Thursday, November 29, 2012

Exploring London's great outdoors

Editors note: I started writing this post about 2 weeks ago – and am only now finishing it. I apologise for the tardiness!!!

One of my favorite things about London and the UK is the proximity I feel to nature. Even London, whose nickname is Big Smoke, you're never very far from someplace wooded or a nature reserve or even just a leafy square where you can rest your feet and enjoy some lovely flowers.

Ever since moving into our house, we've been exploring the natural beauty of East London. Hah! you may say – Hackney is full of estates and faded glory! But no, nestled amongst the hipsters and cafés and plantain shops, there are tons of acres of preserved land.

About a month ago, The Irishman and I cycled over to the Lea Valley park and Tottenham Marshes. You access the park via a spur of the canal and cycle or walk all the way over to Walthamstow Marshes. We found an ice skating rink, a horseback riding facility, and working reservoirs that treat the water for London. There are cute pubs and cafés all around, so you can walk or bike or run safe in the knowledge that there are places to take a break everywhere you go.

That's The Irishman on his bike!

Then two weeks ago we walked the Parkland Walk, which is a trail stretching from Finsbury Park to Highgate tube station that runs along an abandoned section of railway track. I'd heard about it from a few people who did the walk and we decided to check it out, and extended it by walking from our house to Finsbury Park and joining the trail there.

The best part of the trail is that there are artifacts still in place from it's previous life as a railway – so old station platforms, bridges, and access points are decaying and fading back into the land as the wildlife takes over. 

The trail its about 1.8 miles long up to Highgate tube station, and we added on about 1.5 miles in the walk from our house to the trail. It was a beautifully quiet and peaceful place to stroll on a Saturday and pretend we didn't live in the middle of a global capital. Yet when we popped out on the other side, a pub was waiting to warm us and a bus ready to take us home. That's my kind of wilderness.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Expat Thanksgiving – or, our first dinner party in the house

It's that time of year when every American starts thinking about turkey, stuffing, and football – though if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, it may not be in that order. Personally, I used to hate Thanksgiving: I didn't like starchy orange vegetables, I hated football, and with my small family the holiday felt like a cheap, orange version of Christmas with less decorations and no snow. Fast forward 15 years and I'm living in London where you pay out the nose for a can of Libby's Pumpkin (£1.39 a can!) and the butcher rolls his eyes when you ask for a turkey killed a month early. But creating my own Thanksgiving traditions is pretty amazing, especially as The Irishman has gotten into the Thanksgiving cooking spirit with me, and I'm really enjoying cooking and hosting expat Thanksgiving meals and introducing the holiday to curious Brits.

Last weekend I had a close friend visiting from Chicago so we decided to hold an expat Thanksgiving while she was in town. It was our first dinner party in our new house, so it was always going to be pretty special. I went all out with decorations and cooking, particularly in the purchase of this amazing platter from a thrift store:

We went to town with the table settings, using a cored butternut squash as a vase for some autumnal flowers. The Irishman found the idea on The Kitchn, and it looked great with two little squashes as a natural centerpiece. We left the table rustic, as I love my farmhouse table and didn't want to cover it, but I ordered those brass leaf candle holders on Ebay from a seller in the US to get some authentic harvest vibe going.

My friend helpfully made personalised name cards from a magazine, so each person got a different texture. It turned out really special and actually really appropriate for each person – they were a big hit.

I ventured out of my comfort zone to make my first pumpkin pie; it was a true collaboration as The Irishman made the shortcrust pastry and neither of us had actually ever made a pie before. So the crust isn't that great but overall it was very tasty.

Of course we had a bird – a 5.685kg turkey that took nearly 5 hours to roast. But it was worth every overpriced penny as the butchers had prepared it perfectly for us and it yielded one of the tastiest gravies I've ever had.

Our menu was pretty standard overall, with standard American recipes from my favorite cooking links:
Chestnut stuffing
Mashed potatoes
Brussel sprouts and pancetta
Sweet potato biscuits (full disclosure: I am embarrassed to say I enjoyed a Paula Deen recipe)
Cranberry sauce

My American guests contributed acorn squash and pumpkin barley salad, which rounded out the meal and made it a really lovely potluck affair.

I'm doing another Thanksgiving meal next weekend for Brits, so I think I might change up the stuffing and the cranberry sauce. The New York Times is doing this brilliant Thanksgiving Help Line feature that's inspired me to try a few new things.

Tell me, expats: where will you celebrate Thanksgiving? What will you serve? Can you get turkeys easily? And Americans: what are your favorite recipes and traditions?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beautiful Berlin

I don't know about you, but the minute we decided to buy a house my life became all about scrimping and saving. All of a sudden, I was watching every penny and really felt like I couldn't bear to part with a single cent/pence – or I was hunting down every deal or bargain. So when The Irishman had to buy a printer and some ink cartridges for his old job and they came with a promotion of free flights with proof of purchase, we became those people who were like "hey, what a great deal!" We ended up with 2 flights to Berlin for a long weekend, and only had to pay for the taxes – £50 per person – and got excited about a quick little holiday for not a lot of cash.

Of course, by the time you add up the cost of the hotel, the taxi to and from the airport, and all of the other travel related expenses, it's not as if we saved any cash. But we did get the most amazing trip to an awesome city that neither of us had ever visited.

Unlike other cities in Europe, Berlin hides its touristy bits well. Obviously there are the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, both of which are mobbed with actors dressed in WWII era army uniforms who will let you get your photo taken with them for a price. But other notable spots of interest are nestled in and amongst regular neighborhoods where citizens carry on life as normal.

For instance, the Berlin Wall Memorial is a really tasteful explanation of just how crazily the city was divided in half. It explained how the wall was constructed, how it was policed, and along the footprint of the wall showed where crossings were averted. There was a memorial to people who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West Berlin, and remnants of the wall covered with graffiti. There is also an education centre with films and interpretation around the divided era of Berlin.

Around Berlin, more sections of remaining wall are displayed with overt anti-dictator and pro-peace messages. It really feels like the city has taken the lessons of the Cold War to heart and is itself one big advocate for tolerance. That message also comes across loud and clear in one of Berlin's most iconic museums, The Jewish Museum designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. It's an aggressive, severe, intense building that gives visitors a journey that echoes that of the Jewish diaspora. It's worth a visit even if you don't stay long, and I found the interpretation to be riveting.

In addition to The Jewish Museum, helpfully there is an island in the middle of the Rhine that is home to most of the state collections. One of the museums on the island is called the Neues Museum and its recent renovation won a lot of awards for how it retained a lot of the original building while still creating a new, modern space. We didn't do any of the art museums in Berlin, as we were only there for three days, but a tip for fellow travellers is to book online to avoid the rather long queues for tickets.

The big elephant in the room in Berlin is the experience of Jews and other ethnic minorities who were persecuted during World War II. There are several sensitive memorials and places of rememberance around the city, which respectfully acknowledge past sins.

One of the best things we did was visit the dome in the Reichstag. Designed by Norman Foster, it's open to the elements and provides an amazing 360° view of the capital. It's free to visit, but you have to book in advance and provide photo ID to access the roof.

Berlin is not just known for its epic history, though. This is a living, breathing city of artists and creative innovators – a testing ground for new and exciting self-expression. This spirit is evident in the street art, posters, and general tone of the city – if it's done in Berlin, it's done with a unique and sophisticated take on what's expected. The fashion in particular is amazing and it was hard for me to keep my wallet in my handbag.

And then there was the food. Glorious German cooking! To be honest, there was more ethnic food in Berlin than I thought; more Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Italian and French restaurants than traditional German places. But we did manage to have an amazing meal at Alpenstueck, a really highly recommended restaurant serving traditional German food from the Alpine region. And we also made a point to travel to what is considered the best currywurst join in town, Curry36.

Because we ate so much meat, and not many vegetables, I was shockingly too full for the lovely patisserie on offer in Berlin's bakeries. I was actually pretty upset to not be able to eat more of these.

Finally, the wine. German wine. I wasn't really looking forward to it, because I think of German wine as sweet whites like Rieslings. But there are whole other winemaking regions in Germany producing wines that I'd never heard of like my favorite the Spätburgunder. It's a pinot noir which means it's a lighter red but more spicy than sweet. Love. We bought a bottle at the airport that, if it's even half as good as the one below, I look forward to drinking soon.
So all in all, Berlin was amazing and the perfect place to run off to for a whirlwind visit. It may even be up there on the same level with Paris and New York as my favorite cities in the world (besides London of course). I'm already planning all of the things I want to do in my next visit, which means I'll probably be back sooner rather than later. See you soon, Berliners!

If you go:
All major airlines and many budget carriers fly to Berlin, which has two airports: the older, more austere Schönfeld or the newer, more modern, Tegel. A third airport, Brandenburg, will be opening in late 2013 and replace both existing airports as Berlin's travel hub. The super efficient U-Bahn subway runs from Schönfeld Airport, and you can buy a day pass that allows unlimited travel including to/from the airport for €7 per day. Note of caution: most of the ticket machines don't take Visa or Mastercard, and only accept bills under €50. Hotels are numerous and rather inexpensive; we stayed in the Hotel Weinmeister in the heart of Mitte for £80 per night. The city itself is small and compact in the center, so you don't really need much in the way of transport, although there is a public bike hire network and taxis seemed plentiful.