope. And back to the room, and to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, then drove to the MGM Grand and parked. This time, we hiked the quarter-mile from the parking lot to the Strip (with a detour to see if the theme park was open — it wasn’t; I had expected it to be inside, like everything else in Las Vegas, but it’s outside, and so it was closed for the winter) and looked around.

Skyline with Roller Coaster:

New York, New York beckoned, just across the street — and Jeffrey was most interested in riding the Manhattan Express. He was just barely tall enough (54 inches) to do so; neither Diane nor I wanted to join him, so we waved farewell and sent him on his way. Like many rollercoasters, they take pictures and try to sell them to you — we were a little unsettled when the pictures from his ride came up on the monitors and he wasn’t visible…instead, there was a picture of what looked like an empty seat! But that was just an optical illusion; he returned, happy, a few minutes later, and we set out in search of lunch. There are many restaurants in New York; the casino didn’t have quite as many, but it still took us a while to find one we could all agree on — America (the coffee shop).

After lunch, we took the elevated path to Excalibur, where Jeffrey and I rode Space Race, one of Merlin’s Magic Motion Machines (yes, a motion simulator). We both liked this one, although the story was pretty weak. Then we took the moving walkways to Luxor and all saw In Search of the Obelisk, their IMAX Ridefilm — yet another motion simulator. This was the best show we’d seen yet — the story made some sense, the preshow was engaging, and the guides helped get us into the mood. Great fun, highly recommended.

After that, we went back to the MGM Grand and saw the lions, picked up our car, and drove to the Las Vegas Hilton for Star Trek: The Experience. And it was quite an experience — we were there for several hours. First, we checked out the History of the Future Museum (a Star Trek timeline and paraphenalia), and then we rode the ride. Three times, in fact; one nice thing here is that you’re allowed to ride as many times as you’d like for one admission fee (AAA members get a $5 discount, by the way). This was my favorite ride — it was yet another motion simulator (of course) — but it was very well done, the pre-show is very good, and the cast members really interact with the participants. Riding it three times let me look at a lot of the details; I don’t want to spoil the ride for anyone who hasn’t been on it yet, but I would advise paying very close attention to the labels on panels once you’re on your way…there are many inside jokes to be spotted and enjoyed.

Before we left, we had dinner in Quark’s Bar and Grill and bought some stuff at the Deep Space Nine Promenade; we also had a family portrait taken with some of our more distant relatives.

Star Trek Family Portrait: Us with some members of our <b>very</b> extended family.

Wednesday

By this time, we were tired of free continental breakfasts, so we drove to the MGM Grand and enjoyed their Grand Buffet. I’m glad I don’t eat like that very often, though.

After breakfast, we went to M&M World and took in their 3-D movie, “I Lost My M in Las Vegas”, featuring Red and Yellow; we pocketed the free bag of M&M’s that they gave us afterwards (breakfast had been quite filling!), and headed North along the Strip. Some time later, we got to the Desert Passage shopping center, part of the new Aladdin complex, and went exploring. It was yet another mostly high-end shopping mall, featuring a food court whose restaurants were named only after the cuisine they offered. Jeffrey ate at Chinese; Diane and I decided to wait for something better.

Etoile (Vegas): Note the lack of traffic!

Paris offered us that something better — we ate in JJ’s Boulangerie and followed up with gelato and sorbet at Le Nôtre. Then we strolled the shopping street inside the hotel (which was just like the real Paris, if you ignored the lack of dog poop on the floor), and eventually came out at Bally’s, where we found the monorail back to the MGM and our car.

Then we drove to Circus Circus and watched two acts; in between, we finally succumbed to the lure of the machines and dropped a buck on pinball and a bit more on the Spiderman video game. Then, back to the car and down to Excalibur for the Tournament of Kings dinner show. The show was great fun, and the food was OK, too, even if the dessert was chocolate-less. Then we went back to Luxor, rode In Search of the Obelisk again, and made up for the lack of chocolate at dinner. Then back to our hotel and to bed.

Thursday

Thursday, we drove home. 538 miles, roughly, counting stops and detours for food. When we left, I wasn’t sure we’d do it all in one day, but we were really ready for our own beds, and the traffic and weather cooperated to make it an easy trip. We did have bad timing on dinner — we were in enough of a hurry to make fast food the right option, but the Burger King near Coalinga was busy hosting two Greyhound buses when we pulled up, so we continued on to Santa Nella before finding a place we wanted to eat. And the rain didn’t start until we were off the “Special Driving Zone — Double Fines” on Pacheco Pass Road above Gilroy — it was wet the rest of the way home, but that was only 35 miles or so, all freeway, and all flat.

Summing Up

We all enjoyed the trip; it would be nice if they issued gas masks for the walks through the casinos (Nevada is California’s smoking section), though!

I’m not sure I’d stay at the St. Tropez again — even though we’d deliberately selected a non-casino hotel, I felt like I was missing part of the Las Vegas experience by being there. I definitely would not stay at the Best Western Desert Villa in Barstow again, at least not without industrial-strength earplugs.

I wish we’d tried to make arrangements to see Hal while we were in Las Vegas (especially since Susan was also in town at the same time); I do appreciate the advice he gave us when we were planning our trip. And next time, we’ll probably see more than casinos — but as first-timers to Las Vegas (Comdex doesn’t really count), the casinos provided a lot of entertainment in a short time.

Simchat Torah 5761

Joy

I had a wonderful morning today, attending Simchat Torah services with the members of the South Hampshire Reform Jewish Congregation. They’re a small congregation without a permanent location (they use the Southampton Orthodox shul about twice a month and move around the area the rest of the time to be closer to the widely-scattered membership; today, they were at a member’s home on Allington Lane, about 10 miles from Winchester) and without a full-time rabbi or cantor (in fact, I found out today that no UK Reform congregation has a cantor). But they do own two Torah scrolls, and today, that was what counted.

Wrapped in the Torah: Celebrating Simchat Torah with the South Hampshire Reform Jewish Congregation

I’d actually never been to Simchat Torah morning services before — I’d been to the evening service, where the congregation dances with the Torah and processes around the sanctuary; it’s a fun evening. Morning services are a bit different, since we actually read the last and first parts of the Torah, and to do that, we unroll the complete scroll and literally wrap ourselves in the Torah. Today, in the small space available, we wrapped ourselves three layers deep in the Torah, which was a bit of a logistical challenge, especially when it came time to reroll the scroll.

no vowels:

I was given the unexpected honor of being Katan Torah, that is, called to the Torah to “read” the final portion of Deuteronomy. I put “read” in quotes because, like many contemporary Jews, I can’t actually read the Torah itself (there are no vowels in the Torah, for one thing, as you can see above), but in practice, that’s not a problem — all I had to do was read the blessings before and after the Torah reading, and the service leader read the Torah (she’s an Israeli who now lives in England, so her Hebrew was more than up to the task). Some day, perhaps, I’ll take on the challenge of actually reading (chanting) a Torah portion at services at Shir Hadash — Diane does it once or twice a year — but so far, I have found being asked to give a drash (explanatory talk) on the portion (in English, of course) to be sufficiently daunting!

I took a lot more pictures while we were rerolling the scroll, so I’ve written a photoessay to help tell the story.

Frustration

After leaving services, I started heading towards my hotel near Heathrow. We’d had a very light kiddush lunch at services, but I was hungry, so I stopped at a shopping center in Eastleigh for a more filling lunch. Parking was more of a challenge than I’d expected — fortunately, the parking lots here are “pay and display” rather than the “take a ticket” style which is common at home, so there’s no additional hassle leaving if you didn’t find a space. I succeeded in the second parking lot I tried; then I discovered that the one restaurant in the shopping center wasn’t very good. And I wasn’t successful at any of the other shopping I tried to do, either. But at least the parking was cheap.

Then I got on the M3 on my way to the hotel. All was well until I got off the highway, at which point I got thoroughly lost. I eventually found a place to park and called the hotel; they gave me directions, but unfortunately, their directions assumed I was starting from a different place than where I really was (I guess I told them the wrong thing!), and I got more lost; after a few more miles, I stumbled across a Sainsbury’s, parked, took out my map, and figured out where I was and where I had to be (I still have no idea how I got lost). Carrying a GPS is not very helpful if you have no way to cross-reference it to reality! But the UK mobile phone was quite useful; I’m glad I bought it.

But after the stop at Sainsbury’s, I was oriented, and found my way to the hotel in only a few more minutes. By this time, I was hungry again, but I didn’t want to eat in the hotel. So I walked out in search of the unknown. The first restaurant I saw was the McDonald’s in the Airport Bowl; I decided I could do better. A mile or so later, I found the next business district, which had an interesting-looking Indian restaurant…but it was closed. The Indian takeaway next door was open, though, and they had a couple of seats, so that’s where I ate (it was nice and spicy and filling, too!). Then I walked back to the hotel.

I spent the next 90 minutes trying to get connected to the network and failing. I had a hard time getting my computer plugged in to the wall, too — I still don’t have a UK power adapter, and the trick I used in Winchester to force the ground plug open enough to let an European plug go into the slot didn’t work here! The hotel found a UK adapter for me; I just have to remember to give it back to them, or I’ll be out 10 pounds (not a bad markup for something which costs about 2 pounds).

If you get to read this, I was successful at dialing in. That hasn’t been so easy this trip, either…half the time, the modems don’t successfully negotiate the connection.

Travel Tales

This page is a permanent link to my travel diaries.

What do Steve Young and I have in common?

Today, I attended the general CTRE session in the morning — all of the speakers were excellent. We had one talk from Bernard Buigues on the
raising of the mammoth, and another from Jane Lapotaire (a renowned Shakespearean actress and President, The Friends of Shakespeare’s Globe) and Professor Andrew Gurr on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — both talks got standing ovations, which really impressed me; IBM audiences are not usually so moved.

Then Diane and I had lunch and she headed out to take a Montréal city tour, while Jeffrey and I went ice skating. All went swimmingly for a while, then something happened (I don’t know exactly what and probably never will, because whatever it was caused a small amount of retrograde amnesia), and the next thing I knew, I was on a bench with two people trying to help me decide if I wanted to take a taxi or an ambulance to the hospital. And I didn’t remember having being out cold on the ice for ten minutes, either.

The rest of the evening was spent at the hospital, waiting for my X-rays and CT scan to be read. To make a long story short, everything appears to be well, but I sure looked awful, and neither my shirt nor my glasses will ever be the same (actually, my shirt will never come home). And I missed the grand finale of CTRE, the circus.

So to answer the question: both of us have suffered concussions within the past year. And apparently neither of us is playing in the NFL this year, either.

Tomorrow, it’s back home, and Friday, it’s work. After stopping at the optician, that is….