Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Irish Christmas Feast

As this was my first holiday away from my own family and home, it was an opportunity for me to realize that though Christmas traditions don't vary too much across the globe, there were definitely some major differences - some cultural, some family - that make my American Christmas traditions actually quite special. And they primarily revolve around food.

First off - no cookies. I am sure that some British and Irish families make Christmas cookies, but the Irishman's family doesn't. Traditional Christmas desserts here are Christmas puddings, Christmas cakes, and mince pies - all boozy, fruity cakes without an inch of chocolate in them. Cheese is also big here (see my previous post), so it's not as if there is nothing to end a meal with. But there aren't the hundreds of cookie varieties I'm used to, or the sweets, or any of the delicious, pop-in-your-mouth seasonal delights.

Foodwise, the other really weird food was an addition to the festive meal - celery. Apparently, it is a traditional Irish side dish to serve boiled celery in cream alongside the Christmas turkey. No way. I tried it - I'll always try everything once - and it was a no-go. But the Irishman's family loves it and to not have it would have been a serious omission. Speaking of the festive meal, in Ireland just like in the UK, turkey is the main course. In my family, turkey is reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas might be roast beef, fish, or ham. The Irishman's mother served both turkey and ham, with stuffing, some amazing roast potatoes and brussel sprouts. It was like having a second Thanksgiving for me!

The other interesting addition for me was smoked salmon. The Irishman's mom loves smoked salmon, and his cousin prepared it three ways for our starter. Smoked salmon is a really traditionally British and Irish holiday dish, and it is really lovely and light for a seasonal meal.

Overall, Christmas in the British and Irish islands isn't too radically different from the holiday in the US. It is a bit more overtly Christmas (no Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings here!), and religious carols are played all over the town, but at the end of the day the holiday is really all about having family and friends gather for a special and delicious meal and to celebrate together.

Nollaig Shona No (Happy Christmas in Irish)

I'm briefly back in London after spending Christmas with the Irishman and his family in Dun Laoghire, Dublin. When I was greeted at Dublin Airport last Wednesday night by carolers in the arrivals hall, I knew it would be special... even though the Irishman himself didn't actually make it! We flew on separate flights because I decided later on that I would go home with him for the holidays, and I found a better deal on bmi out of Heathrow to his Air France flight out of London City. The snow, ice, and freezing fog of the last few weeks resulted in my flight being delayed by 20 minutes - and his being delayed for hours and finally cancelled at midnight! So I hung out with the Irishman's family and the remnants of my illness while he bellied up to the hotel bar at the ExCel Novotel, courtesy of Air France, with his fellow travelers. It's lucky I met them in Cork earlier this year or else it could have been a disaster. But it ended well as Air France put a whole new flight together for the stranded passengers early the next morning, and the Irishman arrived home with only a hangover.

Christmas Eve his family traditionally goes into town for a meal and drinks at a few choice old Dublin pubs with friends and family. It was bitterly cold Christmas eve, and as the sun went down the Irishman and I decided to head back out to the burbs to the village of Dalkey where he and his sailing mates congregate. The Irishman was a champ sailor in his time, and most of his friends harken back to his days on the Irish Sea. Unfortunately they are all also his age (a few years older than my spring chicken self) and they are all having babies. So not many people were there at Finnegans, his local, and that, coupled with the fact that the Irishman was close to sleeping in his pint, meant we were home by 9pm.

But so were the Irishman's family, and they had news for us. Right after we left, they went from one pub to another and found Bono, Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, and some musician named Mumfy busking out on the main pedestrian/shopping street, Grafton Street. I was so annoyed when I found out I missed them! Nothing typifies Dublin and my preconceptions of it as a tiny place where everyone knows everyone else like famous people singing on the street with the hoi polloi. The Irishman felt so bad that we missed it that he took me to see Bono's house a few days later. It sort of helped, but not really.

Christmas Day we drove down to the water (10 minutes away) to the 40 foot where crazy lads and ladies jump into the freezing sea. Itwas absolutely mental and I really wanted to do it, but I was forbidden due to my illness. Next time for sure. Then we popped into Mass, and I was really impressed with the homily; nothing too preachy or guiltridden like in the American Catholic churches, but just nice sentiment for the holiday. Then it was home to help prepare for the 16 person meal that evening (more on that later).

The day after Christmas Day is not Boxing Day in Ireland - it is St Stephen's Day and it is traditional for the Irish to go on a walk. Now. When Americans say "walk" they mean a stroll around the block. In the UK and Ireland, a walk means a hike, usually up a mountain, and in this case it was an icy arctic Everast training walk. We ended up at the top of a mountain overlooking Dublin, the sea, and the countryside, and it was glorious... Until we had to get back down. There were quite a lot of sore bums afterwards, which wasn't helped by the fact that we spent the evening in hard stadium seats watching rugby. I was escorted to my first rugby match, Leinster v Ulster, and also my first Guinness. Both were exciting and actually quite enjoyable!

We spent the rest of the visit with the Irishman's friends and family, seeing the local villages and Dublin proper, and just generally relaxing. I quite enjoy Ireland and my first visit to Dublin just reinforced my high opinion of the country. I realized halfway through my visit that nobody had, up to that point, asked me what I did for a living or anything remotely related to career or status - and no one did for the rest of the trip. No one expected anything from me besides wit and cheeky banter, and it was very refreshing and welcome. What a very merry way to spend Christmas, indeed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My new Christmas favorite


Image courtesy of Long Clawson Cheesemakers

I was home sick today, fighting a bronchitis-like cough and generally shuffling around in a feverish mess, hoping that I will feel better by the time I board a flight to Dublin tomorrow night. The Irishman (whose family I will spend Christmas with this year, in the aforementioned city) stopped by this evening with a bit of Christmas cheer to pick up my spirits: Wensleydale cheese with cranberries. It is creamy, mild, delightfully wonderful cow's milk cheese from the north of England that they produce with cranberries for the festive season. MMMmmm delicious! I don't really CARE that one says dairy isn't good for you when you're sick; for about 10 minutes, it was bliss. I highly recommend that wherever you are in the world, you march down to your local cheesemonger and ask for this wonderfulness - your Christmas will be better with it! Now that I've shared this with you, it's back to the couch with me so I can regain enough strength pack my suitcase. Sneeze cough cough blech.

How the Grinch stole my laptop

So friends, I had big plans to catch up on some Christmassy blogging over the past weekend but they were foiled by some punk who stole my laptop out of my bag at the pub on Friday night. Luckily it is a) my work laptop (which unfortunately doubles as my laptop since I'm not minted enough to have my own), b) all of my photos and music are backed up on my external harddrive here at home, and c) the thief only took my cash out of my wallet as well. It actually was really strange to see my wallet intact - all credit cards there, even all of my £1 coins - and I even questioned whether I had cash in there at all (I definitely did). The Irishman consoled me by reminding me that it could have been SO MUCH WORSE; imagine losing all of your credit cards and ID the weekend before Christmas - what a nightmare that could have been. But it doesn't change the fact that some punk took my stuff. I hope he drops the laptop on his foot, breaking both the laptop and the foot, therefore cannot reap any benefit from his sad behavior.

Spotted: Blue blue Christmas



Tree outside of the Islington Library
St John's Street
December 21, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The joys of international Christmas card mailing


Photo courtesy of incurable_hippie via Flickr

I'm sitting here with my morning coffee, BBC Breakfast, and this year's stack of addressed Christmas cards. Call me an old lady - I am one, it's fine - but I love sending and receiving Christmas cards. I don't really care if it is not "green" or antiquated; I love getting mail and I like sending mail, and the last vestige of my design skills manifest themselves every December when I design my own cards. This year I experimented with a new format – postcards – in the hopes that my postage costs would be less, but I stood in line at the post office yesterday and emerged with £43 worth of stamps of three different kinds. I've got red stamps for the US (good for Canada and Australia, I learned), green stamps for Ireland and continental Europe, blue Air-Mail stickers, and holy mother and child painting stamps for the mainland UK, making signing and stamping my postcards very much like a game of Memory. But that's okay. They are much more exciting - and colorful - than American stamps, although I do miss having a lot of cool holiday stamp designs to choose from. The Queen's head on different colored backgrounds is actually really quite boring!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Festive Season

You can probably tell from all of the posts lately that I'm sort of obsessed by what the British call "Crimbo." Frankly, WHY WOULDN'T YOU BE? My iTunes Holiday Hitz playlist is in heavy rotation, my Cadbury advent calendar is up-to-date, the Irishman and I procured a lovely tree from his local convenience store, I am half-way through designing my yearly holiday cards, all of the streets have their holiday lights up, and the amount of delicious food in the shops is mouthwatering. I am reverting back to a child-like state of excitement, even though there are no presents coming my way this year, which makes me even more sincerely joyful; there are always the cynics that think December is just one wasted month of commercialism, but I really truly believe that there is something absolutely wonderful about a population gathered in happiness and harmony through lovely pine-scented rooms, cookies, and, at least in England, Christmas crackers.

Yes there is religious symbolism, yes Heebs don't believe in the coming of Christ, but you know what? It's all about a tiny thing called Hope. I was at the pub on Friday when the World Cup draw took place; when England and USA were matched together into the first heat, I said to my companions that I would have to get an Obama "Hope" t-shirt to wear during the games. And that sentiment is exactly what Christmas is all about - it's having the opportunity, at the end of 11.75 months of despair and drudgery and the onset of nastily cold weather, having something that buoys the spirits and gives everyone a renewed sense of optimism and joy for the upcoming year. So while you fight the crowds on the sidewalks and in mall parking lots, grumble about the price of milk, and complain about frozen toes, remember that the twinkly lights really do sparkle.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Spotted: The Ghost of Christmas Presents



Shop West End VIP Day (Oxford Street and Regent's Street closed to cars all day)
Regent's Street at Oxford Circus
December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

My new life

I've written in earlier posts about how stressed and crazy I was all year, and now I'm writing about how my life is (slowly) coming back to normality. Over the summer I experienced one of the most trying situations in my career, and it has only recently been remedied. This week was my first week in a saner, more human role and while feeling a bit deflated from the absence of stress, rush, and general intensity, I've been happier than ever. The Irishman is happy that I'm happier, I'm sleeping better, and overall life seems much more - well - normal. I can think about things like designing my Christmas cards, knitting for the sudden explosion of babies soon to be born, enjoying my favorite time of year, and, oh, blogging a bit more than usual.

So even though the most trying time of work-life is done and gone and I'm glad to pack it away in the past, I did learn a lot of valuable lessons from it. So I'll be sharing them here in good time and in a respectful manner, not only to figure out what more I can glean from them but also because they highlight some very real differences between British and American business culture (beyond acceptably drinking at lunch in the pub). So stay tuned, but in the meantime I'm ready for the weekend so bring it on. xx

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Commence Christmas cooking!



It was quite fitting that yesterday, 1 December, was the kickoff of the Christmas cooking season, my favorite part of the British "festive season" – hour-long cookery shows that show us, mere mortals, how to create idyllic Christmas foods like the masters. The BBC started the season with Delia Smith, somewhat of a legend in British home cooking (she told us we can add baking powder to custard because "we're just home cooks"), who was naturally promoting her new Christmas cookbook. I learned just how much booze goes in Christmas pudding, how Delia does a turkey (with sausage and sage stuffing and COVERED IN BACON), and how to make sausage rolls. OMG.

Will I buy Delia's cookbook? Dunno... Christmas cookbooks aren't really my thing. But, I am looking forward to Sunday night when Hugh will do this year's River Cottage Christmas show. Last year he killed a deer on TV; I am excited to see (and dreading) what he will do this time around.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Post-Thanksgiving gut

So, I'm back in the UK after a week in the NY tristate area and may I say that I gained quite a few pounds (weight, not currency) and racked up a few credit card bills (too bad it IS currency!). I had a fabulous time in New York City seeing all mah peeps and loving the big city; within 24 hours of landing, I had seen a drug deal, a bunch of crackheads, two bankers cruising the streets sticking out of the sunroof of a limo, and a celebrity (John Krasinski) at my favorite coffee shop La Colombe. Perfect. I ate at some amazing restaurants - old favorites like Sala and Pastis, and new exciting finds like Hundred Acres, and definitely spent some time and money in CVS, JCrew and Anthropologie.

After three whirlwind days in the big city, I spent the rest of the week with my parents in NJ and continued to eat. This year we did a "big" Thanksgiving, with twice as more people than usual, and the raucous mayhem was actually really fun. Seeing my family only once a year is hard; we're pretty close and the time goes by way too fast. But like a dutiful child, I was definitely ready to get back on the plane on Saturday night and get back to my own life: I was sick of answering the same questions about what life is like in London and dodging answering the one about if I'd ever move back. The stock answer is "I don't know."

Overall, it was great to be back in the US even if it was only for a few days. It's so weird how you slip back into old habits without even thinking about them, like walking fast down the sidewalk and speaking quickly, and also how being abroad changes you inperceptibly. Probably the weirdest thing I experienced was the shock at hearing such American accents. Living abroad, you hear them so rarely that you sort of do a double take when you catch one, but then it blows your mind when you're in the US and around them all of the time. Don't even get me started on my aunt, uncle, and cousins' Texan accents!

So now I'm back in London, greeted by lashing rain and arctic temps, and feeling as happy that I'm here as I was to be in NYC. Thanksgiving is such a great holiday for reminding oneself of all of the excellent things going on in a person's life, and this year I was grateful for everything, and everyone, I have on both sides of the Atlantic. I think next year's New Year's resolutions are going to be about how to make sure I appreciate them more.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Hand of God - I mean, Henry

Oh man. The World Cup isn't until next year, but the qualifiers have begun and already there is a huge controversy. Last night Ireland played France for a spot in the tournament, their second qualifier game, and lost in what everyone is called cheating. Thierry Henry used his hands twice to keep the ball in play and get France a decisive goal, winning them a trip to the World Cup. Henry admits to using his hand, and blamed the ref for not spotting the penalty, and Ireland's pride is wounded. Obviously I am hearing a lot about this due to the Irishman's rightful outrage, and I can't say I blame him. When I moved here, my friend Miguel gave me a short lesson in Premiership football and I learned all about the original Hand of God; these types of legends create rivalries that are handed down through the generations. To have a country like Ireland, small, underdog, with immense heart, kicked out of the run up to the World Cup by an arrogant powerhouse like France is a big deal. This will get bigger and bigger, and I can guarantee you that coverage of the World Cup next year in South Africa will refer to constantly. France may have gotten to the party, but if it wins it will be infamously.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Empire State of Mind



I know I'm about 3 months late to the party (I'm finding 3 months to be the typical lead time for me to pick up on American pop culture trends), but this Jay-Z song is really amazing. I have been bopping along to it in the office for a while now, trying to explain to the Brits around me why it's JUST SO GOOD, and making myself homesick in the process. Good thing, then, that I'm headed back to the Big Apple on Friday for Thanksgiving.

It's been a long time since I've been to US; last time I was home was last Christmas. As much as I love living abroad, I get really excited to go home and hear American accents, experience New York bluntness, and even get told off by cab drivers. This year has been difficult for me, careerwise, and I'm really looking forward to seeing my old friends, having a lot of chats, catching up on their lives, meeting their new partners, and generally just being around people who know ME and with whom I don't have to try extra hard. I'm going to have a lot of brunch, French food in the West Village, and carousel sushi with my dad in Gramercy, and when I get to New Jersey my mom has a list of the food I want her to cook for me. I'm even paying a visit to Paul at Mudhoney Salon for a new haircut. I'll be asking for bangs – NOT fringe – and I'll be smug about it.

For the eight days I'm on the East Coast, I'm planning on doing nothing but being myself in the place where I'm from. I'm really hoping that when it's time for me to head back to the UK, I'll be renewed, full of my old vim and vigor and Lower East Side vinegar, and that, as Alicia Keys points out, walking down the New York streets will have made me feel brand new, the lights have inspired me. I know they will, and they can't appear over the wing of my Virgin Atlantic plane too soon.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fresh and local

I'm currently recovering from a full Irish breakfast on the Irishman's couch; he was in Dublin last weekend with his family, and kindly imported the raw ingredients (black pudding, white pudding, bacon, etc) for a morning feast for me. This is not news, per se, but it is when I tell you where this couch of his is located. While we were on holiday in September, he and I had a few "state of the union/life" discussions about our individual lives and careers and also about the health of our relationship. We made a few pacts to change things, and deal with situations before they become problems, and also made a few decisions to fix stuff for individual selves. Fast-forward to now, and the Irishman is living back up in Islington, a 10 minute walk from mine, and we are spending a lot more time together and are happier than I ever thought we could be. His bachelor pad is adorable, and I'm quite proud of his homeowning (well, renting) skills. In fact, he's so self-sufficient that he discovered a service on his own that is close to my heart - Farm Direct. He called me excitedly the other day to tell me all about it, and we decided to order all of the ingredients for a Sunday roast we're hosting from there. £30 for a topside of beef, 2 wood pigeons, and a ton of veg, and it was delivered at 11:30 while I was recovering from an Irish onslaught. I now have 24 hours to fully digest before stuffing myself again.

Friday, November 13, 2009

And Christmas... begins!



It's official, people. Christmas has begun here. There have been Christmas product catalogs floating around for a while, as well as random Christmas displays in shop windows for a few weeks, but the "festive season" is now in full swing. There are Christmas commercials on TV, all of the food shops have their mince pies and Christmas puddings on the shelves, Regent Street turned on it's Christmas lights last weekend, and I'm sitting here writing this with the remnants of a hangover after my company's global awards ceremony (the first of what will be many holiday parties with tragic aftermaths).

But the kicker of course is that on Wednesday afternoon, I was in a shop and heard the official Christmas anthem - Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." Hurrah! Watch the video and get into the spirit!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Armistice Day, Poppies, and Poor Gordon Brown

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the celebration of the end of the Great War (or, as we Americans call it, WWI). British culture was profoundly changed by WWI, as I learned from watching an episode of Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain. It is fascinating to see how an entire country's social mores were turned upside down by the war, and how imagery from that time has pervaded other cultures as well - including our own. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? Yup, started here. A general was blindfolded and he chose one of 4 caskets to select a body who would represent all of the unknown war dead. Uncle Sam needing you to fight? Yup - the original was General Robertson (who had a pretty amazing moustache).

Somehow, we don't really "do" Armistice Day in the US. Americans call it Veterans Day, and celebrate those who fought and made it, rather than remembering the end of a particular war. Every year on 11/11, there is a moment of silence at 11am in the UK; some lucky Americans get 11/11 off, but not much else goes on to pay tribute to a war that wasn't so long ago but seems very far away. The British go several steps further, as well; Rememberance Sunday is the Sunday before Armistice Day, and that is the time to remember those who fell during all of the wars. During the weeks up to the two days of remembering, nearly every Brit buys a poppy to wear on their person - the poppies are sold by the Royal British Legion to raise money for soldiers currently serving. The poppies are to symbolize the flowers growing in Flanders where some of the heaviest battles of WWI took place, and were referenced in a poem by John McCrae.

The dedication of British people to their soldiers fighting both here and abroad, past and present, is really quite extraordinary and inspirational. But like anything, it can be perverted. My heart went out to Gordon Brown when he weathered a storm of criticism over the past week for misspelling the name of a serviceman in a letter of condolence to the soldier's mother. He apparently writes a personal message to the family of every slain British soldier. In this case, he went on to call the woman to apologize, and she used the phone call as an opportunity to attack him for his bad manners - and then linked it to a tabloid newspaper. Gordon Brown isn't entirely the best politician ever, but he is blind in one eye, socially awkward, and apparently has infamously horrible penmanship.

Everyone knows that soldiers commit acts in war that would be inconceivable and unpardonable in civilian life, and yet we forgive them and honor their memory. Gordon Brown does the same everyday in politics, and yet all he was trying to do was to personally thank this mother for her son's sacrifice and duty. The press should give him a break - war is hard, and penmanship isn't easy - and we could all do with a bit of remembering that this is one country, united for peace rather than divided by politics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

18 months in, and trouble ordering brekkie.

I went to breakfast this morning with my direct report; it is her last week as she is moving back to Australia in 10 days. We went to a little cafe around the corner from our office to review her resume and talk about her future career goals, as well as just to generally catch up before she heads back down under. We had a lovely breakfast but it was marred by a silly lapse in my cultural judgment: when I ordered my bacon and egg sandwich, I asked for simply a "bacon" sandwich... and that's what I got. No egg. Just bread and bacon.

In the US, no one just eats bacon on bread... it always comes with egg. But here in the UK, a bacon sarnie (sandwich) is pretty commonplace and so it wasn't weird for me to not ask for an egg – I just should have said I wanted an egg with it. It was no problem though. I went to the counter and told them I forgot to ask for an egg, and chalked it up to my American-ness. They rolled their eyes, laughed, fixed my sandwich, and I made a mental note to really think hard about my food ordering (especially before coffee).

Friday, November 6, 2009

LIveblogging Paris

Okay so I'm not really live-blogging so much as writing a post from Jon's futon in Paris. I'm here for a long weekend visiting him and the lovely Alix, drinking wine, eating cheese, finishing my Christmas shopping (more on that in a bit), and otherwise just enjoying the fact that the Eurostar can be as cheap as £59 return and take me to Paris in 2 hours. Joie de vivre!

I missed out on Guy Fawkes Day, which makes me a bit sad, as most of London was running around setting off fireworks in honor of a failed plot to bomb Parliament. Guy Fawkes is possibly one of my favorite holidays in London because of the fact that it celebrates someone's idiotic goal of anarchy. Only Brits, people. I even walked into work Thursday to find sparklers on my desk – my company handed them out with a map of all of the places we could go to watch the *offical* fireworks displays! How cool. But alas, I spent that evening on the Eurostar, headed to Paris.

I'm absolutely loving being in Paris. The Christmas season hasn't quite hit yet (London's lights get turned on this weekend, I fear!) and my broken high school French is serving me well enough that I'm blending in with the crowd. Alix and Jon's apartment is absolutely gorgeous, and it's really renewing to be able to discuss expat situations with people who understand what it's like to transition between cultures. I've known Jon for nearly ten years, so it's really wonderful to be able to relax with someone so familiar.

It's going to be quiet around these parts as I spend the weekend with them here in the City of Lights, but I'll post some pictures next week and give you a roundup of all the fun things we do. A bientot, mes amis!

Science of Sex

There's this cool thing in London I've written about before called Lates, where museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions stay open late for fun after-hours activities. Lates has been a bit quiet recently, and it seems like the website isn't really updated regularly, but that isn't stopping places like the Design Museum, the Tates, and the Science Museum from hosting their post-work events.

Last Wednesday the Irishman and I went on a nerdy date and traveled west to the Science Museum's late "The Science of Sex." Us being, well, us, it was preceded by a trip to Byron for burgers as recommended by one of my colleagues, and after delicious burgers (very American style), Brooklyn Lagers, fries and fried zucchini strips, we headed over to see what the Science of Sex was really all about.

The event was so popular that a fast moving queue extended past the length of the building itself, but once inside the atmosphere was fantastic. There were djs and dance floors set up, and we had free access to all of the exhibits as long as we wanted. Museum staff handed out flyers outlining all of the activities that were scheduled, but this was a huge source of disappointment - there weren't that many that were about sex! There was speed-dating (a bit inappropriate for me), some sexy dancing classes (not quite my speed), and a several talks that were completely mobbed with hordes of people lining up for hours to join. I really wanted to see one about Victorian sex toys (how hilarious!) but after standing in line for 25 minutes a staff member informed about half of us that we were too far back in the line to get into the limited seat auditorium. What a bummer.

So the Irishman and I wandered, checked out a Wallace and Gromit exhibit about inventions and intellectual property sponsored by Patent office, and basically enjoyed the evening out doing something we never do. But all in all, the Science of Sex was just not sexy enough. I got a free condom on my way out, and that was pretty much the sexiest thing of all. C'mon Science Museum... try harder to turn me on!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Halloween, Jose, a new silk dress and a beer

Hi kids! It's been a bit quiet round these parts due to the fact that I'm in the midst of prepping a huge presentation for Thursday and then zooming off to Paris for a long weekend to visit Jon and Alix (more on that later). But I thought I'd take some time out to tell you the tale of last Saturday night.

Halloween here is pretty low-key; little kids trick or treat until sundown and there isn't much in the way of parties or dressing up – or so I thought. Perhaps because it was a Saturday, this year was chockablock of Londoners donning their fancy dress best and barreling down the sidewalks with abandon. I've never seen more vampires or dirty Girl Scouts! What a shift from last year's very boring Halloween.

I, of course, did NOT dress up, thinking that no one else would, and headed to the Jazz Cafe in Camden for a gig. The Irishman and his mates are firm fans of Jose Feliciano, a blind singer-songwriter who sings in both Spanish and English and does a really mean version of "Light My Fire". Here's a little taste for you:



The show was fantastic, and the venue pretty cool. Jose entered and exited dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, and after the show the club turned into an 80s dance party. Unfortunately, somewhere in that mix the Irishman's dancing got erratic and he spilled half of his beer down the front of me. I, of course, was wearing a brand new raw silk dress. You might ask why I was wearing a brand new raw silk dress out to a gig; I am currently asking myself the same question as my dry cleaner informed me this AM that the factory is "trying a second time" to get the stains out.

So I guess Halloween was a trick and a treat.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great South Run

So! I did it! I ran the Great South Run yesterday and finished with a time of 1:37:23, under my goal of 1:40. You can see my full race stats here. The race was in Portsmouth, which meant the Irishman and I got to see his good friend Mike who lives there, and kindly hosted us for a night, as well as Mark and Cam who live in Salisbury. Mike was entered in the race but couldn't run, so Mark took his place. That meant we had supporters cheering us on, and a great crew of people to prep and end with. I know there are some pictures out there of us runners, but I don't have any at the moment. Hopefully soon.

Running is something I have a love-hate relationship with, kind of like writing. I am good at it when I put my mind to it, and when I make room in my life for it. There is nothing better than just lacing up your kicks, walking out the door and jogging until you reach a goal distance. The aftermath is fantastic - you feel toned, limber, and absolutely capable of anything. The only problem is actually putting on those shoes and getting onto the pavement. When I moved to London, I used running as a way to pass the time when I was living out in the middle of no where and didn't know anyone; now running is an activity that I'm trying to discipline myself into so that I can actually devote an hour to myself to think, to work out issues, and to push myself physically beyond my comfort zone. Sometimes I think if I push myself physically, and succeed, I may find it easier to push myself mentally.

So I'm giving myself this week off from the grind, but I'll be back at it this weekend; I have a personal goal of running a half marathon in under 2 hours this spring. Do-able - if I put my mind to it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Detoxing

Due to the incident described below, as well as the fact that I am running the ten-mile Great South Run on Sunday, I decided to go on a mini detox. No alcohol whatsoever from Thursday 8 October until after I finish the race on Sunday. I feel great, although I'd love a glass of red wine, and I think I've lost a ton of weight - not just from my training runs. But what's been most interesting about the whole detox is the reaction people have. I've gone to the pub a few times during this time and celebrated a few peoples' birthdays, and the looks I get are hilarious. People almost universally are shocked to hear I'm not drinking, and when I say I'm detoxing there is mild disapproval. When I say I'm running a 10 mile race, I get a few murmurs of admiration and general "Oh, well okay" which makes me think that if I WASN'T running the race there would be absolutely NO excuse for not drinking. Mind you, this isn't personal - they aren't saying this because I'm a lush (even though I sort of am) - this is just England. People here count drinking as a ritual, a natural part of life, and to remove it from daily routine is virtually unheard of.

As Sunday approaches, I'm growing more and more anxious: partly for the race, and partly for the reintroduction of alcohol into my life. As much as I want the freedom to drink again, I'm actually really enjoying the liberation of not having a life revolving around hangovers and big pub bills. It will be interesting to see how my attitude changes after our big Sunday pub lunch this weekend when I reward myself for my exertion. Hopefully I can figure out a nice balance between custom and overindulgence.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The kindness of strangers

Two weeks back my work project team had a night out, and it went a bit overboard. Not much is collectively remembered past 9:30pm, and I don't really know what I time I got home that night. The next morning, I made it into work (barely) and instead of riding my bike or walking, I treated myself to a bus ride. After disembarking, my stomach wasn't pleased with the water I drank before boarding and I had to take a moment leaning up a tree down the street from my office "to compose myself." As I stood there, holding myself up and lamenting British drinking culture, a woman a few years older than me approached me kindly and asked "Are you okay? Do you need to use a toilet? My office is just around the corner." I was so taken aback by her gesture, and trying to keep the water in my stomach, that I just sort of laughed and thanked her and said "Oh, I'm okay, just had a bit of a rough night last night. My office is just over there." She smiled and walked on, probably having been in a similar situation the day before.

I love this story for two reasons. One, only in the UK would someone leaning up against a tree, trying not to puke, prompt good samaritan-type behavior. Had I been assaulted, or mugged, that woman wouldn't have done anything. Two, if nothing else, the British drinking culture at least binds people together in a collective hangover that everyone can appreciate. Whoever she was, I thank that woman from the bottom of my heart for understanding my situation, and offering me a bit of support.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Americans vs Americans

Last night I was in Clapham, out on the town with some American friends who live south of the river. We were joined by some other American expats that they know, and at one point or another every single one of us said "Man, I hate Americans." We had a lively discussions about which tourists were worst (Germans seem to get a lot of votes), why Americans were so bloody loud, how embarrassing it was to be caught near them on the tube, and essentially "why are they so freaking annoying"?

It's a good question. There were five of us in the group, from all over the US - East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, Montana even. All in our late 20s/early 30s, liberal but just so, with family all over the US, we were all a bit overwhelmed by just how obnoxious Americans act when they leave the US. It makes one think, do we act like that at home, and no one notices because we're en masse, or do we just amplify it by having no social graces on our vacations in foreign lands?

The funny thing is, Americans are awesome. We don't take bs, we don't like waiting in lines, and if our Starbucks coffee is wrong we make the barista make it right. These are all virtuous qualities. But somehow, taken out of their natural environment, they grate on the ears and eyes of those accustomed to other cultures. Most tellingly, Western European cultures, while all different, don't grate on each other at all. Okay the English and the French love to hate one another, but sliding between Italy and France and France and Germany doesn't require that much in a mindset or behavior shift. Somehow the Atlantic Ocean divide gives Americans the freedom to say and do and behave how they like, and that's oh so apparent when they come east.

Thinking about it, I don't want Americans to change their ways. Our brash, opinionated, demanding selves make the US a pretty special place. But I would like to extend one little piece of advice to any American - especially groups of 13 year old girls liable to break out in song at any time - for goodness sake, TONE IT DOWN. English people will love you for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monday, October 5, 2009

More existential London thinking

Whoa, flurry of posts! Sorry about that, kids. I thought I set it for future posting... ah well!

Since the holiday, I've been thinking about life as an expat in London, and whether I really "want" it. I mentioned before about having been here for 1.5 years now and that it's time I start really making my life here. Yes, I've got the Irishman and we have a great relationship (a big change for me!), and great colleagues at work that have migrated to friends. I'm really making an effort this fall to get out and meet people - preferably British people, not fellow expats - and make new friends and develop a social circle of my own. But that is hard, takes time, and every so often when I reflect on myself here I think that actually, I don't think they want me.

I know that's not true. English culture is, well, English, and they hardly welcome anyone that isn't English (that's right, even the Welsh and Scots aren't exactly their favorites) with open arms. But they are pleasant and if you prove yourself to be a genuine, tolerant, and warm person, they do reciprocate with a friendliness that cannot be matched. Sometimes, though, I pass by some English girls linked arm in arm, giggling at whatever joke they've just shared, and I think, actually, I'm not like them. My sense of humor isn't calibrated to British eccentricity, and I'm far too sensitive for the sarcasm.

And if I'm going to do this, really enter into British society and culture and assimilate, I need to change my American mannerisms in an unnatural way. I'm going to have to start adding U's and replace Z's with S's and not call Fall Fall but Autumn. If I do these things to fit in here, I automatically renounce my American pop cultural citizenship: how many people do you know who are mercilessly taunted for affecting an English accent? The first question people asked me when I announced I was moving to London was "will you get an accent?" - like I was going to rush down to a corner shop and pick one up immediately. What if I actually DO pick up the accent?

So what I think I've stumbled upon is the weird grey area in which every expat lands eventually - not quite a native, and no longer a full-fledged member of their own culture. My Irishman is like that; he's spent many years, on and off, in London, a few in Australia, and traveled extensively to the point where the English make fun of him for being Irish, the Irish make fun of him for sounding English, and he isn't really sure he likes either. But in the end, there is a reason why we do this. I have no intention of going back to the US any time soon, and the Irishman flat out refuses to move back to Dublin.

A friend of mine shared with me this blog post about why people like me put myself through this. Apparently, it could be DNA. But I also like to think that it is because doing this - entering the grey area, where nothing is defined and you have to fend for yourself - is actually better, more enriching, and ultimately more valuable than living a life at home where you know there is something out there that's bigger than yourself and the microcosm in which you were born. Seeing, understanding, experiencing it all... not just through movies or books or TV, but through your whole being.

When the grey does get to me, and I feel like saying to myself "what on earth are you DOING here?!?!", I remind myself of that article and the fact that I wholeheartedly believe that doing this, like doing anything challenging, is completely and 100% worth it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Apprentice in Covent Garden



Saturday the Irishman and I were walking through Covent Garden, and we saw something suspicious. Two men in weird bakers outfits were hawking £1 muffins, and they were being filmed. The Irishman investigated, and determined we had happened upon a filming for one of next season's Apprentice challenges.

I don't watch the Apprentice; I think it's sort of dumb, and all of the people seem a bit ridiculous, and it just reminds me a lot of what I do for a living in a really bad way (I am, after all, in marketing). But these guys looked so dumb, and I was so curious, so I bought one.

And guess what: it sucked. It was stale, stodgy, not nice, and frankly was probably mass produced in a factory somewhere and taken out of plastic to be sold to witless suspects like myself. So, lesson learned - trust your instincts, the Apprentice is terrible television, and they're bad bakers too boot.

You're fired, Sir Alan.

On vacations, and post-vacation-letdown-syndrome

Our trip was absolutely amazing. We saw and experienced so many things, together, that were awe-inspiring, funny, not-so-great, and just nice that we both returned to London thinking "Hey. I think you're even cuter than before." Most importantly, though, the Irishman and I both relaxed so much that we were ourselves in truly vibrant, rich, hypercolor: we left our London selves at Gatwick, grey ghosts, and regained our natural splendor on the shores of Croatia and in the bustling Italian food markets. It was a joy to behold and experience.

But holidays end. We were actually ready to go home; two weeks of dragging luggage on and off boats, trains, busses, and through city streets makes one pine a bit for a dresser and one's own bed. But after landing, the reality of routine in London was a bit too much to bear as I sat in the back of queuing taxi outside of London Bridge station. The end of a holiday makes me contemplative, much in the way that New Year's or a sobering news story might; I really felt like on my holiday I was a different person and that returning to London I had to go back to being someone else.

It was a bit of homesickness – the Irishman and I don't live together, so he left me at London Bridge to continue his journey home, and there was no one to great me at my flat on my return. No one to call and say "I'm home! It was great!" And the specter of going back to work in 18 hours reduced me to tears.

I don't know, yet, how to keep the vacation goodness with me post-return. I don't know, yet, how to change my day-to-day life to get it to resemble more of the joy I felt during holiday - and should I? I remember asking my dad once, when I was 5, why we couldn't have Christmas everyday (I feel like this was in reference to him saying we couldn't play the Sesame Street Christmas album anymore). His response was that if you had Christmas everyday, it wouldn't be special anymore - when it only comes once a year, you cherish it more and look forward to it and don't take it for granted. Good response, Phil. But you only live once, no? So shouldn't every day of one's life be full of joy and be carefree and wonderful? And if one's life isn't currently, shouldn't it be fixed - stat?

I say yes. It's been 2 weeks since I returned from vacation, and I'm trying to regain that sense of lightness and exuberance I had as I traipsed around foreign lands. Funny to be writing this in a place that isn't technically my home, but I think it means it actually is. I've lived here now for 1.5 years. It's time to make it my own. I'm not a tourist, I pay taxes, and I need to make a life here that's not based on seeing things I've never seen before. I need to keep my bright-eyed curiosity, and live in London like I lived my holiday: full of joy, wonder, and love.

Lovely Lucca



After nearly a week in two Italian cities, the Irishman and I were pooped. We really looked forward to our visit to Lucca primarily for a chance to relax: city breaks are great, but not the most restful. We wanted food, wine, sleep, and the Italian "dolce vita" full of leisurely walks and not much else.

I had traveled to Lucca during my summer in Florence and remembered it as a sleepy and enchanting town and it hasn't changed a bit. We arrived to find a Lucchese agroturismo fair set up in the main square with wine and olive oil tastings, and a few stands selling delicious sweets native to the area like a special lemon donut and an anise-flavored light biscuit that melted in your mouth. We were in heaven, and it was absolutely wonderful.

It helped that the rain stopped in time for our visit, so we were able to pull out t-shirts and short skirts (well, for me at least) and join the passegiato with dignity. Lucca is not short on good shopping, and I finally spent my £200 work award money on a leather bag so soft it too feels like it might melt in your hands. It didn't attend a passegiata - in fact, this past weekend was its' debut night out!

We also spent one leisurely, warm morning in the sun walking Lucca's walls. The entire circumference is about 4km, and we were joined by runners, walkers, cyclists, dogs, kids, and other tourists. A whole cross-section of Lucca is up on the ramparts and it is one of the best ways to see the town. I noticed a canal from there that I had never seen before! We also spotted some street markets, and had lovely snacks of fresh fruit (peach for me - pesca bianca, my favorite - and an apple for the Irishman).



Lucca was, and still remains, my favorite place in Italy. The Irishman agreed, and we're planning on a villa rental in the hills outside the city for our next Italian adventure. Wine and olive oil, here I come!

Florence, or, Hello I must be going.



From Bologna, we headed down to lovely Florence. After our regional train fiasco earlier in the week, we made sure to schedule our departure on a EuroCity fast train. One hour and €24 later, we arrived in the birthplace of the Renaissance.

I called our stop in Florence a "reunion tour", as I spent the summer after my junior year in college living with a host family and studying art in Florence with my alma mater, Syracuse University. My two closest friends were with me, and I spent seven weeks riding a bike with a pink Minnie Mouse bell all over the city, learning about frescos and Renaissance art and architecture and screen-printing fabric and paper. I think that summer really planted the travel bug in me, and that summer's experiences made me realize that living abroad is something essential to my being. I don't think I'd be sitting here, typing this in London, if it weren't for that magical experience.

And so I knew that returning to Florence would be bittersweet; I knew that it wouldn't be anywhere near how I remembered it. My memories of Florence are hot, golden-tinged, sweaty and ripe with the freedom of a twenty-one year old. But this time around Florence was soggy, humid, grey and dirty and full of girls who suspiciously reminded me of myself and my friends seven years ago. All of the same pieces were there – the Duomo, the Baptistry, Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, even my host family's home and Syracuse's Villa Rossa campus - but the magic and passion were gone.

My mother and I spoke of this at one point; two years ago she traveled to Florence after being away for nearly 30 years. An art historian, in the 1970s she lived off-and-on in Florence for nearly two years and hadn't traveled back since. When she returned from her visit, her one comment about Florence beyond how it had changed was that it was emotionally difficult for her to be there as a tourist - not as a resident. I felt this melancholy to a lesser degree as I strolled the streets with the Irishman, and this sort of grief for not finding the Florence I once had – accepting the fact that Florence now belonged to the loud young American girls in leggings, not me – might have been the biggest let-down of all. She's a fickle lady, Florence; she lets people in on a regular basis to call her home, but once you're gone if you don't continue to shower her with affection you're no longer part of her world.

After one moody afternoon, the Irishman bought me a gelato and I vowed to enjoy the time we were spending in a beautiful city with my gorgeous man. And we did - we ate, we shopped, we took the number 17 bus up to Fiesole and looked out over the city, we got lost in the winding streets down near the Arno, and I even stumbled across Angie's Pub - my local watering hole from my student days. The Irishman inadvertantly offended two American tourists which set us on a giggling fit for days, and I came to love Florence again for being such a lovely town to spend some quality time.



PS - anyone planning to visit Florence, we absolutely loved our hotel The Residenza Johlea. A bit of a hike from the train station and about a 10 minute from the Duomo, our room was massive and the Irishman approved because we had a real shower - not one of those ridiculous hand-held European jobbies. It was a relative bargain at €105 per night for a double with breakfast but they only accept cash.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Beautifully delicious Bologna



Our overnight ferry to Italy was, to say the least, an adventure. We were on a boat with mostly crazy Italians - including a few beer-drinking, sing-along-happy nuns and priests - and some French and Germans thrown in for good measure. We watched two American PhD students battle the onslaught of one of those aging backpacker types, the sort of dude who knows a little bit about everything and anything and is generally an all-around douchebag. We watched a Destiny's Child concert video in the restaurant where every Italian ignored the plentiful NO SMOKING signs and chain-smoked for the entirety of the voyage. And we stepped over backpackers who set up camp in every available corner to kip for the night on the way to our cabins.



I got to spend the night with a Croatian mother and her preteen daughter, and an unrelated Croatian teen. Not bad; they didn't really say anything to me and I high-tailed it out of there when the crew woke us at 6:30 with Amy Winehouse on the radio. The Irishman had 2 large Croatians who grunted at him but went to bed at the civilized time of 9pm, so he fared well too. We landed in Ancona and made it to the main train station only to find out we'd missed the early Eurostar and would have to take a regional train for 2+ hours up to Bologna. Feh. We rode in a sweaty car with stinky people and screaming babies. Feh - welcome to Italy.

We finally arrived to a sunny Italian city, bustling with people and lovely smells. Our hotel, the Albergo delle Drapperie, was helpfully located in the food market area of the city and the Irishman looked like he died and went to heaven when our taxi dropped us off. Our room was ready, so we dropped our bags and went out in search of food and coffee. Two paninis and caffe shakeratos (cold sweet espresso shaken with ice in a martini shaker), we were ready to go and wandered around in wonder at the cheeses, fresh pastas, meats, and produce on display all around us. When the shops and stalls all closed at 1pm for lunch, we went home to nap.

That night we went out on the town and sampled what must be the best kept secret in Italy: in Bologna, the bars give you free food. That's right. There is a little hors d'oeurve buffet if you are a patron, and if you go to the right places you don't even need to eat dinner! We sampled the wares at a few places, and ended up getting a bowl of tagliatelle al ragu at a cafe with a jazz band playing outside. It turns out that we were there for Il Notte Verde - a citywide alfresco music festival - and there were musicians on every street corner.

Sunday most shops and places were closed, so we took the opportunity to wander the city and see the sites; Bologna doesn't have much in the way of grand architectural and artistic "stuff" but we saw Il Due Torre and went into the grand unfinished cathedral, and generally wandered the streets to understand the ancient city.



Monday was our day to shop, but it was also the day the rain came in. We spent it mostly ducking in and out of the fabulous clothing and shoe shops, as well as the food purveyors. We happened upon a big indoor market with food stalls and shops, which was absolutely mindblowing. The food in Italy is just so different; just look below at how they displayed garlic!



We were so inspired by that market that we had to follow it up with a fantastic lunch, and did so at Tamburini (which will be profiled on Eggplant & Aubergine) and followed it up with an even more amazing dinner at a restaurant profiled by the New York Times in one of their 36 Hours segments - La Drogheria Della Rosa. It was absolutely wonderful and if you go to Bologna, do not miss it.

Bologna is beautiful, and I highly recommend it for a city-break or long weekend. There isn't much to do, culture-wise, but it's a pretty city with really nice people and mouth-watering cuisine. We hit our 1-week mark there, and transitioned from simply relaxing to city exploring. I think both myself and the Irishman could have used another week of chilling out, but Italy had so much more for us to eat that we were happy to continue!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Split



Unfortunately our stay in Hvar had to end, and we boarded a midday ferry to Split for the afternoon before our overnight ferry over to Italy. I was looking forward to Split; Croatia's second largest city, its old town is built on/in/out of the ruins of Diocletian's palace. The Irishman, however, had eaten enough fish for a long while and was looking forward on to Italy.

Split harbor is not exactly the prettiest port; when we landed it was very much the grimy and dirty working port that one expects from, say, Naples, complete with the strange cast of characters. We quickly high-tailed it over to the main passenger ferry terminal to check in for our overnight ferry, and stow our bags at the left luggage office. We had a minor disaster when the ferry operator informed us that the super cheap deal I scored on our overnight passage was actually in two separate cabins - so I was stuck in cabin with four female bunks, and the Irishman was in a separate cabin with four male cabins. The Irishman was not pleased about this arrangement (to be honest, neither was I, but we saved at least £100), and we had to have a restorative gelato to calm down.

Post-gelato, we toured the Old Town. It was pretty touristy, I must say, but it is also pretty freaking cool. You wander through twisty and turning corridors and passageways that were once the hallways of a great palace. Every now and then, there are parts of the palace that are preserved, just sticking up out of the rubble. It's fascinating, but also a bit creepy; I wouldn't necessarily want to be trying to find my way out at night.



We also ventured out into the New Town of Split as well, which seems like a bustling little metropolis. We tried cevapi, a Croatian minced meat and spicy sauce street food, and had one last Ozujsko before heading over to the boat that would take us to our next country and adventure!

Heavenly Hvar Town



We literally left Korcula under the cover of darkness, as the one and only ferry between Korcula and Hvar departed at 6am. When I was planning this trip, my number one goal was to take advantage of all of the ferries that criss-cross the Croatian waterways. Unfortunately, the timetables are built around residents who are commuting from island to island for work, so often we had early morning departures that the Irishman felt were not conducive to his relaxation. Or whatever.

Our early start meant we were in Hvar by 7:30am, just as all of the cafes and bars were opening. We dropped off our bags at our hotel and had coffee at one, overlooking the harbor and all of the boats just coming to life. Hvar is a gorgeous little port, likened to St Tropez, with gleaming marble and sunbleached buildings. It's tiny; after our coffee we explored the hills around the main square and sussed out the swimming spots, and found that there wasn't much beyond the quayside where we were dropped off.

We then stopped back at our hotel, The Palace, to see if our room was possibly ready, and that's when we found out that our room didn't exist. Apparently, the room I selected from their online room reservation site is an oddity - only one exists - and it was already booked for the rest of the week. As nearly all of the hotels in the town are owned by one company, the hotel manager sent us around to view adequate alternative rooms (sea view with a balcony and king size bed) in their sister hotels. After about an hour and some seriously rude attitude at Riva and Amphora, we were installed in Adriana, with an amazingly soft bed and fantastic rooftop pool and sundeck. Hello, upgrade!

After that ordeal, lunch was in order and we sat quayside with a pizza while the biggest and most ridiculously opulent yacht I'd ever seen pulled in. Named "Casino Royale", I was hoping for Daniel Craig in his shorts or at least someone famous to be on board, but instead it looked like a bunch of rich Americans lacking taste.



After ogling that boat for a good half hour, we ventured up the hill to the fortress. The walk up isn't too strenuous, and it's on paved roads for the most part, so it's worth the climb. The views that reward you on top are to die for; you see out over the port, past the Pakleni islands, and over the Adriatic. The water is so blue, and the rooves lovely burnt orange... such a beautiful landscape. Once you're at the top, it was only 10kn per person for a ticket into the fortress, and there are some great exhibits of archaelogical finds brought up from the Adriatic dating back to the Roman settlements.



After the hike we had to have our requisite nap, and then a sunset swim off the boulders at the mouth of the port. We were still on high urchin alert, so we had to be super careful about entering and exiting the water, but it was absolutely amazing to be in that clear blue water every day of our holiday.

We spent the next day on one of the Pakleni island beaches. For those of you going to Hvar and planning to spend a day on one of the smaller rustic islands, definitely do it but be choosy about where you go. We asked in the tourist office for information, and they made it sound like wherever you go is great so we got on the first taxi boat we saw and headed out to sea. Unfortunately, the taxi boats take you where they want to go - you don't get an option as to which beach or which type of beach you end up at. We ended up at a pebble beach with a walk through a pine forest to another pebbly beach. The land under the water was quite hard, like it was groomed, so that wasn't so bad, but we were really looking forward to white sand. We still had a nice time (a good tip - head to the large supermarket back behind the cathedral and pack yourself a picnic lunch); it was a great day away from the crowds, with a gorgeous sea breeze and hot bright sun.

Hvar was definitely a party town though; each night we went out for dinner and as we were finishing up the kids came out to play. We didn't mind that, but we were on holiday and wanted to really relax. The pumping nightclubs weren't our scene, and we actually really liked the bar at Riva hotel - they had nice plush sofas outside and gave you blankets to cozy up with if the breeze turned chilly. It was a really nice way to end the night, and for the short time we spent in Hvar I could pretend I was completely minted and almost famous.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Island of Korcula



Monday morning bright and early we packed up our bags and wheeled out of a deserted (but busy) Dubrovnik Old Town to catch a taxi to the new port. We had tickets on the regional ferry up to Korcula, and our boat left at 8:30am. Our tickets said we had to be there 2 hours in advance to validate them, but frankly we could have shown up at 8:25 and still been welcomed on board. The four hour journey was really beautiful, as we had an interior space to sit out of the wind as well as a few open decks from which we could enjoy the scenery.

We arrived in Korcula around 12:30pm and were met by our rented apartment's housekeeper. She walked us into the Old Town and to our accommodations, a spare but clean and comfy studio apartment off the main square. We dumped our bags and immediately went out for lunch. Korcula Old Town is a tiny little medieval jewel, with alleyways heading down to the sea and a crumbling wall surrounding it. There are two harbors, and we found an excellently located by overpriced beach bar overlooking the northwest harbor and therefore the sunset.

You can also swim in the sea off the edge of the Old Town, which we did our first day. Unfortunately, the sea is rocky there, and I broke my flipflop (damn you JCrew!) and the Irishman touched his toe to an urchin! I had to borrow his flips for a quick trip to a pharmacy for tar ointment and tweezers. He only had 3 spines in his big toe, thank goodness, and he claims it wasn't too painful. After that saga, we definitely needed a nap.

Korcula's Old Town suffers from a different sort of touristy-ness than Dubrovnik; Dubrovnik wants you to visit and spend time (and money) there, and has cleaned up the town and restored many of its sights accordingly. Korcula, however, has effectively moved out of its Old Town and left it as-is. There are restaurants and bars and tourist shops, to be sure, but there are also boarded up homes and abandoned buildings. Life seems to take place outside the walls, in the newer area. But of course tourism brings in a lot of money, and Korcula has many ways of helping one spend it. I made the Irishman sit through a Moreska sword dance performance that cost us a tenner each. It was actually quite well done and fascinating, but I think he would have enjoyed it more without the first 15 minutes of traditional folk songs sung by a slightly weird band.



The next morning we got up bright and early and headed to a rental shop to pick up some bikes. Our goal for the day was beach, so we headed down the road to Lumbarda. We rode through lovely fields of olive trees, pretty rolling landscapes with ruins, and past rows and rows of grape vines and vineyards. We chose to go to Vela Przina beach, a sand beach (no chance of urchins!) and in a sheltered cove off the water and out of the wind. We spent most of the day there, with an Ožujsko and hotdog break, and swam and read.



On the way back to Korcula, we rode up into the actual town of Lumbarda, and checked out the views. We also stopped at a winery to try Grk, the local white wine varietal. The winery was a bit weird, as there weren't any other tourists around - just the owners - so we felt compelled to buy something just for showing up. Which wasn't exactly an issue. Grk is really nice, as is Posip (another Croatian white we drank while traveling), and we actually ended up buying three bottles of our favorite Posip in the Konzum (on sale for a fiver each!). The ride home was harder the Irishman since he had the wine in his backpack, but I highly recommend renting bikes and riding around to anyone visiting the island. It's a really nice break from the touristy areas and old medieval walls of the old towns, and seeing the countryside is a great way to spend a day of holiday; it is inspiring to be out there, wind in hair, with such blue skies.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Delightful Dubrovnik



The Irishman and I started our holiday adventure in the ancient, lovely port city of Dubrovnik. A walled-in city with ancient fortifications and picturesque red tiled roofs was heavily bombed during the Bosnian war, and much of what tourists see is a careful restoration. Our guide book called Dubrovnik "the jewel of the Adriatic", but we didn't get to truly appreciate it until Sunday.

We flew on BA, an easy 2+ hour flight from Gatwick, and took a taxi into town. Our taxi driver helpfully identified for us the good local brew (Ožujsko) and a few sites for us to see including the island of Lokrum that we were planning to visit anyway. He dropped us off outside the Pile Gate, and we wheeled ourselves through the muggy evening heat into city. We stayed in a rented apartment that we found above a pizzeria; when we got there we stood with our suitcases looking confused and the pizza lady took one look at us and buzzed the housekeeper for us. How handy! Our room was small but lovely, and we headed immediately out to explore. After a quick wander, we found the coolest bar overlooking the Adriatic. We sat with our feet up, drinking Ožujsko and listening to the waves. It was the perfect start to relaxation!



Unfortunately Saturday was a complete washout; we started out walking the walls and halfway around the 2k route the heavens opened up. We took refuge in a small lookout guardpost room with a nice couple from Manchester on a cruise holiday, but we took a gamble and got drenched a few steps away. We finally finished the walk, and decamped to our "local" pizzeria for wine and food and then a nap. The rain ended by the time we woke, and we explored a bit out of the town as well - there's not much, but a good supermarket called Konzum for cheap bottled water. We passed the rest of the day just wandering - seeing churches, wandering the city, having drinks in bars, and checking out the stray cats. There are TONS of stray cats (and dogs) all over the city!

Sunday we woke up to another overcast day and I was so upset that it would rain all day again. But once we left the apartment for breakfast, the sun broke through and it was warm and beautiful. We took the change in weather to be a sign of good luck, and ran back to the apartment to grab our swim gear and head off to Lokrum. 40 kuna (approximately £5) gets you a return ticket to the undeveloped island, where you can swim, hike, and just chill out. There are peacocks strutting about, and the ruins of an old monastery. Apparently there is a fortress on the top of a hill, but that day there was a fire watch so part of the island was restricted. That's okay because we found places like this to swim in and sunbathe.



We spent most of the day there and headed back for naps. This began two of our most sacred activities of the trip: daily naps and daily gelato. After a lovely fish dinner, we just relaxed because we had an early start Monday morning to head to our next destination: Korcula.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ciao, ragazzi!

After two weeks of glorious sun, sand, cities, and eating, I arrived back in London today to overcast clouds and humid air. Croatia and Italy were absolutely fabulous, two distinctly different countries that are equally beautiful and engaging. I definitely was able to relax completely and really truly rest while I was away, and it will be a struggle to get up tomorrow and rejoin the rat race tomorrow morning. Even worse, I had a nap each day at 2 - I don't know how I'm going to get through an entire afternoon awake!

I can't wait to tell you all about the lovely things I saw and experienced, so I'm going to blog each major stop on our tour individually. Look out for the posts throughout the week, complete with pictures, suggestions, and recommendations in case you or someone you know is planning on visiting any of our stops.

I'm not going to be blogging about the food we ate (and boy did we eat - and drink), and this is my opportunity to introduce you all to a little side project I've been working on with the Irishman. It's called Eggplant & Aubergine, and it is a food blog we started to document everything we eat and cook. E&A, as we call it 'round these parts, is still very much a work in progress but with the wealth of good (and not so good) food we experienced on our hols, we should definitely get it into high gear over the next week or so. So please check it out and if you have any suggestions or comments, let me know!

Otherwise, despite the weather and the fact that I have to go back to work tomorrow, it's great to be back.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Proper holiday-makers at Gatwick

So the Irishman and I are here at Gatwick, waiting desparately for BA
to announce our gate: he wants to just GET GOING, I want to get
reading my 2 issues of GRAZIA.

Gatwick Airport is a fine place to wait for a flight; it has a lot of
shops and restaurants (we had some decent fake Tex-Mex) but it also
has fabulous people-watching. LGW has a reputation for being the
airport of choice for package holidays and the less than savory people
who prefer them. All of the stories about drunken British louts puking
in European holiday hotspots? A lot of them fly out of Gatwick.

Oops! Our gate has been announced! Gotta jet! See you in 2 weeks!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bike Brigade


I am writing this from the comfort of my desk, after riding my bike into work in a drenching mist. Ever since I moved to my new flat in Barnsbury, the bike has been my number one choice of commuter transport. It shaves my commuting time in half, and is a really pleasant way to start the day. I'm not alone on my bike; I took the photo above at a key intersection about half-way from my house to work. There are normally about 8-12 bikes stopped for that light on any given morning.

Biking to work isn't all rosy. Bikers are just as bad as drivers, in that they pass you too close, cut you off, and generally can be douchebags. I refuse to ride wrapped in plastic, and sometimes the guys in spandex and egg helmets give girls like me dirty looks. But that's okay. They look ridiculous in their clip-on shoes. I've found a blog that supports me in my quest to look fashionable on my bike, London Cycle Chic, which offers all sorts of tips for arriving at one's destination looking less withered than if one rode the tube. Excellent!

Cars here in London are generally more comfortable around cyclists than they were in New York, but it doesn't mean that you can let your guard down. The fact is though that there is safety in numbers, and the more bikes there are on the road, the more drivers of cars have to be tolerant. So I love my fellow bike friends, and I love exploring London on my trusty two-wheeled companion.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bank Holiday Monday

It's Bank Holiday Monday here, and I'm sitting in my back garden enjoying the sun. Yesterday was cloudy and miserable, and I spent it with tea and the Irishman planning LE HOLIDAY. Today I should be packing but I can't bring myself to be inside.

I've mentioned LE HOLIDAY before in passing, so I should probably spill the detail beans. The Irishman and I are leaving Friday afternoon for 8 days each in Croatia and Italy. Our itinerary is as follows: fly to Dubrovnik, ferry to Korcula, ferry to Hvar, ferry to Split, ferry to Ancona, Italy, train to Bologna, train to Florence, train to Lucca, and depart Pisa. I scheduled everything so that apart from the taxi that will get us from the Dubrovnik Airport to our rented apartment, we'll only travel by ferry boat in Croatia. I'm looking forward to sun, warm temperatures, beaches, ruins, and fresh fish. The Irishman, foodie that he is, hasn't ever traveled to Italy, so I'm excited to introduce him to one of my favorite countries in the world.

Since we're running off on this adventure, we decided to keep Bank Holiday low-key (read: inexpensive). But that didn't prevent us from spending money. The Irishman received money from his parents for his birthday to spend on new RayBan aviator sunglasses, and conned the salesman in the shop to giving us some sort of discount that meant we got a second pair (for me!) super cheap. Between the two of us, we got 2 pairs of sunglasses for £200 with significant savings on both. I'm wearing my new oversized Prada shades as I type.

I also have £200 of award money from my company to spend. I need to spend it by the end of October, and I've decided that it shouldn't be something I NEED (like new running shoes) and more of a treat (like a new handbag!). I've started investigating handbags and who knew they were so bloody pricey. Even a Miu Miu bag is prohibitively expensive. So I've been procrastinating this weekend by trolling the interwebs looking for bargain designer bag websites. Anyone have any recommendations?

So yeah, a lazy long weekend. I should be working on a white paper for work, and any number of other tasks, but the weather today and the freedom from responsibility is really refreshing. I might get on the bike in a bit and go for a spin; having an entire day with nothing to do is really wonderful.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Liberty Prints


Yesterday the Irishman and I went to town to pick up a few necessities for our upcoming mega holiday (my brother has already called me out for calling it a 'holiday' and not a 'vacation'). These included the new Apple OS for him (necessity is open to interpretation here) and bronzer for me (gotta fake the tan before I get it). We were over by Regents Street, and when we passed by Liberty I just had to take a spin through my favorite store.

It just so happens that Liberty has a mini exhibition of their prints displayed on the fourth floor called Liberty Prints Charming. Liberty printed fabric is renowned for its iconic floral graphics, and fashion and interior designers alike have long found inspiration through them. Naturally, Liberty should celebrate this high-style heritage, and is doing so with a lovely meandering display of Liberty print EVERYTHING - upholstery, clothes, accessories, hats, scarves, books, pens, teapots - and short curated exhibits of famous collaborations: Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood, and Chloe to name a few.

Because the Irishman was with me and has little patience for impromptu museum trips, let alone museums about clothes, we didn't stay long, but one doesn't need to stay long; the exhibit is more about celebration than learning, and everyone in London should take a quick spin around Liberty's top floor to remind themselves what a cultural gem and national treasure Liberty really is.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blast from the Past

It's been quite a while since I've written a Week in Review post. When I first moved to London, it seemed like every week was full of new and exciting events to report; but I quickly established a routine and found that there wasn't much for me to write about that was different from the past week.

This week, however, so many events took place that didn't require a full post, but do merit mention. So here we go - the resurrection of the Week in Review!

Monday: the usual, working late. Sigh. But I did find out that my good friend Jon is almost certainly moving to Paris this fall so I get to start planning a long Parisian weekend with him and his lovely girlfriend Alix, full of wine, cheese, and philosophical discussions about life and love. Mais oui!

Tuesday: the usual, part 2, working late. I then sent an email with incorrect information to my boss's boss's boss who used it in a call with my company's CEO. When I discovered my mistake, I sent an email of apology and correction and sat back to wait for my sacking. Instead, I received a really nice email telling me it was okay and that I really deserved my upcoming 2 week holiday. Phew.

Wednesday: I woke up relieved only to find out that Teddy Kennedy passed away. What a sad way to start the day. I really loved Teddy Kennedy, and found him to be an inspirational man. He was, in my estimation, the most human of the Kennedy brothers; he lived a full life, full of triumph and tragedy, rather than dying young and elevated to cultural and political icons. Whether you hated or admired him as a man or politician, you can't deny the indelible mark he left on the American social landscape.

Wednesday I also had an epic journey out to a suburb of London to visit my client's office. To make a long story short, I had to walk from the train station to their HQ (30 minutes - good thing I wasn't wearing heels) and during the walk I sliced my finger open on my broken umbrella. How awful. It ended up okay, though, and I even made it back to London in time for my yoga class.

Thursday: The Irishman's birthday! We had a lovely lovely meal at a restaurant in my neighborhood, Fig. It was our first time there and it was delicious. We'll definitely go back.

Friday: Ugh. Worked really late. Treated myself to a delicious curry and True Blood to make up for it.

And now, it's Bank Holiday Weekend! Saturday Morning Kitchen is back, and I'm spending the weekend packing and preparing for my upcoming holiday. Hurrah!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lockerbie Bomb Suspect Released



I'm sure all of you have already heard the news that the Scottish justice secretary released the only man convicted of the Pan Am 103 bombing on compassionate grounds. The decision is causing quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, as the UK, US, and parts of the Scottish government and victims' families all are voicing their contempt and anguish while Libyans gave al Megrahi a hero's welcome. Kenny MacAskill, the sole man responsible for the decision to release the suspected terrorist, is standing his ground.

I am personally unsure of how to feel about this latest development in the bombing that hurled the Western world into shocked understanding of global terrorism. As a person, I am horrified that someone who was a direct participant in the act is being set free. I am enraged that Libyans danced in joy at his return to his homeland. But I also have another side of me, full of tolerance and forgiveness, that understands why this decision was made; this side of me is the hardest to understand.

I graduated from Syracuse University, where the Pan Am 103 tragedy holds an extremely sensitive and emotional significance: thirty-five SU students were on Pan Am 103, returning from a semester abroad right before Christmas in 1989. A scholarship fund was established in their honor, and I was awarded one of the thirty-five annual scholarships my senior year. As a Remembrance Scholar, each of us was asked to learn about the bombing and acts of terrorism, and to participate in campus-wide activities that educated students about tolerance. The program helped me gain a better understanding of the world, people's attitudes and behaviors, and most importantly how to temper my own strong opinion with an openness to others. In this respect, I can completely understand why Mr. MacAskill made the decision to release al-Megrahi.

I can't even imagine the anguish that the parents and loved ones of the thirty-five lost students - as well as the family members of all the victims - must feel at this legal decision. To have the only person responsible for the crime be released well before his sentence is up, to die in peace in his homeland, and have that homeland celebrate his return, must be a fresh tear in an old aching wound. I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone.

There are many in the UK who question al-Megrahi's guilt, however, and anyone who has seen a person die of terminal cancer knows the suffering he will surely experience. Healthcare in Libya cannot possibly rival that in the UK, and sending a guilty man to his certain death in the desert rather than providing hospice in Scotland may be, in some ways, adequate rewards. Had al-Megrahi remained in Scotland, the government would have had to provide essential care and ease his pain and suffering. Let Libya do that now, rather than forcing Scotspeople to comfort the man who assaulted their people and land.

I agree with Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who are calling al-Megrahi's release and subsequent welcome in Libya "highly objectionable". I agree with the members of Scottish Parliament who reconvened during their recess to question MacAskill about his decision. But I don't blame Scotland, or the UK, or even MacAskill. The Pan Am 103 tragedy has hurt too many people, ruined too many lives, and caused too much heartache to create even more hate in this world.