Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bits and pieces

I failed to mention in my last post one of the highlights of our London summer, which was the opportunity to hang out with Alex while she was doing her VT study abroad program here in May and June. We saw Alex several times and had a great time showing her some of our favorite London places. She came out to Enfield with us to do some cooking after a trip to Borough Market, and we met her in town a few times, too. My favorite time with Alex, though, was at Fortnum and Mason. She met me there after work, and I enjoyed a slice of Black Forest cake and a cup of tea and watched as she demolished the biggest ice cream sundae I've ever seen. Way to go! Afterwards, we walked around Green Park and talked about books and boys and Mr. Darcy. Come back, Alex! I miss you!

The final excitement of the London summer, before we went home for the Ricke family vacation, was Andrew's birthday. I think I was almost as excited about it as he was, and we both had a great time. Since he is a banker and a London gentleman, I wanted to give him a suitable birthday celebration, so we went to Mayfair for some old school, old boys fun. I had to work that day, but Andrew took the day off and met me during my (extra-long) lunch break. We went to Bentley's Oyster Bar for lunch. We had seen the chef, Richard Corrigan, on one of Jamie Oliver's TV shows and liked his food philosophy, so we wanted to try one of his restaurants, and it did not disappoint. When we showed up for our reservations, the staff greeted us by name, and as we were ushered through the restaurant, everyone said hello and wished Andrew a happy birthday. We sat down at our table in a beautiful room with antique silver everywhere and walls covered in William Morris fabric. As soon as one server handed us our menus, another handed us glasses of champagne on the house. As the name suggests, the restaurant specializes in seafood. Andrew started with some squid stuffed with chorizo and feta, and I had a lovely, ice cold gazpacho with little toasts and rich, garlicky aioli. Then I had grilled sea bass with baby leeks and romesco sauce, and Andrew had a gorgeous fish pie with huge scallops, prawns, and chunks of salmon. We barely had room for dessert, but we shared a coconut-lime rice pudding, which topped everything off quite nicely. After lunch, we walked over to Jermyn Street, which has long been the place for gentlemen to buy shirts, and we looked at some for Andrew because he was getting ready to start his new job at Barclays HQ. After that, I sent him off to the Tate Modern to look at a photography exhibit while I finished work. Later, we met the Kiwis for some tacos and margaritas in Notting Hill. The food was delicious, but the tacos were the size of saucers. And I mean little espresso-cup saucers. They were so tiny! But we had a great time, and we knew we would soon get some real Mexican food at home.

The only other thing to report from the summer was our next flat-finding expedition, which was as easy as the first flat finding was difficult. We knew we needed to move closer in so Andrew could get to work at Canary Wharf more easily. We dithered for a while about where to look, then Andrew had the brilliant idea to figure out our ideal location and work down from there. So one Sunday we went to Marylebone High Street to talk to some estate agents. We discovered that the estate agents' offices close early on Saturdays (makes sense to me...) but we found a guy who was just closing up shop and who was willing to have a chat with us. He made us feel like we could potentially find a small place in Marylebone at the very upper edge of our budget, but we didn't get our hopes up too high. He showed us a basement flat that we could afford, but it was teeny-tiny, even smaller than our flat in Enfield. We gave him our information and didn't expect to hear anything, but I got a call from him the next week about a flat, went to see it the next day, and put down our names right away. We sent in our deposit but had to wait until early October to move. That was the only drawback, though. I'll write more about the flat and post some pictures soon. And on my next post, our family vacation in the Wild West!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The summer roundup, part two

After the Marders left, our next guests were Maura and Gilbert Borrego from Blacksburg. They were going to a wedding in Greece and stopped for a few days in London on the way. They stayed with us in Enfield for a few nights, and we showed them around the city a little bit. We all went over to the Kiwis' house for a Fourth of July party with hamburgers and cole slaw and potato salad and cherry pie...yum! We took them to our favorite Indian restaurant and on our favorite along-the-river walk. We even had the pleasure of running into them by accident outside the National Portrait Gallery on a rainy Sunday afternoon! It was nice to see old friends in a new place and nice to have two more people to share our city with.

After a couple weeks in Milan and Paris, Monica came back to London to continue her study abroad programme in Holborn, and we got to see her several times over the summer. She came out to Enfield to have dinner and sleep over a few times, and we got to hang out with her and her roommate Christina a few times, too. We all went out for pizza and saw the new Batman movie to get a little American goodness, and we all went out for fancy ice cream sundaes at Fortnum and Mason to get a little British goodness. It was great to hear about all the fun places they discovered, and I can't wait to try the cupcake bakery in Notting Hill that they raved about. We saw it the other day but the queue was really long so we skipped it. I saw the cupcakes through the window, though...very tempting.

Near the end of July, we rented a car and drove up to Cambridgeshire for the weekend. We spent two nights camping on an organic farm with a beautiful lodge that looked like it was straight out of Rivendell. The lodge also contained a restaurant serving almost entirely local produce, and we had a glorious meal there the second night. The first night, we missed the restaurant's closing by about 15 minutes and ended up having snacks from the car for dinner, as we were in the middle of nowhere and couldn't get to any food. The adversity felt somewhat familiar from our last camping trip. 

But the next day dawned and we made a fresh start. We headed out on the open roads (that part of England is very flat) to Wicken Fen, where we learned about the fenlands. Anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia would recognize this landscape from the Silver Chair. The fens are marshwiggle territory. The land is very soft and wet, and it is laced with narrow canals, which were dug hundreds of years ago to drain the marshes for agricultural production. In Narnia, the marshwiggles are tall, spindly creatures that gather reeds and catch eels for a living. The inhabitants of the real fens historically made their living the same way. At the museum, we even talked to a man (tall, thin, brown, and scruffy, with a straw hat and a pipe) who still catches eels and who looked exactly like Puddleglum! (Does anyone know what I'm talking about? I was so excited, and I haven't found anyone yet to share my excitement.) He showed us his eel traps and his special boat with a huge gun on the front for shooting ducks en masse. He was, shall we say, a character. He told us a lot about the history of the place, too. We didn't spy any of the elusive eels, because they were all hiding in the mud and the reeds, out of sight, but apparently there are just millions of them in the canals. The local people used to pay their taxes in eels, and the nearby cathedral city is even called Ely (eel-y). We didn't see any eels, but we did see all manner of other creatures. We went on a short boat tour down the canal, and we saw dragonflies and little fish and lots of birds, including, according to our guide, a Harrier Hawk, which is apparently quite rare. After our boat trip, we wandered along the paths through the reeds and climbed a tower where we could sit and look out over the vast expanse of nothingness. It was beautiful in a desolate sort of way. It started to drizzle a bit, as it does, so we stopped in the cafe for a cup of tea, as we do. 

Then we drove up to Ely to see the gorgeous cathedral and the charming riverside. Now I have seen a few cathedrals in my day, but this one was really something. The main part of the cathedral - the nave? the apse? I can't remember - was richly decorated, and the ceiling above the altar, well over a hundred feet up, was painted with a choir of angels. The pillars running down both sides of the aisle had typical English carvings on them, with alternating patterns of sawteeth, stripes, curving lines and diamond shapes. The side chapels were poignant, as usual, with their lists of veterans from the wars and their battered battle flags from the local regiments. But the really remarkable part of the cathedral was the Lady Chapel. English cathedrals usually had chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and these chapels were usually targeted by Henry VIII when he had the cathedrals purged of their Catholic imagery during the Reformation. This Lady Chapel bore clearly the marks of Henry's desecration. You could see every injury perpetrated by the soldiers. Every carving (and there were hundreds of them) had its face bashed in. Only a few faint patches remained of what were once brightly colored walls. Most stunningly, all the stained glass had been stripped away and replaced with plain, unadorned, clear glass panels. With the afternoon light streaming in, it was a place that wore its sorrow and its calm resignation like a gentle cloak. It was incredibly peaceful, in spite of the violence that had been done to it. Henry may have damaged it, but he didn't take away its soul.

Feeling refreshed in mind and spirit, we returned to the campsite for a nap before dinner. And what a dinner it was. Everything, from the flour for the bread to the vegetables to the pork in my dinner and the wood pigeon in Andrew's, was sourced locally, most of it from that farm. And everything was delicious. It was quite a departure from our usual camping dinner of bread and cheese! Andrew got a kick out of his dinner, too. Those pesky wood pigeons were everywhere last summer, and they were loud, loud, loud, so to learn that they are also delicious felt like payback.

The next morning we packed up early and set out to Northamptonshire, about an hour away, for the highlight of the weekend: the Festival of History. It was amazing. There were thousands of people there in a massive field dotted with tents, arenas and exhibits. The festival was populated by history re-enactment groups with costumes, weapons, and props from every era of English history. There were Druids, Romans, knights in real armor, Elizabethan jesters, cavaliers and roundheads, redcoats, Victorian ladies, World War I Tommies, and even some "American" GIs. We had a great time wandering around, looking at all the displays, but the best part was seeing the people from different historical periods interacting with each other. Roman soldiers cheered on jousters, and World War II paratroopers walked through the encampment of a Renaissance papal envoy. It was great fun. The shows were impressive, too. We enjoyed the jousting, archery, chariot racing, and trench re-enactments, although the trench gunfire was a little too real for me. The soldiers laughed at me. But I suppose one has to keep up one's spirits on the front line. The best show, though, was the D-Day re-enactment. They had real Spitfires and Messerschmidts, and about ten people parachuted down onto a field in front of the crowd to prepare for battle against the Germans. There were explosions aplenty, and one paratrooper had to use his reserve parachute when his first one failed, so it was all quite exciting. I'll try to post Andrew's photos from the event. When it was all over, we found the car (after about 30 minutes of searching) and drove back to London. Well, Andrew drove. I just navigated. What a good husband he is, to drive me all over the countryside. Lesson learned though: just pay the extra 20 quid for an automatic!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What we’ve been up to

Hi again! It’s been a long, busy summer full of sunshine and warm weather…oh wait. No, it rained all summer again. But we still had a great time, and I have much to write about.

When I last left off the regular-ish blog posting, I had just gotten a promotion and Robert and Diane Eaton had just visited us in Enfield. See Andrew’s post, below, for a description of our trip to Ireland with that dynamic duo. So, to catch everyone up on what we’ve been doing, here is a list of the summer’s highlights.

My parents (of both the Ricke and the Marder variety) gave me ballet tickets and a dinner at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen, for my birthday. We went to the ballet in May, and we went to Fifteen in June. It was a wonderful experience. We went to the Fifteen in Cornwall last summer, and the one in London was equally delicious. There are four Fifteen restaurants, in London, Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne. Each one is run by young chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds who learn to cook and then work in the kitchens. It’s a charity I can really get behind. And the food was amazing. In Cornwall we had the nine-course tasting menu, but this time we ate in the trattoria part of the restaurant with an a la carte menu.

The room we were in was familiar to us from seeing it on some of Jamie’s TV shows, and it added to the excitement of the evening. Everything was decorated with dark wood in curvy, modern shapes, and the bar at the front of the restaurant was groaning under the weight of dozens of plates of antipasti, breads, desserts, and wine bottles. Everything spoke of abundance and easy comfort. We started with some seasonal cocktails: a strawberry rum punch for me and something citrusy for Andrew. We shared a plate of the mouthwatering antipasti we saw when we came in. There were marinated carrots, artichokes, tomatoes, fennel, olives, peppers, eggplant, salami, and fresh mozzarella. And that was all just one portion! We both had risotto next (mine with Sicilian lemon and chili pan grattato; Andrew's with about a billion different kinds of seafood and saffron). For main courses, I had roasted cod with lentils and braised fennel and Andrew had roasted chicken with olives and sundried tomatoes. Dessert was strawberry prosecco cheesecake for the gentleman and an apricot-raspberry tart for me, and we each had a glass of limoncello to finish. Wow, writing about it now from some previous notes brings it all back. I think Andrew and I are both really good cooks, but I’m not sure we’ll ever make anything that tastes quite that good. We are trying, though!

The next event on the summer’s social calendar was a visit from Andrew’s family. They were here for about two weeks, and we had a great time relaxing and showing them around. They arrived in Enfield and spent a couple days seeing the local sights, then Walter, Linna, Monica and I took the train out to Gloucester, picked up a rental car, and drove to Amberley, the tiny village in the Cotswolds where the Marders have stayed a few times and where Andrew and I spent a lovely day last summer. I was put in charge of navigation in the passenger seat, while Monica stayed in the back to keep Linna calm as Walter tackled the narrow country lanes. We made it in one piece, and in good spirits, to the cottage the Marders had rented for the week. It was just like a hobbit hole with low ceilings and exposed beams, built into the hill side with flowers bursting forth from every spare inch of ground and even in the crevices between the stones outside. That evening we picked up Andrew, who had to take a later train after work. The next day we went to the Stroud Famers’ Market, where we stocked up on local veg and snacks (including scrumptious homemade doughnuts), tasted some English wine and cheese, and watched adorable children in big wellies dancing to a live band playing folk music on old-fashioned instruments like hurdy-gurdies and fiddles. It was picturesque and refreshing and real (or what I like to think of as real, at least, which is probably more surreal than anything else). I was very happy.

From Stroud we drove up to Hidcote Manor Garden, near Stratford-on-Avon. Andrew and I went there last summer, riding a bus, then walking two miles up hill only to find that it was closed that day. We felt victorious when we returned, in the car, and got to explore the garden behind those tall brick walls. I love English gardens because of their exuberant lushness and the quiet fastidiousness that goes into their gentle chaos. I also like them because, although you can always tell that they are English, they never look exactly alike. This garden was set up differently from any other garden I’ve ever seen. It was many gardens in one, and each individual garden was in its own room, surrounded by hedges or trellises or beds of tall flowers. Each mini-garden had its own theme. There was a white garden, a red garden, an Alpine garden, a “wilderness,” even a meadow complete with a herd of wooly sheep. The weather was, I think, perfect. It was gray and wet and chilly, but that meant that the flowers were all covered with dew and when the sun did shine through, it illuminated isolated features that we would have missed on a sunny day. My favorite flowers were the delphinia, peonies, and fuchsia. I’ll post some pictures soon.

After our interlude in the garden, we drove back to the cottage through some of the gorgeous little villages for which the Cotswolds area is famous. There are entire towns that are all built of the same honey-colored stone, with thatched roofs on the houses and flowers in hanging baskets lining the main streets. Like the farmers’ market, it was all just a little bit better than anything strictly real, but it wasn’t like Disney World, either. People live in the villages, and they have chosen to keep their towns looking beautiful and quiet and historical. And thank goodness. I think they’ve managed to preserve something of the true British character, even if that character can be hard to find in modern day life.

That night, Andrew and I made dinner with our haul from the farmers’ market. We had roast pork with broad beans, carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms. The piece of pork we got was from a local farm, and it still had a few dark piggy hairs on it; it was just that fresh. All the food was delicious.

Later that evening, Andrew, Monica, and I walked up to the village pub and had a few drinks. Monica was excited to be in England but was eager to start her study abroad program in Milan. She leant a sympathetic ear to our gripes about London and made us feel better about our situation. Sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes to see for yourself how good your life is. We all had a great time and were giddy as we ran down the hill through the town in the pouring rain to get home to our warm beds.

The next day, we all went to Woodchester Mansion, which is a country house that a 19th-century gentleman started building in the 1850s. By the 1870s, when he died, the house was still nowhere near finished and his children didn’t carry on his work. Today, you can take a tour of the building site. Only one room is finished, and the rest of the house is like a skeleton. There are walls, windows, and staircases, but some parts of the house don’t have any ceilings, and there are areas where you step into a room and look up to see the fireplaces and windows of what would have been the rooms above. There are even ladders and scaffolding set up still. Everything is as it was left when the construction stopped. Because of the safety risks of the place, you can only see it on a guided tour, on which you learn more than you ever wanted to know about Victorian-era stonework construction techniques and the personal history of the gentleman owner, who “went over to Rome” and was shunned in his later life for being a dirty Catholic. It is a sad place, burdened by its unfulfilled potential. It would have been beautiful if it had been finished. It does have a sort of neo-Gothic splendor, though, and apparently it is popular at Halloween, when groups come from miles around for ghost tours and bat watching. I for one missed neither the ghosts nor the bats.

Andrew had to take the train back to London that night, but I stayed on for one more day with the Marders. We spent the next day driving around the countryside some more and eventually made our way to Avebury, which is another pretty village surrounded by a huge stone ring that is even older than Stonehenge. The stones are scattered all around the buildings, and sheep graze right up to the feet of them. We walked around the stones and paused to watch a guy in a tie-dye shirt banging solemnly on some bongo drums. Priceless.

The Marders stayed in Amberley for a few more days before returning to London. We took them out to our local Indian restaurant and led them on our favorite London walk from Borough Market, past St. Paul’s, along the Thames, through Whitehall to Victoria. The next day we went to Regents Park and Marylebone, to show them where we wanted to find a new flat. By that point, Andrew knew he was going to get to work at Canary Wharf in Barclays’ headquarters, so we were starting to think about where to move. Monica left for Milan the next day, and we had one more night with Andrew’s parents before they flew back to the states. The last night was a lot of fun because we got to just hang out with Walter and Linna like we would have with a couple of old friends. What fun to be an adult! And what fun to show people around London!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

GUEST POST: Ireland through Andrew's eyes

The British mind is a complex thing. In it, fries become chips and chips become crisps excepting when they are accompanying a Mexican meal in which case they are still chips. Thus it came to be that we found ourselves in Ireland, renting a car powered by petrol to drive across their tiny island on the side of the road usually reserved for oncoming traffic.

Robert, who shall remain nameless, had decided that the renting of a car would lead to untold pleasures by allowing us to explore the beautiful, rustic but mainly un-get-to-able-by-train Irish countryside. Looking back (many months now; sorry it’s taken so long) he was right. The Irish country is lovely as are its people, the Irish. We picked up our mutant of a car in Dublin on our second day. Stretched out before us were the hills of Ireland, ripe for the driving. All that stood in our way was my gross incompetence.

Manual transmissions are wonderful things for people who are in to that sort of thing. Sadists, mainly. Robert, for a time. I on the other hand have never been that sort of person. My experience with three on the tree spans all of one afternoon  in Tallahassee with my father driving approximately five miles round trip. Hold on one, second, google maps will be consulted… 300 miles round trip. A task, indeed.

The little stick thing is on the wrong side, my body is on the wrong side and I keep looking left as I pull out into traffic. Oh and I can’t get from 0mph to not 0mph without a considerable amount of stalling and swearing. The Eaton children were excited, this much I can assure you.

As it is now months later, you have rightly guessed that I did not, in fact, drive us into a ditch, killing us all in a foreign land. That was a plus. With the occasional frustration set aside, we had an absolutely wonderful time. We drove through some beautiful little town full of beautiful little people (many of which we successfully avoided striking down with our automobile) out to the Cliffs of Moher. Maybe Alexandria can make that sentence go to a site about the actual Cliffs. If not, trust me; they’re lovely.

Along the way we stopped at a very old little pub for some nice food, drove through pouring rain, pulled off to get coffee at a carbon-copy of a New Jersey outlet mall and played four incredible games of 20 Questions. Roof tile. Try that one on for size. Answer: bigger than a bread box.

We landed early on Thursday after a little bit of trouble on the London end. Things you shouldn’t have in your backpack as you go through security and they’ve told you to take out your electronic devices: calculator, another calculator (dork), bottle of Diet Coke, bottle of water, iPod, sunscreen, digital camera, llama. Things found in Robert’s backpack whilst attempting to board a plan in London: see previous list.

Upon landing  we checked in and got to exploring the city of Dublin, paying close attention to all things James Joycean and all things hops-including. While medium and large Eaton both enjoyed our Guinness tour for the inclusion of free beverages, we got much more out of the most stunning view of the city one could imagine. In fairness, they liked that bit a lot too but since we think beer tastes overly similar to stale bread in liquid form, the view was really all we had going for us. Either way, worth the price of entry.

We also went to Temple Bar for a few minutes. There was a Hard Rock. We left. The Eatons were in a fish and chips kind of mood so we hustled around the city for a while and finally happened upon the best fish and chips in the city. Or at the very least, the best fish and chips we ate while we were in the city. All in all a relaxing, fermented day.

The day after the drive (see how we skipped right over that one? You can go back and read up if you’d like and then come back to find out about day three; I promise I don’t mind) we hopped on the local train and took it around the bay to the town where Joyce lived in his tower for a while. This is the setting for the beginning of Ulysses and one of our highlights from the trip. The little museum was full of odd Joyce bits and bobs. Visitors are treated to views of the ocean from the top of the tower and views of history inside. The number of handwritten letters and first editions was almost upsetting.

We met up with the Eatons (Robert and Diane since only the Robert bit could be inferred from the above ranting) and went off in search of a spot of lunch. We found and ate said lunch and then did a bit of wandering. Still pretty. That night (Saturday) we all walked down to a restaurant on the water near our hotel. It was in a boat. If I were to come here and tell you the floor was level, I would be a liar. The food was on the level though and we once again toasted our successful survival of foreign drivers and homegrown incompetence.

Our final day we went to an Irish cultural museum in the morning. There was a magnificent Viking ship in the courtyard. Apparently this wooden beast had sailed from some Scandinavian country all the way to Ireland for the sole purpose of sitting in a little stone courtyard. Very nice.  Lunch was taken at the museum café. Diane discovered the nature of black pudding after consuming more than half of her portion. That nature is blood, just so we’re all on the same page.

Finally, we went to see the Book of Kells. It was incredibly impressive. Each day (week? Month? Fortnight?) the page is changed so that frequent visitors can see different parts of the book. Also I bet they use the whole page turning thing to initiate new librarians or historians. “So as you can see we’re on page… oh god. Oh god!” “What!? What!?” “Someone’s changed the page! You can’t touch this! It’s been on that same page since we found it!” “Oh no; they told me I could! I..I didn’t know! I swear!” “Just kidding, Tommy O’Shea. We turn the page each furlong.” “…You’re a real jackass Michael.”

Anyways, nice book, good display, history all around us. Alexandria and I took off after that. We said our tearful goodbyes and trudged back to the Dublin airport, flew the 45 minutes back to London and called it a day. It is a trip I highly recommend. Especially if you can take a couple of Eatons with you.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Eatons invade Enfield

In mid-May, Robert and Diane Eaton, a formidable sibling duo, came to stay with us for a week and a half. They brought with them the most glorious weather, but as soon as they left it was back to gray skies, though now that it's actually summer we're having some sunshine again. Anyways, the nice weather started the day the Eatons left the US, and we spent that day with the Kiwis, having a picnic on Hampstead Heath, a huge, wild park on the highest point in London. From the top of the hill, we could see the whole city laid out at our feet. We brought blankets, ham and cheese and crackers, veggies, and strawberry shortcake, and the Kiwis brought duck and wild rice salad (I must get the recipe for that one) and Pimm's lemonade. Are you familiar with Pimm's? It's a flavored gin liqueur, although I couldn't really say what the flavor is. It's red flavor. You mix it with fizzy lemonade, mint, citrus, and cucumbers and serve it over as much ice as you can gather in this mostly ice-free land. It is at its best consumed on a picnic blanket. Do try it. We had a lovely time dining and Pimm's-ing and wandering around the "village" of Hampstead with the Kiwis. In fact, we had such a nice time, we decided to do much the same thing the next day with the Eatons.

They arrived on a Sunday morning, and we picked them up and brought them back to Enfield for another picnic in another park with another round of Pimm's lemonade (rather more of it this time). We had hummus and meats and cheeses and bread and olives and other lovely picnicky bits, and Diane and I lounged attractively on the picnic blanket while the menfolk played frisbee. Aaaahhhh.....

Over the course of the week, Andrew and I had to work but we met up with the Eatons for lunches, pints, and dinners. We had raucous and rock-ous evenings filled with card games and Guitar Hero (Robert brought a second guitar as a housewarming gift...good man!). One night we did our favorite Thames walk and went to our favorite tapas restaurant at Borough Market; another night we went to our local Indian; other nights we did pasta or more picnicky bits. Every meal, as I'm sure you can imagine, was accompanied by various delicious beverages. We have to show them the local specialities, don't you know.

Later in the week we all Easyjetted off to Dublin for a few days. Andrew is going to write about that, and I'll post it in a few days, hopefully. Once we got back, we had just one more night with Robert and Diane before they had to leave, and we took full advantage. We all went out to dinner at the Wolseley, where I had tea with Mommy back in September. We all dressed for the occasion and, I must say, we were all on fine form. It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences I've ever had. Some might accuse me of habitual overexaggeration when it comes to food, but I can't see any harm in enjoying life that much, can you?

The Wolseley is a grandiose space filled with leather chairs, shining silver, gilt mirrors and Chinese lacquered cabinetry. The food and service match the atmosphere. The staff were all very professional and attentive, but I think they had a good time with us, too, because I imagine we weren't like the typical clientele, and we were all pretty obviously enjoying ourselves. We had drinks to start with: gin martinis for the impressive Miss Eaton and for Andrew, a kir (white wine with cassis - black currant liqueur) for me. [Robert - what did you have?] I ordered some dressed Dorset crab for the table. It was separated into delicate, sweet white meat and creamy, rich brown meat, and it was the perfect amount; just a taster for everyone. I can't remember everything that everyone had for dinner, but there was a duck entree, a London-special salt beef sandwich, and a gorgeous steak. I had Wiener schnitzel, a first for me. It was delicious! I never really understood the appeal before, but it was amazingly tender and crisp on the edges and sweet and savory inside. We each had a glass of wine to match, and I felt very special when my glass of riesling (perfect with the schnitzel) came in a special little cut-glass goblet with a green bauble on the stem. It was beautiful, and the wine was lovely as well. We all enjoyed our meals and the comfortable setting and the heavy linens and real silver, and we giggled at the specialized cutlery and the funny little old-world flourishes of the waiters. It was all so different from going to a normal restaurant, either here or at home. We felt like movie stars. Dessert was the perfect finishing touch. Tiny glasses of dessert wine and rich pastries (I had linzertorte with dark chocolate and apricots) sent us off into the night as happy as could be. London is wonderful, but London in the company of people like Robert and Diane is unbeatable.

Of course, it wasn't too long until we received our next guests, but that is for another post. Soon. I promise.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A trip to the ballet

I have a lot to write about! My last real post was about our trip to Oxford, but that was almost two months ago at this point. I'll start from there, though, and work my way forward. The first weekend in May was a bank holiday, as was the last weekend. On the first bank holiday, we had planned to go camping but the weather didn't cooperate. I realize the rain didn't keep us from camping last summer, but now that we can afford to be picky, we don't really want to camp in the cold and wet! So we stayed at home instead and relaxed. We've been doing that a lot lately. Work is so stressful that sometimes all we can manage to do on the weekends is a little lazy cooking and a few board games. So that's what we did on the bank holiday weekend, but on the Monday evening we got to enjoy one of my birthday presents from my parentses (both the genetic and the marital varieties). We went to see Sleeping Beauty performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and it was fabulous. The evening started out as a rather dodgy affair, as the charming French bistro where we made reservations turned out to be a not-very-classy tourist trap, as so many things are in Covent Garden. But then, we are worldly travelers used to the very finest in food and drink, so maybe we were just being snobby expecting the salad to be dressed and the steak to be chewable. We skipped dessert. Don't go to Chez Gerard.

But then we left the restaurant and walked over to the opera house, a mere 100 yards or so, which was good because I was breaking in my new high heels, and they didn't like the cobblestones! The opera house is a beautiful venue. You enter through a vast glassed-in atrium with a champagne bar downstairs. We went upstairs to find our seats, then spent some time watching the people in the atrium below. We were both a little disappointed that more people weren't dressed up, but we looked posh enough for the lot of them. After a quick glass of wine we headed to our seats for the performance. The inside of the opera house is over-the-top gorgeous, with red velvet and gilded trimmings everywhere. Our seats were up pretty high but near the center of the auditorium, and we were in the front row of our section,
so we had a really good view not only of the stage but also of the audience below us. It was a packed house, and no wonder; it was a lovely production. The costumes and choreography were vintage, from a Royal Ballet performance in the 1950s. The orchestra played beautifully. I especially liked the trilling flutes. And, of course, the dancers were amazing, especially the ones doing the character pas de deux: the bluebirds, little red riding hood and the wolf, the princes and princesses, and the fairy godmothers. Andrew and I had a good time trying to piece together the story; apparently the Disney version is a bit different from the Tchaikovsky version.

I've been to two ballets with Andrew now, and I really enjoy it because I get to explain things to him, from intricate steps to stylistic subtleties to historical context, but it's also fun to hear the things he notices. He's an insightful audience member. I really like attending ballets, too, because I don't just see and hear the dancing; I can feel it in my muscles, imagining the movements of the dancers and translating the graceful, fluid motions into individual, named steps. It's a little like being able to pick out individual words from a conversation in a foreign language. It was inspiring, and I've felt the difference in my ballet classes ever since.

On that note, I've really been enjoying my weekly ballet classes, and I finally feel like I'm making some progress again, instead of just trying to catch up after the long period of not dancing while we were traveling, moving, and settling in. I love my teacher, and she is leaving soon, but I also love the teacher who is replacing her. There are several other girls in the class who are about my age and skill level, and I have a great time rolling my eyes and laughing with them and getting a good workout at the same time. Plus, every Wednesday when I emerge from the studio and walk to Farringdon Station I see the dome of St. Paul's rising up from the surrounding rooftops in the calm moonlight, and I know I'm in London and I wouldn't really wish to be anywhere else.

Next time on There and Back Again, an invasion by the Eatons!

Friday, May 23, 2008

GUEST POST: A Southern Gentleman and his Lady’s trip to the Big City

Welcome to what I hope will be a recurring special feature of this blog: the guest post. My parents went on a fabulous trip to New York earlier this month as a reward for Daddy being "whoa and spiffy" at his job (for those of you who don't know, he works for IBM, and he was recently awarded a patent!). He and Mommy wrote about their trip, as an "homage" to my blog, they said. I present it, in full, to you here:

The alarm clock rang at 4:30 Thursday morning, so that we could make a 6am departure from Tallahassee through Atlanta to New York LaGuardia. While we enjoy Linna and Walter’s company, I’m glad they didn’t join us, or we would have camped out at the Tallahassee airport and still awoken at 4:30 to make the 6am departure. We had packed the car the night before and dropped off Harry at the Puppy-Plaza hotel the day before where he dined daily on a specially prepared mélange of free-range turkey and rice infused with egg protein. Our flight through Atlanta was uneventful as we munched on our 7-grain cherry bit infused Kashi granola bars with our free tea (Lipton) and Delta diet cokes “Can I have the whole can, please?“

Upon arriving in New York, we gathered up our eclectic collection of bags and arranged for ground travel. Our taxi driver spoke fluent English, and smelled of curry, as he transported us to the Hilton hotel via a circuitous route to avoid “traffic” in Manhattan. We enjoyed the “no honking, $350 fine.” signs that were posted and ignored throughout the city. On our previous cruise to Alaska, we learned that unpacking a suitcase for an extended stay makes one feel more homey and civilized, so we unpacked before we set out to sample some of the local fare for our lunchtime victuals. The doorman insisted that we go to Carnegie Deli, aptly named for its close proximity to the famous music hall. It was sublime. The walls were lined with signed 8X10 photos of people that were marginally recognizable. We were seated at a table for 8 that was already occupied by a tourist and a businessman with his tie tucked into his shirt. The NY style cheesecake was teasing me from the windowed carousel. An assortment of pickles was placed before us. Linda recently fell off the diet coke wagon, so we both ordered diet cokes. I ordered the Hot Pastrami on rye and Linda ordered the Shrimp Salad “Are the shrimp fried?” I laughed at the size of the roast beef sandwich delivered to our dining companion and quickly apologized for laughing at his food. My sandwich was 8 inches tall filled with salted, cured, steaming meat, delicious with a bit of mustard. Linda’s salad was overwhelming and at the end of the meal, I asked when she was going to start eating. We skipped the cheesecake, feeling confident that it would not be our last offer of the tempting rich local speciality.

We walked a few blocks to the American Folk Art Museum and saw a goodly collection of Practical Art made by untrained artists. A lovely collection of quilts, carvings, signs, pottery and paintings were arranged by the curator, mostly by history and region. We then saw the special exhibition of Dargerism. Apparently in 1972, Mr. Darger died, and found in his home was a large collection of original art based on 2 child characters called the Vivian Girls who just happened to have male genitalia. He created this whole fantasy world with large drawings that current artist have chosen to emulate through paintings, video and photography. Our eyebrows and heads didn’t return to their normal, upright, unquestioning position until we exited the exhibition. I use the term exhibition as in exhibitionist…

A stroll through Central Park seemed appropriate where we came upon an historic Carousel. We were not the oldest riders on the gaily-decorated stallions! We encountered small school groups and Nannies with their charges ensconced in designer perambulators throughout the park. Puppies of all breeds, colors and sizes were in abundance, much to our collective delight!

Learning from our aforementioned trip to Alaska, we took advantage of having our Hotel room right in the city and went back to the room for a bit of a rest with the serenade of honking taxi cabs reaching our 22nd floor room. We soon got used to the big city noises.

For dinner, we took the subway “downtown” to the Meat Packing District and had a short walk to the “Spotted Pig,” a Mario Batali gastro pub in Greenwich Village. It was early and we were seated right away upstairs in a cozy corner booth where we could watch the bartender and the chef who prepared the “bar food” appetizers. “Jack and Coke” for me and a Mojito for Linda. Apparently Galiano sours are not a common drink in the Big Apple. We discussed being adventurous and ordering the herring appetizer, but a 2nd server came by and made a face, so she talked us into the “Devils on Horseback” for out first course - Pear and Prune wrapped in bacon and boiled in green tea. Lovely. We didn’t eat them all, so when another table of three aspiring actors was seated next to us, we let them try our last one and they ordered a plate for themselves.

I had Ramps for my salad with a fried duck egg on top, followed by a ginger infused beef salad for supper. Linda had a roasted beet and warm goat cheese salad and a colorful arrangement of local and seasonal veg for the entrée. The food, atmosphere and company were phenomenal, thanks largely to the open-minded influence of our progeny who have exposed us to all matter of interesting eatables and activities.

The next morning, we had an official IBM meeting to attend complete with the pre-printed name tags. “Hello, my name is David” and a big sit-down breakfast with other IBM award winners and their spouses. The speaker was one of the award winners and his job was to spend the allotted 15 minutes to meet the IRS requirements for the business expense deductions. An excellent speech that included the information that most of the major museums in New York are free to IBMers and their guests since IBM is a corporate sponsors of all the museums. Nice.

We walked to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to get in for free and avoid the lines. We took a vow to be “open minded” before we went in. We enjoyed most of the exhibits. The mono-color slabs of paint were silly. The “women’s studies” based art was a little too much “in your face.” The large Monet was cool. My favorite was a large 3 story foyer with a 18” fan hung from a 30 foot cord that just randomly blew around the room. The other really neat area was on the 2nd floor as you went up the escalator. Linda noticed that everyone ahead of us on the escalator was wearing black and white clothes. They had some special yellow lights that turned everything monochrome. All the colors were washed out. What was really neat was that many people walking through didn’t have any reaction to it. While discussing the lighting effects with a family of fellow museum goers, one of their party took a digital photo of her family in the light. When she entered the hall where usual light was restored, the photograph appeared in color. Hmm!? The sculptures in the outdoor courtyard were especially rewarding. One of our favorites was done by a sculptor with the last name of Rickey.

Then we set out to catch the subway down to the bottom of the island to go on our helicopter tour. We arrived early and a gentleman in a red windbreaker told us to get in line next to the building with the others. 20 minutes later a gentleman in a blue windbreaker come out with an official looking clipboard and started looking for someone. We had made a reservation for a flight that was about to take off, so I asked him if we were in the right line and apparently we were not, so he told us to go through the metal detector and he escorted us inside to a desk where we were told we each had to pay an additional $60 in fees and taxes for heliport fees. We waited for another 20 minutes while all the windbreakers had their pizza lunch. There were about 40 people working there in various roles: security, ground crew, pilots ( VIP lounge ), business managers, FAA, Port Authority, etc… It turns out that 3 different companies fly out of the same place and they try to steal each other’s patrons by putting them in the wrong lines. After a lengthy delay the safety video was played which told us about the 4 different kinds of seat belts that can be found in their helicopters. We were also given a yellow life vest pack to fit around our waists. When we finally went outside, we didn’t have to duck under the rotors, but it was fun to do anyway. The flight was about 12 minutes over the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, but it was very foggy and we couldn’t see much. We can check it off our list and it was on IBM’s dime, so… We got the requisite $20 photo of us next to the helicopter.

We took the subway a short two stops “uptown” to the World Trade Center site. Lots of tourists being respectful and solemn looking at a construction site. Weird. We walked through an old Episcopal church, that George Washington attended, right across the street from the Twin Towers that acted as a rest area for the rescue workers after the September 11 attacks. It was nice. Cots were still set up and lots of memorabilia about 9/11 was on display. It’s still hard to believe the shock from when the mammoth buildings actually fell down, and the horrible loss of life that occurred, but proof that “the world goes on” was strongly evident in the present scene…

Our 2nd nap of the weekend ensued when we returned to the Hotel.

I got to wear my new blue sports coat with big buttons for our evening excursions. We took a human powered bike taxi with a warming lap blanket to Broadway. It’s amazing how safe you feel knowing that a bus, taxi, police car, etc. wouldn’t dare hit a person on a bike. All he had to do was hold up his hand and the traffic stopped!!! He also told us about a place to get a pre-play drink and another place to get a post-play drink. We walked across the street from the theatre to Sardi’s for a drink - a classic small NY bar with regulars and a few tourists. I was getting drinks and Linda was getting a table. When I returned, she was in deep conversation with a nice lady from South Carolina. “I really like your shoes” was how that all started. They were going to Spamalot as well.

We were in the 2nd row and could really see all the facial expressions of the actors. They were having a good time and it was a truly silly, fun affair – even funnier than the Monty Python film. The actor who portrayed Sir Robin was Clay Aiken of American Idol fame. The cast also included an FSU alumnus. It was very entertaining and a thoroughly New York experience.

We took a stroll to the Piano bar recommended by our bicycle guide, but they didn’t have snacks so we went across the street to get a Tapas dinner. We had Manchego cheese, salads, chorizo, spicy fried potatoes and Clams Casino. All dishes were pronounced delicious

That was a full day.

Saturday, we slept late and decided to go out for brunch. We ended up at a diner type place named Lindy’s where we paid $60 for a very mediocre breakfast with “omelets” filled with canned mushrooms and unmelted American cheese food slices – not our finest meal. Curiously, french fries were served alongside the eggs where the unavailable grits should have resided.

The American Museum of Natural History was phenomenal! We’ve all seen pictures of the dinosaur bones in the front entry to the beautifully architected building, but the marvels inside were beyond words. Unfortunately, the museum has not seen fit to publish a volume highlighting its treasures in word and picture form, so the vast majority of our discoveries there remain in our imaginations and memories. After hours inside the museum, we were in great need of some fresh air and Central Park beckoned. We rented cruiser bikes with the intention of wheeling around a section or two of the huge urban greenway, but ended up riding around the entire perimeter of the park! We were proud of our endeavor, having to walk our one-speed bikes only near the very top of the aptly named Great Hill. We spied Lance Armstrong-attired riders with their expensive rides huffily struggling up the apex of the ascent so we didn’t feel bad about having to momentarily accompany our bicycles on foot.

Soft serve ice cream which was in abundance during the previous days excursions was not to be found, so after an exhaustive search for the delicate comfort treat, we tried to have tea at the newly refurbished Plaza Hotel, but we missed it by 15 minutes, having used our time in our failed crusade for a cooler snack. We settled for gourmet cheese and crackers procured from an International grocery store which we enjoyed at our leisure in our hotel room.

Chinese food was had for supper. Lucy Ho’s it was not, but it served as a good starter for the remainder of our evening activities. The Carnegie Club which we greatly anticipated enjoying for Sinatra night, turned out to be a Smoking Club. The unbreathable fog of acrid smoke that enveloped us as we opened the establishment’s door lived up to the purpose of the club’s name.

Went back to the “Don’t Tell Your Mama,” piano bar our bicycle driver told us about the night before, and after waiting a short while in the cold air outside, we were beckoned into its cozy environs where we joined in the ersatz community of theater goers and locals and joined in the singing of show tunes by our waiters and bartenders who all had experience or high hopes of singing on the Great White Way. Again, Galiano was not to be found, but a pineappely sweet Rum Punch served nicely.

Sunday morning arrived with more frigid temperatures, but the rain promised for the day never materialized. We inched our way through a maze of bicycles gathered to begin the Five Borough Bike Race and ventured to St Patrick’s Cathedral for Mass. The gothic architecture of the 160-year old church befitted its role as host of the Pope’s visit just two week’s prior. Mass was celebrated in a decidedly spare manner considering its noble setting. We thought about taking a tour of Brooklyn, but we didn’t know what to look at, so we settled for a bit of breakfast at Starbucks and a shortened tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Having limited time to discover the museum’s many treasures we made a beeline for the Impressionists. Afterwards, we meandered through a maze of Egyptian pyramid exhibits, apparently what is not in the British Museum in London, only to discover that the sculptural exhibit we sought was not open for the day. On to the gift shop where we purchased two posters of art to hang as souvenirs of our New York holiday upon arriving home.

We had time for a bit of a stroll down Park Avenue and a quintessential diner for lunch. The chili burger was wonderfully and pungently spiced and the free range burger expertly prepared. David saved room for a final, last-minute slice of New York cheesecake and Linda finally got a cone with a velvety swirl of soft serve vanilla. Yum!

Our time up and our tour of the samples of the Big Apple complete, we swooped into our hotel and picked up our luggage and hailed a cab back to the airport. The flights were uneventful with a somewhat annoying 90 minute delay in our departure from our Atlanta connection due to a lack of flight attendant available for our 45 minute, no service flight to Tallahassee.

We arrived home about midnight, exhausted and fulfilled from our adventure. The next day we knew we were truly home when we picked up Harry, clean and poofy. And of course we appreciated coming home to a clean house which would be ready for our first wave of visitors in three days…

Can I get some catch-up with those chips?

It's been a hectic month for the London Marders. I have a lot to catch up on, and I'm hoping to do that over the long weekend (we get Monday off for a "bank holiday").

First things first, though. My job. My friend Amy, who had been the website manager, left in April to take a job elsewhere. I asked for her job, but they didn't think I could handle it (boy were they wrong), so they hired someone else and I started applying for other jobs. But the new guy only lasted two weeks, and in those two weeks, even though I was unhappy with my job, I did well enough to show them that, in fact, they should have just given me that job in the first place. My boss actually admitted this and offered the job to me and hired a new assistant website manager. I also got a pretty sweet little raise out of the deal. I started three weeks ago, and I've been insanely busy ever since. But today I finally got some big things crossed off my list, and I think I'll be able to take it a little easier now. The bank holiday could not have come at a better time. Even though I've been really busy, though, I'm really happy with my new job. I feel like I'm accomplishing something, and I'm in charge of the website (absolutely) and the assistant manager (at least nominally). I feel like such an adult!

Andrew's branch manager gig continues to be challenging and, depending on the day you ask him about it, rewarding. He is also ready for the long weekend. While I am catching up on things, I hope he will sit on the couch and play Nintendo until his eyes glaze over. After all, it's a bank holiday. I think bankers should get to relax even more.

I suppose there is a yearly cycle of busy spots in the year, and the cusp of summer is one of them. That, plus our job stuff, plus traveling and entertaining visitors (more on that later...several posts worth) has just left us exhausted. The other thing that has been tiring me out, perhaps I could get some advice on. I recently subscribed to The Economist, which is one of the world's best publications, in my opinion. I can almost feel my brain getting bigger as I read it. Unfortunately, it comes every Friday, and at over 100 fine-print pages per issue, I just can't keep up. I was frantically trying to finish on the train today, but I'm only on page 89. When I walked in the door, I looked on the stairs to see if the mail was there, and it wasn't. I breathed a sigh of relief: maybe I would have an extra day to finish last week's issue. But then I turned around, and lurking behind the door, ready to pounce at me, was the new issue! Does anyone else struggle to keep up with a weekly (or daily or monthly) publication? Any tips?

And finally, high on my list for the weekend is writing some blog posts to publish over the next couple weeks. I've got a lot to write about!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A feast for all the senses

At the end of April, we took a trip to Oxford, one of the few major British destinations we had not yet seen. It was lovely, every bit of it. It was the kind of weekend that makes the following Monday seem even harder, but it was worth it, because it was relaxing, satisfying, edifying, and inspiring.

We met at Paddington Station on Friday evening after a hard day's work and hopped on the train. Andrew had grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy en route, but we didn't have a corkscrew and they didn't have one in the buffet car, either. A very nice young couple across the aisle from us, recognising our predicament, shared some of their pinot grigio with us, in classy little plastic cups. We switched trains at Reading and got to Oxford in around an hour and half. It felt like we'd traveled hundreds of miles, though; London felt so far behind us.

We took a taxi from the station to our bed & breakfast, and we felt even further away. The owner was a gregarious South African named Stefan, and his establishment was comfortable and refreshingly free of any overblown floral fabrics. He gave us a recommendation for dinner, and it was a real recommendation, too. He didn't just list the restaurants that were nearby; he said "You must go to The Fishes. This is exactly the sort of food you should be eating." And he was right. We walked about twenty minutes to a tiny village on the outskirts of Oxford and found ourselves at a charming gastropub (which really just means, as far as I can tell, really good food with a focus on local, free-range, organic, etc. ingredients in a comfortable, slightly trendy setting. So, pretty much exactly what I look for in a restaurant). We shared a selection of appetizers, including fresh sardines, hummus, razor-thin slices of roast beef, blue cheese, chutney, and bread. It was all piled onto a big, chunky wooden cutting board, very rustic. Andrew went for steak and chips, and I had a scallop and bacon salad. Dessert was creme brulee and lemon parfait (not the layered ice cream sundae-type parfait, but a frozen meringue-type parfait). Everything was absolutely delicious and obviously made with love and attention. I could taste that the sardines had never seen a can, and neither had the chickpeas in the hummus. It's amazing the difference that can make. My scallops were some of the sweetest I'd ever tasted. Everything was just a little bit special; for instance my creme brulee had some creme fraiche in it, so it was a little tangy to cut through the sweetness. Amazing food, and a really good deal, too!

Let me warn you now, this will be a food-heavy post. We found better food in Oxford than we've found in London, for the most part. And that's quite a claim.

The next morning, we had a nice breakfast: the usual "full English" but with nice touches like a beautiful fruit salad and homemade banana bread. Then we set off for the day. Saturday was all about Blenheim Palace, just north of Oxford near the village of Woodstock. It's one of the most spectacular houses ever built, I reckon. It's most famous to Americans as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and I think he's probably the only person associated with the place who wasn't a total scoundrel, but that's just the way things go, I suppose. Oxford has a really good bus system, and it was very easy to find our way into town and up to the palace. We saw just a peek of the town on our bus ride, enough to pique our interest for Sunday. We arrived at the gates of the palace and walked down a long drive to get to the palace itself. We were quite impressed by the facade, but then we realised that we were only looking at the side of an annex wing. We entered the courtyard from one side, and then we saw the real palace. It's quite imposing. It's beautiful, certainly, but not really enviable. It looks more like a temple than a home. It was fantastic to visit, though.

We started by visiting the rooms on the ground floor of the palace. These were the state rooms, and they looked like the state rooms of any other palace: lots of brocade, tapestries, gilt furniture, huge silver urns. There was also a nice display of Churchill memorabilia that made me want to learn more about old Winston. Then we went back outside into the sunshine and had a tea break with a scone and ginger cake. We meandered through the grounds after that, first walking along the shore of the lake and then exploring the gardens. There was quite a variety of scenery, from quiet lakeside glades to a broad lawn that seemed to extend for miles. There was a charming waterfall and a "secret garden" with beautiful spring blossoms. The daffodils seemed to be a couple weeks behind London's, too. There were seas of yellow flowers.

After our stroll through the gardens, we bought a bottle of Blenheim estate water (not that there was a choice) and lay down on a hillside high above the lake. We both fell asleep for a little while - just long enough to get a bit pink - which felt like a total luxury. Then we walked down to the "pleasure gardens," where we saw a butterfly house, a tiny replica of nearby Woodstock village, and a sweet hedge maze. Then we went back to see the first floor of the palace, which turned out to be a collection of rooms featuring an ill-fated effort to turn the history of the Marlborough family into a Disney-style attraction with outdated audio-animatronics. We laughed, then went back out into the grounds and walked up a hill to a huge column commemorating the first Duke of Marlborough. It was an impressive column, but the inscription on the sides of it was nothing more inspiring than the text of a legal writ setting out the details of Queen Anne's gift to the family of the palace and grounds. There were several feet of inscription devoted to the succession of the palace to daughters as well as sons. There were also a lot of leftovers from a flock of sheep that had apparently been allowed to graze near the column. We walked back along the other side of the lake, past several extravagantly coloured pheasants, to Woodstock village, which is the most charming town I have ever seen in my life. It looks like the most recent development was about 300 years ago, but everything has been kept up perfectly. We had a gin and tonic while waiting for the bus, then went back to Oxford to dress for dinner. What a trying life we do lead :-)

Getting to dinner did prove to be somewhat trying as our taxi was about 20 minutes late, but while we were waiting, we met a Swiss couple who we helped to find a hotel (our B&B was full). They gave us a card with their email address and invited us to stay with them in Bern any time!

Eventually our taxi showed up and took us through town to the River Cherwell Boat House, which is indeed a place to rent boats to go punting on the river. It's also a lovely restaurant, and we had a table overlooking the peaceful little river. We had a pinot blanc and started with the evening's amuse bouche of parsnip soup with tarragon foam - a lot more tasty and substantial than it sounds. Then I had a pea and mint mousse with crisp pancetta to start. Andrew had haddock with lentils and pesto. For dinner, I had trout and a butter sauce with tiny shrimp in it. It came with a painterly swish of sweet potato puree and braised fennel. Andrew had exceptionally creamy risotto with asparagus and parmesan. It was all really intense and beautiful. Dessert did not disappoint, either. I had chocolate mousse with a cumin-caramel sauce that was subtly spicy. Andrew went for the tiramisu, which was so much more delicious even than normal tiramisu, although I'm not sure how. The whole meal was delicious, and we had a really nice walk through town afterwards. We stopped at the Eagle and Child to look around and see where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to hang out when they were students. We wandered past some of the colleges, too, and thought about how wonderful it would be to study in such an amazing place. Then we caught the bus back to the B&B to rest after a long and wonderful day.

The next day we got up pretty early so we could get into town to walk around before we had to go back to London. We went to the botanical garden first. It features in His Dark Materials, which we both read recently for the first time. It's also a really nice little garden, with signs on all the plants, which I love. We've seen a lot of the same plants in different parks and gardens this springtime, and at the garden we got to see lots of different varieties of those same kinds of plants. We now know euphorbia and hellebore when we see them. Euphorbia is a particularly neat-looking plant. It, along with many of the plants in the botanical garden, is a very mathematical plant, with regular patterns resulting in fantastical structures. The one disappointing aspect of the garden was that there were thousands of irises that had not yet started to bloom. A couple weeks later and I would have been in heaven there! But all the flowers that were blooming were beautiful, and there were birds singing all over the place. We also got to watch people trying to punt along the river, which we decided was more fun than actually trying to punt ourselves. I know that from experience at Cambridge!

After the garden, we wandered around the colleges and found an amazing little store that sold board games, magic tricks, and math books. The store clerk showed us some tricks with a crystal ball and we leafed through some books showing the relationship between MC Escher's drawings and advanced geometry. They even had books on quilts and math. Then we found the philosophy building, saw the colleges of some of our favorite authors, and had a nice lunch in a cafe on the high street. I had a bloody mary and some beautiful crab salad, while Andrew had a Croque Madame. Delicious. Then it was back to the B&B, on the bus to the train station, and back to London. It was one of the best weekends ever. This is why we moved to England. Although spending so much time in a college town may have been somewhat counter-productive in terms of our job satisfaction, it was inspiring at the same time. Not that we are far removed from academia and general scholarship what with all our reading, but every once in a while you need a reminder of why you are who you are, and I think Oxford represents the sort of idealized scholarship and learning-for-the-sake-of-learning that Andrew and I thrive on. We just need to remember that it's a state of mind not limited to professors and college students. And any time we need a reminder of how beautiful learning can be, it's just a train ride away in Oxford.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Good Thames (like good times, get it?)

We've been having a rollicking good time lately. Last weekend was jam-packed with all sorts of fun and games.

I started the weekend by meeting my friend Courtney (of the London Gator club, for which she is going to hand over responsibility to me!) for a drink at a nearby trendy bar. I hadn’t seen her in ages, and it was good to catch up and hear what she’s been up in the past few months. I also got to meet a couple of her friends. It was so nice to be with a group of girls. I realized yesterday that unless I make a special trip to see the receptionist at work and have a 30-second conversation with her about the weather or something, I never get to talk to anyone female in the course of a normal day. That can’t be healthy. But I had a lovely time with Courtney and her friends and enjoyed my strawberry Tom Collins.

After that, I was off to meet Andrew for dinner at Villandry. We had reservations for the special London Restaurant Week menu, where you get a three-course meal for just £25. Marvellous. I started with a nice charcuterie platter with various salamis and hams and some incredible celeriac remoulade, while Andrew had a seafood bisque that arrived in a copper saucepan, from which the waitress poured the soup into a warmed tureen at the table. Then I had chicken paillard with arugula salad and red pepper relish. Andrew had steamed sea bass with tapenade and roasted potatoes. Finally, I had a flourless chocolate cake and Andrew went for the lemon tart. It was utterly fabulous. I was especially pleased because I had heard of Villandry, I think in a Nigella Lawson book, well before we moved to London. When I went for my first job interview in the fall, I showed up early and walked around the neighbourhood. I spotted the restaurant and sighed, thinking that I would never get to go somewhere like that. But now I’ve been, and I loved it.

On the way back home from the restaurant, we ran into some people Andrew knew from the bank, and we went for a drink with them around the corner. I love seeing the reactions of people when they see Andrew. It was just the same at Barnes & Noble. They absolutely light up; they are so happy to see him. I felt like I was being escorted by a movie star. But then I always feel that lucky to be with Andrew.

Saturday was another fantastic day. We had a leisurely breakfast, Andrew went for a run, and then we headed into town. We went to the Tate Britain gallery, where I went just a few weeks ago with Elise. I wanted to take Andrew because he hadn’t been before, and the museum just put on display two Pre-Raphaelite paintings on loan from a museum in Puerto Rico. One of the paintings was Flaming June, which is one of my favourites. It was spectacular in “real life,” much more beautiful even than all the posters I’d seen of it (including one I hung on the walls of all my dorm rooms and apartments in Gainesville). The way the artist (Frederic, Lord Leighton) painted the folds of the transparent orange fabric was amazing. You can see all the curves of the body underneath. It was really quite breathtaking. And I could finally see the setting of the painting. The top is usually cropped in posters, and in the actual painting, you can see that the sleeping woman is outside on a terrace overlooking the sea at sunset.

The other painting was a huge mural, probably 10 feet high and 20 feet long, of the death of King Arthur, by Edward Burne-Jones. I’ve always loved his paintings. They are easily recognisable by the uniform beauty of the women; they are always tall and lithe, with calm features and faraway looks on their pale faces. If I were to inhabit a painting, I might choose a Burne-Jones work. The King Arthur painting was spectacular to see, for both its size and its beauty. The colours were rich jewel tones in sharp contrast to his usual muted palette, and the details of the clothing, architecture and gardens were stunning. Hanging in the same room as the mural were several of the artist’s drawings, and it was neat to see the progression from sketch to finished work.

Andrew is a big fan of sculpture, and the Tate was also showing a special exhibition of neoclassical sculptures that were collected by Englishmen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were beautiful: lots of nymphs and maidens, busts of political figures, and mythical scenes. My favourite was a sculpture of a girl in a Turkish slave market. The chains around the girls ankles made her appear even more delicate and beautiful. And it’s amazing that working with such a solid material as marble, sculptors can capture such fragility.

But before we saw any of the art, we went to the museum café, in a room covered in a gorgeous, fantastical mural with knights on horseback chasing unicorns and toga-clad children cavorting with unicorns, plus, strangely, an Oxbridge undergraduate wearing a straw boater riding a bicycle. It was all set in a landscape that veered from classical woodland to pagoda-dotted hillsides and ruin-filled valleys. It was fun to look at as we enjoyed our afternoon tea with little sandwiches and pastries. The whole afternoon made me remember why I love England.

Which leads quite nicely into our Sunday activity, which was a trip up to Bedfordshire to visit a St. George’s Day festival with Amy and Don. St. George (of dragon fame) is the patron saint of England, and his saint’s day is the 23rd of April. It has become somewhat controversial, because many people in England fear any hint of nationalism or patriotism, but the current government is promoting those very notions, and so this year there were more St. George’s Day festivities than usual, I gather. At any rate, English Heritage was proud to celebrate St. George, and they put on a festival at Wrest Park. We took the train up there in the morning fog (that turned into the afternoon fog and then the evening fog…) and got a taxi to the park. There is a huge house there, but the real feature is the park and gardens. We only saw a little bit of the park because the weather was not great, but what we saw was green and beautiful.

The festival was spread out over the lawns. There were arenas for medieval fair-style shows (juggling, acrobatics, that sort of thing), vendors selling family trees on fake parchment, pewter goblets, and, because it’s England, a beer tent. I must admit, after shivering in the cold and the damp, it felt nice to sit in the beer tent and share some cider and roast pork sandwiches with the crew. We watched a show revolving around a bed of nails and audience participation (I can’t hear you…When I say St. George, I want you to cheer!) and a pageant featuring St. George on horseback and some lucky person in an awesome dragon costume. We also saw a falconry display and lots of soldiers dressed in uniforms from throughout Britain’s history. It was pretty cool! Even Amy got over her cynicism and had a good time. Afterwards, we found a nearby pub for some more cider and a village pig roast, then it was back to London and back to the work week. Phew!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Settling nicely

It's been a busy month for both of us here, but there hasn't been all that much blog-worthy activity. We're both busy (and mostly happy) with job stuff. Andrew just started today as the branch manager at a Barclays near our flat, which is fantastic. He's been working really hard, and his managers have noticed. I'm working on another round of job applications, but I don't feel too bad about my current job, so there's not too much stress there. I've been going to ballet every week, and Andrew's running five times a week and going to karate. We spend a lot of time on the weekends with Amy and Don. We all went out for Mexican food the other night, which was a blast.

Yesterday, Andrew and I took a long walk and went to a garden festival, where we got to see lots of pretty flowers, walk through a hedgerow maze, and watch a sheep shearing demonstration. On the way home, we stopped at a country pub, and we found a lovely forest to walk through that felt like it was straight out of a storybook. Speaking of books, we've both been reading a lot lately. Andrew's on an Orwell kick, and I've just about worked my way through all the classics at Enfield library. I'm on Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. That just leaves some P.G. Wodehouse; then I'll have to find a bigger library!

On the taking-advantage-of-living-in-England front, a couple weeks ago, we went to the Natural History Museum after hours to see a wildlife photography exhibit and have some wine and tapas in the giant hall with a big dinosaur display. We're going to see a ballet in a few weeks at the Royal Opera House. This Friday, we're going to a fancy restaurant for a London Restaurant Week deal, and the weekend after that, we're going for a weekend break to Oxford. We've booked a really nice bed and breakfast, and we're having a romantic dinner on the river, and we're going to Blenheim Palace. Shortly after that, Robert and Diane will arrive and we'll all go to Ireland for a few days, and the summer will follow shortly thereafter (finger crossed for drier weather!)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Our first visitor

We had our first visitor last week! Elise, who is my oldest friend (we've been friends for about 17 years), came over for a few days during her spring break. We learned several things:
1. It is possible to host a guest, even in our tiny flat. We'll soon find out about the viability of hosting two guests, when Robert and Diane arrive in May.
2. Andrew and I already know London well enough to play tour guide and show people around, complete with humorous anecdotes.
3. Never, ever, ever fly US Airways. Elise was meant to leave New Haven last Saturday and arrive here Sunday morning. Because of weather, maintenance, and personnel glitches, she didn't get here until nearly midnight on Monday night! And her flight back was delayed by hours, too. Poor Elise.

But, even though her trip was cut short, we all had a fabulous time. We spent lots of quality time hanging around the flat, drinking tea and playing games. We also got to do some sightseeing. On Tuesday, which was my birthday, I had the day off, so Elise and I went into the city. We went to the Tate Britain museum, which I had seen once before, but many years ago. It's all British art, and the museum has particular strengths in William Blake, JMW Turner, and the Preraphaelites. There were some stunning Elizabethan portraits, too.

After our art fix, we walked through Pimlico to Westminster and toured Westminster Abbey. I had never been inside the abbey before because it's pretty expensive, but it was absolutely worth the cost of admission. I'm really glad I got to go with Elise, too. She and I have so many shared interests, and so much shared historical and cultural knowledge, that we make good museum buddies. We were both in awe at the abbey, partly because of the beauty of the architecture and the overwhelming weight of the building's historical significance, but mostly because of all the dead people. Poets corner was as moving as I'd hoped it would be. There we saw the tombs, or at least memorial plaques, of all the heavy hitters of English literature and drama. Elise nearly fainted when she saw Chaucer's tomb. The most fascinating tomb, though, for both of us, was Elizabeth I. We were lucky to be there on a Tuesday afternoon, because we had the room to ourselves for about ten minutes. We couldn't believe we were standing so close to her; it was almost a religious experience. Elizabeth is such a legendary character, but one who actually existed; it was like being able to see the tomb of Frodo Baggins or something. Well, I guess Frodo wouldn't actually have a tomb because he sailed away to the undying lands, but you know what I mean. It was special.

After the abbey, we walked along the river all the way down to Borough Market, where we met Andrew, Amy, and Don for a fantastic tapas meal. Andrew and I had tried to eat there before, but there was a two-and-a-half-hour wait. On my birthday, we got there early and snagged a great table. Andrew kept ordering food and wine for us, and we all had a great time. The food was phenomenal, too. We had thin slices of chorizo and iberico ham, fried goats cheese with honey, shrimp cooked in garlic butter, a nice, peppery green salad, lots of tasty bread, almonds, and olives. For dessert, we had creme catalan, which is basically creme brulee, but with cinnamon, rice pudding, and a sort of flan. How do you say delicious in Spanish?

The rest of Elise's trip was fun, too. Andrew and I had to work, so Elise did some sightseeing on her own: the Tower, the British Museum, the National Gallery. In the evenings, we did some tasty cooking, showed Elise our grocery store, and had some much-needed heart-to-heart conversations. Sometimes you just need to talk to an old friend to figure things out. She left on Friday morning, and Andrew and I have been resting this weekend. You don't get a lot of sleep when Elise is around!

So, for anyone who is considering coming to visit us: we're all ready for you! But make your reservations early, because after such success, I'm sure we'll be filling up soon :-)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Living it up in London

Now that we've been in London for six months, we're starting to feel somewhat at home. Our jobs have gotten busy, and I've been going to ballet and Andrew to karate once a week. We've settled into routines with cooking and chores around the flat, made regular trips to the library, and learned where to buy everything we need. Since we've reached this level of everyday comfort, we've had the freedom to branch out and try to take advantage of living in London. Sometimes that just means meeting up for a pint of cider in an old-fashioned pub after work. Sometimes it means going out to a fancy bar with friends. And sometimes it means doing touristy stuff in a local way.

Several weeks ago, Andrew was doing a training session in the city, so after work we met at Piccadilly Circus with the plan of going out to dinner. We wanted to try a Spanish place near Borough Market, but instead of jumping on the Tube with all the rush hour crowds, we decided to walk. It was a very touristy walk past many of the major London sights, including Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and St. Paul's Cathedral, and we enjoyed seeing all of those things, but because we had seen them before and knew exactly where we were going, we could afford to just enjoy each other's company in a glorious setting without having to pay all of our attention to what we were walking past. It took us about an hour to walk all the way across central London, and when we got to the market, the Spanish place was packed but we found a fantastic seafood restaurant instead.

More recently, I decided to plan ahead a little bit and book tickets to some of the special museum exhibits around town. We have tickets to a photography exhibit after hours, including dinner, for later this month. I'll report on that later. My major victory, though, was scoring evening tickets to see the First Emperor exhibit at the British Museum. It has been nearly sold out since before it opened, but we got two of the last tickets available.

We felt very special showing up to the museum on a Sunday evening, long after the crowds had left. We walked through the echoing entrance hall and into the stunning atrium that used to be an open courtyard but is now covered by a huge glass dome. In the very center of this round space is the old reading room of the British Library, which is reserved for special exhibitions like this one. As we entered, we caught a glimpse of the old bookcases covering the round walls, stacked at least four stories high. The exhibit was set inside the reading room with plenty of space around the edges for people to move among the shelves and still get to the books. When we got inside, I looked up, as I always do in big public spaces, and I wasn't disappointed by the spectacular roseate design on the ceiling high above.

The exhibit was amazing, from both an entertainment perspective and a curatorial one. We got a very good overview of early Chinese history, and I was able to fill in some of the gaps with what I remembered from my Chinese history class at UF. The historical background took up the first part of the exhibit, where we got to see 2500-year-old weapons, drinking vessels, jewelry, and sculpture.

Then we moved on to learn more about the emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, who
was the first to gather large swathes of what is now China into a single empire. He started the Qin dynasty (pronounced "chin," and supposedly where the name China came from) in 221 BC, when he was still a very young man. He built dozens of ornate palaces and instituted laws and systems that we still use today. He worked to standardize industrial production, the Chinese alphabet, and systems of currency and measurement. And, from the day he took power, he started building his physical legacy, a mountain-shaped underground tomb near Xi'an that has never been opened because of legends about its defenses, including rivers of mercury (modern scientists have confirmed that the soil around the funereal mound is indeed abnormally high in mercury content).

All around the tomb, he had legions of terra cotta sculptures of soldiers in battle formation buried to protect him after death. The first of the terra cotta soldiers was discovered by a farmer in 1979, and archaeologists have discovered thousands of the life-size sculptures since then. This exhibit is a really big deal because it's the first time so many of the soldiers have been sent overseas. But before we got to the soldiers, we learned about how the emperor's palaces were constructed and how the technology used to create terra cotta roof and floor tiles for the palaces was adapted to create these intricate, lifelike sculptures. Then we turned a corner, and there they were, about two dozen six-foot high soldiers, some with fragments of brightly colored paint still clinging to their surfaces. Each one looked different. You could tell what roles they were meant to play in the army and their rank. Generals had full armor and fancy hairstyles; archers had light armor; cavalry riders held their arms out to take the reins; terra cotta horses pulled chariots; acrobats, dancers, and clowns performed tricks to amuse the troops. Each face looked like that of a real person, with a life story. The faces even reflected the geographic and demographic diversity of the empire. And every face showed the determination of these soldiers to protect and glorify their emperor for all eternity.

After the weight of so much history, it felt a little weird to go back outside to the quiet streets, but we walked for a little while and traded impressions, then found a place to get some delicious Chinese treats for a late supper. Then it was back on the train home...just a normal day in London.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Springtime in bloom

I've seen some beautiful spring flowers in my day. Tallahassee and Blacksburg, in particular, put on quite a show. But nothing prepared me for the profusion of blossoms in London, and it isn't even technically spring yet! The snowdrops came first, little white bells dangling from verdant stalks.

They were followed by the crocuses in stark white, bright lemon, deep purple, and vibrant violet stripes with orange centers.

Over the last few weeks, the flowering trees and shrubs have developed little buds with magenta tips, and they are starting to unfurl. In Regent's Park, I found a grove of cherry trees with pale blossoms, looking like a pinky haze skimming the surface of the grass. The forsythia is shooting upwards with yellow starlike flowers, and here and there, miniature irises are starting to pop up.

And everywhere, covering nearly every available spot of grass in the city, are daffodils. There are white daffofils, yellow daffodils, white daffodils with orange centers. They congregate amongst the roots of trees and luxuriate in the open sunshine. They sway and nod in the breeze and follow the movement of the sun with their merry heads. I've been tracking their progress for weeks, since I saw the first snowdrops in the park and noticed, slowly, like a mushroom hunter picking out his quarry from amongst the camouflaging leaves, the green stems peeking through the grass, promising daffodils to come. They burst all at once, suddenly, blanketing the grey city in much-needed colour, and I've been enjoying their cheerful display ever since.

[The squirrel is for Nicholas :-) ]

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mussels in Brussels

Last weekend, Andrew and I went on a mini-break to Brussels, Belgium. We met after work at St. Pancras station, which has just been renovated and restored to its Victorian-era wrought-iron-and-glass glory. The main terminal has a soaring barrel ceiling of glass panels, and we could see a little bit of the sunset through it as we stood and sipped glasses of champagne at the bar before boarding the train. It only took two hours for the Eurostar to whisk us under the English Channel, through northern France, and into Belgium. While not quite luxurious, it was at least as comfortable as an airplane, without the security hassle or pesky CO2 emissions. Besides, the retro feel of the whole enterprise was quite glamorous.

We arrived in Brussels with the familiar sense of anticipation we felt this summer each time we got to a new city. Confidently, we strolled through the station to find the subway that would take us to our hotel, but it took about ten minutes before we could even find the ticket machine. Then twenty minutes to figure out that the machine wouldn't take our card or the euro bills we got from the ATM. Then another ten minutes to find a place where we could get change. Okay, okay, we told ourselves. This is fine. So there aren't any signs in English, even though this is the capital city of the European Union and everyone speaks English. No worries. We finally got our tickets and went down to catch the subway. Well, I have been on many public transportation systems at this point, and I can confidently say that Brussels has the worst I've ever seen. And that includes Taltran.

We finally caught a subway, then waited ten minutes to catch another one, then emerged to find a bus to get us to the hotel. We found the right bus, but the driver said he was going in the other direction, so we crossed the street. Makes sense. right? Well, a bus pulled up there shortly, and it turned out it was the same driver. And he remembered me. And he yelled at me for wasting his time. (I don't know what it is with me and getting yelled at on public transportation.) I stomped off, and we found a map that showed that we were several blocks from the hotel, but we couldn't figure out how to catch the right bus, so we set off on foot. We walked and walked and walked. Way too far, as it turned out, but we just couldn't get our bearings. We found a boulevard with a name that looked familiar from the map (place names in Brussels are confusing, because everything is in French and Flemish), so we turned and walked down it. We soon ran out of sidewalk and came up against some metal barricades strung with copious amounts of rusty barbed wire. I thought we'd ended up in the trenches somehow! We looked around to see what was going on and noticed the stars and stripes streaming above a large, fortified building. Ah, the US embassy. The day before, a crowd had burned the US embassy in Serbia; I guess they were being extra careful at all the other embassies. We had to squeeze past the barbed wire and teeter on the edge of the busy street to get past the whole thing, with the armed guards eyeing us warily. In retrospect, I guess maybe we should have just flashed our passports or something. At any rate, we finally made it to the hotel and realized that it had taken us longer to get across half of Brussels than it had to get to Brussels from London!

However, once we got to the hotel, everything was perfect. The staff were super friendly and helpful, the hotel was beautiful and luxurious, and the concierge found a place for us to have dinner right away (it being nearly midnight at this point, this was quite a feat). We dropped off our bags and walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be utterly charming. We forgot about the struggles of the evening and settled in for a relaxing, romantic weekend.

The restaurant was a traditional Belgian affair, and the waiters only spoke French, but in a very friendly way. Andrew ordered for both of us, very quickly as the kitchen was about to close, and we ended up with two bottles of kriek, a delicious cherry-flavored beer. I had steamed mussels and french fries, and Andrew had carbonnade a la flamande, which is a braised beef stew. We ate and drank and laughed at the music (Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong played about ten times during our meal). We both leaned back in our chairs and soaked up the cozy atmosphere. The food was hearty and tasty, and the waiters showed me how to eat my mussels using an empty shell to pull the meat out of the other shells. They were tres impressed that I finished the whole pot! Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel and watched The Simpsons, which we have now seen in six countries and several languages! It's funny, no matter what language :-)

The next day, we slept in and then set out to see the city. We didn't have much on our list of things to see, which was part of the attraction of the city. We didn't have many specific expectations, so everything we found was a delightful surprise. We walked past the royal palace and over to the museum district, where we bought waffles from a street cart and ate them in a garden. Then we went to the modern art museum, which had several Rene Magritte paintings, a room full of James Ensors, and lots and lots of beautiful post-impressionist paintings by artists I'd never even heard of.

After the museum, we walked to the Place Grand Sablon, where we saw a beautiful church with delicate stonework and an antique market with stunning silver and jewels and ancient cookie and chocolate molds. I wanted to buy some, but they were heavy! The Grand Sablon is also where all the big chocolate shops are, and we did a bit of window shopping before we decided where to buy our chocolate later on. We had a nice lunch in a crowded cafe with art nouveau decorations. Victor Horta, one of the big art nouveau architects, lived in Brussels. We saw one of his buildings in the morning and got a spectacular view of the city from the rooftop terrace. I don't think he designed the cafe where we had lunch, but it was certainly inspired by his work. After lunch, we went to Wittamer to buy some fancy chocolates and a lovely little tea shop, where we got rose and cherry blossom loose leaf tea. For all the cultural significance Britons attach to tea, they don't offer a very wide selection of it in the shops; we had to go all the way to Belgium to find good tea. Then we went back to the hotel and, luxury of luxuries, we took a nap in the afternoon. Ahhhhhh.......

We woke up in time to eat our chocolates (flavored with earl grey tea, cinnamon, black pepper, lime, and amaretto) and get ready for dinner. It was fun to get really dressed up. I did my hair and fancy makeup and wore a nice dress and jewelry, and Andrew put on his nicest suit. We took a cab to the restaurant, another art nouveau stunner. Our table was in the middle of the restaurant, under a huge stained glass ceiling. We had comfy leather club chairs, and we were able to lean back and relax (a theme for the trip, you may have noticed). We got a bottle of white wine, which they kept cool in a little silver stand next to our table. The waiters were all wearing traditional Belgian aprons that looked like ships' sails, tied in the back with intricate knotted ropes. The overall atmosphere, though, was modern and sophisticated. We started with a couple of langoustines from the oyster bar. I'd never had a langoustine before, and I wanted to taste one. They are like miniature lobsters or giant shrimp, and they are sweet and juicy and delicious. Unfortunately, they are also rather difficult to get into, and we were cracking ourselves up trying to crack the shells open. We also got a nice little salad with the Belgian equivalent of prosciutto, and the waiters came by from time to time with baskets of warm bread and cold butter. Andrew got a gorgeous steak with french fries for dinner. His fries came in a little ceramic cone that kept them nice and hot. Very clever! I had sole meuniere, which is basically a fancy fried fillet of sole. It was cooked in lots of brown butter, and it was crispy and delicious. For dessert, Andrew had another waffle, with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I had ile flottante, which means floating island and is a little soft meringue floating in a sea of cold custard. Delicious! We had coffee that came with little squares of chocolate afterwards, and took a cab back to the hotel, stuffed and happy.

The next morning we got up early to see a little bit more of the city before we had to catch our train. We took a cab to the Grand Place, which is one of the main squares of the city. The place is lined with imposing baroque buildings with fantastical carvings of gargoyles and weird creatures. One of the buildings seemed to be covered in gold leaf. We found a cozy little restaurant with a roaring fire and had croissants and ham and cheese (like the continental breakfasts we had sometimes this summer) with fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious coffee, then walked around for a few minutes, caught a cab, and took the train back to London. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. We had just the right balance of food and culture and rest that we needed. Well done.