Thursday, 31 October 2013

Happy Halloween!

Luckily, someone doesn't know what candy is yet.

I wish I looked this cute in my Halloween costume...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Our friends in the north

The Pelleg family popped down to the Bay Area this week, with Amir interviewing Haas students to see if any are good enough to be interns at Amazon - the poacher turned gamekeeper!  Or the other way around.  Dana and their boys Ayal and Guy came too and we spent time revisiting old Berkeley haunts and new Walnut Creek ones.  I had the pleasure of taking Guy and Pete to "Cuddle Club" at the local library, although had some trouble lifting both strapping 20lb+ lads in the air at the same time during the jumping songs.  Lauren, who'd come along with 9lb Genevieve, found it all most amusing.

Finally!  Some decent coffee!  Thank you Guerilla Cafe, Berkeley.

Guy, a champion sock remover, celebrates yet another triumph.

Tight fit.

Smiles from Ayal later in the day, after a long sleep and a big lunch.

In the Creek, and Pete enjoyed showing off his toys.  There wasn't exactly cooperation, but certainly no tantrums.  Yet.

Who loves ya, baby?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Why bother?

You buy a child a lot of flashing, musical, expensive toys (from thrift stores) and all he wants is an empty yoghurt pot.

A yoghurt pot, and a mother who'll catch me when I fall.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Back to where we once belonged

A couple of nights in a hotel room can be fun and relaxing, a week in a hotel room is a little depressing, especially with a baby that talks/sings/chuckles in his sleep all night long.  So it was with some relief that we left this morning to migrate south.

We started by walking Hannah to work before swinging by what should be the nearest coffee shop to our new apartment.  It's called the Blue Tree, and I'd hoped that sharing 50% of its name with Blue Bottle would be a good sign.  I don't need to tell you the outcome.

At the airport we found that Hannah and I were seated separately on the full plane.  We asked at the gate if we could change that.  "Of course!" said yet another nice Canadian lady behind the desk.  "No one wants to sit next to a screaming child for two hours!"  "On second thoughts, leave me where I am," I quickly replied.

But the flight was fine, and a long drive in Friday night Bay Area rush hour traffic made me pine for Vancouver.  I have no loyalty!  The driver said that it would be a little cool this weekend, with temperatures hovering in the mid-70s.  Cool!? I silently scoffed, then realised I had nothing to laugh about.  We're only going to be here for another week so I've blocked out seven days of staring at the sun.  Then I can accurately describe it to Pete when he's older.

Blue Tree Cafe's vague impression of a cappuccino.  It didn't taste too bad, but I'm sure I don't have to point out the structural issues to regular readers.

Our corner shop!  All the staples.

It's all about the hockey.  Ice hockey, that is, although, as with American football, you have to drop the first word if you want to seem like a local.

A final taste of Canada, with a pint of Molson Canadian which is brewed right here in Vancouver.  It's quite like Budweiser, but Canadian, so nicer.


Knave of cups

After spending the morning undoing the mess that the "welcome" lady caused, it was time for me and Pete to have some fun as we tried, once again, to find the best coffee in Vancouver.  Our first stop was Café Artigiano, which offers traditional as well as 'own-style' cappuccino.  I went for both, of course, and the second one seemed to be pretty good, except that the first was so strong it was hard to tell.  We rounded off with Finch's Tea and Coffee.  "Too much caffeine can give you hallucinations," commented a two-headed lobster as she passed on a flaming moped.

But still nothing is comparable to down south!  What's the problem, Vancouver?  It may be with the roasting - green, astringent-tasting raw coffee beans should be transformed into the familiar brown, aromatic beans, although up to a temperature of 150 °C the beans simply lose water; true roasting begins only above 160 °C when chemical reactions - incalculable in number - take place, and the constitution of the beans changes with the principal product being in fact carbon dioxide (for every kilogram of beans, as much as 12 L of CO2 will be released) but since during the roasting process the very thick cell walls of the beans remain intact, released CO2 causes pressure within the cells to increase to as much as 25 bar - in other words, the chemical roasting reactions take place between 160 and 240 °C in tens of thousands of mini-autoclaves so it should come as no surprise that, under these harsh conditions, thousands of new compounds are produced in the course of thermal decomposition of the over 700 so-far identified components of green coffee beans, as well as of the many polymeric storage and skeletal components meaning that from a chemical standpoint coffee is actually the most complex beverage we consume where most reactive constituents are free amino acids and simple sugars like glucose, galactose, and arabinose, as well as the disaccharide saccharose though, with increasing temperature, trigonelline and the chlorogenic acids are largely decomposed as well, whereas lipids and caffeine are nearly unaffected by roasting (chlorogenic acids are esters comprised of quinic acid as the alcohol part and a p-substituted p-hydroxycinnamic acid as the acidic component - "chlorogenic" stems from a green color observed in the course of its alkaline oxidation, a reaction discovered in the 19th Century) and the various brown to black pigments arise through a confusing reaction cascade, still not clarified in detail, in which simple sugars like glucose and arabinose form caramel-like products that can in turn react further with chlorogenic acids to give red to brownish-black humic acids while, parallel to this, free amino acids react with the saccharides by way of Mailard reactions to yield yellow to brownish-black melanoidins meaning that, overall, pigment formation involves substances in every compound class, with the exception of caffeine and the fats, allowing the roasting process to play a decisive role with respect to both aroma and flavor; espresso could in principle be prepared from any coffee roast but the more darkly roasted beans are preferred, in which components have undergone more complete thermal decomposition and, as a consequence, the proportion of astringent-tasting chlorogenic acids is decreased, which explains the softer taste of espresso relative to less strongly roasted coffees while trigonelline is also heavily decomposed, producing a multitude of heterocyclic compounds, which in turn contribute to the powerful roasted aroma (it is worth noting the development in the process of the vitamin nicotinic acid (niacin) - drinking a cup of espresso actually supplies roughly 15% of the recommended daily dose of this vitamin!) 1

Problems could also arise through the preparation of the shot: passage of a solvent (hot water) through a solid phase (coffee powder) under pressure is very simple from an apparatus perspective, and is reminiscent in some ways of high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) so for laminar flow of a solvent through a cylindrical column (radius r, length L) filled with porous particles (diameter d), Darcy’s law permits derivation of the following expression for approximating the relationship between pressure difference and volume velocity V/t:

Such boundary conditions as amount of coffee, water temperature, diameter of the filter, applied pressure, and extraction time have been optimized empirically in thousands of Italian espresso bars over decades, while a glance through a microscope reveals that grist from the coffee mill is not homogeneous so that under the applied pressure as a water front moves it carries with it the smallest coffee particles, which then travel past the larger ones to congregate at the bottom of the layer of coffee powder, the resulting partial blockage leads to an increase in hydraulic resistance, and the flow velocity decreases and, if the flow direction is now reversed, small particles again move in the flow direction so at first the hydraulic pressure decreases, because the “blockage” disappears until small particles once again collect - at the other end - and hydraulic resistance increases once more but the chemical processes occurring in an espresso machine are even more complex: during the brief extraction period, equilibrium cannot be established between the phases, and only 75 % of the highly soluble caffeine is extracted therefore this incomplete extraction would at first appear to be a shortcoming, but in fact perfection lies in this defect: many components with undesirable sensory effects are left behind, as a result of which espresso is more readily digestible than ordinary brewed filter coffee and it is not just water-soluble compounds that are extracted; the hot water also causes the melting of lipids that have diffused to the surface after roasting, and the rapid streaming between coffee particles leads to formation of a fine lipid emulsion, with drop sizes between 0.5 and 1.0 µm and dissolved in these fat droplets are aromatic substances that would otherwise evaporate upon departure of the hot liquid but there is no need to worry - the fat content of espresso is very low, and even those obsessed with such things have absolutely no reason to suffer a guilty conscience over a mere 9 kcal. 2

But my feeling is that the baristas around here lack skill with their milk steaming, specifically texturing but also heating to a level that slightly cooks the lactose.  Milk is a complex liquid, with fats, proteins and sugars, the main protein being casein; a long, string like molecule, which is folded up tightly, just like a ball of wool, very good for health because it’s a complete protein that has all the 20 amino acids the body needs for growth and these amino acids come in two types, some of them dissolve in water easily, while some don’t like water and normally the water-hating amino acids are inside the tightly wound up string but when boiling milk the casein unwinds, and all amino acids face the water so it acts just like soap, with parts that dissolve in water and parts that repel it while the sweetness we get from milk has to do with the lactose, although in reality lactose is a combination of two sugar molecules, galactose and glucose, held together is suspension as it is not very soluble, so the lactose stays in suspension in milk liquids and while cold it does not taste extremely sweet but as the lactose is heated the solubility breaks down and the sweetness of our beverages increases and such is the case with milk being steamed in an espresso machine where the steam breaks down the suspension-ability of the lactose releasing the sugars into our cups, meanwhile as you add steam to milk it is the amino acids that stick to the outside of the air molecules and build a cage around each and cause it to ‘float’, protect it and give it stability within our drinks although the fat content of the milk greatly affects how proteins react during this process, as does the temperature, because fat is influenced by temperature which influences the proteins, therefore although it is easier to get nice foam with skimmed milk than it is with whole milk, as the fat content continues to rise foam volume and stability go up once again so you’ll see high foam in a cream with about 10% fat while whipping cream is 35% fat: volume and stability. 3

But I'm just guessing really.  Off for another cup!
Café Artigiano #1: no.
Café Artigiano #2: better.
Finch's Tea and Coffee: next time I'll order tea.

Two wheels on my wagon - half-way through our tour, Pete's stroller wheel burst!  I went to Simon's Bike Shop and a man (Simon?) replaced the ruptured inner tube and refitted the wheel in seconds.  Pete slept through the whole thing.  "You're a magician!" I told the man.  "No, just a professional," he humbly replied.  A baby's snores begged to differ.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The "welcome" lady

Today we were house hunting with the helpful "welcome" lady that Chevron lays on for any employees posted overseas.  Unfortunately she was the least welcoming, most unhelpful person we've met this trip!  So they do have those in Canada after all.  Her advice lurched from the obvious ("you don't have a Canadian mobile?  You need to get a Canadian mobile!") to the bizarre ("didn't I tell you to bring $5000 cash with you?  Oh, sorry.") via the incomprehensible ("a flashing green stop light means you can turn left on a red unless a pedestrian has pushed the button" - although this does seem to be a special Canadian thing).

She drove us to her office and then tried to get us to buy rental insurance from the people downstairs, presumably for the commission she gets.  She took us to three apartments, three that Hannah had found and emailed her about, no more.  She didn't let us stop for lunch.  She only let us go when we said Pete had to sleep, and I had to pretend that he wasn't already asleep so she would drive back to our hotel.  I spent a lot of time trying to signal to passers-by that we were hostages who needed assistance.

Despite all that, we think we've found our new apartment.  Only think, because "welcome" lady has erected numerous panic-inducing obstacles ("you have zero dollars in the bank account you opened yesterday?  How are you going to pay the deposit?")  But, if we can cut her out of the loop, we'll soon be the occupants of a nice place near Stanley Park which has an indoor swimming pool - we're not in California any more - and a squash court.  So all the important stuff.

Writing this down has certainly made me feel less agitated at the end of the first day that the thought "why are we leaving Walnut Creek?" has entered my mind.  A few glasses of red wine may have helped my mood too.  Tomorrow is our last day before heading back, and with the summer season ending there are a lot of tourist T-shirts and maple syrup bottles at 50% off.  I wonder if Chevron will pay for excess baggage?
An impressive light fitting, in a flat we decided not to rent.
Pete gives his perspective: no.
One of those magical toilets that does stuff to you.  This is in the place we're hoping to live, so look forward to it visitors!

What is, fingers crossed, soon to be our view.  You can even see the Chevron barge - Hannah is happy ("someone should bomb that," commented the "welcome" lady, who perhaps had not checked to see who was paying her wages today...)

The sun always shines on Vancouver

Today the clouds parted and the fog lifted, and the natives of the city stood blinking.  Pete, being a solar-powered Californian baby, looked less annoyed at being stuck in his pushchair.

But this happened later.  Before that I decided to seek out the Holy Grail of this city of which I'd only heard rumours: a cricket pitch.  Amazingly there's more than one, and I found Meraloma Cricket Club which bills itself as "the best place on earth to play cricket."  Not today, in the dense dripping fog, but if they have a summer here I hope to catch a game or two.

On the way back I stopped by Elysian, a coffee place recommended to me by Aussie backpacker Kuya.  It was ok, but did not transport me to paradise.  They just don't do the milk right around here.  I then managed, on the second attempt, to sweet-talk my way into a bank account!  It has a balance of zero and they laughed at my request for a credit card, but there's time.

This afternoon, Hannah's new boss Deidre took us for a drive around the wider Vancouver area.  The city, like many on the West Coast, is a big collection of neighbourhoods, often very well defined;  you're standing in one, cross the road, then you're standing in another.  The pros and cons of each were pointed out to us, and we finished with a sightseeing trip to Chevron's Burnaby refinery.  It's the biggest in British Columbia, of course.  Hannah asked Deidre if there were any apartments with an uninterrupted view of the beautiful pipework and flaring chimneys.  Sadly no.
Dana told me about this guy - he drives down to Seattle, fills up with Trader Joe's merchandise, then sells it here in TJ-less Vancouver.  I thought it must be out of a van but no, he has a shop.  Trader Joe's does not like him.
We found snow, but only outside an ice rink.
Here are some of the practice cricket pitches.  They may need a new groundsman.
Along with cricket there's rugby!  I suffered a major flashback to numerous school days, being shouted at by Mr Lang Jones on a rugby pitch, in identical weather conditions. 
Maybe I need to open Pirate Blue Bottle, although the drive to SF is a bit longer than for Joe.
Then the sun came out!  Pete grows up in the shadow of his father.
The view from Hannah's office on a good day.
And, as if by magic, an oil tanker appeared from the fog.
The highlight of her trip.

Dinner with Deidre, as Pete tries to steal her jewelry.  No Pete - we're in oil, not silver!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Street legal

Another day, another withering interrogation at the hands of Canadian officials.  Our application for a social insurance number was met with such questions as: "would your baby like something to play with?"  Why is everyone around here so nice?  I'm starting to get suspicious.  Anyway, now I can legally work and pay tax.  The latter took me four years to achieve in the US and I never managed the former.

Opening a bank account proved a little trickier, on account of lacking an address, government-recognised ID, or any money.  I was then barred from getting a mobile by an inability to pay the monthly tariff, but my social insurance number should lead to a credit card, a credit card to a new mobile, and a new mobile to happiness.

Pete and I then dropped in on Hannah in her new building.  Chevron has taken over an entire floor from a gold prospecting company that failed to hit the motherlode; there are four of them in an office for 30.  Everyone got to choose where they wanted to sit, so Hannah humbly opted for a massive corner suite.  We might just live in it and forgo having to rent an apartment.

In-between all this I managed to sample a couple of cappuccinos.  The first was at Revolver, an unspeakably hip, tiny place where they offer you "flights" of coffee to taste.  We ended up sharing the only free table with Aussie backpacker Kuya.  And could she chat.  The second came from Lost + Found, no less au courant with an ongoing slideshow of cityscapes projected on the wall.  Nice as they both were, in a shootout with Blue Bottle, Revolver would be left lying in the dust, and Lost + Found did not cause me to mislay by love for SF's best.  More caffeine tomorrow (as if I need it!)

One day, son, all this will be fracked.

The view is probably a lot more impressive when there is one.

Revolver coffee.  Did not hit the mark.

This is Kuya.  She's an Aussie backpacker, obvs.

Next: Lost + Found.

"I don't care about the chichi hipster surroundings," murmurs Pete.  "Just show me a decent cup of joe."

The best coffee I've found so far: dense, dark, expensive, a little oily...

Walking the streets

After another fine start at our fab hotel (three words: hot buffet breakfast) we were out again and seeing the sights.  Impressions remain: still a very nice city, still flippin' cold.

We began with a walk over False Creek and down to Granville Island.  This is the site of Vancouver's famous public market and it did not disappoint, with the same fruit and vegetables as we get in California!  Phew, we won't starve.  Quality and prices were comparable too, which was a relief to Hannah, but samples were less forthcoming than at the farmers' market in Walnut Creek.  Gone are the days of getting a free lunch by wandering past all the stores six times.  There weren't many buskers, for which the area is renowned, presumably because frostbite can curtail musical dexterity.

Downtown Vancouver is on a peninsula so there are plenty of ferries that can take you around the various inlets.  We hopped on the Aquabus and hopped off minutes later by English Bay Beach, which was as chilly as Weymouth in the summer but with fewer bathers.  The beach trail took us up into Stanley Park and we walked around the Lost Lagoon (helpfully signposted everywhere) and back into town for noodles.  52% of Vancouverites don't speak English as their first language, with the majority of immigrants being from Asia, so food choices are plentiful and diverse.  Vancouver also lacks SF's calorie-burning hills.  I mused as I tucked into my lemon chicken dumplings in spicy peanut sauce: might my descent into obesity ironically happen after leaving the US?

I decided to stop whining about the weather, which is still in double-Celsius figures, and buy a hat from a thrift store.  Prices are a little higher than in Berkeley but the merchandise a little less shabby.  More investigation is needed.  I also began my quest to find a Blue Bottle Coffee equivalent and started at Musette Cafe opposite the hotel.  A "musette", as I'm sure you're aware, is the cotton bag full of food and drink that's handed to a cyclist during a race.  The shop was full of bikes but my cappuccino, though good by standard standards, wouldn't win the yellow jersey from Blue Bottle.

Tomorrow Hannah is going into her new office for the first time while my coffee search continues and I hilariously attempt to get a mobile phone and a bank account while having no fixed abode or income.  Then we'll really see how friendly Canadians are.

Granville Island: famous.

Exotic fruit.

The aquabus has a sign that it can only hold twelve and we counted sixteen stepping off.  So like the Titanic, but smaller.

Baby's first pumpkin spice latte.

Stanley Park has black squirrels!  They're normal squirrels dressed as ninjas, and just as quick and sneaky.

Something tells me that this might be the gay district...

First real coffee.  The quest goes on.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Home sweet home

It was time to look around what will soon be our neighbourhood.  Yes, with a "u", because they speak proper up here.  Yesterday Pete and I walked the streets as Hannah caught up on sleep before a business dinner.  We'd started our journey at 5am because of a BART strike putting 400,000 extra commuters on the Bay Area roads, and even then only made check-in with three minutes to spare.

We sauntered up to the financial district and found Chevron's local office before a quick walk around an interactive exhibition that filled us in on the history of the British Colonies of Upper and Lower Canada.  A far catchier name than plain "Canada", in my opinion.

Today we did the tourist thing, taking in all the sights from the steam powered clock to the steam powered brewery.  We introduced Hannah to her office and also found the Chevron barge out in the bay, where boats and sea planes can fill up for very reasonable prices with the additional benefit of Techron.  I had to physically restrain Hannah from swimming out to it.

I haven't been here 24 hours yet, but in fine British-abroad tradition I've already made some sweepingly general observations:

  • Canada is like the USA, but a bit different.
  • Everybody smokes!  Well, probably one-in-200, but coming from the Californian heartland of non-smoking, where lighting up is social as well as personal suicide, it's a bit of a surprise.
  • It's really cold.  British summer cold.  I'm wearing all the T-shirts and shorts I brought, and both pairs of flip flops, and I'm still freezing.
  • Everyone is still very beautiful.  It must be a West Coast thing.
  • Maple syrup and ice hockey.

Under the maple leaf.  I don't know what was wrong with the original flag.

So...Canada was on the right side in the US so-called war of independence...then it decided to be its own country...but the Queen's still in charge...

We decided a nice hot bath was the best way to warm up after that.

This morning, more fully prepared.

The door to mummy's new office.

Beer made from steam.  Pretty tasty, but Pete couldn't manage it all.

The beautiful voices...I must go to them...

Hopefully, one of these will soon be our apartment.

I think we'll fit in fine around here.