Friday, December 24, 2010

Greece with the Kiwis…and back again

After all the chaos and emotional turmoil of our last few weeks in London, Greece provided a much-needed tonic in the form of rest and relaxation. We stayed at one campsite for the entire week, and we hardly actually did anything the whole time, but doing nothing turned out to be everything we hoped it would be. It was almost hotter than you can imagine there, and from the time we left the airport until the time we went back to the airport, we never once encountered air conditioning. When we first arrived I wasn’t sure I would be able to stand it, but I soon gave up on being very clean and just embraced the casual beachwear vibe, head scarf and all. The sounds of the island (we were on Zakynthos, in the Ionian Sea) were amazing because the entire time we were there the cicadas never stopped buzzing. It was quite a sound to wake up to.

We soon fell into a routine that served us well throughout the week. Step one: get up before the sun gets too hot, and move, with book in hand, to the terrace overlooking the sea. Drink some water, eat some fresh bread or yogurt, and read for a few hours. Step two: put on your bathing suit, if you didn’t sleep in it already, grab a towel, a bottle of water, and a book, and walk down the steep cliffside path to the water. Grab a chair if the German tourists haven’t claimed them all first, and read. Oh, you did remember to put on sun screen first thing, right? And every hour or so throughout the day? So much sunscreen that you went through a whole tube of it in the first five days? Good. Step three: read for a while, and jump into the sea every once in a while to cool off. If it hasn’t already been monopolized by a gang of Italian teenagers, swim out to the floating raft and practice cannonballs and choice bombs with your mates. Step four: slowly meander back up the cliff to the terrace for a picnic lunch of cucumbers, tomatoes, tuna, and bread. Step five: back down to the water. Step six: back up to the tent, rinse off, and move back to the terrace. Step seven: read and sip tiny glasses of local wine until Veit, the Austrian campground host comes around with the evening’s menu. Step eight: order more food than you could possibly eat, then eat it all. Step nine: break out the playing cards. Step ten: back to the tent for some hot, sticky dozing. Repeat.

The campground was hilarious because it was filled with families from all over Europe, mostly Germany, Austria, and Italy. We were the only native English speakers there, but of course they all spoke English in addition to their native tongues. How annoying. The other people were really fun to watch. Some of them seemed to be regulars at this campground, and they seemed completely at home there. There was an Austrian family with three beautiful orange-haired and freckled children, who Andrew played foosball with one night. There was a ludicrously attractive German family with a bunch of teenagers. We referred to their father as the Silver Fox, because of his full head of silvery hair and his otherwise youthful appearance. The other campground workers were nice, too. Veit’s mother was there. She didn’t speak English but we could piece together enough common language for her to give me water when I asked for it. There was a Romanian college student working there for the summer. He was a demon on the giant charcoal grill. Veit was hilarious, and he entertained us all by explaining the meaning of the word Marder: “It is a small animal, yes, that goes into the hen houses and eats the hens, but even when he is no longer hungry he keeps killing…he has…the blood hunger, yes.”

Even without the funny people, though, I would have been happy as a clam just because of the food. Such food! Greek salads, tzatziki, baskets of bread, fried zucchini balls, thick, juicy pork chops from the grill, souvlaki, octopus salad, roasted fish, giant meatballs, salty cheese. We absolutely gorged ourselves every night. We couldn’t help it.

When we weren’t eating, reading, swimming, or sleeping, which wasn’t often, we walked to the nearest village for supplies. One day we rented a little motorboat from the village and spent the whole day out on the water. Andrew and Don steered us around the bay and in and out of coves and around secondary and tertiary islands. We dropped anchor for a while in the middle of the water and just jumped overboard again and again. It was a very small boat with a very small motor, but the freedom it gave us was immeasurable. We got to see different parts of the scenery from different angles, which can be enlightening especially in a landscape with so many nooks and crannies. We could barely recognize our campground’s cliff from out in the water, and when we were up close to it we could no longer see the sea turtle shape of one of the smaller islands out in the bay.

But, as relaxing and enjoyable as our trip had been, it was soon time to leave. We packed up our bags and Andrew and I said goodbye to our trusty tent, which served us better than we served it, because it was all chewed through on the bottom and no longer anything like waterproof. It was a Zeus brand tent, and it seemed fitting to lay it to rest in Greece. It felt, too, like yet another goodbye to our European adventure. So, after one more big Greek salad and a basket of bread, we got in the cab and made our slow, delayed way back to London and back up to Cricklewood, where we had a final dinner and a final rest with the Kiwis, and then we said goodbye to the UK for the foreseeable future.

And now we’re back again.

Saying goodbye to London

The next day we said goodbye to Robert and Tiffany, who followed Zack to Sweden. We spent the rest of the day packing up all our possessions and, with the help of the Kiwis, sending lots of our stuff away. Amy and Don took some of the smaller pieces of furniture, plus lots of kitchen stuff, and they picked it all up, plus our camping gear for Greece, in a rented van, which was enormously helpful. After all was said and done we were left with an almost-empty flat, and we recreated our first night there with late-night Edgware Road takeout and a bottle of champagne, but with a few more tears this time around.

In the morning we frantically ran around to charity shops and a shipping store, dropping stuff off with the help of amused taxi drivers. Once we had absolutely every last thing out of there, we said goodbye to our amazing flat and our pretty street and went and handed in our keys. Where else could we possibly go afterwards for our last neighborhood meal, but Canteen? The staff knew we were leaving, too, and they all came over to say goodbye to us and gave us free dessert as a parting gift. I think they might actually miss us; we were certainly two of their best customers. Afterwards, we caught a bus down to the Victoria and Albert Museum for one last visit, then went to the National Gallery to finish our long, slow tour of all the paintings, and the National Portrait Gallery to say goodbye to it, too. The, with heavy hearts and bags we got on the Tube to head out of Central London for the last time. We stayed with the Kiwis for two nights in their lovely home in Cricklewood before leaving for Greece. Amy made us relax all day on Saturday, which we really needed, and then we were up at dawn the next morning to fly to the Greek islands.

Visits from Zack, Robert, and Tiffany

We had Zack all to ourselves for a couple days before Robert and Tiffany showed up (they went to Paris first). On Saturday we walked over to the British Library to see an exhibit of historical maps, which was amazing. We got to see pages from both the world’s largest atlas and the smallest. We also stopped at the Wellcome Collection on our way over and saw an interesting but kind of creepy exhibit on human skin. At the British Library there was also a Latin American festival going on, and we watched some folk dancers for a little while, then got some churros and chocolate, fittingly, at the museum’s coffee shop. We made a stop a little later on at cider pub, which was fun with Zack because we got to teach him about cider while he taught us about beer (he’s becoming quite the aficionado). That evening we met up with some of our American friends, both human and canine, for a picnic in Regents Park. It was time to say goodbye to Steve and Jamie, as they were going out of town for a couple weeks, and we couldn’t stand to end it, so the picnic moved indoors at Rich and Janice’s place, and we all walked over to Edgware Road afterwards, although Andrew, Zack and I skipped the kebabs. I was really broken up at having to say goodbye to Steve and Jamie, but I know it wasn’t a permanent goodbye by any means. They are too precious to lose.

On Sunday morning we all went to St Pancras station to pick up Robert and Tiffany, then went to the farmer’s market for the last time. We bid an emotional farewell to our favorite farmers, especially our potato guy. We must have done some more walking around that day, but we mostly just spent time together at our flat, playing board games, drinking wine, and talking. The next day we walked up to Regents Park, then met Amy for fish and chips and did a massive tourist walk through Green Park, past Buckingham Palace, through St James, and down to Westminster, where we got on a ferry down to the Tower of London, then took a bus all the way back, past St Paul’s Cathedral, down Fleet Street and the Strand, past Trafalgar Square and up Regents Street. Then it was more of the usual entertainment in the evening. It was nice to have so many American friends with us at the end to help with the transition.

The next morning we made a big full English breakfast, black pudding and all, before Zack headed out to the airport to catch a plane to Sweden. Robert and Tiffany went down to Hampton Court Palace for a few hours while Andrew and did some work around the flat, including breaking down some of the furniture for someone to come pick up that night. We sent away our bed and couch with a stranger, and the four of us had a light picnic supper on the floor gathered around an epic game of Agricola.

The following day we woke up a bit slowly, just in time for lunch reservations at Galvin, which was as lovely as ever, then had a sprint down to the theatre for a matinee showing of Les Mis. We hardly saw any musicals at all when we lived in London, which is a shame, because it was a very good performance and a great experience to share with friends.

Last days of work, plus Dolly Does London

The last day of work for both of us was the seventh of July. I had two full weeks with my replacement, the lovely Ella, and I think I did as good a job as anyone could have done under the circumstances. Poor thing; she had an awful lot to learn all at once. I had a very nice sendoff from my colleagues, with a sunny Italian lunch provided by Nigel, and lots of cards and hugs and good wishes. I was exhausted by the time I got home, but I didn’t have any time to dilly dally, because I had to transform myself into a Dolly Parton lookalike for my book club hen do. A hen do is like a bachelorette party, and we had no fewer than five bachelorettes in our group at the moment, plus several of us were moving away over the summer, so we had a big blowout party with barbecue and all the trimmings catered by Jamie and me, and all 15 of us dressed in checked shirts and denim miniskirts with lots of blue eye shadow and matching blond wigs. After stuffing our faces with the delicious food, we all headed out together on the bus and made our way over to a club on Regents Street. We got just a few interested and incredulous looks along the way. It was great fun! The club was kind of lame, but we sort of embraced it, and we all danced and took silly pictures and generally made moderate fools of ourselves. After all that, I really was exhausted, and by the time I got home, it was off with my Dolly wig and on with my hostess hat, because Zack had arrived, and we were on to our last round of visitors before leaving the UK.

A visit from the Marders

Walter and Linna had to cancel their original trip in April, so they rescheduled and came to London in May instead. Over the week we showed them around our neighborhood and a lot of our favorite spots around town. One day we walked through Hyde Park down to Kensington and the Victoria and Albert Museum. We were particularly excited to show Walter the architectural section of the museum, and we had a lovely lunch in the café, which includes rooms that were designed by different arts and crafts and Pre-Raphaelite artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. There was a piano player performing in the main room that day under the enormous silver-wire globular chandeliers, and the music set the mood nicely.

On Sunday, we watched Andrew play Frisbee in Green Park, then made a Sunday roast at our flat, with Amy and Don as additional guests. Another day, while Andrew was working, Linna and Walter and I went to the art gallery at Buckingham Palace, which had a special exhibit on Victoria and Albert. It was meant to be flattering, I’m sure, but I thought it was all more than a little bit silly, with the gaudy jewelry and sappy portraits. I’m sure they loved each other very much, but I can’t agree with their taste. The palace was lovely, though.

On Walter’s birthday, the three of us went to Kew Gardens. We particularly enjoyed the treetop walkway, the palm houses, and the thousands and thousands of azaleas in every color imaginable. We went down on the Tube but took an Edwardian-era ferry boat back into town. The views from the boat were great, and it was neat to see familiar parts of the city from that unfamiliar angle.

Another day, after work, Andrew and I met Walter and Linna, as well as Amy and Don, for a drink at one of our favorite pubs, then we all went to dinner at a Korean restaurant in Mayfair. It was my first encounter with Korean food, and it was delicious! I even liked the kimchee. All in all it was a quick visit, but we were so glad we got to show them our new flat and show them around London one more time!

Andrew’s spring 2010 photos, including France and the Marders’ visit, are here:

World Cup madness and visits from Sara, Elise, and the Kramers

Summer 2010 brought on World Cup madness across Europe. Offices shut down for football matches. Pubs were overflowing. England flags were pulled out of storage. The whole place went absolutely crazy. We went to a pub with a bunch of American friends to watch the England v USA match, which was quite the experience. There were probably about 80 of us crammed into a tiny room that was meant to hold about 20, and everyone was screaming their heads off the whole time. The game ended in a tie, which overjoyed the American fans as we should have lost by a lot. I went to work the following Monday with a big, obnoxious grin on my face. We watched a lot of matches, either on the telly or at our work computers. It was great fun!

Near the end of the World Cup, we had a short visit from Sara Huff, who was on her way to Oxford for a study abroad program. We spent a couple of enjoyable days with her, and her visit overlapped with Zach, Mary Frances, and their two boys, who were in London for a couple weeks while Zach was teaching some seminars in England and elsewhere in Europe. We all went out to Regents Park for a birthday picnic for Zach and the next day Sara, Andrew, and I babysat the little ones while their tired mom and dad got to go enjoy an adult meal on their own. We got to spend a lot of time with the Kramers while they were in London. I think it’s fantastic that they travel so much with their kids; it looks like hard work, though!

Also overlapping with the Kramers’ visit was Elise, who came in mid-June. This was her second London visit with us, and we had another great time with her. She and I spent a lot of time walking all over the city, and one evening the three of us went to a performance of The Crucible at the open-air theatre in Regents Park. I had never seen it before, and it was a fantastic show. We sat in the grass on the side of the stage and enjoyed a picnic while we watched. And when we got home and cleaned out the picnic basket we found we had a stowaway slug! Ah, nature. We also spent some quality time at the Victoria and Albert museum, where we had a leisurely tour through the quilt exhibit and a lovely lunch in the William Morris rooms.

Later in the month the Kiwis and Andrew and I went to another outdoor play, this time The Taming of the Shrew in Montagu Square. This was the private garden I had tried to gain access to when we first moved in, and we were very excited to finally be allowed inside. We had a lovely picnic courtesy of Amy, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show, which was a 1980s-inspired version with excellent acting and singing.

A mouthful of a volcano and a week in Paradise, better known as France

Eyjafjallajökull. Say that three times fast. Or even one time slow. I could never quite get the hang of it. In case you don’t remember, that’s the Icelandic volcano that erupted in April 2010, spewing enough ash into the atmosphere to completely shut down European air space for several days. The Saturday after it happened was a beautiful day in London, with crystal clear skies completely unmarred for the first time by airplane trails. We walked around in Regents and Hyde Park for hours, soaking up the gorgeous sunshine until late afternoon, when we learned that the travel fallout from the volcano meant that Andrew’s parents had to cancel their entire trip to come see us and go to Paris with us and Monica and Graham. They rescheduled their trip for May eventually, but they had to cancel the rented flat in Paris that they had reserved, and for a while everything was utter chaos.

Luckily, Monica and Graham were not scheduled to fly over until a week or so later, so their flight to Paris was not canceled. Even though we couldn’t go with Linna and Walter, we went to France anyways, and Andrew and I had five days in the French countryside before meeting up with the Suttons for a few more days of holiday.

Andrew and I hopped on the Eurostar early on Saturday morning and had time to walk around near the St. Martin Canal and grab lunch at a cute little café called the Hotel du Nord (Andrew had pasta with spring vegetables; I had carpaccio). Then we picked up the rental car at the Gare du Nord, navigated Parisian traffic for about 30 minutes, and got the heck out of there. The weather was much warmer in France, and we rolled the windows down to enjoy the fresh air and blasted our music as we drove through the sunny countryside north of Paris. We both love Paris, but we were thrilled to finally see something of France that wasn’t Paris or Nice. It didn’t disappoint. Our first stop was Honfleur, on the Normandy coast. We strolled around the little harbor and stretched our legs, then got back in the car and drove along the coast, through the gorgeous, ritzy coastal resort town of Deauville, gawking at the nineteenth-century mansions that lined the road. Then we were back in rural France all the way to a tiny village near the D-Day beaches, where we camped our first night.

The village was so tiny there wasn’t a restaurant or even a grocery store, so we had to get back in the car to go wandering in search of food. All the other little villages nearby were like ghost towns, with no open restaurants or stores of any kind, and we began to worry we weren’t going to find anything at all, but eventually we found a restaurant that was still open, and it was serving local cuisine, too. Most places we had been in France we hadn’t come up against the language barrier too badly; most French people seem to speak a little bit of English, but this was not the case out in the tiny towns. We got by just fine, but it was harder than I expected to communicate with people sometimes. Case in point, the first restaurant in Normandy. I got a little bit frazzled trying to ask questions about the menu, but in the end I was able to order what I wanted. I had a salad with bacon and goats cheese, then some white fish with a creamy yellow sauce. Andrew had something with layers of potato, ham, and cheese. It was stereotypical French cooking with lots of cream and butter, but it was so tasty. And, despite all the cheese, we didn’t turn down the dessert and cheese courses. How could you? The restaurant’s setting was quite charming, and it was full of local families. Someone had even brought a puppy. I felt out of place because of the language but still right at home.

The next morning we got up early and headed to the beach. Omaha Beach. There were a few families flying kites and building sandcastles, and there was a place to rent kayaks, but it was hard for us to imagine using that beach as a beach because we knew it only as one of the places where American troops came ashore on D-Day. I was glad there weren’t too many people around. It was very calm and peaceful. We walked on the sand for a while, trying to imagine what it must have looked like with the German fortifications on the bluffs and all the amphibious boats out in the water. It’s a very wide, flat beach, and it’s hard to see how anyone could have made it all the way across without being shot. We went up to the American cemetery next. They had a very nicely done museum about D-Day and the war. The images of American tanks moving through the local villages were particularly striking. The village we had stayed in had such narrow streets there was hardly room for a car, much less a tank. Everything we saw in Normandy was so quiet and charming it was hard to imagine the whole area being in the middle of a war zone. After the museum, we went out into the cemetery itself. I knew what it was going to look like, having seen it in movies and TV shows, but actually standing there in the middle of all those white crosses was a very moving experience. It was absolutely beautiful, with the most immaculate lawn I had ever seen, and a view miles out over the sea. A fitting resting place, to be sure.

Our next stop was 20 miles away in Bayeux. We had lunch at another restaurant specializing in the local cuisine and had another hammy, cheesy, apple and potatoey meal with some delicious local cider. We conducted the whole proceedings in French, which was most gratifying. Then we went to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I had heard of the tapestry and always thought it sounded neat, but I wasn’t prepared for how amazing it was. It was embroidered in the eleventh century, and it portrays the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. It’s 70 meters long, and they have it displayed in a huge horseshow shape so that you start at one end and work your way all around to the other, reading all the panels in sequence. The animation, so to speak, is very detailed and lively. There are recognizable recurring characters, anatomically correct horses, meticulously drawn boats and weapons, and then a bunch of fanciful embroidery with mythical beasts and funny faces. The battle scene is impressively violent, with beheadings and everything. It was like a giant, ancient comic book. We loved it. One of the bits of embroidery we liked especially was a picture of Mont St. Michel, which was our final destination for the day, so we kept that image in mind to compare to the real thing.

We got back on the road, but took smaller roads rather than the motorway. We went through several charming towns and saw ancient city walls, imposing cathedrals, and lovely little gardens as we went. There was no traffic anywhere, and we were getting the hang of the French road signs, so it was a relaxing drive in the country all the way across Normandy. Finally we got back to the coast and started catching brief, tantalizing glimpses out across the water at Mont St. Michel. We were up on a sort of peninsula, and we had to drive down and around a bay to get up to the other little peninsula that Mont St. Michel was on. We checked into our campsite and set up our tent, then hurried out to get a proper look at Mont St. Michel during sunset. We were only a couple miles from it, so we walked all the way out along the causeway, and at our first full view of it our jaws dropped. It looks like a giant castle that was dropped onto the top of a huge rock out in the middle of the water. All around it for miles are flat sand beds (quicksand, if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed) and marshes, and then there it is, sheer rock with houses clinging to the side of it, and on top of it all, a massive stone abbey and cathedral. We kept stopping every few minutes to take pictures from the different angles that presented themselves. The sun was striking one side of it with full force, making the whole thing glow. We walked all the way out to the rock and entered through an enormous gate with a portcullis. Right away it reminded us of San Gimignano, the walled town where we stayed in Tuscany. There were shops and restaurants lining the narrow street as it wound its way uphill. We broke away after a while and climbed some stairs, and then some more stairs, and then some more stairs, to get up to the battlement, where we had views across the sands to the countryside all around. It was breathtaking. We took a bunch of pictures and played around in our play castle, then started walking back before it got too dark. We had a picnic lunch of crepes with ham and cheese, plus some celeriac remoulade and a bottle of local cider, then we put on our jackets and hats and went back to see the Mont under the moonlight. We didn’t walk all the way out this time, just stayed on the causeway, but I’m so glad we saw it at night because the whole thing was lit up with bright white lights. It was so surreal. We tried taking pictures of it, but they didn’t turn out very well because it was so dark outside. But I’ll never forget the sight of it.

The next day we woke up early again, packed up, had a typical French breakfast of coffee and bread with butter and jam, and drove out to the Mont so we could leave straight from there. It looked very mysterious in the thick morning fog, almost hidden in the enveloping grey. We headed straight for the abbey, which was already beginning to fill up with visitors, including a very large group of French high school students. We hurried to get ahead of them, and then we had the abbey almost to ourselves. We were familiar with the standard abbey setup, having been to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, but this was laid out differently since it was on the top of a steep rock rather than in a gentle valley. There were lots of twisting staircases and thin windows to protect the occupants from sharp winds. I could see why they had so many enormous fireplaces, too, since it was very cold and damp inside the stone walls. Since we were so high up, we had spectacular views out to sea, and what with the whipping of the flags in the wind, it felt almost like we were on a massive stone ship. We left the abbey and wandered around the few streets and terraces, and then we left before it got too crowded. Already, by 11:00, the place was starting to fill up with busloads of tourists. We bid a final farewell to Mont St. Michel and drove into Brittany.

We stopped in another walled town, Dinan, for lunch. We walked around the oldest section of the city for a while and stopped in a few shops that sold local specialties. There were entire stores dedicated to different kinds of canned seafood. There were lots of bakeries selling local butter cookies (sables, like the sand all around). There were crepe shops. There were chocolate shops. And all in beautiful, old, leaning buildings. It was classic France, completely unlike anything we had seen in Paris. I really wanted to get some moules frites for lunch, and we found a promising looking restaurant and went in. We definitely made the right choice. Andrew got mussels cooked with white wine and onion, and I got mine with cider, onion, and a bit of cream. We ordered a bottle of cider, which they served in wide ceramic mugs. While we were enjoying the best mussels ever, and more fries than we could possibly eat, a group of priests came in for lunch. They were wearing really old-fashioned Dominican frocks, but they also had iPhones. It was a funny contrast.

After lunch we got back on the road, because we had to drive all the way to the Loire Valley that afternoon. We drove past more fields than I could count, and it all started to blend together in my mind. I think I fell asleep for a little while. But eventually we got to Angers, a large town with craggy stone walls and an ancient castle that we glimpsed from the road. From there, it was supposed to be a short drive to our campsite for the night. We only had the name of the village, so we drove there and hoped to find the site along the way. We didn’t. Andrew found someone to ask for directions, and he sent us out of town one way, but after 20 minutes of driving we still hadn’t found it, so we stopped somewhere else and I asked for directions. The woman spoke a tiny bit of English, about as well as I spoke French, but she was very willing to help. She and her husband discussed the matter, then she called a friend, and finally she drew me a rough map with landmarks to look out for, including “Le Grand Canard.” I thanked her profusely and got back in the car. Well, her directions weren’t that great, and we ended up on a tiny road next to a farm with several menacing dogs and a rather surly young man who wasn’t well pleased by my asking for more directions. He sent us away without any real help. But we soon found yet another person to ask for directions and, wouldn’t you know it, he was actually English. He knew the English couple who owned the campsite and he sent us right there. And the grand canard turned out to be not a giant duck, but a giant duck farm. Apparently we were staying in a big foie gras area. I sent some silent pity to the ducks as we passed by. Eventually we got to the campsite, where we were welcomed most heartily and kindly, with mugs of milky tea. We set up our tent in the camping field on this couple’s farm, and played card games and drank some wine in the setting sun. Then we had another nice little picnic with supplies from a grocery store we had found on the way. As we were cleaning up afterwards, one of the owners came over and asked if we’d like to join him and his wife for a glass of wine by the fire. They were so nice, and we talked for a few hours about local history, places we had all travelled, and how things were going in England. They shared with us a bottle of wine they had gotten from a friend in the area. It was from his private cellar and was unlabeled, so we didn’t know what we were drinking, but it was delicious. They were some of the kindest, warmest-hearted people we had ever met. We were almost sad to leave the next morning, but it was time to get into the valley and see some castles.

First we drove to Fontevraud Abbey, which was an enormous abbey complex built in the middle ages. It is still very well preserved, and the main sanctuary is very impressive, a towering, shining white façade standing out against the green of the surrounding fields. Inside we saw the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionhearted. Eleanor is a fascinating figure, and I was inspired to learn more about her. The rest of the abbey was beautiful and peaceful, as usual. The one really unique feature we got to see was the kitchen, which was built in an octagonal building with huge fireplaces in four of the sides and vents rising from each angle straight up out of the domed roof. From the outside it looks like some sort of abstract, geometrical turtle armed for battle. After the abbey, we drove through the countryside, which was very different down here, much more green than golden Normandy. We made our way over to Chinon, which is one of the big wine towns in the area, and found lunch at a sidewalk café. Andrew had a croque monsieur while I had a delicious green salad with lots of tomatoes and eggs and thick, mustardy dressing, and we shared some Chinon rose wine in the sunshine surrounded by beautiful old buildings with a view of the local chateau. Heaven. Afterwards we drove through vineyards and forests on our way to Villandry. We stopped briefly in Azay-le-Rideau to see the chateau there, but we couldn’t afford to pay admission for all the chateaux in the area so we just peeked at the front of it and moved on to Villandry.

Villandry is a beautiful chateau, but it is particularly famous for its gardens. They are laid out, Renaissance-style, in giant geometrical patterns. We climbed up to the top of the hill first to get the lay of the land, and it was hard to believe what was right before our eyes. There were squares laid out with hearts and diamonds and circles and fleurs-de-lys, there were dozens of fountains, there were blocks of orange flowers and blue flowers and mazes of green; according to the guidebook there were literally millions of different plants laid out at our feet. We enjoyed the view from above, but we wanted to see it at ground level, too. We spent a couple hours just walking through all the different sections, sitting by a fountain here, walking through a hedge maze there. The flowers were beautiful, but I think my favorite section was the vegetables and herbs, which were laid out in as intricate a pattern as everything else. After our grueling tour of the gardens we refreshed ourselves with some ice cream, then drove a little ways more to our next campsite, just across the river from Chenonceau. We had a really nice spot right on the Cher river, and we could just see a corner of the chateau under a stone bridge from our tent. We went out for more provisions and had another relaxing picnic dinner that evening and played cards late into the night.

The next day was Chenonceau day. This was the chateau I was most excited about seeing, because it is built across the river on huge stone arches. We walked there from our campsite and were actually hot for the first time in months. It was so sunny almost the whole time we were in France; we couldn’t have asked for better holiday weather. We had found another grocery store in the morning and picked up food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so we packed a picnic lunch to take with us. We bought a bottle of wine on our way and enjoyed an al fresco lunch of brie and apple sandwiches on the lawn outside the castle gates. I don’t think I can adequately describe the absolute joy of being in such beautiful surroundings and feeling such a sense of freedom and well-being as we experienced there. You may think, what’s the big deal; it’s just a picnic. But it was the food and the weather and being away from work and being able to spend every minute of every day with Andrew, doing whatever we wanted, going wherever we wanted. I was blissfully happy at that moment.

The chateau was pretty swell, too. There had been an older chateau built on that site on the banks of the river, but some aristocrat bought it during the seventeenth century and expanded it out into the river, several stories high. It looks like something out of a dream. We wandered all over the castle, in drawing rooms and bedrooms and dining rooms and art galleries. The best parts were the parts right over the river, though. The main floor of the chateau, extending the entire length of the building, is a long hall with windows every couple of feet looking out over the river. Underneath that floor, set into the supports of the giant arches, are the kitchens, and they were fascinating. They were built down below so that they could receive their supplies directly from boats on the river. There were huge fireplaces and rows of gleaming copper pans. I loved imagining the feasts that were prepared there. Chenonceau had lovely gardens, too, and we walked around some more, had some ice cream, and made our way back to the tent for an afternoon nap. We woke up to a very strange sound that turned out to be a hot air balloon floating down the river, very low to the ground. We saw dozens of them in the valley, but none so close up as this one. That night was our best picnic dinner, with potato salad, green salad, sausages, and cheese. We sat by the river and soaked it all in.

The next morning we packed up the tent and drove to Amboise, another pretty riverside town with a massive stone castle. We didn’t go in the castle, but we did go to the house nearby where Leonardo da Vinci lived for several years. They had reconstructions of some of his wild inventions set in a garden. It was a little bit cheesy, and we began to feel like they thought Leonardo da Vinci had invented everything, ever, but it was neat to see the machines. We also enjoyed wandering around Amboise. It had one street in particular that was lined with food shops of every variety. We bought some luscious little strawberries, which we ate by the river, and had coffee and pastries at a café in front of the castle. Then we got back on the road to Tours, going past several vineyards along the way.

We were going to Tours to pick up Monica and Graham, and we got there with just enough spare time to walk through the main town square and see the fountains and the Hotel de Ville. Then we went to the train station and waited for their train. The train came, and everyone got off, but there was no sign of Monica and Graham. We figured they must have missed it, so we waited for the next train from Paris. But they weren’t on that one, either. We were starting to worry, and we didn’t have any way to reach them, but then my cell phone rang and it was Monica, asking where on earth we were. We were in Tours, at the train station, I told her. So are we, she replied. I ran all over, looking for her, then had her describe her surroundings. It turned out there were two Tours train stations, and they were at the other one. So we ran back to the car and got over to the other station, where we found them waiting patiently. Relieved to have found them, we got back on the road one more time, to drive to Bracieux, a village near Blois, where we were staying for two nights.

Bracieux is a pretty but unremarkable town, but the location was good and the hotel was very comfortable. We got there in the evening and walked out in search of dinner, thinking we would just find something quick, but there were only two restaurants in town. We picked one that seemed to have decent prices, and they let us have a table even though the kitchen was about to close. We ordered as quickly as we could and then settled down for dinner. And what a surprise! It turned out to be one of our favorite meals ever. It included two amuse-bouches, one a little shot of pea soup, I think, and the other a little tasty morsel of something (Monica remembers mushrooms) on a spoon. We were pretty excited at this point, since we could tell this was a really good restaurant. We all had a great time tasting each other’s food and talking about all the flavors and the wine and sharing stories of our travels in rural France and their travels in Paris over the last few days. Some of the dishes I remember are a gorgeous, pale green asparagus soup, a dish of seafood in a light, creamy broth, roast pork with luscious potatoes, and a cassolette with snails under a giant dome of puff pastry. Every single bite was delicious, and the fact that it took us by surprise only added to our enjoyment. Thanks, Monica and Graham!

The next day we all went to Chambord, another chateau. I saved this one for when Monica and Graham joined us because it looked like it was going to be the most impressive chateau of all, and that was absolutely the case. It was built as a hunting lodge, but it was the most spectacular castle I have ever seen. We went all over, learning about the history of the castle and taking in the architectural details, including the double-helix staircase and the incredibly complicated roofline. I can’t believe how well all the chateaux have been preserved. It was especially fun to see the castle with Graham, since he was on his first trip to Europe. I hope we showed him a good time.

We had a picnic lunch on the grounds of the chateau, then went for a drive through the country, stopping at a vineyard for a wine tasting. We made our way to the town of Blois in the afternoon. We parked on one edge of the old city and walked up the hill, where we found yet another castle, as well as an attraction commemorating one of the town’s native sons, a magician named Houdin (Harry Houdini was a big fan). It was a house with several large shuttered windows that opened every hour on the hour to reveal large audio-animatronic dragons that popped out of the windows and moved their heads around, with creepy music in the background. It was so weird. We walked around the old city and along the river for a while and had a drink in a café in the square. Then we headed back to Bracieux. On the edge of town was a chocolatier with free samples, and we tasted chocolates there from all over the world. When dinner time rolled around we walked up to another restaurant we had noticed on our way back from Blois. It was really good, too, although not quite as exciting as the one the night before.

We had to leave the next morning to turn in the car in Paris, and we got back without a single minute to spare due to traffic. The moral of this story is: never drive in Paris. But we still had the whole afternoon to spend in Paris. Almost everything was closed for May Day, so we did a lot of walking, shared a bottle of wine under the Eiffel Tower, and pretended not to speak English when gypsy beggars walked up to us. We caught the Eurostar back to London that night. Monica and Graham spent a few days with us in London, and we did all our usual tour-guiding, which we were getting pretty good at by then. One night they cooked dinner for us at our flat, with the most amazing panzanella, lamb with rosemary, potatoes gratin, and asparagus, with original cocktails to start and sorbet to finish. The moral of this story is: have Monica and Graham to stay at your place! We had a fantastic time hanging out with them in France and back in London, and we were sorry to send them back to San Francisco.

Photos are here: and here:

Visits from Jenni and Alexandra, and other springtime distractions

My friend Jenni came to stay with us during her spring break, and we had a great time showing her all the usual sights. I particularly enjoyed our impromptu afternoon tea with goodies from a local bakery. Our visit to Brighton with Andrew on the weekend was also a lot of fun. We went down on the train and spent a few hours walking along the waterfront, taking in the pier with its cheap carnival rides and the Royal Pavilion with its incredibly tacky faux-Indian decorations. We had an awesome lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, too. Apparently there are a lot of veggies in Brighton; it has a fun kind of hippy vibe about it.

In May, the lovely Alexandra graced us with her presence. She works in the American office of a British publisher, and she got to go over to the British headquarters for some reason or another and stayed a few extra days to do a bit of traveling and stay with us in London. Alexandra studied in London in summer 2008, so she already knew the city fairly well and we just spent time hanging out and showing her around our neighborhood. She also tagged along with us for the London Gator Club International Gator Day 2010 Pub Crawl, which was a huge success. We charged 15 pounds per pub crawler and sold snacks along the way and raised over 300 pounds for a Haitian charity. Go Gators!

Christmas 2009/New Year’s 2010

In early December our friend from Blacksburg, Nicole, came to stay with us for a few days. She was in London for a conference for work and convinced her boss to let her stay a few extra days to visit with us. We had not seen her since we left Blacksburg, and we caught right up and fell into the old way of things immediately. We really enjoyed showing her around London (her first visit), especially all the special Christmassy things like the lights on Oxford Street and the ice skating rink at the Natural History Museum. We didn’t do too much walking because it was absolutely freezing, but that’s what museums are for, after all. Our big splurge for her visit was lunch at Fifteen, which was exciting for us three Jamie Oliver fans. I can’t remember all the details, but I know there was a luscious mozzarella salad for a starter and some roast pork with greens and lentils as a main. What I mainly remember is the joy of sharing a delicious meal with a beloved friend after a long absence.

It was another busy Christmas season for us on both sides of the Atlantic, what with a Christmas carol service with Will and Michelle, Christmas parties with our office mates (I convinced Nigel to take us to the French steak place, which was so much fun!), and a very special party with Amy and Don at their place in West Hampstead. Amy made a knockout Christmas meal with salmon blinis and homemade venison pies. She even made Christmas crackers for us with personalized gifts and games inside. And Don served some of the champagne he had been stockpiling for months. It was the nicest little party I’ve ever been to, and even though I kept slipping and sliding on the ice outside, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt warmer than I did that night.

But the next morning we were up bright and early for our flight home. Little did we know our trip home would end up taking 36 hours. We got to the airport and checked in without a hitch, but when we got on the plane we found that there were people in our seats with tickets identical to ours. We found a flight attendant, who found someone else, who pulled us off the plan and explained that, due to a glitch in the system, our itinerary had been canceled. There was snow in Atlanta, so our flight from NYC to ATL had been canceled, which meant our flight to NYC had also been canceled, but this had all happened after we checked in, so we had no way of knowing. This was upsetting, shall we say, but the very nice man who was helping us suggested that the weather was so bad in NYC that it was good we were not on that flight anyways. He took our information and showed us to the first-class lounge, where we were to await further instructions.

Let me tell you something. If you ever get bumped off a flight in a major airport, see if you can finagle your way into the first-class lounge. It was even better than I could have imagined. There were free snacks – and by snacks I mean plates of lovely cheese, beautiful little salads, freshly made omelets and sandwiches – and drinks – and by drinks I mean an open bar with unlimited wine, beer, and spirits. We were in the lounge for several hours, and I went through a lot of free champagne. Eventually they put us on a flight to Minneapolis, with another flight to Memphis, then one to TLH the next morning. We were upset, but there was no way around it. I did try to make some extra demands, for first-class seating or something, but they told us there was nothing more they could do. But, when it came time for us to board, a miracle occurred and they found room for us in the first-class cabin, after all. It was even better than the first-class lounge, and I went through several more glasses of champagne during the flight (all very genteelly and discreetly, of course!) while enjoying delicious food and several very good movies from the comfort of my fully reclining seat with a big blanket and a real pillow. So much pampering!

Of course, all the pampering in the world could not make the flights move more quickly, and we only got as far as Memphis that night, where we had very mediocre sandwiches for dinner in the mediocre hotel we were provided by the airline. So it wasn’t first class all the way. But we finally got home the next morning, met Linna and Walter, and went to wait for our luggage. We hadn’t had our luggage in Memphis, but we were assured it would catch up with us in Tallahassee. It did, but not for four long days, during which time we wore borrowed clothes and mourned our lost clothes, jewelry, and Christmas presents.

I won’t lie; the travel delays and lost luggage put a serious damper on the trip, but we still had a lovely Christmas with our families and friends. It was especially poignant, as well, because we knew it was our last trip home before we moved back to the US. Our flights back to London were much smoother, and then we knew we had only a few more months of our European adventure.

When we got back to London, Andrew and I hosted a very exclusive New Year’s Eve party for us and the Kiwis, and according to the photographic evidence we had a rip-roaring time. I can’t say I remember much. The food turned out well, though: we had carrots and spinach-yogurt dip, endive with homemade blue-cheese and bacon dressing, ham on cheddar biscuits, mini chocolate sundaes, bourbon sidecars, and lots and lots of champagne. Add in confetti and a late-night visit from some celebratory Gator Club friends after their river cruise, and you’ve got one hell of a New Year’s party that we recovered from very slowly over the next couple of days. Success!

One of my Christmas gifts to Andrew was a membership to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and we started going there as often as we could in the new year. We particularly loved the new Medieval and Renaissance wing, the plaster cast courts, and the special exhibits, including quilts, Grace Kelly clothes, digital art, and small-scale architecture.

Photos of Christmas with the Kiwis, New Year’s Eve, Hyde Park snow, and Valentine’s Day festivities are here: Andrew’s photos from autumn and winter 2009-10 are here:

My 29th birthday

Our tradition of extravagant London birthdays continued with my 29th. The day started with breakfast at Canteen, then I went to one of the swanky salons in Marylebone to get my nails done. After that I went back home, where Andrew was finishing up the decoration on my birthday cake. We had lunch reservations to get to, so I got all dressed up and we went to l’Autre Pied, the sister restaurant to Pied a Terre, which loyal readers may recognize as the two-star restaurant Andrew and I accidentally went to, then left in disgrace. We were ready this time, and it was a lovely lunch. We got to sit in the private dining room, which was covered in beautiful embroidered silk wallpaper. I had my usual glass of sparkling wine and we got down to lunch. It was all very light and elegant. Here’s the lunch menu (we had one of each between the two of us):

  • · Ballotine of Confit Guinea Fowl, Pickled Shimeji Mushrooms, Pinenut Vinaigrette, or
  • · Slow Cooked Sea Trout, Pickled Cucumber, Lemon Oil and Herb Emulsion
  • · Roasted Rabbit Leg, Mushroom and Tarragon Beignets, Creamed Broccoli, Hazelnut and Thyme Jus, or
  • · Chanterelle and Herb Linguini, Poached Gem Lettuce, Velouté of Smoked Ham and Shaved Parmesan
  • · Rhubarb and Frangipane Tart, Rhubarb Sorbet, Cardamom Crisps, or
  • · Chaource, Young, Bloomy, Soft Cow’s Milk, Champagne, France

After a birthday nap, we took in a fun little animated Japanese movie at our favorite cinema, then went back home to change for our next feasting, this time at Locanda Locatelli, which was just around the corner from our flat, and which is supposed to be the best Italian restaurant in London. It was very dark and mysterious inside, and I felt like a million bucks striding through the restaurant in my fancy black dress and new birthday jewelry. The food was also worth a million bucks, although not as pretentious as one might expect. I had a rocket salad with shaved fennel and parmesan to start and grilled sardines stuffed with garlicky breadcrumbs as my main. There were also delicious homemade grissini and bread throughout the meal. I always have a hard time not overdoing it on the bread, but it was nigh impossible there! After a short walk home, it was time for birthday cake and a well-earned sleep.

The next day we relaxed in the morning, then went to The Wolseley for tea, followed by a long walk across town and a piano concert at the Barbican. All in all, it was a very grownup birthday, and I was a very luck birthday girl.

Book club

Early in the new year we met up for dinner with Steve and Jamie and Kris and Tamara, Americans all, and Jamie and Tamara invited me to their book club the next night. I was a bit wary, as I tend to have (as I like to think) rather rarefied literary taste, but I wanted to spend more time with Jamie and Tamara, so I gave it a go. Their book club is made up of American, Canadian, Australian, Irish, and English girls of about my age, and the membership has grown as everyone brings new friends into the fold. I feel so lucky to have been part of this group, as the girls are absolutely amazing. They all lead such full and interesting lives, with travel itineraries spanning the globe, and they represent all sorts of different careers and interests, as well. I didn’t have time to read the book for that meeting, but I tagged along to meet everyone. That night was a special book club event, because one of the girls had gotten all our names put on the guest list for an exclusive club in Kensington. So we sat around and talked about books and had snacks, then everyone got all dolled up for the club. I was dressed nicely but not as nice as I should have been, apparently, but oh well. It was fun to see all the cute party dresses and high heels that everyone changed into. We all cabbed over to the club and descended into the darkness for what must have been a few hours, because by the time we left it was very, very late, and we had had a lot to drink (did I mention the girl who got us on the list was friends with some sort of party organizer who invited us to his table in the VIP room with free drinks?). Jamie, Tamara, and I went to McDonald’s for something to soak up the booze, then we all caught separate cabs home. It was quite a night. I think that was enough clubbing to last me the rest of my life, though. It was a hell of an experience.

I went to book club meetings every month after that until we left London, and I always had a great time and got to read some really good books, too. I also started paying a bit more attention to new books that were coming out and we started spending more time in our local book shop. In late January Andrew surprised me with tickets at Daunt Books for a lecture by A.S. Byatt, one of my favorite contemporary writers. She shared the stage with one of the editors of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, which had just been published, and the two of them talked about Van Gogh and art and writing. It was very exciting, and I got to meet Ms. Byatt afterwards. I got her to sign a copy of her new book and told her I had written a paper about her in college. I think she liked that. After the lecture the surprise date night continued with dinner reservations at Galvin, where we discussed art and literature over steak tartare, salade lyonnaise, and various other delicious bites. I felt on top of the world.

Nicholas and Katie

In October we returned to the US for yet another family wedding, this time for Nicholas and Katie. We flew into New York first and stayed with our friend Alyssa in northern Manhattan. We went out for brunch the next morning and walked up to The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that holds one of the world’s finest collections of medieval art. Alyssa was a fabulous tour guide because she knew the museum well and she studied religion in college, so she was able to explain some of the art that was not immediately accessible, especially the famous unicorn tapestries. Medieval art has never been my favorite, but I loved the museum. It was very peaceful, and some of the best pieces were tiny objects that required one to pause and concentrate. It was a very different sort of Manhattan experience. We were sad to say goodbye to Alyssa, but we had to leave to meet up with Elise, who was in town briefly and who came with us on the train to New Jersey, where Fred picked us up and entertained us for a few days. We spent some time in Basking Ridge, then we headed up to the lake, where our friend Alexandra met us, having driven all the way from Massachusetts to see us. It was cold, especially out in the boat, but the leaves were turning and the setting was just beautiful.

After a relaxing visit with Fred, we flew down to Orlando for the wedding. My parents rented a cute little 1920s bungalow in Winter Park for a few days, and we all piled in together and had a great time talking and snacking and playing games. Andrew’s parents also came down for the wedding, so we got to spend some time with them and the aunts and uncles, as well.

Nicholas and Katie’s wedding was delightful. Andrew performed the ceremony (they were legally married the day before, at the courthouse), and everything was very intimate and family-centered. Plus, it was a swell party, with good food and lots and lots of dancing. It was very Nicholas and Katie, and once again we were sad to leave our family and friends to head back to London, but we felt very nourished by the whole trip.

Fall 2009 photos, including Matt and Missy, London and Greenwich, the Cloisters, London Gator Club stuff, and Andrew in a Halloween wig, are here:

Thanksgiving 2009 and our fifth wedding anniversary

Our American friends Steve and Jamie invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner in Chiswick, which we gladly accepted without realizing quite what we were getting ourselves into. Steve and Jamie are amazing hosts, and they made all 13 of their diners feel warm and welcome. Two of the guests were friends of theirs from Jacksonville who were living in Paris at the time. John was attending culinary school in Paris and was then working in the kitchens at the Ritz Hotel. We brought a turkey from the farmer’s market, which he volunteered to cook. We were happy to just sit back and relax and see him work his magic, and my goodness he did not disappoint. He and Jamie made all the food, and it was quite possibly the best meal of my life. We had turkey with truffled gravy, ridiculous mashed potatoes, spinach cheese casserole, sweet potatoes with brandied marshmallow cream, rolls, amazing stuffing, cranberries, the whole works. And in the best of company. It figures we had to go all the way to England to meet Steve and Jamie, who I could have known when we were all at UF together, but if somehow they had been the only thing we got out of our time in London, they alone would have been worth it.

We somehow stumbled back to Marylebone that night and fell into a food and wine-induced stupor, but we got to sleep in the next morning because it was our anniversary, and all we had to do was make it out to the Cotswolds for a weekend at a fancy country inn.

We took the train from Paddington out to a very small town in the Cotswolds, where caught a cab to our inn, The Lords of the Manor. It’s a very silly name but a not-at-all-silly place. The inn used to be some sort of stately home, and it is all Cotswold stone and leaded glass and ivy trailing on the walls. My jaw dropped when we pulled up in the cab. The porter took our bags and led us to our room, which was the prettiest hotel room I have ever seen, with gorgeous antique furniture and a giant bath tub with gleaming brass faucet and handles. We settled in, then went for a short walk around the village, which looked like a movie, it was so perfect. You couldn’t even tell what year it was; it could just as easily have been 1809 as 2009. We got back to the hotel in time to have some tea and scones in one of the common rooms with big leather club chairs and a roaring fire. Later we went back to our room to play some board games, exchange gifts, and get ready for dinner.

The hotel was doing a special wine dinner that evening, led by a representative of the Tuscan vineyard where all the wines had come from. We started out in one of the common rooms with canapés and sparkling wine, then moved into the dining room. The full menu is below:

  • · Canapés with Bruno Giacosa Spumante 2004, Piemonte, Italy
  • · Roasted Diver Caught Scallops and Sweetbreads, Date Chutney, Chicken Jus with Tiefenbrunner Kirchleiten Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Alto Adige, Italy
  • · Loin and Shoulder of Lighthorne Lamb, Roasted Aubergines, Grelot Onions, Gratin Potatoes, Rosemary Lamb Jus with Ornellaia 1994, Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia Bolgheri, Italy and Ornellaia 2001, Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia Bolgheri, Italy
  • · Locally Produced Cheeses, Chutney and Biscuits with Le Serre Nuove 2007 Tenuta dell’ Ornellaia Bolgheri, Italy
  • · Valrhona Chocolate Tart, Manjari Ganache, Passion Fruit Sorbet, Chocolate Croquant with Vigna Serre Recioto della Valpollicella 2003 Romaro dal forno, Veneto, Italy
  • · Coffee & Petit Fours

The wine guy was highly entertaining and led us through all the tastings. He gave a little notebook to each table so we could right down our own tasting notes. It was really fun. By the end of the evening we were completely stuffed and happy and very much in love.

The next day, after a “light” full English breakfast, we felt like a country walk might be in order, so we borrowed some wellies from the front desk and went tromping away across the countryside. We were staying in the village of Upper Slaughter, and we first walked down to Lower Slaughter, which we had seen with the Marders the year before. We walked along a stream for part of the way and saw the old mill in the little village. Then there was a footpath through a forest and a field with grazing horses, and then we came to another village, Bourton-on-the-Water, which we had also visited with the Marders. We walked through the little lanes and made fun of the touristy little shops, then had some tea and started our walk back to the hotel. It was a typically grey English day, but it felt right for trudging along in wellies until we got within a few hundred meters of the hotel when we hit a slippery patch of leaves on the hillside and poor Andrew took a muddy fall. We got him as cleaned up as possible, then got up to our room for a hot bath to clean away the mud and the embarrassment. While Andrew was soaking, I called down to the front desk and had them send up a giant tray of tea, scones, and sandwiches, which we enjoyed while wearing our robes and sitting in our comfy little sitting room. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so pampered as I did at that moment.

Later in the evening we went downstairs to yet another one of the common rooms, where the hotel’s sommelier was holding a champagne tasting. Perfect! We got to taste five or six different ones, and we made friends with another young couple who was staying at the hotel for a birthday celebration. Later on we sat with them at the bar before dinner, and we met up for a nightcap afterwards, sitting in front of the fire and feeling very sophisticated. Here’s the menu:

  • · Mosaic of Adlestrop Estate Game, Spiced Pear Purée, Toasted Brioche, or
  • · Poached Free Range Hen's Egg, Onion Purée, Toasted Brioche, Lambs Lettuce, Parma Ham
  • · Poached and Roasted Breast of Corn Fed Chicken, Salsify, Gratin Potatoes, Braised onions, Cep Velouté, or
  • · Fillet of Sea bream, Celeriac Purée, Wild Mushroom, Confit Potato, Red Wine Sauce

The cheese course was completely over the top, with a whole cart full of dozens of British cheeses for tasting, with little homemade crackers and chutneys as accompaniment.

The next morning we had another delicious breakfast, then sat by the fire and read while we waited for our cab back to the train and home. It was the best weekend of my life, and a perfect way to celebrate five beautiful years of marriage.

A visit from Robert

In early November, Robert came for a quick but epic visit. We started with lunch at le Relais de Venise, a French steak and frites restaurant just off Marylebone High Street that Andrew and I had had our eyes on for quite a while. Robert was a perfect excuse to try it out. I worked that morning, then met the boys at the restaurant for lunch and we had the best steak, fries, fancy mystery green sauce, red wine, and profiteroles in a dining room lined with antique mirrors and huge vases of white lilies. Very classy. We showed Robert around our neighborhood (we were in Enfield the first time he visited) and met up with the Kiwis at a shop around the corner for a whiskey tasting in the early evening. This shop specializes in fine whiskeys, and we tried five different versions from different parts of Scotland. It was a lot of fun, even for us girls, who thought we didn’t like Scotch but learned otherwise. After our warming whiskey, we all went to Canteen for more warmth, more drinks, and general frivolity. Robert and the Kiwis got on like a house on fire, as the Brits would say. I think that must have been one of our best nights in London.

On Saturday we took Robert out to Oxford for the day for a brief tour of the town and a bang-up lunch at The Fishes. That evening, a light summer and board games were in order, along with good conversation long into the night.

On Sunday morning we were off to the farmer’s market as usual, but when we got back we found we had left our keys behind and had to wait almost an hour for a locksmith to come. We had the privilege of paying some obscene amount for about 2 minutes of work on his part, which was more than a little upsetting, but at least we got back inside. We had to rush to get ready for our lunch reservations at Corrigan’s Mayfair, but we made it on time and Robert, being the amazing friend he is, even took us out to lunch. We all had Sunday roasts of various types, venison and pork and chicken, with the tastiest roast potatoes and steamed carrots and cabbage and Yorkshire puddings I have ever encountered. I had some sort of delicious dried fruit and custard pudding with a glass of Armagnac and began to feel much, much better, sitting at a big round table in the middle of that beautiful room. Later we had more board games and drinks and conversation, and we had to bid Robert adieu the next morning, but it was so comforting and stimulating to have him around even for just a weekend.

Oslo in the summertime

Andrew and I went to Oslo for the August bank holiday weekend. It turned out to be my favorite place I have ever been. It was beautiful and clean and efficient. The people were friendly. The buildings and public spaces were filled with art. There is water everywhere. There are about a million museums. There are tiny islands. There are more trees than you can imagine, plus lakes and mountains. The public transportation system is extensive and even includes water buses between the islands. And, even though we were there at the very end of summer, it still stayed light until late at night. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to spend a whole winter there, but Oslo in the summertime is like some sort of Scandinavian paradise.

We caught an early morning flight with all our camping stuff in our trusty backpacks and had beautiful views of the North Sea and the Norwegian coastline as we flew in. The Oslo airport is as beautiful as every other aspect of the city, and we had a tasty hot dog (apparently the Norwegians can’t get enough hot dogs; they were everywhere) in a café there while we figured out our next steps. We had a little bit of a language barrier to deal with, but most people spoke a little bit of English. It was kind of fun not knowing the language because it was like a game, trying to figure out what the signs and advertisements said. We found a bus into town and wandered around a little bit while we got our bearings, then eventually figured out how to get to our campground, which was a little ways out of town but easy to get to on another bus. Downtown Oslo is not very big, and we saw a lot of the city in our early wanderings. On our bus ride, we got to see more of it, plus some of the more residential areas and a few brief peeks at the waterfront.

The campground was pretty nice, but it started to rain as we were in the middle of setting up our tent, and the wind picked up, too, so we were forced to take shelter under a tree. The rain was off and on during our trip, but that, thankfully, was the worst of it, and after we got all set up we walked into the village to find some provisions. We had a couple grocery stores to choose from: the one at the campground and a nicer one in the little village. We were shocked by both of them, though. We knew that Oslo was supposed to be very expensive, but we weren’t quite prepared for the prices we came across, especially for food. Luckily, we were just after a bit of bread and cheese, so we got by, but the prices for regular food were shockingly high. The restaurants were really expensive, too. We saw a chain pizza restaurant and did the math. One medium cheese pizza worked out to about 30 dollars! But the loveliest aspects of our trip were free, especially walking. We dropped off our supplies and walked up to a nearby lake, where we breathed the pristine air, dipped our toes in the frigid water, and watched the sun starting to set. It was so peaceful.

The next morning we hopped back on the bus and went down to one of the marinas, then walked over to a peninsula where a lot of museums are clustered together. We walked past a royal farm (they have a royal family still) with fancy uniformed guards and through a gorgeous neighborhood of houses that we guessed were mostly built in the early twentieth century. Other than a few buildings downtown, most of Oslo seems to be very new. I don’t know if the houses just don’t last long in the extreme weather, or if Norway has been rebuilding due to its recent increase in wealth, but most of the houses we saw were only a few decades old, at the most. This meant that there were some traditional styles repeated often but also that there was a great deal of diversity in the architecture. It was all very tasteful, though; there were no McMansions or Italian stucco houses or anything else that seemed out of place. It was all very simple and clean and beautiful.

Our initial destination that morning was a museum dedicated to three enormous Viking ships that had been discovered by archaeologists. It was kind of expensive, so we didn’t tour the museum, but we did get a peek at one of the ships. From there, we walked down to the waterfront, where we caught a water bus downtown. It wasn’t a special tourist boat or anything, just the regular public service, but they could have charged a lot more for the ride; it was one of my favorite things. We got off the boat near the City Hall, where they award the Nobel Prizes, then walked up to the National Gallery, which was all Norwegian art, including Munch’s famous Scream and some really pretty, dark, atmospheric nineteenth-century paintings of snow-covered meadows and cozy fireside scenes. Then we found some lunch at a little sidewalk café. We felt cold, considering it was August, but we were warm enough with our jackets on to sit outside. I had some shrimp salad with lovely, dark Norwegian bread. We knew we couldn’t afford many restaurant meals, so we tried to eat local foods when we had the chance and make the most of the experience.

After lunch we walked to the Opera House, which is right on – and actually in – the water. It was just opened a couple years ago, so it is still pristine and perfect. I think it is the coolest building I have ever seen. The roof slopes up at several different angles in such a way that you can walk up the sides of the buildings and all over the roof, then down the walls again into the water. There were hundreds of people milling about, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful space. There were even some Japanese teenagers having an impromptu dance party in one spot. We took a bunch of pictures, then continued along the waterfront to another water bus terminal, where we hopped on a ferry out to some of the little islands. We jumped off on one island to walk around and see what we could see. It turned out to be full of teeny-tiny summer cottages that had been built in the 1920s. There were hundreds of them, all painted in the same shades of red, yellow, green, and blue, all with white trim. There were lace curtains and picnic tables and bright red geraniums planted everywhere. It was an ideal summer setup. There was hardly anyone around, so we just walked around for an hour or so, gazing at the water and trying to figure out how we could summer here in the future. It was quiet except for the low hum of the hundreds of boats out in the water, and it was even more peaceful than the lake the evening before. I was sad to leave on the next ferry, but I loved being on the boat with the wind in my face watching all the islands pass by. We walked back into town along the water, past a hillside fort and past all the cruise ships. We were getting pretty cold by that point, so we found a place where we could have a cup of coffee and watch the beautiful people walk by, then we walked to the National Theatre, where all of Ibsen’s plays were performed, then caught a subway back out to the village and walked to our campsite for another picnic dinner.

The next morning we woke up and decided to explore the mountain in whose shadow we had been sleeping. There were roads and footpaths winding up the side of the mountain, and after an hour of walking past beautiful houses, some with traditional grass roofs, we were at the top of the peak, but we weren’t yet where we wanted to be, which was the world-famous ski jump. We got lost a few times, but eventually we found it, and it was spectacular to see. They were in the middle of building the latest version of the ski jump; I think it was the fifth or sixth version built on the same spot since the early twentieth century. It was absolutely massive, and I would love to see someone jump from it. One of the things that I loved about Norway was that everyone seemed so fit and sporty; no couch potatoes in that culture. I could imagine the whole society gathered out in the snow just as easily as the sunshine. Very impressive. Once we reached our destination, we had to figure out how to get back to the campsite, which was much more difficult than we expected, but we made it back and packed up our gear, then headed back into town to explore a bit more before we had to leave to catch our flight that evening.

First we went to the main shopping area along the water and had a lovely lunch of seafood soup and Norwegian salmon with potatoes and dill sauce while we watched the cruise ships come into the harbor. Then we made our way over to a sculpture garden in the middle of an enormous city park (did I mention there were parks and gardens absolutely everywhere?). It was filled with thousands of human figures sculpted by a Norwegian artist, Gustav Vigeland, in the 1930s. The figures are in poses representing every possible human emotion, and many of them were sad, some even disturbing. Others, though, were so tender they almost brought me to tears. At the very center of the garden is an enormous column made up of hundreds of figures, and lining a bridge over a little lake are dozens of funny bronze statues. It was an amazing place unlike anything else I have ever seen. But then, Oslo was unlike any other place I have ever been. After our drizzly walk through the sculpture garden, we found a coffee shop where we could warm up, then we bought some Norwegian candy for Andrew’s work mates and sadly made our way back to the bus station to go back to the airport for our trip home. Even the flight was lovely, with nice flight attendants and good snacks, and we felt nurtured and reinvigorated after our fantastic trip. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to Norway.

Photos are here:

A visit from Matt and Missy

Missy was heading to Edinburgh to study art history for a year starting in September, so she and Matt stopped in London for a few days, left their stuff with us while they went to Paris for a few days, then came back briefly before heading up to Scotland. We had great times with them. We did lots of walking around, including up to Primrose Hill, which has a great view of the city. We also took them to cider pub, the Green Man, which by that time had become a great favorite of ours. It was great having them around, because we just felt so comfortable. They seemed like they belonged there with us. If only we could have had all our friends transplanted to London!

Andrew’s 29th birthday

I knew that Andrew’s 28th birthday was going to be hard to top, so I pulled out all the stops for his 29th. He took the day off, and I had him meet me in Mayfair for a surprise lunch at Corrigan’s Mayfair, which is a newish restaurant run by the same chef as the place I took him for his birthday lunch the previous year. It’s a beautiful place with plush banquettes and lots of pretty mirrors and lovely place settings, and as at Corrigan’s other place, the service was amazing. We each started with a glass of prosecco and ordered our food, then I revealed Andrew’s birthday present, which was a trip to Nice for the two of us that weekend. He was so surprised, and I was pleased that I was able to hold onto the secret for so long. The lunch was excellent, too, although I’m fuzzy on the details. It’s a quintessentially British restaurant with lots of local and seasonal flavors, and everything was absolutely delicious. I do remember there being an amuse-bouche of little cheesy croquettes and delicate fried olives and there were beautiful little nougats and geleed fruit and other bonbons with the coffee. What fell in between was a substantial but fleeting pleasure.

We left for Nice on Friday after work. It was a pretty quick flight, and we caught a cab from the airport to the hotel, feeling very fancy. Unfortunately, fanciness comes with a price, especially in Nice, and we had to get the cab driver to help us find an ATM to pull out extra cash for the ride. Note to self: find a bus to get back to the airport. But no worries. We got to the hotel, right on the Promenade, and checked in. We stayed at the Le Meridien, which was very exciting because we had stayed at one in New York several years back and it was the best hotel experience ever. I wanted Andrew to have a luxurious birthday, so it was an obvious choice. The Nice version, however, was not quite as nice. I mean it was a perfectly fine hotel, but it wasn’t what I expected for the price. But it was fine. So we settled in and went out to find some dinner. Even in the middle of the holiday season, there wasn’t much open late at night, but we found a place to split a pizza and a bottle of rose, and the waiter was very nice to us. It was neat to be in a city I had been to a couple of times before because I already knew my way around pretty well. We walked around for a bit, then back to the hotel, because we were pretty tired after a full day’s work plus a flight.

The next morning we found a little café that was still serving breakfast (I always forget how early you have to get up to get a decent breakfast in France; after about 10:00 you are just out of luck), then suited up for the beach. One of the special features of the hotel was that it had its own private beach with chairs and umbrellas and towels and everything else. Nice is weird, because there are several public beaches, but there are tiny strips of private beaches in between, that charge for access. We had been to the crowded public beaches, so we were excited to have access to a private beach this time. Much to my chagrin, however, it turned out that the astronomical price for staying at the hotel somehow did not include beach access, which was a further 20 euros. Per day. Per person. That’s like 70 dollars for two people to sit on a beach for a few hours. Instead, we took the bath towels from our room (strictly forbidden) and sat on the rocks on the public beach just across the little rope barrier separating us from our hotel’s private beach. I grumbled a lot, but Andrew reminded me to look around and remember that I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, and that things were probably not as bad as all that. After a bit of swimming we went back inside and found out that the rooftop pool did not charge any extra fees, so we went up there and took full advantage. And they had chairs and umbrellas and towels and everything. And there were no rocks. Sweet. We spent a lot of time at the pool over the next few days, and it was just as luxurious as I hoped it would be.

But we didn’t fly all the way to Nice to hang out at a pool, so we went out and explored the city some more. Nice is very walkable, and even though we had explored it before, there are always new things to discover. For instance, this time we walked up the big hill separating the old city from the newer port area. On top, there was a massive cemetery filled with stone and shell monuments with extravagant sculptures. My favorite one was of a coffin with the lid being lifted from inside by a skeletal arm. Charming. Lots of the tombs also had colorful enameled plaques with paintings and photographs of the deceased. It was the craziest cemetery we had ever seen. It was right up on top of the hill, and the sun was beating down on us. The only plants were cactuses. The tombs were literally piled on top of each other. It was not at all peaceful, but it was certainly interesting! There was also a big park on top of the hill, with a petanque court and some fountains. We walked all the way up and over, and then down the other side (just as Bryan had done when we lost him briefly on our previous visit!). On the other side, we found the candy factory we had toured the first time, and bought some candied citrus peel. Yum. Then we wandered around by the port a bit, and found a restaurant I had heard of that sounded like a good birthday weekend dinner spot. We made reservations for that night, then headed back to the hotel for some more pool time.

The rooftop pool was a bit like the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, filled as it was with rich and pretentious people from all over Europe. There seemed to be about a billion Russians in Nice, and they did not disappoint with their impressively bad taste. I have never seen so much sunburned skin and so many gold chains. We had a good time watching people and reading under the umbrellas in between dips in the pool. We also had a fabulous view from the rooftop, out over the city on one side and the sea on the other. It was hazy while we were there because of forest fires nearby, but it was still beautiful.

That night we had a drink at the hotel bar, then made our way over to the restaurant by public transportation; no more cabs for us. Nice has a great public transportation system, though, with lots of buses and fun little trams. We took a tram most of the way, then almost got lost in the narrow, winding streets, but eventually we got there. The restaurant was called La Zucca Magica, or the magic squash, and it’s an Italian-ish vegetarian restaurant with a set menu that changes every day. So we sat down and the waiter asked if we wanted red, white, or rose, and that was the only decision we had to make. We chose rose, of course. The restaurant was very dark and homey; it didn’t seem to fit in Nice at all. There were exposed wooden rafters and tables stuffed into every corner of the uneven room, and every spare space on the walls and shelves was covered with squash paraphernalia. There were paintings of squashes, sculptures of squashes, actual squashes, squash-shaped salt and pepper shakers. It was ridiculous and hilarious. But let me see what I can remember of the meal. It was indeed magical. We started with a simple vegetable soup with lots of fresh zucchini and tomatoes and pesto and parmesan on top. Then they brought out some roasted peppers that had been stuffed with a salad of tomatoes, olives, capers, and bread crumbs. It was cold and silky and delicious. We started looking at other tables to see what we could expect to come out of the kitchen next, which was fun. Next was a cheesy, herby focaccia, then some free-form lasagna with butternut squash and lots of cheese. And for dessert, tiramisu and cappuccino. All served to us by the warmest, heartiest, kindest waiters in all of France. It was just lovely, and we were very happy as we walked off our meal on our way back to the hotel.

The next day our flight wasn’t until the late evening, so we had most of the day to wander. We went to the old city and hunted down some socca, which is a local fried bread made with chick pea flour. It was a delicious little snack, and it tided us over nicely until lunch, which consisted of expertly grilled, lemony sardines at a restaurant overlooking the water. We had some gelato later in a plaza in the old town and cookies at my favorite little bakery, which I discovered with Laura long, long ago. After we checked out of the hotel we wandered a bit more and sat in a square for a while to just soak in the atmosphere, then gathered ingredients for a picnic dinner and caught a bus to the airport for an easy trip home, full of good food and sunshine.

Photos are here:

Other summery bits and bobs

The summer of 2009 brought not only country camping but also in-town cultural excursions. We saw a riotous performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at the open-air theatre in Regents Park, with a picnic on the lawn beforehand and a bottle of wine during the play. We also saw Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre. We bought groundling tickets and stood, packed in with all the other spectators. We also attended an event perhaps slightly lower on the cultural scale but no less exciting for that: a Lord of the Rings movie marathon at the IMAX theatre, starting at midnight and finishing at 10:00 the next morning. We brought yummy snacks and managed to stay awake through the whole thing, helped by free tea and coffee and the exciting jolt of Ian McKellen showing up as a surprise to address the crowd. Those events, plus numerous walks and picnics made the summer relaxing and enjoyable, despite the rubbish weather!

A gourmet camping excursion

Living in England, we heard a lot about Heston Blumenthal, who is supposed to be one of the best chefs in the world. His restaurant The Fat Duck is always mentioned in the same breath as El Bulli and The French Laundry, and places like that. We knew we could never afford to eat at The Fat Duck, but I heard that Heston also ran a country pub in the same town, Bray. We decided to check it out, and to turn it into a camping weekend.

Bray is only an hour or so by train from London, so we left right after work one day and got there in time to set up our tent with plenty of light to spare. It was a nice enough camp site, apart from being only about 100 meters from the M4, which is one of the busiest roads in the UK. But we set up without a problem and even used our new little camping stove to cook dinner for ourselves. Later on we wandered over to Heston’s pub for a drink, then found our way back in the pitch black, walking alongside the M4 for a bit longer than I was totally comfortable with.

The next morning we got up and started walking north. Using our handy-dandy Ordnance Survey map, we plotted out a journey to Cliveden, which is a spectacular estate high up on a bluff overlooking the Thames. We had a lovely walk along the river, marveling at the houses, which were enormous by English standards. Apparently Bray is quite the posh village, which we couldn’t tell from our walk in the dark the night before. We eventually made our way up to Cliveden and stopped for a bit of refreshment at a pub across from the entrance. It was a nice warm day, and we sat outside in the pub’s garden and shared a pitcher of Pimm’s before carrying on to Cliveden.

We must have gone in sort of a back way, because we wandered through a lot of anonymous greenery before we finally got to the long avenue leading up to the house. It was all very impressive, statues and fountains and sculpted gardens and topiaries, and the sky was so blue we were almost beside ourselves. We couldn’t eat in the restaurant or look around the house because someone had rented it out for a wedding (there was a beautiful old Rolls-Royce in the courtyard for the happy couple), but we had a snack and some tea in the orangery before heading out to enjoy more of the gardens.

The gardens were beautiful and full of happy families enjoying the nice weather. It would have been very peaceful if it wasn’t for the planes landing nearby at Heathrow, flying directly over us every couple minutes. Oh well. We enjoyed all the greenery, then walked down to the river to try to walk back to the camp site a different way. We had our map, and we were all ready, but then things started to go wrong. The map was not as precise as we could have wished for, and we ended up walking a long way only to have to retrace our steps because the path was blocked. By this point my poor feet were starting to hurt, and all we could find were British sticking plasters, which stuck to my skin for about 30 seconds at a time. By the time we got back to the camp site I was bleeding all over my new sandals. Talk about breaking them in. But on our way back we made a few stops, partly to give my feet a rest. The first was another impressive-looking home that turned out to be an Elizabethan-era estate that has since been converted to a Buddhist conference center. We wandered around a bit and someone offered us tea, but we ploughed on, feeling the need for something a bit stronger. We found a little pub where we could get drinks, but lunch was nowhere to be found, and we ended up having to get by with just a little snack from a petrol station. Our spirits were low by the time we made it back, but a quick nap lightened our mood considerably, and then we got to go to dinner at The Hind’s Head, which was just lovely.

The Hind’s Head is a proper country pub, but a rather fancy one at that. We started out with some bar snacks, including the most exquisite little Scotch eggs and devils on horseback. For dinner, I had a chicken and leek pie and Andrew had steak and Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips. For dessert, I had a strawberry trifle that had a few secret ingredients: black olive paste and balsamic vinegar tucked between the layers and freeze-dried powdered green peas sprinkled on top. It sounds weird, but it was spectacular, and I made strawberry and olive salads for the rest of the summer. Very refreshing! It had started to rain while we were at dinner, and we couldn’t face another long walk, so we had a quick cab ride back to the campsite for a well-earned sleep and an easy trip home the next day.

Photos are here: