Saturday, December 8, 2007

Baby steps

I wrote this in December but never posted it. Here it is.

Hi there! I don't know if anyone is even reading this anymore, but I hope so. Let's see, since I last posted, we had Thanksgiving, which was great. It was weird to have to work on Thanksgiving and the day afterwards, but it was fun to explain the holiday to Brits. I've always loved Thanksgiving, and I was afraid it wouldn't be a good one, since we were so far from home, but I was wrong. We bought a free-range turkey from our local butcher's shop and used local vegetables from our organic veg and fruit box from Abel & Cole. We had to rush home from work and start cooking, but it didn't actually take that long. We have a convection oven with a fan in it, and our 12-pound turkey took only an hour and a half! I have photos that I'll post tomorrow or Monday. Our internet connection still doesn't work at home, which means our prepaid international phone line doesn't work either. I might have to wait for a better connection.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New job

I can't believe it's been three weeks since I last posted; it seems like just yesterday. A lot has happened since then, though.

Most importantly, I got a job. I had the interview the week after my last post, and I got the offer the next day. I started last Monday, and life has been pretty hectic since then.

My official title is Assistant Website Manager for a government information portal: www.info4local.gov.uk. Thrilling stuff, let me tell you. The job is fine. I mostly just import content from other government websites. There's some editing to be done and some web statistics stuff, but it's pretty basic. But it is a job, and the pay is not too bad. Also, the people I work with are really nice. I mostly work with a girl named Amy. She's from New Zealand and understands my frustrations with living in England as an immigrant. Plus, she knows a bunch of people who were extras in the Lord of the Rings movies because she lived in Wellington, so she's pretty cool, all told.

It has been weird to go back to work after six months, but I fell back into the routine fairly easily. I have to leave a little before 8:00 to get here before 9:00, and the commute is trying, to say the least. I'm getting used to it, though, and I can usually finagle a seat on the train.

The most exciting thing about my job is that I get an hour for lunch, and since I work right smack dab in the middle of London, I can do some serious exploring. My favorite thing to do is wander through the streets looking for the blue plaques that note who used to live in the houses. I like the one for General Gage, who led the British Army to ignominious defeat in the American Revolution. I'm also just a few minutes' walk from Regent's Park. When the weather gets nicer, I can go there for picnics. And the other day I was walking around and found myself on Wimpole Street. It sounded familiar, and then I realized that was where Henry Higgins was supposed to live in My Fair Lady. I was on "the street where you live" like in the song!

The other reason I haven't posted in a while is also temporary. I've been doing A LOT of other writing, along with Andrew, because we're taking part in National Novel Writing Month, where you pledge to write a 50,000-word novel just in the month of November. I hit 32,000 words last night, so I'm right on track. Soon that will be finished, I will be settled in at work, and I will be able to refocus on the blog. Plus, I'll have photos of holiday decorations and maybe an ice skating excursion!

We're really looking forward to seeing everyone next month for Christmas, Amber's wedding, and New Year's. Until then, cheers from England!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Our little town

I went for a walk today, and I discovered a whole other Enfield than the one I've seen for the last two months. It is a gorgeous, sun-dappled autumn afternoon, and the leaves are finally changing color. I set out with a mission: to find a tea infuser -- you know, one of those little mesh balls attached to a little chain that you fill with loose leaf tea and put in your tea pot then remove when the tea is done steeping. This being England, the home of tea, I figured this would be easy to find, but no one here seems to have ever even heard of such a thing. How do they make loose leaf tea, then? I guess they just throw it in the pot and strain it out cup by cup, but that means that only the first cup is good and the rest is successively more bitter. I'd looked in all the High Street shops, but I remembered seeing a tea shop on a street not far from here, so I decided to walk up there and check it out. I walked along familiar paths at first, but stopped in a lot of shops I'd previously passed by. I found a lovely little bakery, spent a little time in the fantastic butcher's shop where we got our first Sunday roast, picked up information on piano lessons from a music shop, and made my way up around the northern part of town to the tea shop, where they didn't know what I was talking about either. Sigh.

But I didn't keep that disappointment from ruining my walk. I was about 30 minutes from home at this point and kept along my familiar route. I stopped in at an art supply shop, always a favorite, and bought a poppy pin. Everyone's been wearing them for the last few days and will wear them until Poppy Day, or Armistice Day, or Veteran's Day, whatever you want to call it on the 11th. Its purpose was originally to honor the Great War dead, then expanded to include World War II and other subsequent wars, too. I think poppies are used as the symbol because of the blood-red fields of poppies in Belgium and northern France, where so much of the fighting took place. In the song Penny Lane, there's a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray -- well I bought one of those today and pinned it to my sweater. I fit right in. Andrew and I have both noticed that we get much better service and make a big difference in shopkeepers' moods when we show off our natural American friendliness, and since I was enjoying my walk, I smiled a lot and got lots of smiles in return.

I kept on walking and turned south again to head back towards town. I felt like trying a slightly different route, but I didn't know which streets cut through. I did, however, see a sign for a Public Footpath, just like Andrew and I followed in the countryside all summer. It seemed a little silly to take a footpath, with all its connotations of the natural world, through a bustling town, but I gave it a try. At first, it just led through neighborhoods, and I had to keep my wits about me and my eyes open to find the little green signs that showed where the path veered here and there between the streets, but after a few minutes, it became much more like a country path and I found myself walking alongside a canal -- the New River, in fact -- with dozens of ducks and geese swimming and snacking on bugs in the water. It was utterly charming. I looked across the canal and saw beautiful trees and playing fields, with a tall stone steeple in the background. I couldn't believe I was in London! The path continued along the canal, then crossed over a small bridge and meandered among some more houses. But while the houses before were on a street with cars parked on both sides, these houses were on a lane with no vehicle access. They were much older, and walking there gave me an idea of how Enfield must have looked hundreds of years ago. There were delightful little cottages with beautiful tilework in the entryways and whimsical stained glass patterns in the windows. There were fences that surrendered tantalizing glimpses of roof peaks and tall garden trees. There were squirrels and birds. And then, as I turned a corner, there was a rusty iron gate leading to a quiet graveyard. I stepped inside and looked around. There was a contemporary section with new graves, but most of the yard was filled with elaborate tombstones from the 1850s to the 1870s, mostly. It was beautiful. I stepped back onto the path and found myself walking between two schools. Finally, I started to hear the noise of town, but I had a few more surprises before I got there. First, more tombstones next to a long, low, gray stone church. Across from the church was a building that must have been built in the 1600s at the latest. It had amazing colored glass windows, and the second story jutted forward over the first like a proper Tudor house. Beyond that was the town market -- Now in its 800th year, the sign says. I had walked past the market dozens of times but never wandered through the stalls, but it seemed to fit my meandering afternoon, so I dove in. There was a table of beautiful hats with feathers and ruffles. I talked to the man there about how no one in America wears hats. He talked to me about how much he liked St. Augustine -- everyone wants to talk about Florida when I explain where I'm from, but he was the first to know anything about it other than Mickey Mouse and South Beach. Next I checked out a butcher's counter selling turkeys, a pile of what turned out to be lambs' hearts, and all sorts of other sundries. I next found a stall selling sweaters and coats. I bought a gorgeous plaid jacket to replace the one that was stolen. I'll post a photo soon. I also bought some Bombay Mix from a spice stall to snack on, then headed home for tea. My final stop on the way was the old church. There was no one inside, and I wandered around in awe. It's really beautiful. The middle of the church is whitewashed and full of light pouring in from the upper windows. The floor is lovely wood, polished by the footsteps of thousands of parishioners. There were even niches with statues of Elizabethan patrons and tombstones set in the wall exclaiming the virtues and piety of Victorian inhabitants of Enfield. What a history lesson, and all in an afternoon's walk. Next time, I promise I'll bring my camera.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You never think it'll happen to you

Well apparently London is not finished testing me. My job search is now well under way, and I had a great interview last Thursday. I finally got my bank card. We had phone service, and we now have internet service, finally. I was even starting to get to know my way around the city pretty well. Then Saturday came around. We had a fantastic day wandering around Regent's Park, Marylebone, and Mayfair. We did a bit of shopping, a bit of snacking, a bit of gawking at ancient art galleries selling artifacts from Egyptian tombs and, right next door, Bentley and Rolls-Royce dealerships selling cars worth more than my parents' house. The weather was gorgeous and everyone on the streets was smiling. It was a perfect, perfect day.

We hung out in the shops until the evening, when we headed over to Bodean's BBQ. That's right, a barbecue restaurant in downtown London. It was pretty good stuff, too. We were meeting some Gator friends there to watch the UF-UK game, and I was super-psyched because I hadn't seen any football (real American football) since January. We had a great time until I turned around to get something out of my bag, and......it wasn't there. I frantically ran down to the ladies' room where I had changed into my Gator shirt, thinking -- hoping -- I'd left it there. I ran around the restaurant, peeking under tables and asking waitresses if they'd seen it. But no luck. I was at a table in the corner with a bunch of people, and someone stole my bag right off the back of my chair, probably when we all looked up to see UF score its first touchdown. Wow.

Andrew ran outside and looked up and down the street and in all the trash cans he could find while I called the bank to cancel my cards. Next stop was the police station, where we filed a report. Then we had to try to find a place that sold international phone cards at 10:30 at night. Then we had to go get cash because they didn't take cards. Then we had to find a pay phone to call and cancel the American credit cards. They told me on the phone where the thief had tried to use my cards in an ATM, so Andrew found the street and thinks he may have seen the thief but couldn't do anything about it. I was calm through all of this, even through the painful process of listing everything that was in my bag. But when we got home, I broke down. There was no cash in my purse, and they couldn't do anything with my credit cards. They got little to no money out of the deal; maybe a few bucks for my cell phone and the few bucks left on my travel card. But they weren't going to get any money out of the bag itself, which Elizabeth made for me. Or the purse that Laura gave me as a graduation present. Or the brooch on my jacket that Mary gave me as a bridesmaid gift. Or the sweater that Andrew gave me for Christmas. Or the necklace I'd spent hours stringing and restringing by hand. Or the Christmas gifts I'd bought that day for my mom and Michelle. Or my notebook with lists of books I want to read and places I want to travel to. None of those things are worth any money at all. They are literally priceless, but only to me. That made me feel better because the thief wasn't going to get anything from me, really. But it also made me feel so much worse because it was all so pointless.

I'm feeling a lot better now, but I don't think I'll really get over it for a long time. Andrew and I did some shopping on Sunday and found a sweater like the one I lost and a new wallet. I got new keys yesterday and my new bank card and cell phone today. And when we were looking at Bryan's video from our summer trip tonight, I was glad to see that there is an extensive visual record of Elizabeth's handiwork. But I'll never see those things again, and they were some of my very favorite things. That's why I had them with me that day. I don't want to go overboard about this whole thing and never trust anyone ever again; I'm not that way. But I will certainly be more selective about what I bring into the city with me this Saturday. We're going back to the BBQ place to watch the UF-UGA game. I hope that everything goes well and that I can recover some sense of security. And, hey, at least the Gators won.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ups and downs...and lots of yummy food

Hi there. Life has continued much the same for the last couple weeks in (I almost said Blacksburg) London. The frustrations have continued but have started to be resolved. I finally have my bank card and can get money without begging my husband. Our phone and internet services are on the way to being available. I've even got a job interview scheduled for tomorrow.

Oh joy of joys! A box has arrived just this moment! That's two out of the three now. We now have our quilts and photographs and I have my jewelry and sweaters and shoes! I try not to be a materialistic person, but sometimes you need to have your own possessions around you. Wow, we're getting there.

Anyways, that's about all the news. We've been cooking up a storm, though, and I'd like to tell you about that.

A week and a half ago, Andrew and I finally got to go to Borough Market, which is a huge market complex on the South bank. It's also, apparently, really popular! I had to focus and try not to lose my head among the crowds. There's no personal space in a situation like that. I forgot to bring my camera, but here are some photos Andrew took of our loot once we got home:



After we went to the market, we walked around London for a while and ended up at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which has a museum that I really wanted to see. Well, it just so happened that that very day was the 75th anniversary of the museum, so admission was only 75p instead of 6 pounds, so we had a lovely lunch on the terrace overlooking the Thames and toured the museum on the change in our pockets. It's a lovely museum, too. Lots of impressionist and post-impressionist stuff. Highlights include Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Renoir's La Loge, and lots of gorgeous Cezannes and Gauguins. Delicious.

The next day was our big, important first attempt at a proper British Sunday Lunch, and boy did it turn out well! It was one of our best meals ever, if I do say so myself. Monica's friends Sara and Sally came over for the feast. Here's the menu:

Mixed leaf salad with figs, serrano ham, manchego cheese, and sherry vinaigrette
Roast beef with horseradish sauce
Steamed carrots with sherry and thyme
Sauteed brussels sprouts
Roasted potatoes
Yorkshire pudding
Apple crisp with cream

Again, I forgot to take pictures, although this shot of the aftermath speaks pretty clearly, I think:



The next day was an unqualified disaster for all sorts of reasons I won't go into, but the first box did arrive and I had a long talk with my mom, who prescribed fried chicken and biscuits, which we dutifully followed:



Other food successes of the past couple weeks included omelets with chorizo and wild mushrooms, this week's Sunday lunch with roast chicken, potatoes, carrots, and spinach salad, and a curry feast:


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Other food adventures

I am happy to report that Andrew and I still know how to cook, even after a four-month break from it during our travels.

We have most of our basic kitchen supplies and, thank goodness, a huge kitchen to work in. We’re still getting used to the glass-topped electric range and the fan-assisted oven, but we’ve already produced some glorious food, albeit simple. Here’s a sampling of the sorts of foods we’ve made. Up to this point we’ve mostly just made foods from memory because I haven’t yet made a list of new recipes to try (that’s on the agenda this afternoon).

Baked potatoes (or jacket potatoes, here) with good British cheddar
Andrew has a brilliant way of doing the potatoes: cut them in half and coat them with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, then place them cut side down on a foil-covered tray. Leave them in for about 30 minutes or so, depending on size, and when you pull them out, they will be the most beautiful burnished golden brown on the outside and nice and fluffy inside. Sort of a cross between baked and roasted potatoes, and much quicker than regular baked ones.

Burgers and chips
You’ll notice we’ve taken on the British habit of eating lots of potatoes, but they’re just so damn good over here. The potatoes actually taste of something; they’re not just white. Andrew made some delicious hamburgers and discovered in the process that our kitchen fan doesn’t work. Oops. He also made some excellent oven chips.

Tomato, bean and veg soup
Pretty basic but warming on a cold, rainy night. Add some leftover ground beef and spices the next day, and it’s chilli. Serve leftovers from that over some pasta the next night, and it’s a chilli pasta bake. A never ending pot of deliciousness.

Pasta puttanesca
This is one of our favourite foods of all time. You just boil some pasta, and while it’s bubbling away, melt down a couple anchovies in some olive oil. Add sliced garlic, oregano, dried chillies, capers, olives, and a can of chopped tomatoes, throw in the pasta, top with basil, and you’ve got yourself a damn fine meal.

Mustardy pork chops
We can get free-range meat at the grocery store here – hooray! – so we can eat meat more easily than in Virginia. We got some nice little pork loin chops and cooked them, a la Nigella, in some garlicky oil and did a little pan sauce with cider vinegar and whole grain mustard. Add some sautéed Savoy cabbage and roasted potatoes and serve with Gewurtztraminer wine. Yum!

Bangers and mash
Laugh all you want, but British bangers (sausages) are delicious. We just cook them under the grill (broiler to you Yanks) until golden brown and serve with mashed potatoes and parsnips. Have you ever had a parsnip? It looks like a white carrot and tastes sweet, with a slightly astringent edge. They are really nice mixed in with potatoes. If we have leftover parsnips and potatoes after our Sunday lunch, I will make bubble and squeak with them. Stay tuned. We also had sautéed Savoy cabbage with this meal. Savoy cabbage is really dark green, with thick, almost leathery leaves. It’s hard to find in American grocery stores, which is a shame because it has so much more flavour than white cabbage. It’s great thinly sliced and sautéed in butter with a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Salade Nicoise
This one is not as seasonally appropriate as the other meals above, perhaps, but it’s another absolute favourite of mine. You can put lots of different toppings on it, but what I like is a bed of lettuce with tuna, olives, roasted potatoes, capers, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and a mustardy vinaigrette. I never actually had this salad in Nice, but I’ll steal the association and think fondly of that wonderful place…

Tuna sandwiches and chips
Andrew makes the most divine lemon-basil mayonnaise. That’s right; mayonnaise from scratch. Throw in some sundried tomatoes, capers, and a can of tuna, and you’ve got yourself the best tuna sandwich ever.

I think that’s about it for right now. We’ve really enjoyed grocery shopping here. The produce is beautiful, clearly labelled, and almost entirely British, which is great. They have really nice breads, too, and we’ve had some delicious sandwiches (cheddar and Branston pickle is a particular favourite – Branston pickle is a vinegary kind of chunky chutney with all sorts of pickled vegetables). Free-range meats (even bacon and deli meats) and eggs are easy to find. The only things we can’t find are decent ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s is four pounds!) and Frank’s red hot sauce, which I sorely miss. I’m planning on bringing back at least four bottles of it at Christmas. I’m feeling very excited about cooking right now, and I would like to write about it more often, too. I’ll keep you updated, and I’ll record our Sunday lunch in great detail, I promise!

Sunday lunch

The British have a lovely tradition of making big roasts with vegetables and delicious homey desserts on Sunday afternoons. It is a tradition I very much want to pick up, so Andrew and I have been doing some research in preparation for our first Sunday lunch at home next weekend. Two Sundays ago we went out in search of Sunday lunch and ended up at a French restaurant that does the traditional English lunch every Sunday because that’s what everyone wants to eat. We had a really delicious meal with rose wine, nice bread and butter, mushroom soup, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, steamed carrots and parsnips, cauliflower cheese, horseradish sauce, and apple crumble with custard. Damn.

Last Sunday, we went to The Stag, a local gastropub (that is a pub that does really nice food, too). We had a similar meal, Andrew going for the beef again while I chose lamb with mint sauce. The starters were different, too: I had a goat’s cheese salad and Andrew had prawns in Marie Rose sauce. It doesn’t get much more British than that, folks. We had a decidedly non-British dessert, too: tiramisu; but I think we’ll go full-fledged British for our first homemade lunch.

We’ve been watching our Jamie Oliver DVDs and reading his and Nigella Lawson’s cookbooks – or cookery books, as they say here – and getting geared up for Sunday. We’re heading down to London early on Saturday morning to get supplies at Borough Market. And, we have guests: Sara and Sally, who are studying in the UK this semester. Hooray!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Breaking news

I was beginning to think it would never happen, but we finally have a table! And, bonus, you can see it along with every detail of our flat, right here: http://picasaweb.google.com/amarder/OurNewHome.

Sorry for the blurry ones; I have the world's shakiest hands.

Shop til you drop…from humiliation

British clothing and shoe sizes are different from American ones. No big deal, right? Well it actually is, because the sizes for clothes here are similar enough to American ones to be familiar, yet I wear a much bigger size here. I know that a clothing size is just a number and it doesn’t mean anything, but I had it in my head that my American size 6 would be a size 8 here. Okay, fine; I don’t want to wear a size 8, but that’s they way it goes. Then I looked at a pair of British trousers (apparently “pants” means boys’ underwear here; it’s got to be trousers) I already owned, and they said size 10. Now that made me feel a little bit weirder about it, but I was able to deal. I went to a local store to try on some jeans because I needed a nicer pair, and tried a size 10. Well I couldn’t even get them up past my knees. I tried a 12, and they were too small, too, so I held on to my composure with every ounce of strength I had and marched right out.

It didn’t help that that morning I had read an article in the newspaper about how clothing sizes are variable from store to store. There have been a lot of articles like that over the last couple weeks. It’s fall fashion season, and everyone’s talking about sizes and body shapes and all that. It’s infuriating. They showed photos of a woman who was size 10, and I thought she looked like she was around my size, but apparently not. It also doesn’t help that I’m used to being on the thinner end of the population, whereas here people are generally thinner. Not that you don’t see a fair number of large people like in the States, but the “normal” people are often thinner than at home. So here I’m just sort of average. Great.

I think the first store I went to was geared to a younger crowd, so the clothes just weren’t going to fit right anyways, so, with Andrew’s support and encouragement, I went to another store. I don’t know any of the brands, so I have to go in and look around and listen to the music and see the other shoppers to tell if I’m even really supposed to be in there. I tried on pair after pair (forget bathing suits; jeans are the worst) and finally found some that I liked, in a size 12. Cross an ocean; double your pant size – sorry, trouser size. Wow.

A couple days later, I started looking for shoes. Due to some miscalculations on my part during our hectic packing stateside, most of my autumny clothes and shoes are still in Tallahassee, so all I have here are flip flops, interview shoes, and sneakers (they call them trainers). I needed some normal shoes to wear because my toes were freezing, so Andrew and I set out with another mission. I thought I would look for some brown ballet flats, because I already had them in other colours, waiting to ship over here, but apparently you can’t get normal shoes here. They’re all polka dots and sequins and metallic sparkles. I ended up resorting to a shoe store where I must have been the youngest customer ever to find some nice, sensible shoes, but they’re not really what I was looking for, either. I nearly killed myself walking around London in them on Sunday. They’re really good shoes that will eventually be very comfortable, but not right off the bat. One good thing, though, is that I figured out my British shoe size, and it’s smaller than at home. Go figure. I decided to look for more casual shoes this past weekend, with no luck, although Andrew found a perfect pair. Oh bother. The search continues.

Here I am in my sensible shoes and size-ginormous jeans.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Thoughts on life in London

Sorry for the long break again. I’ve just been so busy doing…absolutely nothing, actually. I think looking for a job is the worst thing for one’s self-esteem. Not that I’ve spent all that much time actually looking; I’ve mostly been sitting around in my pajamas, feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been sleeping a lot, too. Maybe my body is trying to make up for all the sleep I missed out on in college.

Anyways, I just don’t have that much to report right now. I’ve found a couple leads that have mostly evaporated. All the job listings seem to be for secretaries or executives, with nothing in between. And I don’t have any friends over here to help guide me. I don’t even know if I have the right kind of resume. Andrew has been great, trying to make me feel better and get some work done, but it’s hard when I spend all day alone in our flat. I’ve run out of things to do around here, because everything is in place except for the table top. Stupid IKEA. I’m going to post some photos tomorrow if I can figure out my camera.

Wow, this is really depressing. It isn’t all bad, of course. We’ve been having great fun on the weekends. The weekend before this past one, we even got to go to a birthday party for one of Andrew’s co-workers. We’ve also gone into the city a few times to poke around and do a bit of shopping. Last week we explored Oxford Street, and this Sunday we did Piccadilly, Regent, and Carnaby Streets. We went to Fortnum & Mason, a giant food store celebrating its 300-year anniversary. It was amazing; all marble and gilt and phenomenal prices. We particularly enjoyed seeing the hundreds of different kinds of chocolates and other sweets and the American imports. They had a box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix for four pounds – that’s eight dollars! They also had funky foods like Cajun-spiced crickets and candied larvae. We didn’t buy anything; the fun of those places is more like visiting a museum – it’s best to look, not buy.

Speaking of looking but not buying, we also went to Liberty, which is another London classic. It’s a humongous department store that looks like the set for some crazy Shakespeare play. It’s all white and black timbers, light-filled atria, and intricately carved mahogany panels, a beautiful building in its own right. Like most other stores of its kind, Liberty is filled with beautiful, inaccessible, expensive objects, but Liberty does a much better job of choosing and displaying them. Everything was lovely. I usually don’t see anything I would actually want at these stores, but at Liberty, I wanted everything, from the fancy silk robes to the hand printed stationery, to the imported French perfume. Liberty is also well known for its fabrics, and they have an entire floor full of dress and upholstery fabrics for sale by the meter, along with millinery and haberdashery supplies. Excellent.

We didn’t actually buy anything in London, but we have been doing a bit of shopping out here in Enfield. We got ourselves a TV, a DVD player, and a box set of Jamie Oliver DVDs that we can finally watch (they wouldn’t play on our American DVD player, but we got our new one “fixed” at Sony so it will play any kind of DVD). I also bought some clothes, but that’s another post. And food. That’s another post, too.

So here’s the story: when I’m with Andrew in the evenings and on the weekends, life is fantastic. I just need to get myself a job and some friends – and a phone! – and I’ll be fine. Our phone line should be installed this Thursday and our special phone package with unlimited calls to the US should be ready to go on Monday. Then I will be able to talk to all the people I love, and I won’t feel so bad. I miss you all terribly, and I can’t wait to hear all my favourite voices soon. Until then, cheers from Enfield!

PS I see that spellcheck added a “u” to favorite. Tee-hee.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I never much liked Monopoly

Last weekend, Andrew and I made an important purchase: a mobile phone (no one here says "cell phone"). Which is good, because I found out yesterday that we have to wait two weeks to get a landline. That means two weeks until internet and TV, too. It all goes back to BT (that's British Telecommunications), which is still run by the government, and is, thus, a monopoly. The British aren't really keen on customer service anyways, so when you add in the fact that there's no competition in an industry, there's barely any service at all. I spent a total of three hours on hold trying to get through to BT just to set up our new phone line. And this wasn't an American-style holding system with music and cheerful voices. This was three hours of hearing the phone ringing in that special British insistent double-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring, fourteen times, then "We are VERY busy right now. Stay on the line." Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. It was maddening. Oh, and this was all in a phonebooth, too, because if I called from my mobile phone, it would be like a pound per minute. No toll-free numbers here; you have to pay to waste your time. I finally got through, only to be told that the earliest they could install our line was the 3rd of October. "WHAT?!?" I couldn't keep from exclaiming. But there's nothing for it, apparently. The friendly Irishman I was talking to said that two weeks is about average. Let's all pray nothing ever goes wrong with the phone line! So he set up the appointment for me, and then at the end of it saw that that whole day had been filled up during the time it took him to take my details. So we started all over from the beginning. Joy. But I have been told that on October 4th I will have phone service. Fingers crossed. Do not breathe. Do not pass go. Certainly do not collect 200 dollars.

Fish-and-chip-and-PIN

The week's shopping has been marked by two overwhelming emotions: the thrill of the hunt and the frustration of being an American abroad. It has been rewarding to put together a new home in, I think, record time. And, since about 95% of our new possessions came from the same place, everything looks very neat and coordinated. Finding the last few items on my list keeps me alert when I'm walking around town, which is always good. Every time I find something new, though, I have to buy it, and there's no telling what will happen.

We first heard about chip-and-PIN technology when we were traveling around the UK this summer. They have it in all their credit cards: a microchip that stores a PIN number so you have to know the right number and can't steal a credit card and forge the signature. Every credit card issued in the UK has a chip-and-PIN, and store clerks are always completely baffled that we don't have them. I've had to explain at least 50 times that we don't have that in America, and people always look at me as if I'm coming from Siberia instead of Florida. Chip-and-PIN is a fairly new technology here, but it has caught on quickly so that many stores won't take anything but chip-and-PIN. This rule is enforced differently at different stores and even by different people at the same store. At the local stationer's (like a mini-Office Depot), they pulled out a dusty credit card swiping machine with carbon paper. At a bookstore one day last week I used my credit card and just had to sign the receipt, then the very next day they sent me off to the cash machine and couldn't take my card at all. At another bookstore of the same chain, they took my card but called Wachovia to authorize it. IKEA charges 70p for a signing card; Waitrose sometimes requires photo ID; and you should see what we had to go through at the bank last week to get cash for our deposit on the flat! Thank goodness Andrew works there, or we'd be out on the streets.

But there is hope in sight. Andrew has an account through Barclays, obviously, and his Barclaycard, complete with chip-and-PIN, is in the mail. Now we just need to get me sorted out, and we'll be able to shop without a care in the world. Now, if only the chip-and-PIN came with free money...but Andrew gets paid this weekend, for the first time in four months. It's a good day!

Hunting and gathering

Oh joy of joys, we are moved in to our new flat! We got our keys last Saturday and moved all our stuff out of Tony's garage on Sunday. I've spent all week shopping, which isn't necessarily as much fun as it sounds, at least for me. On Sunday, Andrew and I took the bus down to IKEA and spent four hours looking at furniture. On Monday I went back down and bought said furniture and picked out dishes, glasses, sheets, towels, trash cans, and everything else we needed. That part was a lot of fun, but it was pretty exhausting, too. The furniture was delivered on Tuesday, and Andrew and I put everything in place over the next couple of days.

Now, IKEA specializes in flat-pack DIY furniture. The great thing about flat-pack furniture is that you put it together yourself, so it's cheap. The trouble with flat-pack furniture is that you put it together yourself, so it takes a lot of time, work, and cursing. But we got it all done, and we now have a bed, two bedside tables, a couch (that we just put the legs and cover on), a bookshelf/room divider, a clothes rack (they don't really do closets here), a side table, four chairs, and legs for a kitchen table, although we're still waiting for the top. So we're pretty much set on furniture. I still can't find lots of random bits and pieces for the flat, though. I had to go back to IKEA again yesterday for extra pillows and some things for the kitchen, and I found an ironing board, laundry basket, and mop at Woolworth's, but I still can't find a broom, for instance, and there's no Target or anything like that here. The grocery stores are small, too, so they don't carry very many non-food items. All in all, though, the flat is looking great and feeling like home. And, just so you know, we are 100% ready for guests, so buy your tickets now!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And there again

Deep breath. Okay, here we go.

When last I wrote, we had just arrived back in Tallahassee for ten days or so. We had a lovely time at home, lots of relaxing with family and friends, the final bits of packing, even a trip to the beach where we had the whole state park to ourselves and saw no living souls but a few fish. Then we came back here. We arrived on September 2 at Heathrow Airport and had to get to the London Docklands area. It should have taken us one and a half hours. It took four. We had the maximum allowed luggage weight again, just like last time. And just like last time we had to take four different trains to get where we were going. The new twist this time was that just as we got to one of the Tube stations, we had to evacuate for an unknown security reason. The it was buses and tubes and trains from there, until we finally arrived at the hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to discover that Barclays was going to take quite good care of us. It was a really, really nice hotel. We went out and bought Andrew a couple suits for the week and then collapsed. Andrew got up sometime in the evening for a dinner cruise along the Thames, but as I wasn't invited, I slept...for about 20 hours.

The next day, Andrew and I got up and went downstairs for breakfast to discover that every other person there was dressed to the nines, and we were just in shorts and T-shirts. I don't think anyone actually stared at us, but it felt like we'd just wandered in in our underwear. The rest of the day, I felt like I'd stepped into Lost in Translation. I put on some smarter clothes, took a long bath, read the newspapers, had a light lunch at the bar, and waited for Andrew to come back from his first day of training. That evening we went to pick up his suits from the tailor, then we went out for dinner with his new friends. At first, I was really nervous, and I didn't want to talk too much because my American accent sounded so flat compared to all the lovely English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish accents around me. But soon I fell into easy conversation with several of them, and I had a really great time! I learned a lot that night and later nights in the week about the English school system, slang words, clothing styles, and politics. All the basics, right?

Here's a quick primer:
I went to uni, or university, not college. College is a level of secondary school, especially for students going on to do A-level exams.
You do A-levels if you're quite clever. Being smart is totally different; it has to do more with looking nice.
Use the word "mate" with friends or in casual conversation. This applies only to men, really.
Brilliant is fantastic, not clever.
Cheers, while it can mean please, thank you, hello, goodbye, or just about anything else, is really just an extra friendly way to say thanks.
I can't be bothered. This is my favorite. If I'm feeling lazy, I can't be bothered to get out of bed before noon. If a store clerk is rude, I say he can't be bothered to help me. They use this one a lot. I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I can't be bothered to explain it more thoroughly than that.

The week went brilliantly. My parents arrived on Tuesday because Daddy was teaching an IBM seminar nearby, so I got to spend lots of time with them. On Tuesday we went to the Tower of London to gawk at the crown jewels and caw at the ravens. I'm reading London by Edward Rutherfurd, and lots of it takes place right around the tower, so that was fun for me, too. On Wednesday, Mommy and I went to an Impressionism art exhibit at the Royal Academy, then had a proper afternoon tea at the Wolseley and took a lovely stroll through St. James's Park and Westminster. Thursday we spent in Enfield; more on that later. Friday we all explored Enfield a little more and had a really nice dinner at The Stag. I'm sure Andrew and I will go there again. Saturday, we all walked around London a bit, saw the new flat in Enfield, and went to the new Lord of the Rings musical in Covent Garden. All I can say is, Wow. I've only seen large-scale productions of Les Mis and Phantom, but this beat those hands-down for pure spectacle. It was also impressive that they were able to turn it into a three-hour musical. It worked. I mean, it's nothing to the movies, but it was a pretty awesome musical. The costumes and special effects were really cool. The creatures, especially the Balrog and Shelob, were really scary, and Gollum was amazing. What a night at the theatre! On Sunday, Mommy and Daddy had to leave early in the morning, and they made it back safely. So we've had our first visitors, and we're ready for more! Hopefully not until we get into our new flat and work out the transportation system a bit better, though. In the five days they were here, we went onten different tube lines, local and regional trains, buses, and taxis. It was exhausting!

But I promised to explain why Mommy and I had to go to Enfield -- and why we aren't in our flat yet. On Tuesday, I got no less than three emails and a phone call about our flat that we picked out and put a £200 deposit on three weeks ago. Apparently our reference check had failed and the landlord didn't want us anymore. To top it all off, it was my fault because I'm unemployed. Well, I'm sure you can imagine how I reacted to that. I got really mad, and then I went to work. It turned out that we hadn't failed our references; they had refused to check them because they were all American phone numbers. Apparently the £150 referencing couldn't cover about £5 in phone calls. So this company saw that we were American, refused to check our (pristine) references, employment, and housing history, and told the landlord we were unreliable renters. After several difficul conversations and hours of waiting for returned phone calls, I was told that we could still live there if we paid six months in advance (what we were expecting anyways) and started paying rent immediately. And we had to take the nasty furniture instead of getting it unfurnished like we were promised. And we had to move in a week later. That's when I lost it. I very politely told our estate agent that that was ridiculous and we weren't doing it. On Wednesday I made about 20 phone calls and set up a few appointments to look at other flats. I am SO glad Mommy was there to help me. We looked at a few flats together and found one that was even nicer that the first one, closer to the train station, with a nice landlord that we met, and totally in our price range. Sign me up, I said. And, fingers crossed, knock on wood and all that, we are scheduled to move in on Saturday. I had to confront the other estate agents about the other one and failed to get our deposit back, but they agreed that the landlord was crazy and had decided not to work with him anymore. So that's done, at least.

Now let me tell you about the new flat. It's a studio flat on the second floor (we would say third floor, but they count the ground floor as zero), above a news agent's shop. There are two big windows in the front room (we're calling it the bliving room) and one in the kitchen. It's all brand-new, freshly painted, with hardwood floors and crown moulding throughout (note the "u" in moulding. I'm learning...) and really nice fixtures. The kitchen is huge and has room for a narrow table along one wall. The bathroom is really nice and has a bathtub, not just a shower. The bliving room is very light and spacious. It's approximately 13 by 13 feet square, and we're not sure exactly how to divide it up, but we'll work on that soon enough. It's unfurnished, just like we wanted. We're going on a shopping spree at Ikea as soon as we move in :-) New furniture, towels, sheets, dishes, silverware, everything. Hooray!

Which brings me to this week. We had a hard time finding a place to stay in Enfield, so we're up in Stevenage, just north of town on the same train line as Enfield. Stevenage doesn't have much to offer other than a cheap hotel, but there are a Tesco (kind of like Wal Mart but less friendly), a shopping mall, and a movie theater across the street that make us feel right at home (ugh). Our restaurant choices are two "American style" restaurants, Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's, and Outback. I'm not even kidding. Andrew has been going in to work every day, and I've been sitting around reading, looking at job listings, etc. I'm basically just willing the time to pass until Saturday. Andrew, however, has been thoroughly enjoying himself. He loves his new job! He gets to be very important, and people listen to his ideas and want to help him succeed. I'm so proud of my husband. Now I just need to get me a job and we'll be all set. So Saturday is the big day. Next week we'll get phone/internet/TV and I'll send out contact info to everyone. We miss you all and can't wait to show off our new flat to visitors! I'll write next week to let you all know how the moving and furnishing goes. Until then, cheers!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

And back again

Boy, all this transatlantic flying is getting to be exhausting. We had a pretty good time in Dover. The castle and Secret Wartime Tunnels were fascinating, especially the tunnels. The castle was quite impressive. Most castles I've seen were either ruined fortresses or preserved homes, but this one was a real fortification, still used up through WWII -- incidentally, I'm not sure they use that phrase like we do. At one point it was referred to as "the 1939-45 war." We enjoyed exploring the castle and going up and down the winding staircases. There were fabulous views across the countryside, and we could see France off in the distance across the channel, even in the bad weather. From a lookout point right on the edge of the land, we could see the famous white cliffs, and they were lovely, although we had to imagine how they would look without the sprawling modern ferry terminal at their base. We didn't get to walk down to the beach, so I couldn't tell you if Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach had it quite right. The town of Dover wasn't particularly nice, and we had no reason to linger and walk in the rain. We found some decent fish and chips for lunch, but they were still nothing to the ones we had in Robin Hood's Bay. How frustrating that my first fish and chips would turn out to be an impossible ideal to meet thereafter!

But back to the cliffs, where during the 1939-45 war, tunnels were carved into the soft chalk. Dover, poised on the very edge of England, was a major front in the war from the beginning. Just a few months in, the Maginot Line had failed, Belgium and France had fallen, and the British troops were trapped in a tiny area of land, cut off from both sides by German troops and constantly battered by Luftwaffe planes. A retreat was called, and everyone made for Dunkirk, just across the channel from Dover. From the planning and communications rooms in the secret cliffside tunnels, a rescue mission was launched. Boats from the area, everything from huge navy vessels to tiny fishing dinghies, were called into service and launched across the channel to pick up the exhausted troops. By the end, 350,000 men had been evacuated safely. Astounding. Almost as astounding to us, though, was that we had never even heard of it! Most Americans forget that the war even started before we got there, and we certainly never learned about it in school. I can't wait to learn some of the other exciting bits of history I've missed out on. Anyways, now these tunnels, with their original medical and communications equipment, including rows and rows of telephone switchboards and those clear, vertical boards you always see in movies used to track the movement of ships, and enormous maps with troop placements, are now open to the public. They even try to recreate the experience with sound effects and momentary blackouts. A little cheesy, but it does add something, I suppose.

Our other excursion in the Dover area was to Canterbury, which is a very nice little market town. Actually, a pretty big market town. It was filled with shoppers, and we enjoyed looking at all the shops and finding Mommy a big, woolly, sheep-shaped tea cozy. We saw the cathedral only through the small opening in the wall where you pay admission. At 13 bucks a head, we decided to pass, which was frustrating, as that was what we had come for. But we did see a ruined monastery elsewhere in town that was one of the earliest Christian sites in Britain and was torn down by good old Henry VIII. The major historical organizations, English Heritage and the National Trust (both of which we are members now), really ought to send him a thank you note for providing them with so many evocative ruins.

We camped near Dover, and what with the bloody English weather (terrifying thunderstorm one night, gale force winds the next), we spent a lot of time in the local pub. It was a nice mini-break, though, our first of many, to be sure. And then we began the long journey home. We stayed at a hotel near Heathrow the last night and watched the England-Germany football match with a big crowd. (England lost, of course, and it was all blamed on the goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, who is also keeper for our local Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspurs). The next morning we caught a flight to JFK, took a taxi to LaGuardia, sat there for seven hours, and finally flew to Orlando, where Nicholas and Katie waited for us with smiles, hugs, friendly dogs, a delicious, home-cooked meal, and a comfy bed. Yesterday, we drove up to Tallahassee, where we'll be for the next week. Andrew's work permit has come through and we've sent in our paperwork for our entry clearance. Now we just need to finish packing the last few things, enjoy our families, and get ready for the final move. Another deep breath is in order. Wish us luck. Cheers!

Monday, August 20, 2007

There again

Hey everybody. It's been an eventful week or so since I last posted. We're in England again, and we've found a cute flat in Enfield. Right now, we're in Dover, camping and seeing the sights. It's been quite a trip, though.

We arrived in London on Thursday morning. The flight over was okay, but it wasn't the same service as our first flight over, and since it was an overnighter, I couldn't sleep and was exhausted when we arrived. We gathered all our luggage (we maxed out the luggage allowance so we could start moving our stuff over in batches) and staggered to the train, then hauled everything on trains and tubes and buses to a storage unit in Enfield. Hellish, but done. Except, when we got there, we found out that, due to antiterrorism laws, you can't rent a storage unit without a valid UK address and utility bills to prove residence. We needed to store our stuff so we could find a place to live, but we couldn't store it until we had a place to live. Fantastic. So we had to haul all our stuff back to town on another bus (keep in mind the no-sleep factor here and the approximately 250 pounds of luggage we were dealing with). We got back into Enfield town (apparently "town" means London; "Enfield town" means downtown Enfield) at a complete loss and sat in the train station trying to figure out what to do. Camping was right out, with all that luggage, but hotels were too expensive, and we needed to find some storage option so we wouldn't have to drag everything around for 8 days and back on the plane. Andrew scurried around looking for a hotel while I watched our stuff, and I met a very nice gentleman who offered to help and gave me a Christian pamphlet. I smiled and thanked him, but I felt a bit weird about it. He went on his way and Andrew came back with no luck. We couldn't even think, we were so tired and sore from carrying the luggage, so we broke down and booked a room at the only nearby hotel for £65 a night. Yikes. Oh, and it was raining, of course, and I slipped and hurt my wrist. Fabulous. But we got to the hotel, dragged our luggage upstairs, and collapsed on the bed and fell asleep immediately. A few hours later, things were looking much better and we went to the library to check email. I was sitting in a chair at a second computer while Andrew was checking his email, and a gentleman walked up and asked if he could have the chair to use the other computer. He saw that we were Americans and introduced himself as Tony. He was very friendly and full af local information and advice, and he gave us his contact information. We were pleased at the friendliness of our new neighbors and went to find some dinner before crashing for the night.

The next day, we went back to the library and got a newspaper and did some research on flats in the area. Andrew had discovered the previous day that it might be very difficult to get a flat without previous rental and banking history in the UK. This did, in fact, turn out to be the case. We'll probably have to pay for 6 months in advance, which, coupled with the crappy exchange rate and the fact that we haven't yet started earning pounds, is a very expensive prospect. But I guess we should have expected it to be difficult, moving to another country. At any rate, we found that flats were not only expensive but also rare. We went from office to office asking for the same sort of flats, only to find that they had all been rented out the day before. We started to get nervous about it but forged on. Finally we got to an office that had a flat to show us, and it was great, available, and not too expensive. We almost took it on the spot but held off to try one more office. They had another one to show us that was awful and more expensive, so we rushed back to the other one to see if it was still available, and, thank goodness, it still was, so we snatched it up and we now have a place to live in Enfield! Hooray! We celebrated with a nice Indian meal and a bottle of wine. Ahhh...

The next day, we were filled with out flat-finding success, but we still had all the luggage to deal with. We couldn't move in to the flat until September 8. We asked at Barclays if we could store it there, but no luck. The flat-rental office also couldn't take it. We couldn't get our friend Courtney on the phone. So I called Tony from the library to ask for advice. He turned out to be our Enfield hero. He let us store our stuff in his garage in a very nice neighborhood not too far from our flat, he made us tea, he drove us to a nearby campsite (the hotel was too expensive for another night), and he even joined us for dinner and a movie later on. And what a fascinating guy. He's lived and traveled all over the world and had great stories and strong opinions. Obviously, he's extraordinarily friendly, too. So we got rid of our stuff and made a good friend already. Success. Yesterday we took the train down from London and camped near Dover. Now we're off to see the castle and the cliffs, and tomorrow we'll head up to Canterbury to see the cathedral. It's good to be traveling again, and it's good to know that this is our home turf now. We're really excited, and I'll post a thorough description of the new flat and its special challenges later on. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Back in the homeland

We're back in Tallahassee for a few days now, finally. Once we got back to the States, we went to New Jersey and saw Uncle Fred and rested up for a day, then we drove up to New Haven to pick up Elise and drove to Boston for a night of fun with old friends and new. Robert, Todd, Lauren, and Michelle showed us a good time. Then it was back to New Haven, back to New Jersey, and down to DC for more catching up with Adam, Michelle, Zack, and David. Then we drove to Blacksburg to pick up all our stuff from the storage unit (thank you, Daddy) and say goodbye to our friends there. Brian and Cami threw a wonderful party for us, and we got to spend some quality time with Amy, Alex, Gil, Luke and Amy, Nicole, Adam and Krista, Savanna, and Elizabeth and Tim. I can't imagine a nicer way to say goodbye to Blacksburg. From there it was an easy drive to Tallahassee, and we've been spending time with family and friends and organizing our lives before the big move. More later on that progress.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The End...?

Well we're back in the states now, after nine weeks of travel. Here's my final update for this part of the blog, but stay tuned for more updates once we move to London...that's right, London.

When I last updated, we were in Milan, waiting for a train to Switzerland. It was a gorgeous trip, made more fun by the occasion of our teaching new card games to Jennica, a Canadian model sitting at our table. We got to Switzerland and breathed a collective sigh of relief. It's a fabulous country. Everything is clean and efficient; everything works the first time; and people were really friendly and helpful. We got to Interlaken that first day and set up our tent at the best campsite of the trip, right on the banks of the River Aare, which was the most incredible shade of greyish-greenish-blue.

Our first full day we spent relaxing, running errands, and waiting for Bryan and Christina to show up from Venice. We checked out the town and found some fantastic grocery stores (thank goodness; Swiss restaurants are outrageously expensive). We also discovered that Swiss chocolate is omnipresent and delicious.

Once B and C arrived, we began our Swiss routine of hiking, mountain-gazing, napping, and card-playing, and we stuck to that routine for four more days. We also took a couple day trips. We went to Bern, which is a beautiful town (and our fifth European capital city) with neat buildings, eccentric fountains and clocks, and a bear pit holding the two mascots for the city, which people feed by dropping apples down, where the bears catch them expertly in their mouths. We also went to Luzern, another charming and cozy city on a beautiful lake. Just outside of Luzern, we went to the top of Mount Pilatus on three separate cable car excursions, including one that was at least a hundred feet off the ground that swept us up over deep canyons to the very summit of the mountain. About halfway up we got out of the cable car and went down the summer toboggan run, which was fun for everyone but Andrew, who, in keeping with his behavior at Versailles, hurt himself by falling off the sled and getting dragged down the metal track for a couple dozen feet. Ouch. The views from the summit were fantastic, and we also enjoyed the trip down the other side on a cog railway.

But our favorite Swiss place was a little mountain lake a 30 minute hike from our camp site. We walked over with picnic supplies (ham, wurst, cheese, bread, various salads, pickles, and mustard...and three kinds of chocolate), sat for a while in the sun, then plunged into the surprisingly warm lake and swam and dove and jumped off a rope swing until our arms were sore. It was harder to float in the freshwater than it had been in the Mediterranean, but I managed to stay on my back and watch the clouds pass over the tops of the mountains, and I have rarely been happier in my life.

But all good things must come to an end, and Andrew, Robert, and I left Switzerland on Sunday on a first-class train with a first-class brunch and mimosas packed in our picnic bag and finally got to Paris. We checked in, got some lunch, and wandered through the strangely empty streets. Nothing was open; there were hardly any people walking around; and we wondered why, until we made it to the Champs-Elysses and found the entire city crowded on every spare inch of sidewalk straining to see the circling cyclists completing the final stage of the Tour de France. It was really exciting! People were cheering and waving banners, and there were cameras thick on the ground and helicopters roaring overhead. We stood for half an hour and saw the cyclists rush by in a blaze of color several times and cheered for no one in particular. It was great. That night we ended our trip with a fabulous dinner in the most fashionable part of town. I had tuna tartare with avocado puree, a lobster and herb salad, and creme brulee. Now that's how you do Paris. Our last day was a blur of trains, buses, and airplanes, but we finally made it back to New Jersey, where Uncle Fred is helping us recuperate. Then it's another whirlwind two weeks, and back to London! We're really looking forward to seeing everyone before we leave, but if we don't see you now, we'll be back at Christmas, and you can always come visit us in London!

Thanks for reading about our trip...I hope you'll also read about our new adventures starting soon!

Monday, July 23, 2007

So hot right now

Still here...sorry. Internet access is expensive in Italy!

We had an amazing time in Nice. We swam in the Mediterranean, toured a candy factory, ate delicious food, took naps, and saw the new Harry Potter movie with French subtitles. It was, so far, the best part of the trip. I cannot wait to go back!

We left Nice for Italy, and we started out in Pisa, where we camped for a couple nights, taking time to see the leaning tower and visiting the perfectly preserved medieval town of Lucca before heading to San Gimignano, another medieval town with fourteen big towers all along the walls. In Lucca and S.G. I got to try out my limited Italian knowledge, and it was so much fun! It is amazing what a thrill something so small can be. One night I gathered picnic supplies from four different shops without a word of English. It was great. The last night at Pisa we played pool with some Italian guys, and that was another fun test of language skills...and pool skills: Bryan kicked their butts :-) In S.G. we stayed at a farmhouse, which was another language challenge because the family there didn't speak English at all. We got along okay. You can get a lot of meaning out of simple hand gestures, and you can get a lot of kindness by just smiling and saying thank you.

We left S.G. for Rome, where we ditched our planned campsite way outside the city for a really nice, cheap hotel in the city. We walked around the city at night and threw our three coins in the fountain, like you do. It was really nice. The next morning, Andrew and I left for Sorrento while Bryan and Christina stayed behind. We just couldn't stand the heat anymore and figured the coast would be cooler. We took the train down the coast to Naples, which was, in a word, disgusting. But we left right away for Sorrento, which was not so disgusting. It still wasn't what we were looking for, though, so we hopped on an interesting bus ride up over a high mountain ridge and down the windy cliffside road on the other side. After an hour and a half of nailbiting, bus-turning, scooter-passing action, we arrived in Amalfi and applauded the bus driver. Amalfi was gorgeous. It is a little town on a small harbor south of Sorrento, and it is famous for its volleyball-sized lemons and limoncello liqueur. We splurged on a nice hotel on the water and spent a day and a half just relaxing (and enjoying the local culinary specialties).

After our nice mini-vacation, we headed back to Sorrento to meet Bryan and Christina and Robert and to send Andrew o ff to London for his interview. We found Bryan and Christina okay, but just as Robert arrived at the train station, we later learned, the train workers went on strike. Just like that. So he was stranded in Naples. Yuck. We found him eventually the next morning and set out for a long and thrilling day at Pompeii, sans Andrew.

Pompeii was awesome. I know that's an overused word, but it really was just that. It is so much bigger and complete than I realized. The streets felt eerily empty, and when a nearby wildfire started raining huge black ashes down on us, we were a little alarmed, but it passed in the little breeze there was. It was ridiculously hot, but in such beautiful surroundings, who can be too upset?

The next day, Andrew came back and we explored Sorrento a little bit before a nice dinner. And yesterday, we took a six-hour train trip that turned into an eleven-hour train trip to get to Bologna. We walked around the beautiful city center this morning, and now we're in Milan, waiting for a train to Interlaken, Switzerland.

So there you go.

More news, and photos, as soon as possible.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The pain in Spain stays mainly in the train

We caught the night train from Paris to Madrid. I had never been on a night train before, and it was a lot of fun! We had a little four bunk bed car, and it felt like a slumber party. I slept really well, too, which surprised me, but the motion of the train was calming, and it rocked me right to sleep. We woke up in time to cross the border into Spain and catch our next train (the night train only took us to the border; apparently the trains in Spain are on a different gauge, so you have to transfer at the border). The next train took us all the way to Madrid, and it was a long, long ride. The scenery was beautiful at first, when we were in the mountains, but then it all started to look the same: yellow field after yellow field, punctuated every so often by a crumbling stone wall. It was all pretty, too, but it just went on and on. We finally got there, though, and I was welcomed to Spain by an old woman on the train attacking me. She apparently thought that she should be allowed to walk through the line instead of waiting with everyone else, so she started yelling and then just started slapping me. Looking back, I guess it`s sort of funny, but at the time, it was not very pleasant. It took us a long time to get out to our campsite south of the city, and it was freakishly hot once we got there, but once the sun finally started to set and we bought some picnic food, things were much better.

Our first day in Madrid, we slept in a bit to recover, then went into town and had paella and sangria for lunch in the Plaza Mayor, which was beautiful and calm, and which we later found out was the place where the Spanish Inquisitors executed heretics. Delicious. Later on, we went to the Museo Reina Sofia to see some modern art, including lots of Miros, Dalis, and Picassos. They have Picasso`s Guernica painting, and it is really quite moving. It takes up an entire wall, and at that scale, the emotions on the faces in the painting are gut-wrenching. I`m really glad we got to see it. At night, we went back to the campsite for another picnic under the stars. The picnics in Spain were so much fun and such a relief after the heat of the day.

We had to stay in Madrid an extra day because of the train schedule, so on our last day we had the time to be a little relaxed. We walked around the plaza in front of the Palacio Real, picnicked in the Retiro Park, and tried to go to the Museo Prado, but it was too expensive because they wouldn`t accept our student IDs. Spain was a lot more work than France because only Christina knows any Spanish and the whole culture seems a lot more foreign. We were tired, so we went swimming at the campsite and had one last Madrid picnic.

The next day, we caught the train to Barcelona, walked through the city a bit, found our campsite, and went down to the beach. It was Bryan and Andrew`s first view of the Mediterranean, and it was a gorgeous beach. As the sun was setting, we walked back and had a late tapas dinner at the campsite restaurant. It was on a terrace filled with happy people drinking and eating and laughing, and there was great music playing, and the food was delicious. That dinner will be my abiding memory of Spain.

Our day in Barcelona was great, too. We went to the Sagrada Familia cathedral to check out the construction progress. We couldn`t understand why it is taking so long to build until we saw it. It is the most elaborate building I have ever seen, and if they ever finish it, it will be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. We spent the afternoon wandering through the elegant streets and parks and marvelling at the houses designed by Gaudi. They were really crazy looking but beautiful and natural, too. Very difficult to photograph, though. We tried to go to the Boqueria market, but it was closed. I guess I`ll have to go back some time.

Our leaving Spain was, unfortunately, similar to our entering Spain. We got stuck in traffic on the bus and missed our train, and when I got in line at the station to try to sort things out, I got attacked by another old lady. I kid you not. I don`t understand what possesses a person to be so rude in the first place, but to continue yelling—and hitting!—when I obviously don`t understand the language just seems dumb. I was infuriated, but Bryan and Christina, with their level heads, saved the day by finding a different line and figuring out an alternative route. It took all day, but we finally made it out of Spain and into France and got to glorious Nice. That`s where we are now, and we are loving it. More later. Au revoir!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Still here

With four of us traveling together now, it has been a lot harder to find the time to update the blog, but I am still here, and here is a new update. I apologize for any typos, but French keyboards are very different from American ones, and they take some getting used to.

We made it to Paris without too much trouble and met up with Bryan and Christina on the 30th. We had three full days in Paris, and we made the most of them. The first day, we wandered around and did a tour of Parisian highlights such as the Place Bastille, Notre Dame, Place Concorde, and Tuileries, then we went to the Eiffel Tower at night to see the sun set. I felt a little like a tour guide at first, but then we all got in the groove and really enjoyed ourselves. We had some classic Parisian food, too: Croque Monsieur, salads, croissants, and pommes frites.

The second day, we did a whirlwind tour of the Louvre and hit all the big sights plus a bunch of the emptier rooms with beautiful sculptures. The whole place was packed, so we just spent a little time, then headed for Versailles. The palace is kind of expensive, and, in my opinion, overrated, so we just wandered around the gardens for a long time and saw the outsides of all the buildings. The exciting part of Versailles for us was when Andrew and Bryan decided to race and Andrew took a dive right into the gravel. I took pictures. He is totally okay now, but he looked pretty bad for a while.

Our last day in Paris we went to the Catacombs, which I thought were pretty creepy. I think I would be pretty upset if my bones ended up anonymously on public display like that. It was fascinating, though. That afternoon, the rain cleared up (apparently it rains outside of England, too) and we strolled down the Champs Elysses and had some world famous macarons at Laduree. They were different from macaroons I had tasted before; these were intensely flavoured airy cookies filled with buttercream, and they were out of this world. We had pistachio, rose, orange blossom, and lemon flavoured macarons and a pot of Tea a la Marie Antoinette. That evening, as we were getting ready to leave on the night train, we had another adventure at a local laundromat. Andrew is the only one of us who can speak any French, so we still don`t really understand what the problem was, but the owner came out of his office about halfway through and just started yelling at us in French and gesticulating wildly. We think he was angry that we were doing only one load of laundry, but Bryan and Christina had just gotten here, and none of us brought very many clothes. It was sort of humorous but also terrifying, because he was really furious at us and he would not stop yelling, even though we obviously couldn`t understand him. More on that later.

Right now, we are in Nice and there is free (and slow) internet access in our hotel, so I will write more tonight or tomorrow about our adventures in Spain. Au revoir!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

More photos

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/amarder/Europe

Lon-done

Today we leave for Paris, but we've seen an awful lot of London in a few short days. The first day we walked through Hyde Park down to the Victoria & Albert Museum to see the beautiful sculptures and historic clothing. Then we went to the retail extravaganza that is Harrod's, followed by a nice little dinner in Knightsbridge.

Day two was a busy sightseeing day. We walked through the park again to Buckingham Palace, where we saw the guards strutting around and a military band warming up. Then it was on to the Parliament area, at exactly the time that Tony Blair (Andrew has taken to calling him T-bag) was starting his last Prime Minister's Questions. So sad. And exciting -- we saw hundreds of protesters, including one being arrested. He was yelling and screaming and had his hands cuffed; they had taken his poster and his Iraqi flag. Andrew got some great photos. After that excitement, we walked along the river and found silent comfort in the great, cold halls of the National Gallery. I love art museums. They are so stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, but they are also great people watching places. We had great fun, and while it was crowded with groups of tourists and school children, we still had enough space to get up close to the paintings and check out all the details. I find that I still love the Impressionists, but I'm getting into other eras more and more. I really liked the super-realistic details of some of the Northern Renaissance paintings and the bold color of the baroque wall-sized paintings. And the Rembrandt self-portraits really spoke to me this time. They have one of him as a young man and one as an old man. Quite moving. Later on we went to the National Portrait Gallery, too. The paintings of Queen Elizabeth were really impressive. When I was at Cambridge six summers ago, I wrote two long papers about Elizabeth's portraits, but this was the first time I'd ever actually seen one. That night we met Courtney (the Gator girl who put us up our first night here) and several other London Gators for dinner and drinks at the Texas Embassy...clever, huh? It was so much fun! They are all living the expatriate life, working in exciting jobs and enjoying the city. It sounds great.

Day three was Kew Gardens. I had never been, and I was excited to see the flowers and to see what inspired some of Virginia Woolf's earliest stories. I closed my eyes very hard for a few minutes so I could open them slowly and watch the colors resolve into clear detail. And what detail! The plants were beautiful and well-laid out. We walked around for hours and hours. I filled up my camera again, but I should be able to post those pictures today. My favorites were the rose garden -- the sweetest smelling rose was the yellow Mountbatten; I smelled all of them -- and the waterlily house filled with multicolored waterlilies, lilypads two-feet in diameter, orchids, and dozens of varieties of chile plants. The beautiful glass greenhouses were gorgeous, too, and there were lots of tropical plants that reminded me of Florida. The beauty of the gardens made up for the fact that we had hardly any money left over for food...but who needs food amidst so much beauty?

Yesterday was another busy day. We woke to news of the first of two car bomb attempts in London. We were miles away from where the cars were found, but it was still unnerving. We didn't let it ruin our day, though. We walked to the British Museum and had a lively political debate about the legitimacy of British ownership of these priceless artifacts from all over the world. The Rosetta Stone has written on its side "Rescued by the British Army" -- ha! I guess it wasn't a debate; we both think it's sort of silly that the British have kept them for so long. But it is a fabulous museum, and it's really amazing to be able to see these things up close. My favorites were the Greek sculptures -- the smaller ones, where you can see the facial features -- and the jewelry. Andrew really like the mummies. Later, we walked to the British Library, which had a fantastic exhibit of sacred texts from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We got to see some of the oldest religious texts in the world, including a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were blown away. We also saw the highlights of the regular collection with all my favorites -- James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Paul McCartney :-) After the library, we took a short stroll -- I'll have to try to map this stuff later on; we walked miles and miles and miles -- down past Old Bailey and Saint Paul and across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. We didn't much care for most of the art inside, but it was still fun to walk around the building and laugh at the more ridiculous pieces. Then it was another stroll back through the city to our hotel, a quick change of clothes, and a delicious dinner at a place called Ping Pong Dim Sum. Hooray! Now we're packing up and heading out to Paris, where we'll meet up with our compatriots. More from Paris soon; cheers!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dangeresque

A sampling of our adventures, for your reading pleasure:

Yarm. The next stop is...Yarm.
This is a tiny little town near the horrible black hole of Middlesbrough. We found Middlesbrough on a map and decided it would be a good place to camp on our way to Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay. We showed up at the station and found ourselves in a pretty big city...not great for camping. The tourist information office was closed, but we saw a police station, so Andrew thought we should ask there. We walked in and saw lots of other people, presumably not there to ask for directions. We asked at the desk, and a cop pulled us aside and said, incredulously, "Camping in Middlesbrough? Oh you don't want to do that. Anywhere but Middlesbrough." Oh. So he sent us back to Yarm, about 30 minutes away. There, we found no camping. Several people said we could camp for free by the river, and we went down there, but it was all sheep and mud and bugs, and I just couldn't do it. We ended up wandering the streets looking for something, anything...and finally had to fork over £70 for a hotel. It would have been more adventurous to sleep in the field, but sometimes safety has to come first.

Flood warning
In Stratford, there was rain. More rain than I've ever seen, and I'm from Florida. One night we were heading back to the tent but found our way blocked by a puddle. No, a lake. There was no way around, and it was the only way we knew to walk back. Andrew found a hole in the fence, so we snuck through and tried to get across the field to the road, but the field was full of --I'm not kidding -- thistles and stinging nettles. An entire field of them. After wandering, getting stung, and fearing cholera or worse from the flood water, we fled the scene and had a fabulous, budget-busting Indian dinner instead. Mmm...my kind of adventure.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Getting to know the English

Since I last updated, we've been busy. We took a day trip up to Amberley, a pretty little village near the Cotswolds that Andrew had visited before with his family. It was a beautiful day, and we had a nice long walk and a picnic. Once we got to the village and had a look around, we stopped at the local inn for a pint and ended up watching the opening of Royal Ascot with some locals. It was hilarious seeing how they reacted not only to the races but also to the fashions. Ascot is known for its fashion forwardness and its crazy hats; all the ladies try to outdo each other. It looked like a convention of peacocks! We finished our day with some local ice cream and a train trip back to Bath with some extraordinarily rude fellow passengers. Most of the British people we've met have been lovely, but then you get these people on trains and buses who make it very obvious that they don't care about anyone around them. I don't understand it.

The next day, we went in to London for Andrew's big day, which went very, very well. While he was at Barclays, I went up to Hampstead and looked at the cute shops and sat by a duck pond. It was so quiet and relaxing, even though I was still in London. We decided to stay in Bath one more day so we could go to Stourhead Landscape Garden, but it turned out to be inaccessible by public transportation, so we had to stay in Bath proper. After five nights, we felt like real locals.

We left Bath to travel to Cornwall, which was another train adventure. One of the trains was late and missed a key connection, so they put about a hundred of us on double decker buses up to Newquay. Apparently Newquay is a huge destination for bachelor parties -- they call them stag nights here -- and I ended up the only girl on the whole bus, and Andrew and I were the only sober ones. It was a horrendous experience, and we considered leaving Newquay, but I'm glad we didn't, because as soon as we got there, set up our tent, and got down to the beach, everything was glorious. The rain cleared away and we explored the rocks and caves and tidal pools on the beach. We also got to watch the Red Arrows -- the Blue Angels equivalent of the Royal Air Force -- practicing. They were flying so low over our heads we could almost see the pilots!

Our second day in Cornwall we spent walking along the coast. Every few minutes we would round another bend and get a new view of cliffs, arches, and waves crashing against huge rocks. It was breathtaking. Our last day in Cornwall was a lot of fun, too. We went to Lanhydrock House, a Victorian estate with over 50 rooms and beautiful gardens. I felt like I was going to walk into Narnia at any moment; it was just like the house in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There was even a room with nothing in it but a wardrobe, and I found out there were a bunch of evacuated children who lived there during World War II. Perfect!

But the highlight of Cornwall was that night when we splurged on dinner at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver's restaurant. It was the best meal of my life. I'll post the menu later on. We did a six-course tasting menu, and every bite of it was absolutely delicious. The restaurant overlooks a bay, and we got to watch the surfers and the sunset. Absolute bliss.

Now we're in London, after a full day of traveling and dealing with the muddy riffraff from the Glastonbury Festival on the trains. We've checked in to our hotel, and we're off to see the sights!

This is our last week in London; on Saturday we meet up with Bryan and Christina on the continent. More soon. Cheers!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rains, reins, and reigns

So England is a rainy place; everyone knows that. Apparently they're having a particularly rainy summer here, though. Lucky us. At least our tent has so far maintained its waterproofness.

Since I last posted, we explored Grasmere and Ambleside in the Lake District. It was neat to see Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth lived and wrote his best poetry, but it was even better to walk along the paths and see the same views that inspired the poems. It is a beautiful part of the country, even in a downpour. We left the Lake District and took a train to a tiny town in the West Midlands that was the closest we could get via public transportation to a National Trust site I wanted to see. We had a grueling three-mile walk each way with our fully laden backpacks, but Little Moreton Hall was totally worth it. It is a beautiful half-timbered Tudor house (the black and white stripy looking kind). The builders were a bit over ambitious and built parts of it too tall and too heavy, so the house has settled over time, leaving walls that bow, windows that lean crookedly, and floors that roll like an angry sea. The only part of the estate that is still straight is the knot garden, which has lovely sculpted hedges in intricate knot patterns. We also had a nice afternoon tea at the house. All the National Trust properties have cafes or restaurants that serve local foods. In fact, lots of restaurants around here boast fairtrade, organic, local, and free-range foods. It's very exciting for us.

After leaving Little Moreton Hall, we made our way to Stratford-upon-Avon, which we weren't planning to visit, but I'm glad we did. We didn't go to any of the Shakespeare museums because they were really expensive and kind of cheesy looking, but it was fun to stroll down the same streets he had known. We stayed at one of our more unusual campsites, at a racecourse. Most of the sites have been traditional campsites, but we've also stayed on farms, at a church retreat, and at an old mill. Stratford is on the Avon River, which, we noticed upon our arrival, was very high. During our visit, they got a lot more rain, and the whole river flooded. We have photos of signs and benches that should be in the middle of fields that are under feet of water. The rain messed up our sightseeing plans, as did the bus system and the opening times of certain properties, but we still had a nice time. We spent one whole day just wandering around Bath searching for a second hand suit for Andrew (he has an interview in London). Then we spent our last day there at Charlecote Park, an Elizabethan estate with a stunning house and deer park. We had a traditional English Sunday lunch there with roast pork and veg and pudding...yummy.

Now we are in Bath, and this morning we toured the Roman Baths. We were amazed at the Roman engineering and artwork. I can't wait to see the ruins at Pompeii. This afternoon we went to the Assembly Rooms and I got to see where lots of Jane Austen scenes were meant to have taken place. Now we're wandering around town. Tomorrow we're going to Amberley, we hope. We're praying for good weather but not letting the rain dampen our spirits!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Photos

Here are all the photos I've taken so far. They start in Haworth, go through York and Fountains Abbey, move on to Hadrian's Wall, and end up with Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and Dunrobin Castle. Enjoy!
http://picasaweb.google.com/amarder/Europe