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.

Monday, August 18, 2008


This week Jason and I drove about 300 miles southeast to see Stonehenge. Jason had driven past and seen it before during training for the Navy but he had never actually been through to the site so this was a new experience for him too. Stonehenge is located just a bit north of Salisbury in a small town called Amesbury. As you come down the road flanked on either side by fields and flock of sheep of herds of cows, suddenly there it is. Its a very subtle environment, and the stones seem to just kind of fit in the environment like they have always been there and I guess in a way they always have.

We parked and went through the small setup they have on the other side of the road where you pay for entry and there is a gift shop and some food stalls and a booth giving out free audio tours. We both got the tours and headed through. The stones were cordoned off at about 20 feet around so although visitors aren't able to get too close to the stones, but still close enough to really experience and appreciate the site. It was good to know that preserving the stones for as long as possible is of the utmost importance and although it would be nice to get in close and touch the stones, you understand they by taking these steps Stonehenge is being protected so generations to come can experience and enjoy it.

I learned quite a bit from the audio tour, although I did know quite a bit about it already I really did learn things and see things I didn't know about. Here are some of the photos I took there:

Monday, August 11, 2008

My First Visit to an English Castle

On Friday Jason took me up north about an hour to Alnwick Castle, the home of the Duke of Northumberland. It was my first visit to an English Castle and upon entering the first giant stone archway there was a large sign that read "Welcome to our family home" and there was a message from the Duke of Northumberland about the history of the castle and what it means to his family. I couldn't believe as I stood there in this massive stone structure that this actually belongs to someone. Most parts of it have been turned into a museum but this is still a "family home" as has been for about 700 years. I can't imagine living in such an amazing place and that the numerous antiquities actually belong to a family. As amazing as it would be to live in this place, I also couldn't imagine my home being open to the public with velvet ropes and placards everywhere and security cameras and docents. To just have strangers roaming through the house and grounds would be a strange way to live, but then again only a small bit of the interior of the castle was open to the public and the rest I am sure is kept quite private.

We weren't able to take photographs of the inside of the castle, but it was really one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. I have seen museums and things with these types of interiors but as I mentioned before I was so struck by the reality that everything in this home belonged to one family and this family lives among their own history. Every inch of wall, ceiling and floor was ornately decorated with the most expensive materials you could imagine. Every wall was crammed with paintings of family members ranging through all generations. I don't have enough time here to describe all of the amazing things I laid my eyes on as we walked through the state rooms.

After we walked through the state rooms and tried to absorb everything we could, although honestly I think I could walk through that place every day for the rest of my life and probably find some new little thing I had never noticed before, but aaaaaanyway- we walked outside and explored the grounds which was kind of the main attraction for me because that is where the Harry Potter scenes were filmed.

Here is the green outside the castle where Harry Potter's first flying lesson was filmed:

Here are some more photos from different parts of the castle:

Monday, August 4, 2008

My first week in the UK

In case you aren't already jealous enough, I am sitting next to my open front window watching the tide go out. The sun is shining and it is about 65 and sunny with a light cool breeze.

This first week here in the UK has been a bit of a learning experience, as I'm sure my next few weeks will be. Grocery shopping was an absolute nightmare, it was difficult to tell which brands were good and which food contained healthy ingredients. The good thing is that Weight Watchers has a huge selection of products in the UK. My favorite is the Weight Watchers rice pudding, it is delicious!

I also attended my first English wedding on Saturday. It was my brother-in-law's wedding and it was at quaint country inn about 30 minutes away in the village of Nunthorpe. There were a lot of things about English weddings that are very different. First of all, there are many children in the wedding party. There was one maid of honour and one best man and some ushers but they did not stand up for the whole wedding. There was a flower girl, a ring bearer and a few page boys which is something we don't have in American weddings. There were more children in the wedding party than adults.

I can't speak for religious ceremonies because I think they are a bit different, but the civil ceremony is a bit less formal than the traditional American civil ceremony. The ceremony is performed by a registrar and there is a recorder who records all of the vows and everything that is said at the wedding is written down for public record. The beginning of the ceremony was very different because it was a lot of legal talk, the bride and groom had to state their full name and then before the vows they had to pledge that there was no impediment to them being legally married. It sounded more like a court proceeding than a wedding at first, but I think its good to be reminded that marriage isn't just about love but the joining of two households and it is a serious obligation and responsibility. Then the vows started and the weddings guests are asked to stand for the duration of the vows, which were really quite long! Then the ring ceremony happens and then right there at the ceremony in front of the guests the bride and groom sign the marriage license and certify that the record of everything said at the wedding is correct.

There was no rehearsal dinner, so at the dinner the bridesmaids and best man and ushers, children and parents of the bride and groom were given gifts and thanked. The father of the bride, the groom and the best man all do speeches. My husband Jason was the best man and he told me a bit about the speeches. Like American weddings, the best man is expected to make a humorous speech (bordering on a roast of the groom) but the other thing I found interesting was that they also read a few of the wedding cards aloud. Then at the end of the dinner the bride and groom cut the cake. English wedding cakes are traditionally fruit cake but my brother and sister in law chose to have fruit cake, carrot cake and sponge cake. The dinner was pretty much the same as an American reception, the difference is that its split into two parts.

It is traditional in England for fewer people to be invited to the actual ceremony. In this case, there were 70 people invited to the ceremony and formal dinner afterwards. Then there was an intermission of a couple hours where the guests who were staying for the evening party could hang out at the bar. Then at 7pm there was a "disco" and also a buffet for about 120 guests. I have to say with such a long day (the ceremony was at noon) when the buffet started in the evening I was ready to eat again and was thankful it was there. At the beginning of the "disco" the DJ played some games with the children which was nice. Then there was the first dance but that was the only special dance. There was no daddy/daughter dance or bridal party dance or any other special dances. The rest of the evening was pretty much exactly like an American wedding with lots of drinking and dancing.

HATS! I was told it is mostly older ladies who wear hats to weddings, at this wedding about a dozen or so of the ladies of all ages wore either a small hat or a little plume of some kind tucked into their hair. Below is a photo of my favorite hat, I think it is fabulous and wish I had the "bullocks" to wear a red hat to a wedding! Most of the women who chose something more like what my mother-in-law (right) and sister-in-law (left) are wearing in the photo on the bottom.