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!