July 13, 2012

Britannia Rules - London Diary

I have sent three email dispatches from London since arriving on July 1 - for those who don't know I am in London and Paris for the entire month, work-related plus some vacation.  I am going to post the dispatches on Rodetsky just so they are preserved.

Part 1, July 1-3: London (a)Bridge(d)

Quick review of my time in London so far (and apologies to anyone
who'd prefer not to receive this email):

Routine flight.  Fairly comfortable ride.  Fairly smooth sailing
through customs except the fast track line I was able to get into
thanks to a voucher from my dad turned out to be slower than the slow
track line.  Thanks Fred!  It was 6:30 AM Sunday morning so I was in
no rush anyway.  Took the Tube all the way to my hotel, located in the
Square Mile, or the City as it is called.  Hotel is unremarkable but
phenomenally close to our office; 2-3 minute walk to work.  Boring at
night, kind of like Wall Street.  Large room however, and comfortable

Took a nap and then headed out for a long walk.  Walked down to Tower
Bridge, really cool thing to see with the Olympic rings hanging from
it (see attached photos).  Walked across bridge to south side of
Thames, then back through alley way and along the river.  Stopped for
my first fish and chips, very good (whole haddock).  walked all the
way up past the Globe theatre an into the Tate Modern.  Checked out
the surrealism exhibit, did not pay $25 for Damien Hirst or $25 for
Edward Munch, but might go back and check them out.  Then walked over
Millennium Bridge, past St. Paul's Cathedral.  Short rest at hotel and
then back out to a pub near Tottenham Court, "Spanish Alley," to watch
the Euro soccer final at a Spanish bar.  Fun celebrating with the
Spaniards, then finished with a delicious Guinness at a more standard
local pub.

Monday I went to work, got situated, met some people, and then spent
afternoon and evening at Wimbledon thanks to my "cousin" Ian Lasher,
including passes to the ESPN hospitality suite.  HUGE hookup by Ian;
included a centre-court ticket.  Indelible experience.  I watched both
Federer and Djokovic on the grass.  I sat literally right behind the
cameras providing the live tv feed; I could see the red light on each
camera indicating it was the camera being displayed on tellys around
the world.  Same view as the tv but i was watching it live.  I also
saw Dick Vitale and spoke to his son in a law for a while. He is a
judge in Florida.  Separately, I also sat on Henman Hill and cheered
on Andy Murray with a few thousand Brits.  fun to pretend I am all
these other nationalities.

Monday night walked through West End.  Good time to mention that all
walking has been done in the rain.  There is a perpetual drizzle so
far, but nothing torrential.

London is a massive city.  Reminds me of Los Angeles in shape and
breadth, though not in character of course.  What a great place to
just walk around and take in the infinite number of small gems you
encounter no matter where you are. Remarkable what an old city this
is.  Ancient compared to anything in the United States.  Labyrinthine
streets and alleyways.  Impossible to logically assess what direction
you are headed.  Thankfully there is helpful signage everywhere,
including the Underground/Tube, which I am really enjoying, though one
of my two local lines (Central, red) is the most claustrophobic train
line I have encountered so far.

Tuesday I spent the entire day at the office.  Hiscox has a nine-floor
building with a lot of nice art inside, though the building
architecturally is nothing to write home about.  Very nice cafe
downstairs, best coffee i have had anywhere as of yet.  I had a couple
of meetings today but mostly just did work; nobody is handling my desk
for me while I am over here.

People here are reasonably nice.  Table manners are definitely better;
if anyone here goes to the pantry to get coffee or water they ask
their neighbors if they want anything.  In the cafe there is table
service, even if you are just having coffee.  Not too shabby, these
Brits.  However, their supermarkets are gross.  Maybe 5-10% of what's
in the grocery store could be deemed "healthy."  I did try one British
chocolate bar though, and it was fantastic.  I forget the name.

After work tonight I took the Tube to Reuben's, a venerable kosher
restaurant, and had the best chicken soup i think i have ever had.
For my main course I had a house specialty: Beef Wellington.  Again,
see photos.  The entree was as large as a manhole.  Steak covered in
chopped liver and sauteed mushrooms with a pastry like shell.
Classic, elegant, and really delicious.  The sauteed potatoes with
onions were quite good as well. I did not finish the Beef Wellington,
i.e. my heart is still beating.

In between these encounters, I have been using my iPhone to video chat
with wife and family, much to the kids' amusement.  Technology is a
great thing.  And as of today i can use my work Blackberry to make
phone calls anywhere in the world, so that's good.

Tomorrow, unlike the rest of you gloating, rest on your laurels
no-goodniks, I will be working a full day.  I made a joke to my boss
here in the UK about promising not to mention "our little victory"
tomorrow around the office.  He said that was okay and that they have
gotten over it by now.  I'm not so sure.

I'll probably look for an American pub tomorrow night to celebrate the
4th safely and securely, preceded perhaps by a visit to a Brick Lane
curry house.  Need to tick that off the list of course.

I might try to see a West End show later this week, and I have a few
other ideas what i might do.  Seeing a movie isn't one of them.  For
one thing, there are very few movie times after 6:30-7, and for
another the options are fairly dreadful.  But not too concerned; with
all the restaurant and pub hunting I have planned, I'll keep myself
busy until Ora and the kids get here next Friday morning.

Part 2, July 4-9: British Invasion

It's continued to be an eventful trip.  However, there has been next
to no focus on two agenda items that might usually be front and
center: top-flight dinners and the big tourist attractions.  On the
latter, I am saving some of the big ticket items for when Ora and the
kids get here.  Plus I have tried to make an effort to explore various
neighborhoods just to get more flavor of the city.  On the dining
options, a few times I haven't been all that hungry at night, and also
eating by oneself at a nice restaurant gets old, or at least dissuades
me from pursuing a big meal every night.  Anyway, I'll pick up where i
left off.

Wednesday I got up and did something I have never done before: went to
the office on 4th of July. I had some fun with a few Brits - no hard
feelings, etc. - but otherwise it was a normal work day.  I did get to
sit in on a board meeting, which was a unique opportunity and taught
me a lot about how the parent company operates.  My boss here has been
great giving me access to new information.

After work I went to see a British comedy at the Royal Haymarket
Theater called One Man Two Guvnors, a revival that is now playing on
Broadway as well.  It was exactly what I wanted: classic British
farce, great physical comedy, some great audience participation and
lots of great British turns of phrase.  Very fun show.  As I walked to
my seat I asked the usher for a program.  "4 pounds please" he said.
"no thank you," i responded (that's $6.50)  As I walked to my seat the
usher called out to me "that's an American thing y'know, the free
program.  we don't do that 'ere."  "Well it's 4th of July so i figured
maybe you'd make an exception," I said to my snarky friend.  Anyway,
the other noteworthy moment during the play is that during
intermission they come around and sell ice cream cups to everyone.
And they do a brisk business.  Not in the USA, mate.

After the play I walked around Trafalgar Square, lit up at night.  A
gorgeous place.  There is an Olympic countdown clock in the Square.  A
very nice way to end the evening.

On Thursday I had another very busy but productive day at work,
including a delicious shredded haddock and fennel salad at the Hiscox
cafe.  Not sure I mentioned it but the coffee in our cafe is very
good, which is a relief because I am drinking coffee three times a day
due to my various meetings.  At night I met my friend's friend, who
moved here a year ago, at a pub in Ladbroke Grove, which is in the
northwest area of London.  Very nice neighborhood and great pub.  I
had my first hand-cranked beer (Bombardier) and it was delicious.  I
also had a great bar snack: deviled whitebait, which are tiny
sardines.  They gave me a bowl of at least 60 of these critters, fried
(but not deep fried) and spiced up.  Went great with the beer.  The
friend was very nice and we had a good time joking about our mutual
friend.  I ended the night like a proper Londoner, eating fish and
chips on the midnight train back to the hotel.

On Friday I once again had a long day at work, then went out to a pub
to watch Andy Murray's semifinal.  My hotel is across the street from
Leadenhall Market, which is supposedly where the Roman built their
stronghold in the third century (when they dubbed the area Londinium).
 There are supposed to be Roman ruins right under the alleyway that
hosts 5-6 pubs.  Only problem was that everyone out at the pubs was
drinking but not watching the tennis.  Murray isn't very popular here,
at least not before his tearful speech yesterday, in part because he
is a Scot.  But Brits are also pessimists, and not keen on getting
excited about Murray until he made the finals.  Disappointed that the
entire country was not yet rooting on Murray, I went back to the hotel
so I could listen to the BBC commentary and enjoy the match, which I
did.  Then I took a short nap, then walked to East London to an Indian
grill called Tayyabs that sounded great.  However, a good 80-100
people had the same idea i did.  Faced with a two hour wait, I kept
walking and eventually made my way to Brick Lane.  I walked the entire
length of Brick Lane but the food didn't look that great, so I
continued walking up to Shoreditch Alley, over to Liverpool Street,
and finally ate a falafel lafa wrap sandwich for dinner; and couldn't
have been happier about it.

on Saturday morning I took the Tube to the Olympic Park, located at
Stratford in the northeast part of town.  However, I wasn't there just
to see the Olympic facilities; I went to attend/participate in a play
called En Route, which has been staged in other cities including
Chicago (and might come to NYC next year).  It was one of several
experiential plays currently being offered in London, and I am very
glad I chose this one.  One hour before the start time, I  was sent a
text message telling me where to go for the beginning of the show.  It
was  a street corner a few short blocks from the Olympic village.
Someone encountered me there and gave me an envelope and a smartphone
with music player, and headphones.  I was instructed to play Track 1
and start walking, and follow the chalk marks.  From there began a two
hour adventure, during which I would play a track, follow clues to my
next destination, and along the way take my time as I walked through
alleyways, parking garages, shopping malls, stairwells and footbridges
of Stratford.  

Stratford is a fairly low-end area of London, and the
juxtaposition of walking around these hidden contours of the city,
largely the lower lights of the town, right in the shadow of the
Olympics, was dramatic.  The tracks on the music player were a
combination of poetry, music and snippets of crowd noise and
conversation.  The audio tracks and the walking around through random
areas had a strongly meditative effect, so much so that at times I
missed my next instructions and had to replay tracks.  At times people
would pop up out of nowhere to give my instructions.  At other times I
was walking by myself, alone but somehow being watched, invisibly.
During some stages the music was almost impossibly perfect for the
moment, elevating banal activities like walking through a mall into
something dramatic and profound in feeling.  It was a unique
experience, and felt like a personal journey even though I had no
actual connection to my environs.  A beautiful way to spend two hours; 
unlike other experiential theater, En Route doesn't rely on shock 
tactics ortheatrical fireworks.  It's quiet but powerful.  I hope it comes
to New York.

When that was done it was only 12 noon.  I made my way to Covent
Garden to walk around and try a vegetarian restaurant, which was good.
 But when I got to the Tube stop I saw a line for the elevator and
decided to follow a few other people making their way up a spiral
staircase.  Only after I had climbed for a few minutes and started
breathing hard did I hear someone else comment that it was a 189-step
spiral staircase.  Gasp, huff, puff.  Then I made my way to the V&A
Museum, thinking I'd spend 45 minutes to an hour there.  2.5 hours
later, I had to cut my visit short.  I was blown away by the V&A.
It's hard to even capture everything I liked about it but the glass,
architecture, theater set and photography exhibits were all
spectacular, and there is a ballgown exhibit that Layla would love.
The V&A is located right next to the Natural History and Science
Museums, so that is on the definite list for destinations next week.

After V&A I walked up Brompton, through Knighstbridge (upscale
neighborhood) and past Harrod's to our friend Paul's restaurant where
he is manager, a four star place called Zuma that is likely opening in
New York with Gywneth Paltrow as an investor.  Paul, his wife Sarah
and their sons Tama and Cyrus moved from Brooklyn to London a year
ago.  I took the train home with Paul and spent the night at their
home in Kingston on Thames in Surrey, southwest part of London.  It
was great to spend time with their adorable, personable and hilarious
kids - reminded me just a little of what I am missing back home but
with even better accents; well, not better than Layla's Brooklyn bark,
but pretty close.  Paul and Sarah's kids really are very sweet and
fun.  I had a great time catching up with them.

The next morning I walked around Kingston, drove through Richmond Park
(Henry VIII's private hunting ground; still overrun with deer), and
then went to the kids' school fair.  Another great opportunity to
experience some real British flavor.  i saw British families in action
(not that different than Brooklyn families, just pastier), ate some
great Indian food and played in a British Tombola, which is a lottery
for bottles of booze, soda etc.  Very fun; I won a bottle of
dishwasher liquid, which I donated to my friends.

After the fair I went back to their house and we watched Wimbledon
together.  The BBC broadcast is so much livelier than NBC.  Plus Boris
Becker was a guest commentator.  We drank beer and took turns
imitating Becker's effete German accent.

Sunday night I took the train back into town, ate a gigantic fish and
chips with mushed peas, and went to see the movie Sunrise Kingdom,
which was weird but very good.  not for everyone.  Then the Tube ride
back, which was fine but one thing about the Tube: there is no such
thing as an easy transfer.  If you have to switch train lines, get
ready for a long trek through a maze of tunnels linking one train line
to the other.  a pain, frankly.

Today was another long day at work but then I took the train out to
Islington, yet another cozy and pretty suburban area of London, and
had dinner at Ottolenghi, famous for the chef's popular cookbooks
specializing in inventive Mediterranean food.  (Rachel Altstein was
the first to show me one of his cookbooks).  Great meal, fresh
vegetables and fish melded with nuts and fruit medleys, everything
cooked with a light touch.  Worth the (minor) schlep.

I have a few more days before the family gets here.  In between I have
some big work days still to come, which I will cover in the next
dispatch. So far, everything is a-okay.

Part 3, July 10-12: Lords of London

My time here in London continues to be short on sleep but not on
memory-making.  Thankfully, those memories have yet to include "got my
ass kicked by Brits who didn't take a shine to my constantly talking
with a British accent."  But it's just a matter of time.  There just
isn't word or turn of phrase in the English language that isn't more
fun to say as if you grew up in Notting Hill and graduated from

On Tuesday I had some very good meetings again.  People here have
largely been very cooperative and generous with their time.  Although
the corporate reconnaissance has been interesting learning, the
cultural differences have made a bigger imprint.  For one thing, when
someone in the office gets up to get coffee or tea from the pantry,
they ask everyone around them if they would like coffee or tea as
well, and invariably carry back 3-4 hot cups for their various
neighbors.  If someone did this in New York, I think the assumption
would be that someone was trying to slip you a mickey or something.
Okay, poor choice of words whilst I am in the UK.  Anyway, it took me
a few self-involved trips to the pantry before I got in the habit of
offering to get something for others.  The one person who has accepted
my offer is a prolific tea drinker, but when I offer to get her
something she always asks for hot water.  Methinks she doesn't want to
entrust proper tea brewing to a Yank.

After a long day at work I headed to Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, the Johnny
come lately of British pubs; it has only been in existence for 565
years.  Yes, it was founded in 1547.  Incredible.  I had a pint of
beer and a grilled cheese and pickle sandwich.  Tiny rooms, low
ceilings, small tables, the works.  The first truly historic pub I'd
been in.  I hope to get to at least one more while I am here, though
I've been disappointed that every pub has the same 5-6 beers.

From the Tavern I walked past High Holborn and on to Conway Hall, a
public meeting space that on this night was host to two events: a
meeting of the Young Atheists Club, which I did not attend despite the
thunderous applause that emanated from the room every ten minutes, and
the latest meeting of the London Philosophers Club, recently featured
in the NY Times and the Financial Times
 I happened to read about the Club a few days ago and checked out
their website, discovered their next meeting was this Tuesday and,
after getting put on the wait list for the 150-person event, received
an email Tuesday morning that I had a spot to attend a talk on
bioethics given by a professor from the University of London, Queen
Mary.  The Club meetings work as follows: you show up, pay 1 GBP to
help pay for the room rental, pay another 1 GBO if you want a plastic
up of boxed wine.  Then the speaker talks for 30-40 minutes and then
answers questions for 20 minutes, at which point the room splits up
into small groups and debates issues that have been raised during the
evening.  Unfortunately, I had to leave before the discussion groups.
Even more unfortunate, the speaker was a total bore.  Like most
tenured philosophy professors, he made an art form of saying nothing
of substance, interspersed with moments of "but here is what I am
actually trying to say" disclaimers that usually prefaced fairly banal
pronouncements.  Too harsh?  Maybe.  But the guy was a snore and as I
walked out during Q&A I still had no idea what he had been trying to
say about medical ethics.

I hopped in a black taxi, my first cab ride in London.  Taxis here are
nice but not very interesting.  I rode over to West End and had dinner
with my brother in law, Sam.  He was here for a major aerospace
industry trade show, which he graciously gave me passes to.  If I have
time I will try to get out there.  We had a nice time eating and
catching up.

On Wednesday morning I took an early train, Amtrak-style, 50 miles due
northeast to Colchester, where Hiscox has a much more suburban-feeling
office. It's a large team though and they do great work.  It's a very
different model than what we do in the US and I learned a lot.  I also
got to listen in on some phone calls, some of which were local
residents calling in with claims or questions, and the unintentional
comedy of those conversations was through the roof.  The accents, the
idioms, just incredible.  Better than any BBC comedy series.

I learned a lot from the people in Colchester but I had to cut the day
slightly short.  Why, you might ask?  Well you see old chaps, I had
urgent business in Westminster.  Westminster is it?  Why yes, yes very
much so.  Perhaps I could get to the point, you ask?  Oh yes, well you
see my business in Westminster was of a most unique nature, for you
see my presence had been requested at the House of Lords.

You probably think I am kidding.

Turns out - and I had no idea before this week - that a friend of mine
in Brooklyn is the daughter of a member of the House of Lords, a
Canadian Jew named Morris Epstein (name changed to protect the 
innocent and aristocratic) who now goes by Lord Epstein,
and he emailed me on Wednesday and invited me for drinks at the
private bar in the Parliament building.  This, needless to say, was a
pleasant development.

En route from Colchester I got another email from Lord Epstein:
"Josh, due to the events in the House of Commons last night, the Prime
Minister requires my presence at a meeting of the party at 5 pm today.
 Can we meet a bit later than originally scheduled?"  If only he knew
how enjoyable it was to receive an actual email like this.  Yes, yes
of course Lord Epstein, I shall arrive at 6 pm.

[now would be a good time to request that you not share/broadcast the
following details of our meeting.  I wouldn't want any of it to get
back to my friends or to Lord Epstein, but I would like to share the
experience with those of you receiving this email directly. Thank you
for your discretion.]

I took the "Peers" entrance into Parliament - a truly grand building,
just spectacular - and Lord Epstein met me at the entrance, gave me
the 3 minute tour ("you're not mad about architecture, are you?  I'd
rather sit and drink and talk.  That's where the queen puts on her
robe for royal occasions..."), and we made our way through one
stunningly historic room after another until we got to the private
room with other Lords and their drinking partners.  I ordered a
Guinness.  "Fizzy water for me," said Lord Epstein.  "I'll be
drinking heavily later this evening."  Eventually I learned that
Morris had moved back his other appointment so we would not have
limited time together.  Incredibly gracious, which could describe Lord
Epstein in general; a remarkably charming and talented person, yet
candid and down to earth while we spoke.

Lord Epstein and I talked about criminal justice (his passion and
career focus), sports and challah in equal measure.  I invited him to
attend a Brooklyn Nets game with me (he is a huge sports fan).  What a
great guy.  Afterwards I was flying high.  I walked through St.
James's Park, across Buckingham Palace (stunning), through Green Park
and up to Piccadilly.  Still wanting to walk more, I made my way west
toward Hyde Park, then down Knightsbrige and into the very upscale
shopping district near Wilton Place, finally ending my walk at a
restaurant called Amaya.  Indian fusion.  I enjoyed the vegetarian
tasting menu (excellent), though  it was marred toward the end of the
meal once three loud and obnoxious Arab gentlemen sat down next to me.
 The one closest to me had poured a liter of cologne over his head
that night, and it actually started to overpower the food I was
eating.  He needed a...cologne-oscopy.  Thank you.

When Cologne Boy got up from the table to scream at someone on his
cell phone, I heard one of his dining partners tell another diner that
CB was a member of the Saudi royal family.  Certainly possible; rich
Arabs are prevalent in some areas of London, and a lot of the upscale
shops rely on that influx of money.  Who knows.  I might have
encountered a Lord and a sheik on the same day.

On Thursday I got to do the work-related event I was most looking
forward to: I spent most of the day on the floor of Lloyd's of London.
 For those who don't know, Lloyd's is not an insurance company.  It is
much closer to a trading floor of insurance.  Approximately 50
carriers occupy desks - "boxes" on the floor.  Brokers walk the floor
with folders and order slips, and try to convince the carriers to take
small percentage of risks.  Those risks are of a...riskier nature than
the kinds of risks the average insurance company might assume.
Because so many different carriers take small pieces of these risks,
it allows for these kinds of coverages.  Hiscox is one of the largest
syndicates on the Lloyd's floor, with eight boxes prominently located.
 I got to sit and talk with one of our box/syndicate underwriters, and
saw him reject some risks and bind others.  Really interesting and
informative; such a different model than US insurance, and also the
way that Hiscox made its millions and became the company it is today.

Later in the day I got to meet with the new CEO of Hiscox UK, a guy
who used to run brand management for Coca-Cola UK and for Diageo,
among other companies.  He's a super smart guy and provided me with
tremendous insight on how the US can learn from the UK.

After work I met up with an American friend named Melissa and went
over to Zuma, the Japanese fusion restaurant where my Australian
friend Paul is the manager.  Paul had invited me to show up one night.
 All I can tell you is that Melissa and I agreed it was one of the ten
best meals we have ever had.  Absolutely incredible fish, and the food
just kept on coming.  At the end, Paul brought out a dessert basket
that easily could have fed six people.  We did everything we could to
demolish it.  As if that wasn't great enough, Paul took a big discount
off of our bill.  I told Paul "I'd love to say I look forward to
returning the favor but there's nothing I can do to match this."  We
walked out of the restaurant through a throng of people having drinks
or waiting for a table.  Zuma is doing really well, and deservedly so.

I was not an Anglophile before this trip, but that has changed.


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