Monday, December 29, 2008

A Family Christmas and the Boxing Day Dip

I am sorry I did not post last week, things got really busy with Christmas coming up so I took a little holiday break from posting. I promise not to disappoint on this post.

Today is our one year anniversary! I can't believe that this time last year we were getting married! Jason was thinking we would have to exchange gifts that had something to do with paper but I told him since its not 1870 we really don't need to follow that tradition if we don't want to. I didn't see the point in us getting each other things that may or may not be useful so I suggested that as a joint gift to each other we get a Blu-Ray DVD player. Right now the sales on items like this are really great so we were able to get our Blu-Ray player for 25% off. I figured since it is our anniversary it should be something we can use together and we do watch a lot of movies. We have a subscription to something similar to Netflix/Blockbuster Online and we can get Blu-Ray discs through this service for what we already pay each month.

Backing up, my first Christmas here was a lot of fun and very memorable. On Christmas Eve we did go to church. It was a very nice service and the church was really beautiful and it looks really old but by English standards it is actually a fairly new church, built in 1886. The oldest existing church in Hartlepool, St. Hilda's, was built in the late twelfth century. The service was very nice and surprisingly similar to what I am used to at home. I was expecting it to be much different but the whole liturgy was almost exactly the same as the Lutheran liturgy so I felt very comfortable there.

We went to a 6pm service so after church we headed out to a pub. The first place we went to was horrible, I just don't want to hear "The Thong Song" after coming out of a nice peaceful Christmas Eve service. After that we headed to a quieter pub and were fortunate to run into some friends there so the post-church festivities weren't a total bust.

Christmas morning was fantastic! I asked Jason for a food processor, and I thought that was going to be my "big gift" so after I opened that I was happy and content and figured the rest were just little things. The last box I opened I thought was going to be a sweater, but it was actually a brand new laptop! A MacBook Pro! I really needed a new computer so I was over the moon! After we played around with our new toys for awhile we headed to my in-laws' house for Christmas dinner.

The night before when we were at the pub someone asked me if I was bringing anything to Christmas dinner, and I said yes to which they responded "That is so American!" I guess here people don't bring a dish, its always just the host who cooks the meal and the guests just bring drinks. My mother in law had told me that I could bring something if I wanted because she wanted me to feel at home so I brought over my traditional cinnamon Christmas bread and party potatoes.

Before dinner, everyone opened their Christmas crackers. They had little jokes inside, a small trinket and of course a paper crown.

Me wearing my paper crown!

Jason and Abbie

Kirsty and Abbie reading their jokes

After we had way too much to eat everyone relaxed and we played some Wii games. Jason's sister Diane and brother Thomas both stopped by with their kids after they had Christmas dinner with their spouses' families. It was nice to see everyone for Christmas day and exchange gifts. My in-laws really spoiled me this year and made me feel at home.

In England the day after Christmas is also a holiday known as Boxing Day. Traditionally Boxing Day is meant to be a day of giving gifts to less fortunate people. However, most English people don't know this is the traditional meaning of the day, it is more or less like Black Friday in America. It marks the beginning of a shopping season. The day after Christmas is the day that all of the "January sales"  begin so this is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. It is also a day for adults. Christmas day is all about the children so Boxing Day is a day when the adults like to unwind, especially those who had to prepare a big meal for their family the day before. The pubs are very busy on Boxing Day and everyone just kind of kicks back and has a good time.

A local tradition here in Seaton Carew is the Boxing Day Dip. This is an event where people raise money for charity and then wear silly costumes and jump into the North Sea. The North Sea is always very cold and on December 26th the air is only slightly warmer. Jason and I walked down to the beach and it was pretty funny to watch. Everyone who is running meets at a pub up the road where they get a little drunk to prepare themselves and then they all jog across the street and down the beach and into the frigid water. I took this video, and below are some photos of the event. 

Overall, my first holiday season in England has been wonderful. I didn't feel like there was anything missing, and although I did miss spending Christmas with my side of the family, my in-laws made me feel comfortable and welcome.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


It is strange for me to hear and see pictures of winter in the Midwest. I am instinctually bracing myself for it, but in my mind I know that I am off the hook. It has gotten cold a few days, and we have had a tiny bit of snow and ice but it never lasts more than a day and the cold is never anything in comparison to what I can handle.

I asked Jason if the grass on the promenade in front of our building dies during the winter but he tells me it stays green year round. See, I accepted that there wouldn't be snow, but I can't quite wrap my head around the idea that there won't be total desolation. Granted, the leaves did fall off of the trees but there aren't really that many trees around here to begin with. I almost don't believe him, I am still anticipating that grass will die and turn brown.

I am happy to report that I am finished with my Christmas shopping. I basically finished it all last week. Jason doesn't read my blog, so I guess I can reveal a couple things I bought for him. His "big" gift, which also turns out is one of the smallest, is a new G-Shock watch. Jason's current G-Shock is being held by a rubber band so I found a great deal online and upgraded him to a nicer G-Shock. I also got him a new Wii game which was something he asked for. Its a WWII game that requires a gun attachment. I am a little surprised that he wanted a first-person shooter game. He doesn't really like guns, so this surprised me a little bit but it does look like a good game.

Jason comes home Friday and then he is on leave until January 3rd, which I am very excited about. This weekend I am hoping he will help me bake some Christmas cookies. His culinary skills don't go too far beyond heating things up, but when it comes to the "assembly" step of baking he is actually really handy. I hope he will not find the task of helping me with Christmas cookies too girly, but I'd like to have something to give our neighbors and some other people.

I am very excited for Christmas this year. I am hoping it will be a really memorable one since it is our first in this place and as a married couple. I ran the idea of going to church on Christmas Eve by Jason, and he didn't turn down the idea, but he did say that they usually go to the pub. So, basically the exact opposite of going to church.

We don't regularly attend church but it would be nice to go and the service probably wouldn't be that different to me. Most churches in England are either Church of England or Catholic which makes it easy. The Church of England which is also called Anglican is the same as the Episcopalian church in America. The Lutheran and Episcopalian churches do share many things in common and agree on much of their doctrine so it does work out in that sense. Not sure if we will be able to go to church or if we will opt for the pub, I can't really think of any way we could compromise on that. I don't think having a pre-communion cocktail before the late Christmas Eve service would be a great idea, but if it is going to happen anywhere it would happen here.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas in this part of the world

We put our tree up the day before Thanksgiving because it just worked out that was the best day to put it up, so we have had it up for a couple weeks now. I am so grateful for artificial Christmas trees because the fresh ones here leave much to be desired. This is the typical Nordman fir, which is the most common species of Christmas tree available here.

The tree is very sparse and kind of short and squatty so when you have a tall tree, it is incredibly wide. I also think the way the branches stick straight out instead of sloping down makes them quite harsh looking. I just feel all around it is a really unattractive tree, so I am glad we opted for the artificial variety. We bought a 7' "Virginia Fir" and I really love this tree and I am glad we will be able to keep it for a long time.

This year is also our first Christmas together, we got a few "Our First Christmas" ornaments for our wedding since we got married right after Christmas, but this little one is my favorite because it is really fun!

We don't have a fireplace or a chimney here, but we do have a very nice radiator cover over the radiator in the living room that serves as a mantle. Jason just varnished it so it really adds a lot to the room. We hung our stockings here and its also a great place to display my Snowbabies. Snowbabies are little figurines I have been collecting for probably a little over 10 years now and I love to put them out every Christmas.

I remember as a kid in school we always used to study the ways people in different cultures around the world celebrated Christmas and we learned how to say "Merry Christmas" in many languages. I never once remember learning about the different customs in England, but now I am learning there definitely are quite a few.

First of all, people don't say "Merry Christmas" here, they say "Happy Christmas". Its funny to me because I think the word merry is a far more English word. Words like canny and fancy are still very much part of their everyday vocabulary, so why on earth did they stop saying "Merry"!

Another thing is that some of the Christmas carols have the same exact words, but the melody is completely different. So far two I have heard are "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Away in a Manger". Also, some of the carols, although they have the same tune, have slightly different words. My favorite is Deck the Halls! Along with adding an extra "fa" to the middle of "fa la la la, la la la la", the lyrics in this version are much more... festive.

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
Troll the ancient Christmas carol
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.

See the flowing bowl before us
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Follow me in merry measure,
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
While I sing of beauty's treasure
Fa a la la la, fa la la la.

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Laughing, quaffing, all together
Fa la la la, fa la la la.
Heedless of the wind and weather,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.

Also, while the English do tell their children that Santa Claus (or Father Christmas) is from the North Pole, they also call the place he is from Lapland. Lapland is actually the farthest northern province of Finland. As a kid I always thought that Santa's workshop was somewhere in northern Canada or Alaska. I couldn't imagine being a kid and thinking that Santa's workshop is just on the other side of the North Sea, about a 4 hour plane ride away.

Another new English custom is the custom of Christmas crackers at the Christmas dinner table. These Christmas crackers are a cardboard tube covered in wrapping paper and tied at each end. One person pulls on each end of the cracker and when it opens, inside is a small gift or a motto or fortune as well as a paper crown. After everyone has opened their cracker, they all wear their paper crowns. I am certainly not too proud to wear a paper hat, but it is something I can't imagine Jason doing so I am really looking forward to this.

(I don't know any of these people, I just got this photo from Google Images)

I am really looking forward to Christmas this year. It is our first Christmas together as a married couple and I hope it is a very memorable and special one. This season goes by so fast, so remember to enjoy every minute of your holiday season this year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Holidays are Here!

I am sure you are curious about how my very ambitious Thanksgiving feast turned out. I am happy to report that after two days of non-stop cooking, all of my dishes turned out great. My turkey was done on time and came out moist and tender, my apple pie was the perfect amount of sweet and tart, my homemade cranberry sauce was just the right consistency, basically everything came out exactly the way I wanted it to and my in-laws really enjoyed the meal. At first they were a bit reluctant to try things they weren't familiar with. The English are not very adventurous when it comes to food, and even things that they could identify the contents of they were skeptical to try but as some would try a bit of one thing and tell the next person that is was good they started to get a bit bolder and at least tried pretty much everything. The biggest hits of the meal were definitely the "party potatoes" which we went through two large casseroles of and the apple pie and apple cranberry turnovers. I boiled two sacks of potatoes, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 medium sized potatoes, and every last bit of them went. I am so proud of myself that my first big meal was a success. I have never made so many dishes for so many people and there were no catastrophes.

The feast

The dessert spread: apple cranberry turnovers, apple pie and pecan pie

There were a few changes to the meal from what I posted last week. Sadly I was unable to find a baking pumpkin so there was no pumpkin pie which was a big let down since I really wanted everyone to try it. Instead of pumpkin pie I made pecan pie which I thought was equally traditional but also it was equally foreign to them. Some of them really loved it and for some it was just too sweet but its also a dessert that is too sweet for many Americans and the ones who didn't care for the pecan pie really loved the apple pie and the turnovers.

I was also unable to find poppy seeds so instead of lemon poppy seed bread I just made lemon bread but it was still a hit and there wasn't even a crumb left at the end of the night.

The only other small hitch was that the cream of mushroom soup I used for the green bean casserole didn't have a lot of flavor. Next year I will have to look for a better brand or bring some over from the States. I already have a list of some canned ingredients I will want to bring back with me in my suitcase on my next trip back home.

Another wonderful thing that happened for my Thanksgiving meal was that I wasn't the only American there. My former roommate and maid of honor Christine was vacationing in Madrid this week and her vacation took an unfortunate turn for the worst so in order to salvage the rest of her vacation she bought a very last minute ticket from Madrid to Newcastle and arrived on Saturday afternoon. It was so wonderful to have her here, even if it was just for a couple days.

Yesterday afternoon Jason and I took her to the nearby city of Durham. Durham is a very charming city which looks like it was ripped from the pages of a Dickens' novel. The winding cobble-stoned streets and picturesque town square make for one of the most whimsical places in England.
Christine and me on a street in Durham

The main attraction in Durham is the cathedral, built in 1093 and completed in 40 years it is one of the only remaining Norman cathedrals in England to retain most of its Norman craftsmanship. Most of the great cathedrals in England like York Minster and Salisbury feature Gothic architecture and in many ways if you have seen one you have seen them all. Durham's unique Norman style is more open and in my opinion creates an almost angelic effect.

Durham Cathedral is also a place of great political and military significance in the North of England. One of the most fascinating periods in Durham Cathedral's history was during the 17th century when Cromwell closed down the cathedral and used it to imprison roughly 3,000 Scottish prisoners of war during the civil war between England and Scotland. The prisoners were kept in very inhumane conditions and they also ransacked the tombs of the cathedral, beheading and dismembering all of the sculptures. Today you can still see some of the older tombs topped with nothing more than a rough stone torso as a reminder of this dark period in the cathedral's history. Most of the 3,000 Scottish prisoners died there and their bodies were dumped in a mass unmarked grave which wasn't discovered until 1993.

Despite this dark period, Durham Cathedral is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and it is a place I will most likely visit over and over again in my lifetime.

The cathedral from the outside

The sanctuary

The rose window as viewed from St. Cuthbert's Shrine

Jason and I also decorated for Christmas this week but I will post those photos in my blog next Monday. I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two Thanksgivings

It is currently 4°C which is about 39°F and when I woke up this morning there was actually a layer of snow on the ground! I had been told that even when it does snow it usually doesn't accumulate down by the sea because there is too much salt in the air and on the ground, so I suppose this is some kind of miracle.

So, what do you think adventurous Hartepooligans do when it is nearly freezing and there is a blanket of snow on the ground? They surf of course!

There are currently about 7 surfers out there, I see them out often and I suppose the water is frigid year round and they wear wet suits, but their heads are still uncovered and with the air as cold as it is, they must be certifiably crazy.

This week I will be cooking two, thats right, TWO Thanksgiving meals. Thursday night I am making a small non-traditional meal for Jason and me and then on Saturday I am cooking for 12 people at my mother-in-law's. People in England obviously don't get work off for Thanksgiving, so that is why we are doing it on Saturday. I am really grateful to my in laws for coming together to celebrate a holiday which commemorates Puritans leaving their country to escape religious persecution. I know they are all doing it to be supportive of me and it means a lot to me. I don't actually think they know what Thanksgiving is all about but its a good opportunity for everyone to get together for a nice big meal to kick off the holiday season.

So, for my small dinner on Thanksgiving day I am making a recipe of Ellie Krieger's, Turkey Roulade with Cider Gravy. It kind of combines all of the Thanksgiving staples into one dish and it looks amazing. I will probably make mashed potatoes because Jason can never get enough mashed potatoes and probably pick up a pie or cheesecake for dessert.

On Saturday, I am pulling out all the stops and cooking most of the traditional dishes. This will be my first time cooking a big meal for so many people and I hope my meal doesn't crash and burn. I will be planning for it all week, I have already started organizing my recipes and typing out a grocery list categorized by supermarket section. I think if I get as much as possible done during the day on Friday then Saturday morning I can pop the turkey in the oven and warm everything up and it will all go smoothly.

My First Thanksgiving Menu:
Olive Cheese Balls (a family recipe)
Roasted Turkey with citrus and herbes de Provence (a Giada de Laurentis recipe)
Turkey Gravy
Party Potatoes (a family recipe)
Green Bean Casserole
Jewel Roasted Vegetables (an Ellie Krieger recipe)
Zucchini Bread (a family recipe)
Poppy Seed Bread (a family recipe)
Pumpkin Pie
Apple Cranberry Turnovers (an Ellie Krieger recipe)

My challenges here will be finding a baking pumpkin and making the pumpkin pie from scratch because my sources have revealed that canned pumpkin isn't available here. I have also heard that French fried onions are difficult to come by, but not impossible. I can hopefully recruit some family members to bring an appetizer, salad or rolls.

I am thinking of introducing a new English food to the Thanksgiving meal, Yorkshire puddings. Yorkshire puddings are kind of like a cross between a dinner roll and a croissant. They are shaped like a hollow dinner roll but they are light and a bit flaky like a croissant.

I haven't learned to make them homemade yet because as I understand they are quite difficult to make. The tins, which resemble shallow muffin tins, must be filled with oil and then placed in the oven until the oil is piping hot at which point the batter must be poured in quickly so that they puff up properly. They are a bit bland but I love the way they soak up gravy. I think my English guests would really miss it if I didn't serve the meal with Yorkshire puddings (called Yorkie puds for short) because they traditionally have big roasts every Sunday afternoon and Yorkie puds are always a staple of the Sunday dinner. Wherever there is a big roast and gravy they expect to find Yorkie puds on the table and I don't want to disappoint.

On a less festive note, I am sick for the 4th time in about two months. I was curious as to why I keep getting everything that comes my way. My diet is good, its not like I have a vitamin deficiency or anything. Then I did some thinking back to my science classes and my addiction to Discovery News and developed a theory that my immune system isn't used to the strains of viruses and bacteria here. I know that viruses and bacteria genetically mutate with each generation, some more than others, but I can imagine that being separated my an ocean that the flu and cold viruses here probably don't even remotely resemble the viruses my immune system is accustomed to. To test my theory I did some research online and it turns out to be true. That is the root of my repeated illnesses, probably also the time I spend with my niece who is most likely always carrying around things from school so I have a lot of exposure. I suppose it is a really good thing I am not a teacher, I would be sick constantly! I don't know how long it is going to take before my immune system adjusts but I think I should probably take some supplements to help me ward off all of these unfamiliar diseases. This is something I never thought about before I moved here but now that I am experiencing it, it seems logical.

As long as we are talking about illness, I have to confess a mistake I have been making in interpreting the local dialect. When I have been sick, my in laws have asked if I was "poolie" or so I thought that was what they were asking. I had no idea what they were talking about, but by process of elimination I figured out they were asking if I had been sick because it was the only thing I had been for the past week. The other day, someone said it again at choir but they must have enunciated a bit better because suddenly it clicked in my mind what they were saying.

Here, instead of pronouncing the word "poor" like "pore" they pronounce it "poo-er". Instead of asking if you are sick, they ask if you are "poorly", pronounced "poo-er-lee". Now say that fast and drop a consonant like the English are so very good at doing, and you get "poolie". I suppose it makes more sense, but it has taken me months to figure this out!

Today Jason is returning after three weeks away! He took a week off so he could be home with me for my Thanksgiving and we will also be shopping for our Christmas decorations this week! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

This Tuesday was Armistice Day. I didn't realize until now that this is the one non-religious holiday that America and England share. In America, Veteran's Day is also commemorated on the day of the Armistice. Having experienced both holidays in both countries I am sad to say that America's observation pales in comparison to the honor which the English bestow on their veterans on this day. If you asked the average American what date Veteran's Day is, if they aren't looking at a November calendar chances are they couldn't tell you. I am sure this week on Tuesday when everyone turned the page on their day to day desk calendar, more than one office worker turned to a coworker and commented "Hey, did you know today is Veteran's Day?" I find it sad that Americans need a small italicized reminder on their calendar or date book to remember such an important day in our history. By contrast, if you asked a British citizen what date Armistice or "Poppy Day" falls on they will quickly answer "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month".

For the month preceding the holiday, everyone wears a paper poppy on their lapel. The proceeds go to the British Legion and one of the most amazing things is that every single television personality makes the poppy a permanent part of their wardrobe for the month leading up to Armistice Day. Even the contestants on The X Factor (Britain's version of American Idol) wear a poppy on their outfits on stage. I guess it could be compared to the American flag lapel pin, no Member of Parliament would be caught dead without one pinned to their suit.

British Legion's Paper Poppy

I suppose here both World Wars quite literally hit closer to home. The British isles were heavily bombed by the Germans and there are still reminders everywhere of the death and destruction. Here in the North, one of the biggest reminders is the depressed economy.

Before the World Wars, Hartlepool was a major English port and a hub of industry with several dozen shipping companies calling the port of Hartlepool home, accounting for nearly 250 ships. Hartlepool's position as a major British port made it a strategic target for the Germans. On the morning of December 16, 1914 Hartlepool became the first town in England to be bombed by the Germans. On this day over 1000 shells rained down on Hartlepool from German ships. Guns on the Heugh (pronounced "Yuff") Gun Battery in Hartlepool fired back around 150 shells with more accuracy than the German ships and initiated the first and only land to sea attack from the British mainland and severely damaged the attacking ships. Despite this contribution, World War I and the following Depression crippled the once robust Hartlepool shipping industry only to be revived again during World War II. Yet again, this prosperity made Hartlepool a prime target for the Nazi forces and Hartlepool was raided from the air 43 times during the course of World War II. This once and for all cut off the Hartlepool shipping industry and it has never recovered since.

Hartlepool homes destroyed in December 16, 1914 bombing

Hartlepool's story is similar to many other English towns, which is maybe the reason that Armistice Day and honoring their veterans is such a hallowed tradition here. Particularly in the working class towns of the North where the economic effects of war are still relevant decades later, these stories still hit close to home and in many cases the people who lived through them are still around to remember.

Last Sunday nearly every town in the country held their own "Poppy Parade" with veterans and active members of the British Armed Forces marching through the center of town to be honored for their service. In London in front of the World War I memorial, 3 surviving veterans of World War I were honored. They were all well into their 100s and all in wheelchairs, but still proudly wearing their uniforms and displaying their medals. Jason marched in a Poppy Parade in the Northwestern town of Barrow-in-Furness which his ship HMS Walney is named for after an island off the coast.

If you don't know the significance of the poppy, it comes from a poem written by a Canadian soldier during World War I.

In Flanders Field
by Lt.-Co. John McCrea

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Newcastle, New Couch and Bonfire Night

I have definitely had a busy week! Tuesday I took the train into Newcastle which is such a beautiful city. It was my first time actually going into Newcastle proper and it was wonderful to be downtown in a city again. Arriving by train in Newcastle is really breathtaking. From Hartlepool the train runs along the sea coast. After three months I have grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of this area, but moving along the coast through this very different terrain I was again reminded that I do live in a different country with a very different landscape. When the train pulls into Newcastle it is elevated to about the roof level of most of the buildings so you are looking down into the streets and then the train passes over the River Tyne. This moment passing over the river in an elevated train I couldn't help but feel nostalgic. I could see myself living in this city and really feeling at home.

Tuesday night I obviously stayed up very late watching the election results roll in. The first results came in at about midnight and I stayed up until about 3 am at which point enough states had been called and I had a pretty good idea that unless there was a major upset in California the election was pretty much determined. I got a text message from a friend of mine in Chicago who was attending the Obama rally, and I am so glad she texted me awake because I was able to watch the rally in Chicago live on TV. This week it has been nice for me to see live coverage from Chicago, probably not something that will happen much in the future. Without sounding too politcal here, I have to say that one thing I have found amazing over the last few days is the coverage that has come from all over the world. This election might have divided the US, but throughout the rest of world people are dancing in the streets hoisting American flags that are actually not on fire. Some of you may be disappointed in the results of the election and some of you may be elated, but as an American living abroad this is the most important thing to me and its very encouraging.

Wednesday morning I got a call that my couch would be delivered the next day!!! Before purchasing a new couch Jason and I had only this very ugly loveseat which I only just recently learned was left here in our flat by the previous owner. This new development made the mystery stains all over the loveseat that much more foreboding. Here is the old loveseat:

Here is our new corner sofa! I absolutely love it, and it fits perfectly in the living room as if it was made to measure. I also love that the section at the end is a footstool so if we have company over we can move it anywhere we would like for additional seating and two people can easily fit on it. I also love the that the frame is covered in leather but the cushions are fabric. I love the look of leather but the fabric cushions are warmer and more comfortable.

This week was also Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night. Always associated with the rhyme "Remember Remember the Fifth of November." Guy Fawkes Night commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 which was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament as well as the King and much of the Protestant aristocracy. The day is commemorated every year with fireworks displays, and bonfires where effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned. These bonfires are also a convenient way to get rid of bulky waste like furniture once every year.

Guy Fawkes was the plotter who prepared the explosives meant to blow up the Houses of Parliament but the plot also has a connection to Northumberland. Henry Percy was one of the principal conspirators and his family domain was Alnwick Castle which you may remember from an earlier post, My First Visit to an English Castle.

The fireworks display in Hartlepool was right here in Seaton Carew so Jason and I were able to walk down to the beach to watch them, along with Jason's sister Kirsty and our niece Abbie. It was a great thing for us to do together before he left for three weeks.

Today all over England there are "poppy parades" in every town, Jason marched in uniform in a parade in Barrow which is a place associated with his ship HMS Walney. November 11th will be Armistace Day so in next week's post I will go into more detail about this holiday which is obviously of great importance to our family.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Happy to report...

I am BUSY! I feel like I have been going going going since Friday. I won't give you all the details but this weekend I went to a Halloween party and met some new people, and the best news is that tomorrow I have a meeting with a recruiter that specializes in marketing and media jobs.

I think I am going to delay posting until tomorrow after I have met with this recruiter. I am sure everyone is probably more focused on tomorrow's election than they are on my blog. Please excuse this brief semi-political commercial (I promise its purple, no blue or red here). I make it a point not to make this blog political in any way but I think this is important enough to make an exception just this once.

On that note, please remember to vote tomorrow. Here in the UK, the citizens do not have the luxury of choosing their own leader. First of all the ultimate head of state is the Queen, and while she is in many ways more of a figurehead rather than an actual policy maker, for all intents and purposes she is the head honcho for no reason other than her place in the royal bloodline. The British people do not get to vote on the Prime Minister, either. The public elects a political party, and then it is up to the party to appoint a Prime Minister. Imagine if it was up to American politicians to choose the President! We as Americans have a unique privilege to decide who will lead our country and it isn't something that should be taken lightly or for granted.

No matter how long the lines are at polling centers, its your right and privilege as an American to vote. I know its easy for me to say that because I voted absentee a month ago from the comfort of my living room, but I believe it is important to first and foremost educate yourself about the candidates and then get out there and vote. Its not too late to do your homework!

If the sense of responsibility to your country isn't enough to motivate you to get out there, Starbucks is giving a free tall coffee to anyone who voted.

I will report tomorrow on my experience with riding the train alone for the first time in this country, and any news on the job front.

Happy voting!!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

English Pub Culture

Ahhh yes, Ye Olde British Tradition- drinking. This weekend Jason and I went for "a night out" together. I mostly went for his benefit, as I have begun to find the pub culture a bit boring. I promise to explain later.

I put "a night out" in quotations because here, a night out is far more specific a term than it is in America. In the States, if you tell someone you are going for a night out it could mean a whole spectrum of things. It could mean that you are going for dinner and a movie or that you are going to get dressed up and see a play or that you and some friends are going to go out and have a rowdy time. The possibilities of what a night out in America can mean are endless.

In England, "a night out" means that you are going to drink in at least one pub and plan on drinking for the duration of the evening. More specifically in Hartlepool, the qualifications for a night out are even more stringent.

First of all, there seems to be an unwritten dress code. It could be an instinctual thing, some kind of genetic code that is only strong in the blue-blooded English and not those of us who have been tainted with German or even (gasp!) Scottish blood. I say this because I obviously always miss the memo. The dress code isn't usually the same from one night to the next, or from one weekend to the next. It is mostly a female thing since most men have two or three "night out" shirts that they rotate. I never seem to get it right but luckily my style is understated enough that my faux pas go unnoticed.

Women always seem to be dressed the same. Saturday night, most of the night-outers were wearing leopard print and/or sequins although there was a sect of people wearing sweater dresses and leggings. There are usually only two or three different variations of outfits and then if you go out the next weekend thinking you are onto the pattern, they have changed the encryption again and everyone is wearing two or three completely different styles.

Secondly, there is a strict itinerary that everyone follows, but everyone takes a different shift. I think it might be something where upon turning 18 the new crop of drinkers is given their itinerary and this remains with them until death.

The intinerary goes like this: You always begin in the same pub and after having no more than two drinks you move on to the next pub. Repeat this until closing time. The order in which you proceed to the pubs is always the same. For this reason a night out in Hartlepool means that even though you never stay in the same place for more than a round or two, you continuously see the same groups of people coming and going. Like clockwork, you see the same groups of people leaving as you enter the pub and then continue to see familiar faces as you finish your round and the next shift arrives and then the whole cycle starts again.

For this reason, I find pub culture in this town very boring. I never meet new people since my group is always on the move, I never get the chance to settle in before moving on to the next place (there are very few tables and chairs in the pubs in which to settle) and I am usually uncomfortable from trekking from "the top end" of town to "the bottom end" while dressed up more than I would like to be. It is normal (but thankfully not mandatory) for women to wear cocktail dresses out, and for the younger and wilder crowd the equivalent of what you would wear to a bachelor or bachelorette party.

Coming from the cozy and quiet "come as you are" pubs of Chicago this all seems like too much trouble for me. I prefer to stroll down the street in a t-shirt and jeans, park myself at the bar and have a lively conversation with my dear friend the bartender. The bartenders here are more like the cashiers at a fast food restaurant. You give them your order which had better be one of the things they see on the touch screen in front of them, they quickly bring it to you, you pay, you walk away drink in hand, end of transaction.

Also, despite the "shaken not stirred" stereotype about the English, in my experience no bartender in England is capable of making a cocktail that doesn't give you the recipe in it's name. Basically, if it isn't a Jack Daniels and Diet Coke or a vodka and Red Bull they can't make it and God save you if you order something else and they actually give it a try. The vast majority of people drink lager, usually Fosters, Carling or Kronenbourg. Second to lager is cider, Strongbow being the most popular but there are several brands. After that are ales which is basically any dark beer like Guinness. Never fear if you prefer a fruity cocktail because Britain's solution for having poorly trained bartenders is to bottle everything under the sun. You can get a wide array of cocktails in a bottle and this fourth category of drinks is called "alchypops". Even though the option is there, drinking a premade screwdriver out of a bottle just doesn't do it for me. That basically covers the options you have when you go out, although I have found there is usually a refrigerator behind the bar stocked with things like Corona and other more "exotic" drinks that are more to my liking.

It isn't all bad because one thing about all the moving around is that you have more opportunity of running into people you know, and we almost always do. Still, the malarkey I described above is precisely what is implied when someone asks if you are going for "a night out", and I am always expected to know what this means and follow suit to fulfill all of the night out qualifications.

Here in England we have turned back our clocks a week early, so for those of you in the Eastern time zone I am only 4 hours ahead and those in the Central time zone I am only 5 hours ahead. Next week when the US follows suit we will be back to the usual, but this week I will enjoy feeling a bit closer to home even if it is just a technicality. Thanks again for reading! More next week when I will be reporting on my first Halloween weekend here!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Best Gig After The Queen

Tonight was my first night singing with the Hartlepool Community Choir. It is a bit of a milestone for me because it is my first excursion into Hartlepooligan society without Jason or any of my in-laws as a chaperon. I was pretty freaked out because I was afraid the choir would be composed of a bunch of lethargic old people. Luckily, the crowd was more the regular enthusiastic multi-generational crowd and everyone was very friendly and made me feel welcome. It was the most socially comfortable I have felt around people in this town, even though their sense of humor was still totally lost on me. That is one of the most difficult things about living here, I feel like I have absolutely no sense of humor. The only jokes I get are the ones that somehow end with "The Queen".

Tonight I also learned my first new English Christmas carol. This is exciting to me because I know literally every Christmas carol in the American repetoire, most of them backwards and forwards. The past two years running my team won the games portion of the company Christmas party solely on my ability to name any Christmas carol in just three notes. Some might even say that Christmas carols are "my thing" because they combine my two favorite things- Christmas and singing. For me, learning a new Christmas Carol was exhilirating, I can't remember the last time I heard a Christmas song that I didn't know. I am glad I will get to know some of the Christmas music standards in the choir because I can't imagine Christmas without being able to sing along to every song on the radio during the holidays.

This weekend I finally made something with pumpkin- pumpkin pancakes. They were delicious and really hit the spot. I found several recipes but modified some to come up with my own recipe and they came out great. Here is my recipe for whole wheat pumpkin pancakes!

Spiced Whole Wheat Pumpkin Pancakes

First I seeded and roasted one medium baking pumpkin for about 35 minutes at 400°F, or until a fork can easily sink into the flesh. I used about half of the baked pumpkin for this recipe. I mashed the flesh with a potato masher and then removed any large or tough chunks that wouldn't mash. I baked the pumpkin the night before so it was completely cooled when I added it to the recipe.

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup baked pumpkin flesh, mashed (or canned pumpkin)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg). In a separate bowl combine the pumpkin, milk, egg yolks, brown sugar, butter and salt. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients until just blended but still lumpy. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer or whisk until they form soft but not stiff peaks. Gently fold the whites into the batter just until they are combined.

Heat a lightly oiled skillet over medium-high heat or 375°F on an electric griddle. Using a ladel, pour batter on the heated skillet until bubbles form on the surface and then flip them over until they are browned on the bottom.

This recipe makes about 4 "servings", but if you are like me and you really like pancakes its enough for two people. I served the pancakes with butter and cinnamon sugar but they would also be great with butter and warm maple syrup with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a handful of dried cranberries. They are very moist and hearty and great on a cold morning!

I apologize again for the late post, Jason took a couple days off work so he just went back to the base today. We try to spend as much time together as we can when he is home, so I couldn't tear myself away long enough to post. Next week I should be posting again on time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Autumn in England

I am feeling a bit under the weather today so this post might be a bit short. Its been a rough week, my computer randomly crashed this week and now I am using Jason's laptop. It is a good thing I have been keeping this blog because I have been posting my photos on the internet. Had they not been stored on internet sites I would have lost all of our honeymoon pictures so I am very grateful for internet file storage.

First I should report that I found apple "cider" at the supermarket this week. Sadly it was very disappointing. It was commercially bottled juice so I should have expected what I got but it just wasn't the same. It tasted like regular old apple juice but with appley pulp in it. It was too sweet and didn't have that tang that real fresh apple cider has. Its kind of like when you buy chunky applesauce in a jar. Despite their best efforts, putting chunks of apples in applesauce doesn't make it comparable to homemade. I was right about one thing, though. It is called cloudy apple juice here.

It is a good thing I bought some other fall staples while I was at the store like apples and pumpkins. For the first time in years I made Betty Crocker's apple crisp and it more than made up for the cider let-down. I also bought a baking pumpkin but haven't decided what to make with it yet. I think I might bake it now and then freeze it until I decide what pumpkin treat I want to make. Feel free to post your favorite pumpkin recipes in the comments section of this post if you have any suggestions.

One thing to note is that here in England they don't use the term fall. Most of them know what it is thanks to American TV shows and movies, but here it is strictly called autumn. Possibly because there is nothing significant about the falling of the leaves here. Living here by the sea the sights, smells and other sensations of autumn are sadly absent. The seaside always just smells like the sea. The only indication that the seasons have changed is that the parks service came through and tore all the flowers out of the beds lining the promenade.

I am interested to see what Halloween is like here because although children do go trick-or-treating, this is not a holiday that adults really get into. I suppose Americans have turned Halloween and pretty much every other obscure holiday into an excuse to drink. Here in England they don't really need excuses to drink so I suppose that is the reason they don't make a big deal out of Halloween. We don't have many children in our area here so I don't anticipate that we will get any trick-or-treaters.

Thank you for reading! Hopefully by next week I will be feeling much better and I will be able to write a bit more. Enjoy all of that real apple cider...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bathroom Renovation Project

I don't know if it is appropriate to call it a "renovation" since we haven't done much other than taking the vinyl tiling off the walls and changing the fixtures. The transformation certainly looks like we have done a lot but we have changed the look of our bathroom without replacing the bath/shower unit and ceramic tile surround, sink or toilet. I didn't take a photo of the bathroom before we started but I do have a couple photos that show the vinyl tile wall covering and will give you an idea of the general state of our bathroom before we undertook this project. When I moved in back in August it looked like either an old woman or a bachelor lived in the flat. It was difficult to discern which because Jason had just layered his bachelor style "decorations" over the outdated decor. Below you can see the lovely dolphin toilet seat (Jason's choice) and also the very classy sign he posted above the toilet. I guess he was just worried he would get distracted by the dolphins so he thought he should remind himself. Anyway, those things aside you can see in these photos the vinyl tiling that was covering the walls. The tile wasn't installed very well so it was peeling off and bubbling in many places and the pale pink and green motif went out of style sometime in the last century. I had a feeling that the tiles were hiding something horrendous underneath and as we began to peel them off it revealed about 4 layers of chipping and peeling paint and many large gouges in the plaster. It certainly wasn't the worst situation I have ever seen but it was a lot of work to remove the old wallpaper paste, sand down the rough edges where the paint was chipping off and fill in the gouges. To be honest, when we finished the wall wasn't 100% smooth. Since the paint color I chose was a clay color I thought it would look fine if the wall was uneven or textured in places and I am glad I made that decision because it would have taken us countless hours to get the wall completely smooth. Last weekend Jason and I painted the walls and I spent this week shopping around for bathroom fixtures and we completed the project this weekend. Here is the final result, well at least the completion of Phase I.

As you can see the walls have been painted a clay color. The name of the color is Rum Caramel 4 but I honestly don't think it looks like rum or caramel and I am very familiar with both. The dolphin toilet seat was replaced with a pine toilet seat which coordinates with the pine medicine cabinet. Before we just had a plain unframed mirror bolted to the wall so it is nice to have a good medicine cabinet.

A few years ago for Jason's birthday I gave him this set of three hanging photo frames with photos of Chicago and we thought it went really well with the bathroom decor. Actually, this was the only part of the bathroom that was Jason's idea so I feel I should give him proper credit.

The old bathroom had some very cheap beige plastic fixtures which we replaced with these nice chrome accessories.
We used to have a really ugly wooden cabinet in this corner that was painted pale antique green. We replaced it with this chrome and glass shelving unit and I found some great things at TK Maxx (exactly the same as TJ Maxx except here it is with a "K"). This is my favorite part of the bathroom. I think every woman aspires to have a "spa inspired" bathroom and this is my little spa corner. I found some nice little spa bottles of toiletries, some handmade English soaps, some little sea sponges, a reed infuser and a faux orchid plant (I killed the last live orchid that was left in my care). I think it was the most confusing moment for Jason when I spent a good 20 minutes in the bath product section of TK Maxx sniffing and inspecting an array of soaps and trying to explain to him that these were for display, not for washing your hands.

One thing you may notice is that there are no electrical outlets in the bathroom. This is no freak accident, there are no electrical outlets in any bathrooms in England. I might even go as far as to say that this is the one thing I miss the most about America. I just feel very strange about drying and styling my hair in my bedroom. I haven't adjusted to storing my hair products anywhere else but the bathroom even though it would probably make more sense if I didn't have to walk back and forth from the bathroom to the bedroom with my hair products and hairbrush and clips but I guess old habits die hard.

I am really proud of us because we did all of the work ourselves with minimal arguing and I think we did a quality job. My mother-in-law and my sister-in-law Diane have both been up and they were amazed by the transforation. Eventually Jason would like to replace the toilet, sink and bathtub but I think for now this is something we can definitely live with.

Thanks again for reading everyone! Have a lovely fall, I really miss the Midwestern changing of fall colors and here the leaves just kind of turn brown and fall off the trees so its definitely making me pine for that unmistakable smell of a fall day in Michigan.

I would like to take this moment to apologize to the my male readers for putting you through all that talk of handmade English soaps and hair products.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Two Months

Today marks two months since I moved to the UK. In some ways it feels as if I have been here longer, and in others it feels like I am still just getting my feet wet. This week I received my National Insurance number, which is basically the same thing as a Social Security number. I guess you could say that now I am definitely an official resident of the UK because now I can pay taxes to the British government.

I still feel like I speak a completely different language. I needed chicken broth for a recipe and Jason was going out to get a paper so I asked him to pick me up some chicken broth. He came back with condensed cream of chicken soup. We went to the grocery store and I asked him to point me toward the soup, I found a can of chicken broth but to my surprise the word "broth" here means exactly the opposite of what it means in America. In America chicken stock and chicken broth both mean "chicken flavored water". Here, chicken broth is chicken soup and chicken stock is chicken flavored water. Add this difference in dialect in with the fact that I was grocery shopping with a man and you have a married couple standing in the soup aisle of the grocery store trying to figure out what they call "chicken flavored water" here in this country and where they might keep it in a grocery store.

This seems to be a conversation we have over and over again and its a good thing we are very patient with each other because every time we go into a store it seems like the thing I am looking for is not in the place I would expect it to be and after explaining it to a sales associate while they look at me like I am either crazy or just fascinating they finally decode my secret language and have a "Eureka! You mean bobbledy boos!" moment and then point me in the right direction. It seems to me even the simplest of things have a different name, come in different packaging and in the case of food almost always come in strange flavors. If anything this experience of describing things has made it clear to me at times how arbitrary products names are on both sides of the pond. I find myself so often having to break down something into descriptives and then I am always left wondering "Why on earth do we call it zucchini?"

There are still a few items that I simply can't find the name for. For example, it is autumn and I am naturally craving some hot apple cider. Much to my frustration, the term "cider" is already taken and is my favorite alocholic beverage. Cider here is a cold carbonated alcoholic apple beverage. I asked Jason the other day if he knows where I could find "cloudy apple juice" or "unfiltered apple juice" and he seemed to be drawing a complete blank. I haven't given up faith that at least by the time winter rolls around I will have identified what they call cider here and I will be enjoying some mugs of hot cloudy apple juice.

That wraps it up for this week, next week I promise I will post on Monday. Jason was home for a long weekend and we finished painting our bathroom. Once we have installed new fixtures I will post some photos of the transformation. Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's on the telly?

Jason was back at work last week and naturally the weather was grey and misty most of the week so I stayed in and got myself acquainted with British daytime television. There are a few notable things about British television. First of all, about half of the programs are American anyway so its really not that much different, with the exception of commercials. That leads me to the second notable thing about British television which is that there are fewer commercials. The main reason for this is that British television is not free, to watch basic television in the UK you must purchase a box which is ironically named a "freeview" box. You need to purchase this freeview box in order to get the basic channels from an antenna. Also, you must a pay an annual license fee which for colour TV is about £140 per year. So, given the cost of watching television it is only right that they have about 50-60% fewer commercials. When watching American shows a 30 minute show is normally only about 20-25 minutes long.

TV License aside, I think British television is really wonderful. Here are just a few of my favorite things about it. Unlike American TV, promotions for shows on networks are always funny. Instead of seeing the same boring promotion for a television show over and over again, an effort is always made to make these promotions entertaining. Exhibit A is the promotion for "Girls Night Out" which is on Thursday nights. They play "girly" shows like Ugly Betty and Samantha Who? back to back on Thursday nights on a certain network. First of all, just the idea that they could group together several shows on a large network and label it as "Girls Night In" I find very refreshing. If you were to promote something like this in the US on any network (other than Oxygen or Lifetime, which are designated for these things) the network would surely get sued for casting a stereotype and labeling any shows as "for women". Below is a clip of the promotion for "Girls Night In" which always makes me laugh.

Although the quantity of commercials is smaller, the quality is definitely better. Here are a couple of my favorite commercials.

I think the reason I love this commercial so much is because of how horrible the Burger King commercials are in the US. They should consider an approach like this one instead of the really creepy plastic king.

If you are a frequent YouTuber- you have probably seen the first Cadbury advert featuring this gorilla, but this is a new one and although it has nothing at all to do with chocolate everyone loves it.

Another thing I love is how candid British TV is. One example is the introductions and disclaimers for television shows. In the US, a very serious black screen and a very stern man will warn you that a show contains strong language that might not be suitable for children and "parental discretion is advised". The other night I was about to settle in to watch a bit of Sex and the City (which by the way isn't censored here) and before the show a voice over came across and the woman said "This show contains strong language and some nudity, which lets be honest is the reason we watch it anyway!"

Here are some descriptions of my top 3 favorite British TV shows:

1) Don't Tell The Bride: This is a show where the producers of the show give a couple £15,000 to spend on their wedding. The catch is that every single decision must be made by the groom alone with help only from his best man. He has three weeks to plan the wedding and the bride can't know anything about the decisions he makes. It is a very heartwarming show because even though the guys screw up, they do everything they can to try to please their bride-to-be and it is fun to watch them getting into the details. My favorite moment was when a groom decided to cancel the chair covers in order to afford a group of break dancers to perform at the reception.

2) Come Dine With Me: This is a brilliant show where a group of five people who live in the same county spend 5 evenings together where they trade off hosting dinner parties for each other. At the end of each dinner party the other 4 guests have to give them a score which is kept a secret from everyone and on the last night when the scores are revealed, whoever has the highest score wins £5,000. Its funny to see how different people entertain.

3) The Dragons' Den: This is a show where 5 millionaire business executives, coined "the dragons" are presented with proposals from inventors and entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs come in asking for a certain amount of investment and offering a stake in the company and they pitch their product or idea to the dragons in hopes of walking away with an investment as well as the business savvy of one or more of the dragons. It is interesting to see the different innovations people are bringing before the panel.

That is all for this week! More next Monday...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Honeymoon Photos

I promise this will be my last post about France, this is after all supposed to be a blog about life in England. However, I do think my trip to France fits into the scheme of "life in England" because the proximity to the European continent is part of living here. In the US we vacation in places like New York or Florida or California, here the trips are basically the same distance but you need a passport to get where you are going.

I have made several different albums of the different sights in Paris that we visited so it is easier to navigate all of the photos. I will post the albums in kind of a "Top Ten List" fashion starting with my favorite site and working my way down.

Here is an album of general out and about in Paris photos which also includes the river boat cruise we took. Also, here are the photos from Vernon including photos of the beautiful cathedral there.

1. Giverny- no explanation needed!
2. Orangerie- a museum dedicated to Impressionism and the home of Monet's Water Lilies masterpieces!
3. Orsay- the best collection of Impressionest paintings! Also, a beautiful sculpture collection. I think this was the best laid out museum I have ever been to. The museum used to be a train station and has a very open floorplan. Many of the most famous Impressionist paintings by Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and others are on display here.
4. Saint Chappelle- by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I literally gasped when I stepped into the upper sanctuary. Definitely lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful church in Paris!
5. Notre Dame- as beautiful as I had expected. What can't be captured in these photos was the beautiful chorale music that was being played there. The ambiance the music and the flickering candles created was so serene and memorable.
6. Arc de Triomphe- a wonderful view of Paris! The very long winding walk up (284 steps) was definitely worth the view at the top.
7. Eiffel Tower- if I were to do it again I would not have gone to the very top. The view wasn't all that great and the lines were very long at every level. I would have just gone up to the second level (which has a very good view) and then spent more time on the ground where the views of the tower were really amazing. The draw of the tower isn't the view from the tower but the views of the tower itself, especially the light show every hour on the hour.
8. Hotel des Invalides- this is where Napoleon's tomb is located underneath the golden dome of the church inside. This building used to be a military hospital and now houses the military museum. We explored the museum that covers the two world wars which was one of the best war museums I have ever visited. The church with the golden dome that is within was almost sickeningly opulent and Napoleon's tomb was gigantic. Hard to believe such a tiny man was encased in there.
9. St Sulpice- this was a very interesting and beautiful church. We stood on the Meridien Line, known to Dan Brown fans as the "rose line" although as the literature in the church explained this isn't truly the purpose of the Meridien Line.
10. Louvre- I didn't expect to enjoy the Louvre too much, I had heard the Mona Lisa is kind of a let down so I it was exactly what I expected. I am not a huge fan of classical style art so most of the thousands of paintings housed here aren't interesting to me. The one thing I really did love was "Winged Victory". I think it was the most beautiful sculpture I have ever seen and the location it is in at the Louvre definitely suits it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Honeymoon in France- Part II

It has now been a couple days since Jason and I returned from Paris. I took over 1,000 photos (seriously) and I am overwhelmed with trying to decide which ones to post because I am sure nobody wants to go through the hassle of going through all 1,000 photos. Instead what I will do is create a bunch of photo albums from each location and if you would like to check out a certain thing you can. I will probably post these later this week.

Back to where I left off with my last entry, On the second day of our honeymoon Jason and I visited Claude Monet's home and gardens in Giverny, France. It was a long but manageable walk from our B&B to Giverny on the foot path that ran along the back of the house. The footpath actually used to be a railroad but parts of the railroad was destroyed in WWII so the remaining parts were turned into a footpath which is quite nice. The area is very hilly so it worked out that the foot path used to be a railroad because it made getting around much easier for us since it was straight and level.

I don't think I can come up with words to describe how beautiful Claude Monet's gardens are. The last day of our trip we visited the Marmottan Museum which is a museum in Paris dedicated solely to the life and works of Claude Monet. I remember the audiguide at the museum saying that after Monet planted his garden and created the lily pond he created around 300 paintings there, which I found interesting because it was about the same number of photos I took of the gardens. Every flower seemed to be different here, some of the blooms were about the size of my head and even a flower as simple as the daisy was extraordinary because the daisy plants were over 7 feet tall. The garden is still impeccibly maintained which is one credit I have to give to the French about their historical sites. Sites like Monet's Garden and Versailles are still maintained to the level of perfection as when they were functioning homes. Now, they are just there for the benefit of visitors and I can't imagine the money and manpower that goes into keeping them up.

Later I will post an album of all the photos I took in Giverny, but for now here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

Me in the "Grand Alley"

That is me over on the other side of the pond! The willow trees were huge!

The lily pond!

Another of the many photos of me by the lily pond

One of the many rows of the the "walled garden" directly behind the house.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Honeymoon in France- Part I

I have just arrived in Paris and we are getting settled into our hotel room. Here is my journal from the first day we spent in the town of Vernon in the Normandie province which is about 4 miles from the village of Giverny where Claude Monet's house and gardens are located. Days 2 and 3 are to follow shortly! I don't have any photos to post yet but I will post some as soon as I return to England.

Day 1- 25 August 2008
Vernon, France

Today is our first full day in France. Yesterday we arrived at our final destination “L'Hermitage” at about 8pm and then quickly went into town for our first French meal. We dined at a restaurant on the Seine and quickly learned there are many differences in the way the French eat. Most restaurants serve 3 course meals with a starter, main course, what I like to call a “cheese intermission”, and then a dessert. I find there seems to be a large selection of fish at French restaurants and it is obvious that the French take their food quite seriously. After dinner we walked (in the rain) back to L'Hermitage or the “Wierdo Cottage” as Jason likes to call it. Our room is the only guest room in the Bed & Breakfast so it is kind of like being the guests of this French family. The room we are staying in is a long open room with a large adjoining bathroom. It is connected to the main house of our hosts Alain and Ariane through their kitchen door. It is a very charming old place with a foot path at the back of the house that leads to the town centre of Vernon (prononced Vair-noan) to the left and Giverny to the right. I can't imagine a more perfect way to begin our stay in France. Our hosts speak English and life here is pretty slow paced which I think is good for the first days of our honeymoon and a better way to become acclimated to France rather than being slung into the metropolis of Paris.

If I can draw one first impression about the French people it is that yes, they do actually walk down the street carrying baguettes. This morning we saw several people walking down the street carrying nothing but a few baguettes wrapped in paper. I even saw a little boy on the back of his mother's bike clinging to a baguette as she pedaled him down the street. I was a bit surprised that this stereotype actually turns out to be true. I knew I would be sampling a lot of wine and cheese (oh the cheese!) but to be honest I am overwhelmed by how much bread these people eat. I have probably consumed a full baguette already today and I haven't even had dinner.

Now onto the cheese, ohhhhh the wonderful cheese. I seem to be ordering anything on a menu that I can find that has goat cheese. The goat cheese here is the smoothest, creamiest goat cheese I have ever had in my life and it is a-maz-ing!

At the end of Day 1, we had earlier inquired about something I saw on the website that a homemade meal could be provided for 15 euros a person. I honestly was not expecting the meal that Ariane prepared for us. Three courses, which seems to be the norm for French cuisine but I honestly didn't expect this from a home cooked meal served in a little cottage. As I write this it is now the last night of our stay here in Vernon and I have sampled the food here and honestly the best meals we have had here in Vernon have been the meals prepared for us by Ariane. This first night she cooked for us we had an appetizer of goat cheese on toast. Now, I have said before that I love my goat cheese and these little toasts with goat cheese Ariane prepared for us were so simple, but so very delicious. Upon my first taste of Ariane's food I realized that one thing I will be leaving France with is inspiration to make more delicious meals such as the ones she has served. Ariane is after all a home cook, and her meals were better than all of the restaurants we have dined in since coming to France.

I have to say that Ariane and Alain are the perfect hosts. While Ariane was preparing a perfect meal, Alaine served as Maitre 'd. They knew it was our honeymoon so Alain served us “royal kir” with our meal. Kir is normally a cocktail of black currant brandy and white wine, but when it is made with champagne it is called royal kir. It was a delicious drink, I suppose I would compare it to a Bellini expect with a sweet fruity brandy. For the main course, Ariane had prepared a traditional Normandie style chicken dish. It was tender strips of chicken breast in a light fragrant sauce made with a type of apple cognac and olive oil and mushrooms. It was served with a mix of cous cous, grains and herbs.

When I was taking meditation courses in Chicago our instructor had once told us that the Hindus believe the reason “mom's cooking” tastes so good is because when mom prepares food it is prepared with love for her children and this love transfers into the food she cooks which is why nothing can ever compare to mom's food. I don't know if I believe this or not, but it certainly makes sense. I think in the same way Ariane's joy and enthusiasm for cooking translates into the wonderful meals she prepares.

I don't think many people are as lucky as Jason and I are to have a mother from Normandie prepare us a traditional meal while we gaze out the window of this cottage at the cows grazing in the French countryside. After dinner Jason asked Alain what was in the sauce that the chicken was cooked in and Alain came out with two glasses of the apple cognac for us to taste. It was so strong, but still a nice way to end a meal. Ariane also served us a trio of ice cream, I believe it was praline, caramel and coconut.

As I began to prepare for bed I realized that the next day I would be fulfilling my lifelong dream of seeing Monet's garden. What a wonderful way to spend the evening before. I imagine many of the people who walked the paths of the garden that next day had probably woken up in a hotel in Paris, boarded a train to Vernon and then onto a bus and were dropped off en masse in front of the reception office where they then purchased their tickets. This is a stark contrast to the night I spent before this dining on home cooked cuisine d' Normandie and waking up to an equally lovely breakfast of fresh buns and bread from the baker in Vernon and homemade jam before strolling down a foot path into Giverny. The next day was going to be an exceptional day for me, and I knew this as I lay down to sleep that night.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Hartlepooligans

By popular demand, I will post some photos of the crazy people of Hartlepool. The people of Hartlepool call themselves "Hartlepoodlians" but my good friend Angela from Chicago has suggested a much more appropriate name- Hartlepooligans.

Last weekend was the Hartlepool carnival which was culminated with a "parade". I use the term parade very loosely. First of all, there wasn't really any theme to speak of. Usually when there is a parade I expect there to be an occassion or theme like "Thanksgiving" or "Independence Day" or even "The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup... AGAIN!" It doesn't really matter what the theme is, I just like know that there is some theme or purpose for the parade. This was not the case with Hartlepool's carnival parade. I think the only theme I might have been able to draw, since it was the only recurring costume was The Canoe Man:

If I never mentioned it before, there was a big story this year that made international headlines when a man from Hartlepool faked his own death in an insurance scam. John Darwin, now know to the Hartlepooligans as "The Canoe Man" was a neighbour of ours, living just a few doors down from us here on the sea front. In 2002 John Darwin was out canoeing one day in the sea (its actually more like kayaking) and he never returned. His body was never found after the Coast Guard searched for him and he was pronounced dead and his wife was awarded his life insurance money. For the past 5 years John Darwin has been living in a "secret room" in their home, but his act was up when he and his wife tried to purchase some property in Panama. When he realized the police were getting close to discovering his scheme he stumbled into a London police station claiming amnesia and no knowledge of the past 5 years but the police saw through his act and he was arrested. He and his wife were recently sentenced to 6 years in prison for their scheme.

In true English spirit, instead of sweeping this man under the rug or trying to keep it on the hush while the story blew over, the people of Hartlepool have embraced the Canoe Man and he is the butt of every joke and quite possibly the only theme that could be found in the parade.

Back to the parade, it can best be described as a bunch of drunk people dressed in Halloween costumes wandering aimlessly down a street lined with children. There were only two floats, one with the local beauty pageant winners and another that had an Easter theme- in August. The only thing I could think was that maybe they didn't disassemble their Easter parade float and decided to recycle it for this parade. The only other theme, which is thoroughly English, was "men dressed as women". We have a hula girl...

Her Majesty the Queen...

and of course, Amy Winehouse...

Mr. Winehouse was probably my favorite because right before this photo was taken he walked off the street, through the crowd and into the pub across the street and emerged with a pint of lager. I think it pretty much summed up the whole spirit of the parade. Other than the photos I have posted here, people pretty much wore whatever costumes they had and entered themselves into the parade. There was a troupe of Elvises, the characters from the Wizard of Oz, zombies, and numerous other random costumes with no relationship whatsoever to each other.

Well, that was my first experience with an English "parade" but I have to believe that there are better parades to be seen in England. Tomorrow Jason and I are leaving for our honeymoon in France. We will be gone for 12 days so I probably won't post next Monday. I am taking my computer with me, but I probably won't take the time to write a full post next Monday.