Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Gift #6: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The book I wanted to buy and give to all my friends last year was World War II RAF veteran and recipient of the DFC, Geoffrey Wellum's First Light. There are rarely books I feel this strongly about. I mean, I loved Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and raved about it to anyone who listened. But I wasn't quite as passionate about it as First Light.

Well, I've finally found one of those. It's by one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, and it's called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It was given to me as a birthday present by Ruth, whose judgement on books is one of a handful that I trust. If she thought I'd love it, then I would. I just didn't know how much.

Let me tell you a quick story about Mr. Alexie, if you're not familiar with him. Here's his Wiki bio, but I read Reservation Blues in high school and my signed copy of the book was the only book I took with me to college so that it'd be the first one on my dorm shelf and would make me feel at home. As someone from a small town in Washington state, who knows the places Alexie describes intimately, and who studied about Native American history and culture in the limited confines of my elementary, junior high and high school classrooms, and who questioned her identity as a Chinese-American growing up in a small, conservative town on a regular basis, Alexie's writing resonated with me like no other's.  To top that, I met him at a book signing at Seattle's famous The Elliott Bay Book Company and he was warm, friendly and took great care to spell my name correctly, citing his friend's similar spelling as a reason for him to check. I think in my excitement of meeting him, I babbled something incoherent and embarrassing about spelling it however he wanted to because it "really didn't matter". He kind of just looked at me. I think Ruth has a story in a similar vein of meeting him.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is actually classified as YA (that's Young Adult, for all you fellow colleagues in book publishing who don't work in the States) though I recently demanded that my senior citizen of a mother read it as well. It's a book that anyone, male or female, of any age, could appreciate. It follows Junior, whose tragic life on a poor, desolate, Indian reservation in Wellpinit (eastern Washington) is chronicled in a series of anecdotes told in the first person and illustrated by rather amusing cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney). I'm guessing, though can't confirm every detail, that the book is based on Alexie's own experiences of growing up in Wellpinit and the tragedy that faced him, his family, friends, and community at every turn. I have always known that the treatment Native Americans have received and continue to receive, and the racism they have faced, is brutal, shocking, and unfair. But this book just magnified that by ten, when you realize it's a child, not an adult, relating these experiences.

Alexie's words in this book, like his others, are poetic - not flights of fancy poetic, but metaphors that are firmly rooted in reality as well: "So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation. I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats." To me, it's impossible to read that sentence and not feel your heart break.

Above all, this book is funny. Alexie's comic timing is impeccable. Disbelief and anger are played out not in obvious displays of rage and sadness, but comedy and sarcasm. A lot of sarcasm. When Junior describes the destitute state of his school on the "rez" and his teacher who often falls asleep in front of the television, forgetting to go to school and thus, failing to teach, he says: "Yep, we have to send a kid down to the teachers' housing compound behind the school to wake Mr. P, who is always conking out in front of his TV ... And yeah, I know it's weird, but the tribe actually houses all of the teachers in one-bedroom cottages and musty, old trailer houses behind the school. You can't teach at our school if you don't live in the compound. It was like some kind of prison-work farm for our liberal, white, vegetarian do-gooders and conservative, white missionary saviors."

So this book, which moved me to tears on at least four different occasions, will be the book I buy and pass on to friends in 2012. Thank you, Ruth, for passing it on to me!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Favorite Gift #5: A Lee Klabin Dress

Isn't this dress gorgeous? It's by Lee Klabin and was given to me by the lovely Alice. Though I'll have to rock it with some serious Spanx, it fits perfectly otherwise and is something I will definitely be bringing out once the weather gets a little warmer (i.e. Spring/Summer 2012). And since I have a few weddings to attend next year, this dress will do quite the trick.

My favorite part is the shoulder detail - here's a closeup:

It's incredibly quirky and beautiful, which is exactly what I love. Lucky me!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Favorite Gift #4: Birthday Dinner at Yauatcha

It's been a while since John and I have returned to Yauatcha, the brainchild of restauranteur Alan Yau (Hakkasan, anyone?), but it remains a firm favorite on our list of special places to eat.  I was, admittedly, a tad disappointed with my most recent visit, which was - oh, probably over a year ago - when it seemed that the chefs were more concerned with painstakingly shaping the har gau dim sum into animal shapes rather than using quality ingredients.  

But I'm happy to report that this had all changed when I went for my birthday meal with John this weekend: the prawns in the har gau were plump and fresh (minus the unnecessary bunny rabbit shape, thank goodness), the wrapping was paper thin, and the other steamed dim sum we ordered was worthy of Yauatcha fame (though, bizarrely, I noticed the chopsticks were now disposable and not dissimilar to those of a Chinese takeaway - not befitting of the type of establishment Yauatcha sets itself out to be, surely).  Another warning when being seated in the main dining room is how close in proximity you sit with your fellow diners, all the more opportunities for eager eyes to sneak surreptitious (or in our case, it was rather open gawking) glances at what you've ordered.

John and I selected a series of dim sum dishes, which included the prawn har gau (delicious), pork and prawn shu mai (a bit bland), char siu buns (John's favorite and a childhood favorite of mine as well), chiu chow vegetarian dumplings (the highlight and also named after the region my father is from), deep fried soft shell crab (over seasoned and over populated with a nut garnish), prawn and chive dumplings (beautifully encased in a green wrapper), served with a pot of white tea.  It was clear that Yauatcha had returned to its roots of preparing and producing high quality dim sum with fresh ingredients in a sleek, cool (at points, a little too cool) environment.

Though our stomachs were groaning with over-indulgence by the time all our bamboo steamers were cleared, we couldn't resist our sweet tooths and ordered two macaroons to share for dessert, as a small compromise.  Yauatcha, as well as for its Asian cuisine, is also famous for its incredibly crafted confectionery and cakes.  One visit to the sweet bar at the front of the restaurant will have you turning up your nose at sticky toffee pudding (though that would never happen to me).  

This was the perfect and sweetest ending to a wonderful birthday - courtesy of the ever-wonderful John.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Favorite Gift #2: An Indulgent Birthday Cake

In my previous job, the birthday person was responsible for bringing in her own cake or treats and the department would sign a joint card, which I thought was perfectly fair and a nice practice.  However at my current office, not only did my manager present me with this decadent "curly wurly" chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting from Kastner & Ovens, but I also received several cards throughout the day and a lovely bouquet of tulips (!!!).  We enjoyed this with a cup of tea later on in the afternoon and I've been eating leftovers for breakfast ever since ...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Favorite Gift #1: Longchamp Balzane Wallet

On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to find the beautifully gift wrapped package above from John nestled next to me on my pillow.  And inside, was this:

I don't know about you, but I personally think it's pretty damn beautiful.  This is the wallet from Longchamp's newest collection, Balzane, and it also comes in black, dark green and red.  The first time I saw this wallet displayed in the New Bond Street store, I think I gasped audibly - I thought it was the most beautiful wallet I'd seen, beating even the classic Mulberry continental wallet I'd been originally lusting after.  Ladies and gentlemen, I fell in love.  John saw me drooling over it and must have taken note, since weeks later, I was busy transferring all my loyalty cards over from my now retired Ted Baker model.

Sorry, TB - it was time for an upgrade.

I felt guilty about this extravagant gift, but then again ... not guilty enough to return it!

It's My Birthday and I'll Brag If I Want To

So, for some reason, just because it's, you know, my birthday and all, means that I get some truly fabulous cards and totally fantastic presents.  Huh!  Who knew???  I'm so excited about these presents that I'll spend the next few posts highlighting some of my favorites.  Needless to say, I'm feeling very spoiled.  And also very lucky.

Happy ThanksChristmas: An Angloyankophile Holiday

So I know Thanksgiving is, like, way over with, but technically, I can still write about the feast I had last weekend because it wasn't Thanksgiving, but rather, ThanksChristmas (which I briefly explained below).

But first, I forced my British co-workers to acknowledge Thanksgiving last Thursday by circulating an email of an image of Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving at approximately 8:59 a.m., prompting a flurry of polite emails wishing me a happy Thanksgiving and tea-time talk that involved everyone asking me how I was going to celebrate.  I also guilt-tripped everyone into acknowledging the American holiday by bringing in a dozen Krispy Kremes (they're American, right?) and sharing them on my floor. Then I had to explain ThanksChristmas to a few people and how I was making candied yams/sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top while they looked politely interested and fascinated while inside they were probably retching with disgust.  It was awesome.

So here's what we made for side dishes at Alison's house:

See?  Totally Anglo-American.  Sweet potato casserole (with obligatory marshmallows), green bean casserole (with obligatory fried onion rings - and NOT from a can, might I add, though I can't take credit for them), mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, and roast parsnips.  Though we had two types of cranberry sauce (a luxury), I did slightly miss the traditional American cranberry sauce in a can that comes out all can-shaped and is served in slices.

Then for dessert, pumpkin pie:

It doesn't look as good as the one I made last year, nor does it look particularly appetizing here, I must admit, but it was pretty satisfactory taste-wise, and we topped it off with some hand-whipped cream.  Alison also made some lovely chocolate mousses, served with whiskey-infused blackberries.  Delish.

Afterwards, we did the Thanksgiving/Christmas thing of sitting around with indigestion, watching TV and playing games (against each other albeit on our respective iPhones/iPad).  It was the perfect ThanksChristmas.


(Excuse me).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! Love, Waitrose

I was touched - I repeat, touched - that Waitrose devoted this rather large basket prominently placed in the baking aisle to Libby's pumpkin pie filling.  This could be that I was also in a bit of a panic mode when remembering that I had committed to making said pie for our ThanksChristmas dinner this Saturday.  Yes, I said ThanksChristmas - since John and I will be rockin' around the Christmas tree in Washington and Tom and Cristy will be dreaming of a white Christmas in Oz come December 25th, Alison came up with the great idea of celebrating two holidays at once in Leicester this weekend.  Sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows, I'm so making YOU.

I'm excited to force everyone to eat my disgusting but wonderfully tasty American concoctions.  Pumpkin pie trumps Christmas pudding any day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Baking a Speedy Recovery: Cinnamon Rolls

There are two activities in my life that I find ultra healing and restorative: yoga and baking.  If I'm feeling under the weather or off-balance, I'll turn to one or the other to make me feel right again.  And one of the few things I've managed to do this week while shuffling around my flat in my rose-print pajama pants and fleece robe is bake: it requires very little energy, produces highly calorific and tasty treats, and all the ingredients can be purchased at the local corner shop, thus requiring no more than a 2 minute walk.

I've never baked cinnamon rolls or anything other than cakes or cookies so was super hesitant to try this recipe as I have a huge fear of failing when it comes to cooking.  Not only was this recipe from Ramshackle Glam (yes, again - I've become a teeny tiny obsessed with Jordan's blog) super easy to follow, but it also produced great results - not bad for my first try, eh?  I love how you can control the sweetness easily and the way the brown sugar and cinnamon just melt beautifully in the middle. 

If you're reading this from the UK and are using a fan oven, the only modification I'd make is to bake for a little less than the recommended time, otherwise your rolls will turn out too brown and crunchy.  I also made a simple icing by mixing together one cup of icing sugar with a half teaspoon of vanilla extract and two tablespoons of milk, then drizzled over the rolls while they were still warm.  

Initially, I made these as a surprise for John as they're his favorites, but I'm also partial to a couple of warm cinnamon rolls and a hot cup of peppermint tea in the morning.  Not to mention that my flat now smells officially like Christmas.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

... And Meanwhile ...

I've received a delightful array of flowers from various sources (namely, Alison, Udita, and my co-workers) and numerous get-well-soon cards to cheer me up.  I feel so loved.  And I think I'm getting there. Almost.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Handle With Care: "I'm American."

"I hope you don't mind, but I'm just gonna have to get naked in front of you now," I announced to John's mom, as I assessed the fact that I needed to change into the hospital gown as quickly as possible, after my surgeon swung by my bed and said that they were ready for me.  I was at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, Surrey, for my first operation under general anesthetic at a NHS hospital.  Petrified didn't even begin to describe how I was feeling.

I've had two similar operations in the US at a private hospital in Washington, which cost me a mind-blowingly cool $10,000 two years ago as I had returned to America as an uninsured visitor, needing emergency surgery.  I was used to hospitals with lazy Susans and electric blankets.  Shiny floors and art on the walls.  So I wasn't sure how I'd fare in a state-funded, public hospital.  Call it prejudice.  I was ashamed to admit that I had somewhat bought into the anti-NHS hype at some of my frustrating, low points.  Luckily, my US surgeon was able to refer me to his best friend, who happened to be an English maxillofacial surgeon practicing at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, which is how I found myself pulling on highly unflattering anti-embolism stockings on Wednesday afternoon, preparing for the OR.

"Got your sexy socks on?" asked the nurse who was helping me get ready.  "Yup," I replied, showing her the green tights.  "Okay, well, just make yourself comfortable in your bed and we'll wheel you in," she said.  I was a little confused.  They were actually going to wheel me into the operating room?  This was new.  In the States, you get up and walk into the operating room and literally lie down on the table, waiting for the anesthesiologist to work his magic.  "Have you never had a procedure here?" she asked.  "Not in this country," I replied.  "Ooh, yes, you're American!  I LOVE your accent!  Why are you even HERE?" she gushed.  Her friendly chatter helped me feel more at ease and as soon as I hit the prep room, where the anesthesiologist (or anaesthetist, for you Brits) who had consulted me before the op, was waiting.  A team of nurses were by his side - all friendly, smiling, and professional.  It was at that point that I finally let go of my anxiety and put my trust in the men in the green scrubs.  They knew what they were doing.  "I promised you something good to help you relax," said the anesthesiologist kindly, pressing drugs into my IV.

When I came around, after the operation, I remember crying.  I don't know why it happened because I wasn't even upset.  But the nurse handed me some tissues and comforted me.  I wanted to tell him that he reminded me of someone from TV, but I couldn't get the words out.  He asked me about my pain levels and fed painkillers into my IV accordingly.  I specifically asked not to be on morphine before as it made me sick after my previous two surgeries, so I was glad that the anesthesiologist had listened to my concerns.  I was also glad that I had been able to speak to him before the operation and he asked, on more than one occasion, about how I was feeling, what I was afraid of or nervous about.  My surgeon came around shortly after while I was coming around, telling me that the surgery had gone very well and that he'd see me in two weeks.

I had been previously told that if I needed to stay overnight, I'd be in a ward with a few other beds, rather than a private room, which I was slightly anxious about, but okay with.  However, I was given oxygen for quite a while after the operation and wheeled into a private room with my own bathroom, while a very nice nurse came by and kindly brushed my hair from my face while saying, "Keep the oxygen on, my darling, it'll just help brush the cobwebs away."  John's mom came in and quietly read in the corner, staying with me for a few hours afterward, until the same, lovely nurse came in and asked how I was feeling and if I'd like to stay overnight.  I told her I would like to if it was all right with her.  I felt really bad about taking away beds from other people if they needed it more.  I kept expecting them to wheel me back to the bay, but I was able to stay in the room on my own for the rest of the evening, which was perfect.

The junior nurse who had checked me in at the start came in and asked if I wanted some hot food.  I was a bit incredulous at the thought of eating after having had my jaw/sinus operated on, but decided to try anyway.  The menu was immense - she rattled off a selection of probably twenty or so choices and I settled for some swede mash.  "The pasta is quite soft too," she said. "Shall I put some on a plate and you can just try some?"  I ended up eating it all.  And it might have been the drugs I was on, but it was absolutely delicious.

Soon after, I fell asleep and Alison returned to London, with plans to pick me up when I was discharged the next day.  The night nurses came in quietly in intervals to check my blood pressure and offer me painkillers, food, and anything else I wanted.  They were friendly, patient, and understanding - unlike the brusque, non-communicative night team I encountered in the US.

So how would I rate my first overnight stay and surgical experience at a British NHS hospital?  I have to say that it was truly amazing.  I'm so grateful to the kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness I was shown during my stay there.  I'm thankful for the expertise of the doctors and nurses who treated me and who looked after me in the hours following the operation.

I know that the Royal Surrey is an exception and that not all NHS hospitals across the UK are up to its standards.  I've seen friends receive some rather appalling treatment in London hospitals, for example.  I also know that I'm an exception, having had a special referral to attend this specific hospital in Surrey.  But I must say, after having paid no costs towards the hospital after my surgery (except for the antibiotics and painkillers I took home, which will total just over £14), I'm glad to pay my UK taxes every month and I'm glad to make the NHS contribution that comes out of my paycheck - if it means I can receive treatment of that caliber.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

M&Cs: The Chewiest Peanut Butter Cookies

Keeping in line with the Mount Holyoke theme below, I made some peanut butter cookies on Sunday in honor of the MHC tradition of Milk & Cookies (AKA M&Cs), with a recipe stolen from Ramshackle Glam (via Adeline), which I absolutely love.

For cookies, I almost always exclusively follow American-originated recipes: the cookies turn out soft, moist, and most importantly, CHEWY, like the beloved Toll House variety I used to have as a child.  British recipes tend to result in cookies that are slightly too crispy and crunchy to my liking (more akin to biscuits), though if I'm making a cake (especially Victoria sponge), I definitely turn to the wisdom of Mary Berry.

After a very yummy yoga class taught by Lauren on Sunday morning, she, Bindy, John, and I indulged in a sumptuous Sunday roast at The Winchester in Islington.  And while our stomachs groaned at the sight of the dessert menu, I insisted that we needed something sweet and decided to fulfill a craving for peanut butter cookies.  John muttered something about "time constraints", so in an act of defiance, I unfortunately bragged (rather loudly, in fact) that it'd take "20 minutes flat" to produce a batch of warm, chewy cookies.

I spent about 10 minutes looking for my mixer.

So it actually took me thirty minutes, but in the end, I ended up with some delicious, chewy, mouth-wateringly-aromatic peanut butter cookies.  WIN.

Though, when I took them into work, they were enjoyed by all but one - who remarked that they "could be crunchier".  I glowered.

So that got me thinking: how do YOU prefer your cookies?  Crunchy or chewy?  Leave your comments below and I just might send you a batch - just the way you like 'em.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alumnae Elfing: On The Second Day Of Elfing ...

My elf is full of surprises.  I loved my first elfing gift below, but I didn't expect this to continue!

Sorting through yesterday's post this morning, I found a thick envelope with my name and address written in an unmistakably artistic scrawl accidentally tucked under one of our wooden placemats; turning the envelope over confirmed that it was from Anna and I smiled.

Enclosed was a card:

And a handful of handmade envelopes by Anna, who has her own shop on Etsy:

They're fun, beautiful, and one of the best gifts I've ever gotten across the Atlantic.  I love my elf.  Thanks, Anna!

Alumnae Elfing: It's a Women's College Thing

Recently, Vicky Chu of Wesleyan College came under fire after writing a rather scathing summation of women's colleges in her school paper (she transferred from Bryn Mawr), including the statement, "It really isn't normal."

As I sit with a cup of hot coffee in my Mount Holyoke hoodie in my London apartment, five years after graduation, mulling over Chu's comments (I have a few favorites - check out the Jezebel article I linked above and you'll know what I mean), I'm smirking.  Sorry it didn't work out for you, honey.  I hope you found "normal" real quick as soon as you transferred.

But I'm not normal, so I suppose MHC and I were a perfect fit.

And best of all, it's totally not normal to receive this amazing package on a Monday morning from a fellow MHC alum, two class years above me:

I was elfed.  You wouldn't get it, Vicky.  It's a women's college thing.

It ain't normal.

My elf was Le Petit Elephant AKA Anna.  Why the Peeps? You see, good elves know what their recipients like: Anna picked up on clues via Twitter, and knew to send me these amazing Halloween Peeps all the way from Cambridge, Massachusetts to my office desk, accompanied by an equally fantastic Halloween card.  It was a little too much kindness for a Monday morning and I must admit, I got a little teary (read: NOT NORMAL).

WARNING: Vicky, you might want to stop reading at this point, as I'm going to explain the elfing tradition and you might vomit at all the utterances of abnormality I'm about to make.

Elfing is a tradition that began in the Mount Holyoke residence halls sometime in the mid-60s.  Around this time each year, when the leaves on campus begin to turn a vibrant red, orange, and yellow and carloads of students flock to Atkins Farm for cider apple donuts, two sophomore roommates will quietly sneak down to the room of their two assigned first-year "elfees" - preferably when they're already asleep. As any elf can relate, this often means a) not sleeping, EVER b) setting an alarm for some bizarre time, like 3:17 a.m. or c) waking up very, very early.  They'll be armed with gifts, candy, cards, and magazine cutouts of celebrities whose thought bubbles contain compliments about the elfee, which are then taped to the walls of communal bathrooms (not quite what Chu might expect to find - see article for explanation).  Elves cover and decorate the dorm room door with streamers, newspaper, and banners.  Elfees awake in the morning to confusion, surprise, amusement, and then happiness.  This goes on, oh, every day for about a week, until the elves reveal their identities to their elfees at another MHC tradition called - wait for it - Milk & Cookies (or M&Cs, as true Mount Holyoke students refer to them).  I can't even fathom explaining that now because I can actually sense the disgust seething from Chu's person, even though we've never met (if we ever do, I suggest it be over a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of ice cold milk).

IT'S NOT NORMAL.  But it sure is fun.

By the way ... have you heard about Mountain Day?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Going Back To My Coffee Roots: St. Martin's Coffee & Tea Merchants, Leicester

Lately, I've been refraining from my "You know what? I DESERVE IT!!!" purchases of soya vanilla lattes in the morning.  I actually don't deserve it if my bank balance is nearing zero.

I've never been a serious coffee drinker, which sends many into an incredulous state when I tell them that I hail from Seattle (or at least, a suburb south of Seattle).  "Isn't that like ... the BIRTHPLACE of STARBUCKS????" Brits ask in their distinctive intonation.  Sure, I visited the Starbucks drive-thrus in high school - but not because I particularly liked the stuff, more so because it was cool.  Cool to show up to first period AP American Government with a venti skinny double-shot caramel mocha in hand.

Now that I'm an A-D-U-L-T, I find that I increasingly require coffee to get me going and wine to help me unwind.  I call this: G-R-O-W-I-N-G U-P.  My mom likens it to dependency and is probably counting down the days I'm going to end up in rehab, either catatonic from caffeine overdose or in a permanently drunken state.

None of that's going to happen, of course.  But in order to tighten the purse strings, I've taken to making my own delicious coffee at work every morning in my shiny new, red Bodum cafetiere with coffee from St Martin's Tea & Coffee Merchants in Leicester - all courtesy of John's lovely mom, Alison, who bought me these lovely gifts on a shopping excursion to Leicester's city centre.

Cheers me up just looking at it (even though I'm still in my robe as I write this and will very well be late to work).

Back to the coffee: St. Martin's is, well, it's great.  I don't know anything about coffee, but it's the type of laid back, non-pretentious environment that makes all coffee appreciators - experienced and non-experienced alike - comfortable.  They hold regular "coffee tastings" outside the shop and you're always welcome to try before you buy, which is always a plus (and a must, if you don't know exactly what you like).  The staff is friendly, helpful, and chilled out.  They stock a variety of loose leaf teas as well, so if coffee isn't your thing, you're certain to find something that will appeal.  Location is also helpful: tucked in St. Martin's Square, the shop and cafe is situated between several quirky and artful boutiques, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the high street.  It's feasible to drop by just for a coffee with a friend and browse the shops for the rest of the afternoon without having to step foot into the busy shopping center if you don't want to.  And that kind of sums up what I love about it.

Though there's an online ordering facility available on their website, I'm tempted to make repeat trips up to Leicester just so I can stop by - it's that good.  More importantly, I'd rather support an independent establishment like St. Martin's in a city like Leicester, where the baristas' passion for coffee is inclusive, rather than the blank stares I receive on the other end of the counter in London - indie or not.   

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Open House London 2011

If you're really organized, you would have hit all the Open House London hotspots this weekend and taken advantage of free entry to hundreds of buildings in London that aren't usually open to the public, like the Bank of England, for example, or the 120 Fleet Street which was formerly headquarters of the Daily Express -its particular art deco design still drawing sighs of awe today.  I visited 120 Fleet Street and the Freemasons' Hall in Covent Garden with Iain about two or three years ago during Open House London; we completed a tour of both and usually these tours are quite loosely structured so that people have the chance to wander and explore/experience the buildings themselves.  It's truly a magnificent thing and I wish that I put more effort into planning and attending this event each year.  But I suppose it's one of those cases of taking where I live for granted.

But this morning, after a leisurely lunch at Gail's in Exmouth Market, John and I stumbled upon an Open House event taking place at the Oak Room in New River Head - former boardroom to London's 17th-century water house.  Unbeknownst to us, it was pre-bookings only (meaning: one of the rare occasions where you need to sign up and register to view some of the more popular attractions) but we tagged along, pretending to be part of the - might I add - small group.  That is, until a busybody blew our cover.

"Is everyone here?" asked the guide from Thames Water.  "I think there are a few latecomers but we'll get started anyway."  "THESE two just joined in, I don't think THEY'VE booked," said a dumpy, red-haired woman at the front of the group, pointing an accusing finger at us.  Her similarly overweight husband carrying a plastic Shakespeare's Globe bag swiveled his cartoon-sheep-t-shirt-torso (sorry, I couldn't help but point out this one, infuriating detail) towards us to glare.  "I didn't see them being checked in outside," the fat woman continued.  I started laughing involuntarily.  I'm so bad.  I just didn't know there were vigilant Open House London Gestapo patrolling the sites.  "Oh, did you book?" asked the guide kindly, whilst the group of six stared at us.  "No, no," said John apologetically, shaking his head.  The woman looked gleeful and shook her head.  "Well, that's quite alright, don't worry, you can still join!  We just ask that people book in case we turn out to have a big group," said the guide kindly.  The woman spluttered and turned an angry red, shrugging her shoulders and gesticulating with her hands.  Ah yes, you pathetic person.  Suck it (sorry, mom - I won't ever use that language again, but it's so appropriate in this instance).

Anyway, it turns out that this building that I walk past every day on my route to work was once home to the Metropolitan Water Board and that the grassy area it faces was a reservoir.  Who would have known?  Today, the offices have been converted into luxury apartments (and luxurious they are, I can assure you - I saw a photo in the lobby of one for sale ... list price of £2.5 million) and the Oak Room is open for the residents' use.  I envisioned my very own karaoke party there until The Giant Pimple (what I decided to rename the nosy woman) began snapping hundreds of photos (USING FLASH) in the revered Oak Room.  The guide explained the history behind the intricate carvings that decorated the walls of the room and drew our attention to the ornate plaster depicting country scenes and the ceiling, which featured two coats of arms and a portrait of William the III, staring benevolently down at those sitting at the table of the boardroom.

Exiting New River Head, John and I felt slightly better about having attended just one Open House event and left The Giant Pimple to torture the guide with her incessant and unnecessary questions.  Until next year ...

A Sushi Don't: Tenshi Restaurant

I admit that I'm spoiled with all the fresh seafood that the Pacific Northwest has to offer and as I've boasted several times (ANNOYINGLY so) already on this blog, sushi in the Puget Sound is no joke.  But I'm not terribly hard to please: for example, I'll happily have Itsu sashimi for lunch or even visit the occasional conveyor belt establishment (as long as it's not Yo! Sushi - I'd recommend Kulu Kulu in Covent Garden instead if you're really desperate for traveling plates).

Craving a light but tasty meal, John, Justin and I made our way to Tenshi on Saturday night for some low-key sushi and noodles.  The positive reviews after a quick Google search on the iPhone were enough to go on at the time and we were quickly seated before the dinner rush began.  It seemed that the restaurant was popular with the pre-partying crowd with a queue out the door by the time we left and a few regulars, which were all (so I thought) good signs.

We ordered a sushi selection (£22), a chicken yakisoba (£7.50) and an octopus starter to share.  When the sushi arrived, I was horrified as I gazed down at the tuna rolls that had what resembled blood seeping into the rice.  Justin's eyes bulged.  Some involuntary gagging ensued.  The other pieces of nigiri looked dark and far from fresh.  "Is that ... um ... is that ... blood?" I squeaked.  The waitress considered it for a moment and said, "Oh no, that's the spicy tuna.  That is hot sauce."  Then she realized she had delivered the order to the wrong table and that it was actually intended for the couple seated next to us.  "Don't worry," the lady at the table next to us chirped.  "I recognized it!" Clearly a regular, but I don't know why - perhaps she likes eating morsels of food that resemble parts props from a horror film.  I breathed a sigh of relief that the non-bloody-but-bloody-looking rolls did not belong to us but was nevertheless skeptical of the quality of our own selections.

Our chicken yakisoba was up first.  On initial taste, the chicken was flavorful and the dish sizzling hot, which is to my liking.  But the addition of red and green bell peppers was truly bizarre and the Top Ramen consistency and quality of the noodles were just inexcusable.  The oily sheen left in my bowl didn't do any favors to my opinion of the already unimpressive dish and for £7.50, I would rather grab a noodle box at Ned's Noodles.

Then our sushi arrived.  I silently prayed that I wouldn't contract food poisoning and bravely plunged into the hamachi nigiri.  It wasn't off.  I breathed another sigh of relief.  It wasn't great quality or particularly fresh, but it certainly wasn't off.  The tuna was mushy and the avocado rolls (avocado, really? If you want a cheap and easy way to rip people off, cucumber in place of avocado would certainly be a more convincing choice, no?) were, again, puzzling.  We were then presented with a two rolls that looked like it had salad stuffed inside.  "Justin, eat it and tell us what it has in it," I commanded.  He ate and proceeded to say, "Itsch jusht shalad shtuffed inshide." Bonkers.

My verdict is: visit this place when you've finished your karaoke set at Lucky Voice down the road and are suitably drunk.  Then you won't notice the bloody-not-bloody rolls or the grease.  You'll just be grateful to have something line your stomach - which is what Tenshi is good for.  A brutal conclusion, perhaps, but brutally honest.

Photo source

Monday, September 12, 2011

Summer's Not Over (well, yeah, it technically is): My Favorite Pink Drink

Summer's over.  And as much as I gave the British weather the benefit of the doubt (as in, throwing open the curtains every morning it rained in July and saying brightly with sincerity and conviction, "It's a GREAT day today!!!") it let me down.  Though the past few days have been extremely windy in London and, at times, even rainy, it's also been unbelievably warm.  So though summer's officially over, it doesn't stop me craving summery drinks, like Pimm's, or my new favorite, Rekorderlig Strawberry and Lime Cider.

First, two things you need to know about me and Rekorderlig:

1)  I hate cider.  I really do.  Someone once convinced me to try it by saying it was simply "fizzy apple juice."  IT IS NOT.  To me, it tastes - quite frankly - like vomit.  You know, that horrible taste you get in your mouth right after you've ralphed.  Sorry, but that's just what it reminds me of.

2) I had my first glass of Rekorderlig on my birthday, which was in December.  It was snowing outside and I was quivering in my UGGs - as far from summer as you could get.  But one sip of the stuff stolen from a friend's glass transported me to a sun-drenched roof terrace: crisp, cool, refreshing and deliciously sweet, it tasted like John's idea of disgusting and my idea of yum.  Basically, it tasted like a carbonated strawberry gummy bear (without the pukey taste, of course. And it goes without saying that if carbonated strawberry gummy bears aren't your thing, then please - by all means - don't try this at home).

So if you're not afraid of the sweet stuff and you're in a part of Britain where summer still lingers, then I highly recommend a sip of this - even if you're not a cider drinker.  I mean, just because I'm drinking Rekorderlig doesn't mean you'll find me with a Magners in hand any time soon.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Climbing @ The Castle, London vs. Edgeworks, Tacoma

I woke up this morning and realized I couldn't raise my arms above my head.  You might wonder why anyone would automatically want to raise her arms above her head upon waking, but I have this habit of flopping over onto my stomach when John gets up an hour and a half before me, putting the pillow over my head, and adopting a pose reserved for those chalk drawings of murder victims.  Seriously - try it, it's like, soooo comfortable.

Anyway, I should probably clarify: physically, I could raise my arms above my head, but not without a great deal of pain.  This is because I went indoor rock climbing yesterday (for the second time in my life) with John and my little brother, Justin, who happens to be a very experienced and advanced climber.  This kid is about my height and skinny, but he's got arms like Popeye The Sailor Man. He claimed he didn't even know how muscly his arms had gotten from climbing until he looked in the mirror one day and didn't recognize his own arms due to the size of his biceps.  He is ripped (he was also randomly approached by a middle-aged woman at SeaTac Airport and told that he was a "very good looking young man").  Moreover, he creeps along climbing walls nimbly, his movements graceful, decisive and calm.  And unlike the other climbers - novice or not - who wear name brand climbing trousers and tops, he climbs in none other than skinny jeans, a graphic tee and a pair of thick, black rimmed (non-prescription) glasses.  Basically, he's a badass.

On Saturday, we traveled to The Castle Climbing Centre in North London, to see how it compared to Edgeworks in Tacoma, Washington, where Justin usually climbs and where I had my first climbing experience.  Upon arrival, we were met with the overwhelming stench of ... feet (you know, that smell that stays in your memory forever if you ever took gymnastics as a kid or played in one of those ball pit area things).  Once I got over my initial inner retching, we signed in as Justin's novices (experienced climbers can register two novices at a time) and he was given a short quiz by one of the staff members.  We were all made to sign statements saying that we acknowledged climbing is a dangerous sport and that we understood we could die (yes, this was on the form) if not practiced properly and under correct supervision, clearing the centre of any liability.  John and I rented some cheesy shoes and harnesses for £5 per person and paid a fee of £12.50 each to climb.

One noticeable difference between The Castle and Edgeworks is the space.  Granted, we were probably there at peak time on their busiest day (Saturday afternoon), but there was literally hardly any room to manouevre - and if you weren't quick enough when bouldering (free climbing short walls without ropes, which help develop your strength and technique), Spidey Man on the other side with his North Face cargo shorts would simply encroach on your territory, rolls his eyes and sigh at you until you were pressured to move or fall off.  Nice!  Climbers bouldering would literally jump and hit the person behind them belaying.  People formed queues to climb and, whilst waiting, used that opportunity to eye each other up.  No one smiled.  Most scowled.  Annoying drum & bass (and I happen to like drum & bass - this was ANNOYING drum & bass, which is another category) played at a threatening volume behind us.  Between that and the foot-fungus smell, I started to feel a little queasy.  

"I'm ... um ... hot," I complained.  I looked at my watch.  We had only been there for 10 minutes.  Sigh.  I longed for the sky lit, air conditioned, fresh-smelling surroundings of Edgeworks.  And some smiles.  At Edgeworks, even at busy times, the walls are well spaced and no one is - literally - on top of each other.  Staff and climbers - novice and experts alike - are friendly and courteous.  Most of all, they look like they're enjoying themselves - you know, like, having fun?  Did no one at the Castle climb for fun?  Or did I stumble upon Climbing Olympics 2011?  Sheesh.

Nevertheless, I chalked the attitudes up to big city living and put my best climbing foot forward to scale my first route.  My first climb was easy but the fourth was a little challenging.  I tried the route once and gave up, asking Justin to let me down.  Then I tried it again, reached the same point, and again asked to be let down.  The answer came back as "NO."  What?  What do you mean no?  I DON'T WANT TO BE UP HERE ANYMORE.  MY ARMS ARE TIRED.  I THINK MY THIGH JUST SPASMED.  "No, you're gonna DO IT," barked my small but Popeye-the-Sailor-Man-limbed brother below me.  I whimpered a little and thought about my huge behind just hanging out in the harness.  I sucked in my core and decided to climb (well, I had no choice - my little brother wouldn't let me down!).  And I got to the top (to be fair, I was powered by anger and if you know me well, you know my anger serves as pretty good fuel for most things energetic).  "Now, don't you feel GREAT?" my brother asked me patronizingly but with a gleaming smile as I came down.  I wanted to smack him, but I was pretty pleased with myself, so I grumbled something unintelligible and unhooked the rope from my harness.

An hour and a half later, my arms were shaking (and here I was thinking I had good upper body strength from all that dynamic yoga) and my hands kinda raw.  It was time to go (though I had acclimatized to the foot smell by now).  Will I return to The Castle?  Only if I'm desperate for a climbing wall (i.e. never).  Otherwise, I'll wait until I get home to Edgeworks and have another go there.  

There, at least the people are nice and the foot smell is minimal.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lang Lang @ The iTunes Festival

Last Monday, I won tickets to see the pianist Lang Lang perform at the iTunes Festival held at Roundhouse in Camden, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this classical musician, I'm pretty sure he is currently the (or at least, one of the) hottest-young-talent-in-the-classical-music-scene-like-right-now.  You can catch up on his accolades here, as I won't use this space to list them but instead, focus on his performance that evening.

As my pianist mother was unavailable to take an overnight flight to London for the concert and John was busy being busy and important, I invited Ruth to come along.  We had an amazing pre-concert meal which far surpassed my expectations, at Made in Camden.  We ordered small but innovative tapas-style dishes which included delights such as miso chicken, pickled watermelon rind, fennel salad, seared tuna and roast pork belly.

Heading up to the main stage, we found that the opening act, 2Cellos, was already performing: comprised of two very attractive Croatian musicians, they first played separately as soloists, then together as a duet (and later with a drummer), on electric cellos.  The first part of their program consisted of classical pieces accompanied by piano but they quickly changed it up with more crowd-pleasing favorites such as covers of Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and even a cringe-inducing U2 cover of "With Or Without You", to which the man behind me and Ruth sang with unbridled passion (and terrible intonation, might I add) whilst clasping his hands around his girlfriend's waist.  (Note: if that was my boyfriend, I would have dumped him right then and there).  There's a fine line between cool and cheese and I think that, unfortunately, 2Cellos crossed that cheese line when they stepped into classic rock territory.  Smooth Criminal was cool, Welcome To The Jungle was not.  They were entertaining, however, and most importantly, hot.  So, quite frankly, what they lacked in the aural pleasure department, they certainly made up for in terms of eye candy.  That's rather sexist, but so what?

Anyway, by the end of 2Cellos's rather ear-splitting and not-altogether-pleasant conclusion, the standing crowd (it was, after all, a festival) was officially primed and geared up for Lang Lang.  We waited.  Aannndd ... waited.  And waited.  At or shortly after 9 pm (read: about thirty or forty minutes later), dramatic fog swirled about the stage and a countdown was shown on the large screens above the audience, chronicling all the acts that have previously performed at the iTunes Festival.  When the countdown ended, there were an awkward few minutes when nothing happened and confusion ensued.  Where was he?  What was going on?  The Steinway was there, the fog completely covered it, but it was there.  Where was Lang Lang?

Finally, he emerged, in a black sequined jacket, nonetheless, and waved to the audience.  "HI!" he shouted into the microphone.  "How's everybody doing tonight?  Thanks so much for coming out!  Are you ready for some music?" he continued.  "YES!!!" the crowd, er, screamed.  "OKAY!" he said.  "Then let's enjoy Liszt together!" he exclaimed, before swirling over to the piano.  "Huh?  What?" said a girl in confusion behind me.  Oh dear.  Did someone not tell you, honey?  That this was going to be a classical concert?  Me neither.  It was too easy to be misled by the 2Cellos performance, the fog, the lights and the countdown.  Here I was thinking Lang Lang was about to launch into Radiohead's Karma Police, when he actually began playing an extremely, extremely fast version of Liszt's La Campanella.  Once I got over my initial shock that he wasn't about to play Radiohead or any other popular music, for that matter, I had to get over my shock of the speed he was playing Liszt at.  The piece opens with an arpeggiated sequence, which, when I play it (and as written in the score) requires both hands.  Lang Lang played it entirely with his left hand.  After I recovered from that revelation, I was then faced with the fact that for the duration of the concert, there would be a movie of time-lapsed clips of city streets and nature playing on five, floor-to-ceiling screens behind the artist.  I was confused.  Were we supposed to focus on the music?  Or the movie?  Was the music supposed to act as an accompaniment to the movie?  Or were the producers concerned that Lang Lang's classical performance would not sustain the festival-going audience and decided that visual stimulation was needed?

Then, a few people at the front began making their escape, after the third or fourth piece.  And a few more after that.  Lang Lang paid no notice and only paused to wipe his brow, smile and bow after each piece.  I rocked back and forth on my heels and looked at my watch.  I understood the desire to play a full program of Liszt, but there were several other romantic pieces he could have chosen that would have been much more appropriate for the venue - that is, crowd pleasing.  Yes, I said it.  Play the slow, tender pieces at the Barbican or Cadogan.  Play them at Carnegie Hall.  But I'm afraid that for a venue and crowd like the one at Monday night, something more bang-y would be required.  Rachmaninov.  Brahms.  Even some of the Chopin Marches or Impromptus - ANYTHING!!!  I was beginning to be bored out of my mind - and this is coming from someone who loves (and plays) classical and in particular, solo piano music.

But those who were left in the crowd (and it was still a good size) were, to my surprise, incredibly committed: no one heckled, no one even dared to breathe.  The cameras zoomed in on his fingers; his articulation was impeccable.  We marveled at the sheer speed at which he played some pieces, though I wondered if that tempo was actually necessary or in fact, detrimental to the interpretation.  However, you could hear a pin drop in the Roundhouse during the pianissimo sections and I was amazed at the audience's dedication.  I shamefully booked it as soon as he finished his first encore.  Don't get me wrong, I was very grateful for the tickets and the opportunity to see such a famous and sought-after musician perform.  It's clearly a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I enjoyed it for what it's worth.  But from a critical perspective, the performance as a whole just didn't work for that particular venue.  The layout and design of the concert seemed disconnected, confused and incongruous with the music that was actually being performed.

I don't want to say that Lang Lang resembled a fish out of water at The Roundhouse, because after all, he's practically a rock star - in some ways, it was the perfect place for him.  He has an energy and charisma about him that engages his audience, no matter the venue.  Yet, I know that should I see him again, I'd definitely rather be sitting in a concert hall.

In the meantime, entertain yourself with this video of 2Cellos performing Smooth Criminal - they're hot, no?:

Photo source

Some Say Being An Angloyankophile is a Lonely Business ...

... but it's not.  It used to be, but it's not now.  Now, I'm fortunate to have a social calendar that keeps me busy and one that I don't always - in fact, rarely, on the weekdays - share with John.  And I think that's important.  Because if you move to a new place with the intention of living there for at least more than a year, you need your own friends or else a cloud of resentment kicks in and that can make you very, very unhappy.  I know this because it happened to me and it took me a while to establish my own routines, my own social circle - my own life.

But while I'm thankful for all the new friends I've made here in the UK, both British and American, I also love and cherish the friends who visit me here in London - even if they're from far away.  And I especially love it when they bring gifts like these:

Adeline came down from Edinburgh to stay a couple of weekends ago now and we had a positively girly weekend, sampling almond croissants and pain au chocolat as big as our faces and then subsequently cleaning such faces at Space NK with complimentary Eve Lom and Clarisonic facials.  She brought me this amazing fairtrade organic green tea from Suki Tea (above left), some of the National Galleries of Scotland's famous shortbread (which is already gone, I'm afraid) and the adorable brooch (above right) to jazz up my jackets.  I'm holding out for this Bodum teapot to make my tea in.  Saturday evening may or may not have resulted in lots of red wine and memorizing the "best" phrases from The Chronicles of Riddick but we made up for our sins during Sunday morning yoga and a cleansing shopping trip on Regent Street.  I was sad as soon as she packed up to go.

But last Friday, I had the joy of meeting up with Anna and her mommy (Anna, of Le Petit Elephant fame) for cake and tea at Fortnum & Mason's The Parlour, where we were greeted upon arrival with mini ice cream cones the size of my pinkie finger for each of us.  We oohed, we ahhhed.  We discussed their recent Le Tour de Lakes - cycling tour of the Lake District - and caught up generally, as I hadn't seen Anna since our Mount Holyoke days in ... oh, 2005?  And then Anna pulled this out of her bag for me:

S'more making materials!  I told you I get the best presents.  Complete with "stackermallows" - marshmallows flat enough to make the perfect s'mores.  One whiff of the Honey Maid graham crackers and I was instantly transported back to kindergarten (we were allowed four graham cracker squares for a mid-afternoon snack).  I tried making the s'mores in my microwave, but the marshmallows exploded, sending me into a state of sweet, gooey mess - but they were still delicious.  John has yet to try a s'more, but I think he'll substitute the Hershey's with a block of Cadbury instead.  I'm no snob when it comes to s'mores, however, and though I prefer Cadbury to Hershey's you gotta make them the campfire way ... with the original.

I love my friends, old and new.  But mostly, I'm just grateful to have such amazing ones.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tube Rave: Thank You, Holborn Station Staff - For Saving My Blackberry From An Untimely Death

Much worse things have happened, but at the very moment my Blackberry slipped from its cute Cath Kidston cover, bounced on the platform twice, and neatly slotted its fine self between the train and the platform onto the tracks below - I burst into tears.

I blame the novocaine.

You see, I'd just finished my seventh root canal appointment at the dentist and had gotten off the train at Holborn because an announcement was made that King's Cross was closed.  I didn't even WANT to get out at Holborn.  My jaw ached.  My teeth hurt.  My right cheek was semi-numb.  And I was hungry.

First, I walked away, convinced my phone was well and truly dead.  Then, when the train had passed, I peered over the edge and saw that it wasn't, in fact, dead, but rather forlornly lying face down on the side of the tracks nearest to the platform.  Feeling sorry for it and realizing it could be saved, I decided not to run the risk of being electrocuted or run over by a train and instead, tried the little "Information" button loudspeaker thingy on the platform.  A loud dial tone ensued by no one answered.  Everyone stared.

I raced up the stairs, up the two flights of escalators to Holborn station.  By now, I was REALLY hungry (and only John knows the extent of my hunger rage) and rather emotional - again.  I approached the nice looking ticket-checking/gate-guarding tube man and said, "Um, m-m-my phone ... it's ... I ... DROPPED IT. (hiccup hiccup)  I'm SO SORRY.  It's (hiccup) ON THE TRACKSSSSS," I cried.  "There, there!" he said, patting my arm.  "It's okay, do you remember where you dropped it?" he asked kindly.  "Um ... (hiccup) I was going eastbound ... towards King's Cross, on the Piccadilly line," I stuttered.  He spoke into his radio quickly, "A lady has dropped her phone on the tracks on Platform 4."  "Don't worry," he said as an aside to me. "It happens ALL the time.  And besides, it's only a phone!"  I hated myself for the tears, but again, I blamed the novocaine.

I watched the man as he helped numerous amounts of people find their way across London and cheerfully opened gates for people with heavy luggage or children.  I decided he was a Very Nice Person.

Then the Very Nice Person leaned over a few minutes later and said, "They've found your phone, but the station supervisor needs to stop a train before it enters onto the platform and retrieve it from the tracks."  I was pretty horrified.  I hadn't thought my stupid phone dropping incident would delay trains, if even momentarily.

The station supervisor emerged a few minutes afterward, waving my phone at me. "This yours?" he said sternly.  "Yes," I said gratefully.  "I'm so sorry!"  He wasn't amused.  "Now you need to pay up £20 because I had to stop a train to get it and it was a massive inconvenience."  "Really?" I asked.  "Um, YES, REALLY," he said.  "Okay, that's fine," I said, reaching for my wallet.  He burst out laughing and slapped his thigh.  "I love it, you really believed me!" he said, wiping his eyes.  "I'm so sorry, I feel really bad and I'm very sorry for the inconvenience," I said.  "Look," he said. "You're not the first one and you're not the last.  So please don't feel bad.  It happens all the time.  Don't feel bad."

I felt pretty bad.

So I did what John finds extremely embarrassing: I popped over to Costa coffee and bought two bags of mini muffins, proceeded to run behind the station supervisor and waved the muffins at him over the gate.  He pretty much looked at me like I was crazy.  "Please take these!" I shouted as tourists stared at the mad woman with mascara-tracks down her face waving bags of mini muffins.  "You shouldn't have done that, you know," he said.  "You really shouldn't have bothered."  "I know, but I wanted to thank you for being so nice and for helping me, so please give the other bag to the other man who helped me - thank you!" I babbled.  He took the muffins, thanked me, and I scurried away to call John and tell him about my adventure.

The end.

Cake Time Is Back!

Followers of this blog will know that I used to bake - a lot - and I chronicled my baking adventures in a series of posts called "It's Cake Time!" (see my proudest accomplishment here).  It was kind of like therapy but with the added plus of weight gain, since John would demand request I make things like, oh, an entire carrot cake and subsequently eat, oh, one slice, leaving me with carrot cake for the rest of the week to either consume myself or fob off to anyone who'd take it.  

My excuse was that we had an excellent oven in our Maida Vale flat - one that made cakes rise perfectly.  I also had at my disposal several amazing pieces of Circulon bakeware that John bought me for my birthday last year, so, left to my own devices with a few sticks of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour, I made many variations of cakes in sandwich, loaf, and cupcake form for us to enjoy.

Since we moved to Angel, however, I hadn't baked until this weekend.  I could tell the oven was sub-par to the one we had before and I didn't want any baking disasters - because if there were ANY baking disasters, I'd swear off baking forever.  I have low confidence in my cooking and baking abilities.

But when we were invited over to Tom and Dani's for a picnic on Sunday and instructed to "bring dessert", I thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to make some cupcakes ... complete with Barbie sprinkles, of course:

And chocolate icing for the boys, for fear they'd be turned off by the Barbie sprinkles (I'm not kidding - the sprinkles were branded):

I didn't go too crazy with my first batch of cakes in the new flat, so I used a simple sponge cake recipe ... but having had an overall success with these, I'll be venturing into carrot and chocolate cake territory soon.  

*Pink Peep courtesy of A Wife Called Chuck

Monday, July 18, 2011

Practicing Yoga, Practicing Humility

Every time I think a bad thought about someone (which I shouldn't do), I stub my toe.  HARD.  Or I bang my elbow into my desk.  HARD.  Or my knee on the side of the bed.  HARD.  I like to think of this excruciating pain as Whoever's-Up-There's little way of teaching me a lesson about humility.  It's like when I walk around at work, smug about whatever I'm being smug about and an email goes ping! in my inbox and it's a withering dressing down from someone or other that sends me hiding under my desk for the rest of the afternoon (not that I actually do that ... well ... not for a whole afternoon).  Like, ouch.  Nothing like some humiliation to bring you down to earth.

Lessons in humility make their way to my yoga practice every time I step on my mat.  Whether it's the time I lost my balance whilst perching gracefully in crow, causing me to fall on my face, HARD, and the guy next to me to whisper an infuriating, "smooth", or when I've arrogantly anticipated a pose, only to find the entire class remaining in downward dog for a few extra breaths - I know I can work on being more humble.

As I've mentioned before, I use Lauren's rare absences from teaching to try another instructor's class (read about how I humiliated myself at the Iyengar Institute here) and learn something new about my yoga practice, so I recently decided to sample Simon Bradley's Tuesday hatha class at Jubilee Hall Trust.  Fairly less dynamic than Lauren's Vinyasa flow class, Simon focuses on correct alignment, holding poses, and understanding the anatomy and physiology behind an asana.  It took me one class to realize that I had developed some pretty bad habits, including the fact that my stance in Warrior One was severely shortened and my Warrior Two was downright lazy.  I was mortified.  Mortified, but humbled.  Inwardly, I rolled my eyes when Simon corrected the very subtle misalignment of my toes in King Cobra pose, citing that as the reason for my toes not reaching closer to my head but was surprised to find how much more space that minor correction gave me.  Again, I was reminded of Lauren's constant but gentle reminding that yoga is a journey, not a means to an end.  In an hour, I discovered just how complacent I had become in my practice and how deeply unsatisfying that was.  I was sad to recognize that I'd stopped being mindful in Lauren's class and perhaps prideful instead.  Simon's class was like that email in my inbox - the wake-up call I needed to shake me from my place in the clouds.

I think it's great to stick to a teacher or style of yoga you like, but I don't think it's beneficial to shy away from new experiences.  These experiences may be uncomfortable - they may even be humiliating - but in those moments of clarity, of slamming your knee into the bed frame, you receive a sliver of enlightenment (not to mention, a heck of a lot of pain).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trinity Hospice: River Walk 2011

Last weekend, John, Tom, Cristy, Alison and I participated in Trinity Hospice's River Walk fundraising event and raised over £800 for the hospice, in memory of John's uncle, Chris.

When I first moved to London, Chris was the one who introduced me to the plush carpets of Fortnum & Mason and the delights of its chocolate counter.  And before Kate Middleton made The Goring a household name (even in the US), Chris took me there for lunch and insisted that we dress up and take pre-meal drinks in the separate bar.  I'll never forget that.

We developed an unexpected, but cherished, friendship over the three years I knew him - through email, Skype, and long conversations in his Pimlico flat ("Westminster, please," he'd correct me).  At the time, I worked at an office not far from Pimlico and would accompany him on fun (House of Fraser) or grocery (Sainsbury's) shopping trips after work.   Over a cup of tea, we extolled the virtues of Finzi and Vaughan Williams, but mostly ... we gossiped.  About everything.  Reality television, fashion, the news, people in the news, people we knew, people we didn't know - everything was up for discussion.  So even now, after he's gone, I still instinctively get the "I can't wait to tell Chris" feeling before reminding myself he's not there to tell anymore.

Chris spent the last few months of his life in and out of Trinity.  I'll be honest: before I stepped foot into Trinity, the mere mention of the word "hospice" was like an icy claw around my heart.  I imagined a dark, suffocating place, with - for some strange reason - no daylight, no happiness, only sadness and grieving.  The first time I visited Chris there however, I was bowled over by how wrong I was: this hospice was bright, shiny, pleasant, warm and, above all, comfortable.  It had a lovely garden where guests could take strolls and the individual rooms had floor to ceiling windows overlooking this beautiful scene.  The furnishings were more akin to those of a boutique hotel, rather than a hospice - or what one would expect of a hospice.  The nurses were friendly, helpful and kind and Chris would often tell me how incredible they were.  All I remember thinking was how glad I was that he was being cared for in such an environment.

Chris is still listed as a "follower" of this blog.  Occasionally, I'll search back to entries that have his comments just to read them again: they don't make me sad.  They make me laugh.  I used to complain, "Why haven't you commented yet?" when he was silent about what I'd written.  "I can't think of anything witty enough to say!" he'd moan and I'd laugh because he prided himself on his sharp observations and witticisms.  I miss his opinions, his insight and his personality.

But my best friend passed on a wonderful saying that always helps: "When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure."

Team Chris Morris's fundraising page on JustGiving is open and accepting donations until June 2012. Please consider making a small donation to Trinity Hospice here:
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