Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapel Down Winery

As you may have read, my parents visited me over the Thanksgiving weekend. One of their entertainment requests was a day out of London, and they've already hit many of the easy-to-reach tourist spots (Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Oxford, etc). I had a think and remembered a friend of mine had recently visited Chapel Down Winery with her husband and a few other friends, and highly recommended it as a day out. So I booked us a tour and lunch reservations at the restaurant on the site, and Saturday morning we met at Charing Cross station to board a train out to Kent. 

The closest train station to the winery is at the village of Headcorn. As we had over an hour before our tour time, we took the opportunity to explore the little town. That's my parents, above, in a lovely wooden bus shelter. It's a really cute town, with a high street decorated for Christmas and an ancient churchyard surrounded by Tudor homes.

There was also a Christmas craft fair in the town hall, which we naturally had to visit. My mother bought up a few souvenirs while The Irishman and I had some really nice homemade sausage rolls. Then we jumped in a cab for a 20 minute drive to Chapel Down. 

The tour is approximately an hour and 45 minutes long, including a tasting. We saw two of the different vineyards with two separate types of vines, and the guide explained the growing and harvesting processes. We then went into the barns to learn how they actually make the wine.

Because the best English wines are actually sparkling wines, the guide spent the most time explaining the techniques they use to for creating fizz. Chapel Down uses the traditional French technique << champagnoise >> that involves a long process of turning the bottles to ensure that the yeast in the wine fully aerates the liquid. It's a fascinating process that was once done by hand but now is mechanized – which is still pretty cool to see. Below are some bottles of sparkling rosé in the midst of the turning, with the yeast by-product in the neck. It's pink, because it's ros

And here are some bottles of sparkling rosé ready to be finished.

Of course the tour ended with a tasting; the whites, rosé, and sparkling wines are amazing while the reds still need some work. The soil and temperature of Southeast England just don't allow for the maturing of the grape that will get a really rich, bold, deep red wine; hopefully they can move to making a more Beaujolais-style wine that will take advantage of the lack of intensity. At any rate, we picked up a bottle of their Bacchus Reserve white wine to have with Vietnamese food on Kingsland Road. Score!

Lunch in the restaurant was delicious, accompanied by more Chapel Down wine. We left the vineyard sated and content, having enjoyed the brisk country air and some really wonderful local products. Our cab back to the train station took us through the nearby little town of Tenterden, and had we been more energetic it would have been nice to walk off the meal looking into the shop windows. But at that point, we were all nearly asleep anyway. Oh well – just another reason to go back for another visit.

If you go:
Trains run direct to Headcorn from Charing Cross station; journey time is approximately an hour and train fare is around £18 per person. National Express has a great deal where if four adults travel together on a same-day return train ticket, you only pay for 2 people's tickets – essentially, it's 50% off. Taxis from Headcorn to Chapel Down are around £25 each way, and there is a taxi office at Headcorn station. Vineyard tours are £8 per person, but the grounds are open to the public and you can go for walks around the park regardless of whether you take the tour or not. The restaurant has an a la carte menu as well as a set menu for lunch – 2 courses for £13.95 or 3 courses for £15.95 which is excellent value for some really great food. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

I lied.

I missed Thanksgiving yesterday.

Lunch was amazeballs, my parents are in fine fettle, and we had a lovely meal last night. But Facebook tortured me this morning with photo after photo after post of meals, families, smiles. Yes I had all of those, BUT IT WASN'T THE SAME.

So sue me: I wanted to slave over a bird in the oven. Now I know for next year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Obligatory Expat Thanksgiving Post That's Really About Christmas

Photo courtesy of Flickr by Paparutzl 

This week is a holiday week in America. If I were still living there, today would probably be my last day of work. Or I might "work" tomorrow and scoot out after lunch to catch a train back to my parents.

But I don't live in America and I'm not going home to America this year, and I'm okay with all of this. I chose not to live there, and, while I miss my family and my friends, I don't really miss the food. I actually hate sweet potatoes and yams, so that's a win, and now that I can get Libby's canned pumpkin here (I worked out that I paid $2.25 per can for the pleasure of it, but hey, imports are expensive) I've gotten pretty good at replicating my Mom's pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.

I usually don't get worked up about missing holidays because I live far away, but this year I have an extra reason for being less than sad: my parents are arriving tomorrow evening for a long weekend of non-traditional Thanksgiving-ness.

My office has a restaurant headed up by a chef trained at The Wolseley, and he is cooking us all Thanksgiving lunch on Thursday. My parents will come for lunch in the midst of their museum-ing, and that evening we will go to the holiday shopping evening at my favorite local store Aria before dinner at Trullo. Friday we will see a show in the evening, and Saturday we will head down to Kent for a tour of Chapel Down Winery.

But the real focus of their visit will be to see London all dressed up for the holidays. Sunday will be devoted to visiting everything in London that screams Christmas: Fortnum & Masons, Regents Street, John Lewis, and of course Liberty. I'm gutted that the Christmas Past exhibit won't be open at the Geoffyre Museum while they're here - I'll just have to go to that myself. It's almost as if we as a family have decided to skip the Thanksgiving holiday and just run straight on to December.

I'm okay with that. As a kid, I never really liked Thanksgiving (no presents!) and as an expat I've been delighted to find myself obsessed with Christmas the way only a child can be. It's the way people here get excited for the holiday, the way it saturates the whole country (no multicultural/multireligious politically correctness here!), the way that there are Christmas cooking shows on TV, the way the country shuts down on the 23rd (except for the airports unless it snows/ices/squalls/etc), the way the Queen addresses the country and wishes everyone well. If Thanksgiving is a family holiday about love and thankfulness in America, Christmas is a holiday about love and unity in the UK - one big boozy knees up and bear hug to see out the end of the year.

So I'm glad to not be making a fuss about Thanksgiving this year; I am glad to be embracing the Christmas season early, kicking it off with a bang, with the people I love the most. Little Brother - can you join us last minute to make the weekend complete?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What else I've been up to

In the lead up to the marathon, I wasn't drinking and I was staying in most Friday nights and all work and no play made me a very dull girl. So I had to find something to occupy myself when I wasn't running, and I turned to my other favorite sport: knitting.

I found a pattern for a replica of The Dude's sweater from The Big Lebowski on Crafty Crafty, and jokingly sent it on to my little brother who simultaneously worships The Dude while trying to recreate his lifestyle. He also hates when I knit him stuff. So imagine my surprise when he responded saying "MAKE ME THIS FOR CHRISTMAS OR MY BIRTHDAY". 

Cut to me in the midst of knitting my first full-size human garment beyond a scarf, as well as my first fair-isle knitting piece. This is unchartered territory people. The image above (crappy, I know, sorry for the bad lighting) shows the back – I took it to show my mother and get her opinion on some pattern irregularities due to me knitting two colors of yarn together. I've since fixed them as she gave me a tip on avoiding this pesky hole that appears between 2 colors when you create straight line. Anyway.

At this point I've finished the back and half of one of the front panels. I am confident I can get the pieces done before Christmas and when I get home to the US can do the making it up and finishing details. But the nerd has to also supply me with a measurement of his arms as he has seriously the longest arms of any human I know so I need to knit accordingly. The Irishman is grumbling about being a knitting widow but frankly I think he's just jealous as he has also refused me knitting him apparel in the past – maybe this project will be the one that changes his mind.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Prague is one of those places in the world that I have a created for myself a wildly romantic notion about what it should be: cold, cloudy, atmospheric, full of cobbled streets and small dark bars with crackling fireplaces. A city where you spend time walking and thinking, growing colder with every step and revelation, then warming yourself up with mulled wine in a comfortable chair in a sparkling café.

What I found when I got there was not much different, as illustrated by my photo of Charles Bridge above, but was also much more complicated than my easy, self absorbed fantasy. I have a very long Polish surname with many consonants including 2 Z's, and the Czech immigration officer took one look at it and immediately demanded whether I was Polish, if my parents were Polish, just how Polish was I? And I thought "Shit. I have no idea what to say. Do the Czechs even LIKE the Poles? Is this an ISSUE?" I cleared immigration just fine, but from that moment I was acutely aware that this holiday was different from my previous ones; for the first time I was visiting a country and culture of which I had absolutely no prior knowledge or understanding.

But that didn't stop me from enjoying myself; I merely just went straight to our hotel in the Mala Strana neighborhood and read up on Czech history on Wikipedia. And then I went on to indulge myself in everything I dreamt Prague would be: beer, meat, dumplings, and cake. Oh, and beautiful architecture and design.

If you're really into architecture, Prague is the place for it. There is a beautiful and intriguing mix of ancient structures, Baroque monuments, and modern interventions that all come together to create a really fascinating cityscape. Highlights were the main square, with the astrological clock, and the Frank Gehry "Fred and Ginger" Dancing House building (above). We also took the subway out to the Zizkov TelevisionTower to see the panaroma of the city from what felt like a throwback to Soviet-era tourist attractions. It also reminded me of the old Tomorrow-Land at Disney World, the one that was made in the 1960s. Unfortunately the day we went a fog was settling over the city and we couldn't see very far, but I still thought it was amazing to go up the fast elevators and look out over Prague from up high.

Overall, Prague is definitely a city that has realized that tourism will lift it into the global economy. After our first full day, we actively sought to avoid the Old Town and stay on the left side of the river or in the New Town. I really found myself wanting know how native citizens lived, what they saw on a daily basis, and what Czech culture really was about beyond beer and castles.

But that doesn't mean we didn't do touristy things. This is me in an alcove on the stairway up to the castle.

In the cathedral within the castle walls, I saw this AMAZING stained glass window by Mucha.

And after the castle, we went to a brewery in a monastery overlooking the city.

That made us very happy.

We also ate quite a lot of meat, and drank quite a lot of beer. We also found a wine bar that served only Czech wines, which were surprisingly good. Below is our favorite beer hall, basically a hipster beer hall with very cool backlit carved walls, called Lokal.

And here is the Irishman in "our" wine bar, enjoying a nice glass of white.

On the day we left, the sun made an appearance and burnt off the haze. So we took what seemed like a rare opportunity to see the city in the sunshine.

But to be honest, we sort of preferred the overcast skies to the sun; clouds seemed to fit the character of the city and especially the cuisine. I seriously wonder whether people eat all of that meat and all of those dumplings at the height of summer – and if so, how do they manage it?!

Overall, we really enjoyed Prague; it is beautiful and the perfect city for low-key exploration. Four days was the perfect amount to get a feel for the city and find your favorite haunts without getting bored. It was also great for post-marathon recovery; with everything in short walkable distances, we were able to stretch our legs without overdoing it. We ended up, after all of the sightseeing and wandering, enjoying spending time together in cafés most; despite the omnipresent smoking in all establishments, we appreciated being able to relax, graze a bit, drink a bit, read a bit, and generally just hang out without being rushed. It was difficult to be in a country where I only knew how to say "Hello" and "Thank you", so The Irishman and I instituted a new rule: every time we go to a place where we don't know the language, we have to learn 10 useful phrases before we go. I guess that's our end sort of learning from Prague: there are vacations, and then there is going to a new place to learn about that place, and sometimes you have to accept that one is not the other. So for me, Prague was a vacation and a very lovely, restful, and atmospheric one at that.

If you go:
Flights are available on a few airlines; as we flew from Dublin, we took Aer Lingus there and used BA Airmiles on the return to Heathrow. In terms of hotels, we stayed at the hotel At The Three Storks in the Mala Strana district. It was nice – clean, affordable, helpful staff, great location – but frankly it was disappointing in the way that only design hotels that go wrong can. I'd say, if you want a basic hotel that's cheap and well located, this is your place but if you want more style or luxury, look elsewhere. The Czech Republic is in the EU but hasn't adopted the Euro; currently, the Czech crown exchanges at roughly 27kc = £1 and a cup of coffee is about 50kc, a beer was 75kc.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Marathon, one week on...

There was request for some bling... here you go!

I also have a link to some really hideous "official" marathon photos that I really didn't want to share as I look like a running oompa loompa, so please use your imagination. 

It's been over a week since the marathon and I've had a tough reentry to the working world. Two long days already at the office have precluded me from lacing up the runners again, but I did get to a yoga class this evening. It felt really good to stretch everything out, though I did find that I still have some latent soreness and stiffness deep down in my quads and hamstrings. I also think I'm going to lose the second toenail on each foot as well; they are both a purple and looking a bit wonky...

So how does it feel to be a marathon runner? Pretty awesome, to be honest. I got a round of applause at my office's weekly Monday morning meeting and that felt really great. I feel like I have more inner confidence and strength; I find myself straightening up a lot more, giving myself more pep talks, reminding myself that I achieved this incredible feat. 

And I have to keep reminding myself, because the other thing is that it feels like it never happened. Sometimes I mentally review each mile from the race so that I don't forget what it was like to complete a marathon. If I don't, all I remember is this glow of finishing – which isn't such a bad memory, but I am worried it might cloud my judgement if I decide to do another marathon!

Which is the final outcome: I am definitely going to run another marathon. Not tomorrow, not this year or next year. But I would love to run New York or London, and to improve my time. It is such an amazing confidence boost and surreal experience that I know I will have to relive it (once I've fully recovered).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dobre den!

The Irishman and I are in Prague for a long weekend to relax and recover from the marathon. We flew in yesterday and leave Sunday, so until then have a lovely weekend. More marathon highlights and a full Prague debrief next week when I return xx

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Of pain...
Of anger...
Of sweat...
Of tears...
Of glucose in various forms...
Of snot...
Of cheers...
Of little kids holding out their hands for high-fives...
Of intermittent downpours...
Of hills...
Of Dubliners in Halloween costumes...
Of water intake...
Of blisters...
Of counting the miles...
Of watching the pace runner balloons...
Of readjusting my hairband...
Of questioning what the hell I was doing...
Of making pacts with myself to make it to certain targets...
Of wishing for the finish line...
Of determination.

I still can't quite believe I did it. It was an amazing experience that shocked me by showing me just how strong I am mentally and physically. I totally agree with people who say it is a mental achievement, because though various parts of my body ached at various times in the race, it was mental fortitude that kept me moving. I just knew that if I did stop, I wouldn't start again and I had to make it to the end. Unfortunately The Irishman suffered a cramp in his calf that really slowed him down, and he urged me to go on without him; this was the scariest part as I hadn't ever run that far on my own. But I found it in me to just keep running and even found some sort of latent energy (I credit my larger than normal butt for holding this reservoir) to actually speed up at the end. I sprinted across the finish line in some sort of ethereal state of contentedness, despite being soaked to the bone, satisfied that I had given it my best.

Last night, after warming up with a cup of tea and a bath, I still felt that calm sort of invincibility. Today, my knees and legs feel like they've aged about 35 years in 24 hours and my arms have an odd soreness in the triceps from me pumping them to keep momentum. The slight cold i had earlier in the weekend has firmly taken root in my chest, leaving me sniffling incessantly. But I still feel amazing. I assume this is what childbirth is like - intense pain for an extended period of time that results in you feeling so powerful that you forget just what the pain was like. In any case, I'm hoping the euphoria lasts a bit longer so that I can kick this cold and enjoy the feeling of being part of 1% of the world's population: a marathon runner.