24 December, 2011

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

The older we become, the more our own cracks show and refuse to be hidden behind the commercial blaze of lights, wrapping, and ribbons.  They ask us if we are willing to put away these childish things and begin learning what it is to truly love.  To love is not to turn a blind eye to each others' faults, but rather to make the choice that we will not walk out the door in response to those faults.  We will stay near, if we can.  And we will not just stay; we will try -- oh, we will try -- to enter into the whole tangle of sin and repentance and striving until it is better.  We will enter into the storm, holding forth our battered vision of the way things can be.  We will refuse to let each other give up on that vision, though we may need to take turns bearing it.

We only have the strength to try because some 2000 years ago God chose to not walk out the door on us.  He came near, He held up the vision of His hope for us and spent His blood to make that hope a certainty.  He began to heal and told us that one day all these things shall be well -- one day anger and disappointment will no longer plague families.  Passive aggression will not destroy friendships.  Greed and poverty will not blind our hearts to the image of God in every person. Bodies will not be sold and abused.  The mistakes in our pasts will no longer enslave us to regret and despondency, because the wonderful, mighty, everlasting prince of the universe became one of us and loved us unto death.

Rejoice!  Emmanuel came, and will come again.

18 December, 2011

Home Again

The longing to be elsewhere feels at times like a house of cards in the enigmatic wind of true fellowship.  To be freely given a community that does not discard you at your worst and that steadfastly lauds the glimpses of your glory self is something I do not understand or deserve, but cling to with thanks.

It is an incontestable sign and seal of grace, this clan bound together by Another's blood, this family that is stronger than your heart when your heart condemns you.  The more acquainted I become with the infinite jet black corners of my heart, the more it humbles me to see the ones still standing near after 2, 7, 16, 24 years of this pilgrim's fitful progress.  And the greater marvel to me is the fact that, even in all their beauty, they are only dim reflections of the Love that went to hell and back so that I could know true friendship.  

12 December, 2011

A Final Few Favorites (For Now)

Tomorrow, it's back to the States for a few weeks to celebrate the holidays with family and friends.  To close off this week's little series of "favorites,"  I leave you with the shortlist of favorite one-liners I've been on the receiving end of over the last four months.  Here's to being the stranger within the gates.

  • "Hello, you look like you're about to save a tiger's life!" - Charity fundraiser at Charing Cross Station
  •  "You're getting a Stella?  That's a bit of a lad's drink!" - As I was ordering drink for pub quiz.  My confidence was shaken, and we lost.
  • "What a wonderful gift your country has given us." - Meant, and taken, seriously.  Uttered by a sweet English gentleman who thoroughly enjoyed the Alison Krauss concert in November.
  • "So, Ginny - What is your direction in life?  What is your career path?" - Oh dear.
  • "I don't mean to be racist, but I didn't think American girls drink pints." - I had literally just met this woman.  A week later, I am still not sure how to respond.

10 December, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess : Snow-Topped Spice Cake... Sort Of

You know that song lyric "You don't know what you got til it's gone"?  After this week's baking project I felt that truer words were ne'er sung.  In the States I had a standing mixer.  In London I don't.  Usually it doesn't matter, but this week's bake, the "Snow-Topped Spice Cake," required beaten egg whites.  Lots of egg whites, beaten until they formed those "stiff peaks." These airy peaks would be the only things preventing the batter from transforming into a spiced hockey puck rather than a dreamily moist sponge cake.  With not even a hand-held mixer, my only option was to grab a whisk and get after it the old-fashioned way.  The way my great-grandmother must have done it.  My great-grandmother must have had killer arms.

I literally, shamefully, broke a sweat trying to reach that danged "stiff peaks" stage.  I stopped to give myself short breaks.  I shook out my wrist.  I tried switching hands but ambidexterity is a gift God apparently did not give me.  After what I think was half an hour, I was tantalizingly close but the eggs were refusing to become anything beyond a very thick foam.  I knew I was committing a baking sin, but I was past caring; I went ahead and folded in my inadequate egg whites and put the cake in the oven.  The result tasted fantastic -- an incredible dark gingerbread -- but, predictably, it barely rose at all.

Maverick that I am, I made another decision to deviate from Nigella's game plan.  Her cake is baked in a bundt pan and then topped with royal icing (knowing Nigella, this was probably solely so that she could work "snow" into the title).  Mine was too dense and thin to be enjoyed as a cake, but it still tasted wonderful...I realized it would make a delectable bread pudding!  And as I stood in the kitchen contemplating my course of action, I noticed some tart Bramley apples that need to be used up before we go home for the holidays.  Apple pairs so well with gingerbread spices, so I decided to try making a spiced apple compote.

I am so happy with the results!  Bread pudding is already the ultimate comfort food, but the dark, dense gingerbread spices take it to a new level of wonderful.  The apple compote adds the perfect note of sweetness, brightening up the dish just a bit.  The only thing I would add to this dish if I were to make it again would be some dark chocolate chips!

08 December, 2011

A Few More of My Favorite Things

Earlier this week I began a list of London favorites of the food-and-drink persuasion.  Today, we're talking places, views, rambles, etc!

Canary Wharf & the City seen from Greenwich
  • St James's Park - Small compared to Hyde Park or Green Park, but incredibly romantic. 
  • Greenwich Park - I climbed to the top one windy day and perched on a bench to watch ramblers and their dogs; birds and squirrels bickering over the prime tree real estate; Asian women harvesting chestnuts; and tourists on pilgrimage up the hill to the Observatory.  Queen of the Mountain, I took in the panorama before me: all of London, but a quiet and distant London seen from a safe green corner. 
  • Russia Dock Woodland - Formerly a dock which received imports of timber from Russia, Norway, and Sweden, it was filled in during the 1980s as the Rotherhithe docks were closed for the area's redevelopment.  Stave Hill is a prime sunbathing spot and provides a great view of Canary Wharf.
  • Borough Market - How do I love thee?  I can't begin to count the ways...You are an emporium of culinary wonders, from perfect bread to delicate macarons to exotic ostrich eggs.  I love to explore you while munching a roast duck sandwich or sipping a mulled wine.  I love to go on a weekday when the vendors actually have time to talk about what they sell.  I love to see their eyes so full of satisfaction and adoration as they linger over the fruits of their labor.  Even when I don't buy anything, I feel the better for having been there; I don't think you can ever be immersed in excellence without going away at least a little bit changed.
  • Greenwich Market - Beautiful, quirky, classic, and kitschy things...and did I mention it's in Greenwich?
  • Covent Garden - This is definitely more of a "look, don't touch, because you can't afford any of it" kind of place for me, but there are so many beautiful things and so much history here that I love to go!  There's usually some kind of busker or magician providing entertainment, and good street food to be had.  With the Royal Opera House adjacent, I always think of Eliza Doolittle and end up with "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" stuck in my head.
The Fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner, 1839
  • National Gallery of Art - At times I feel unworthy of my art history degree because I really haven't had that many epiphanies or life-changing experiences in front of a canvas.  However, I'll never forget the first time I saw JMW Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" in person at the National Gallery in 2007.  Before then I had only ever seen poor replications in textbooks and on Powerpoint slides, none of which can convey - or prepare you for - the astounding gold-leaf quality of that sky.  It actually took my breath away. 
  • Victoria & Albert Museum - The design junkie's mecca, and the reason I am rather fond of Queen Victoria & Prince Albert.  One of many public service projects they undertook together, the V&A was intended to make access to good and beautiful design available to all, educating and inspiring people of every class and industry.  I think it shows a recognition that beauty and design have an integral role in overall quality of life, and shouldn't be forgotten about even in these austere times.  I especially love the Asian collections and the 20th century collection.
  • London from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich
  • London from Waterloo Bridge at night - I once asked an Englishman what some of his London "favorites" were.  Without hesitation, he said, "The view from Waterloo Bridge at night is the best view in the world."  I took his advice when I was here last December and couldn't deny that it was indeed beautiful.
  • London from the London Eye -- I know, I know.  I caved.  I did the ultimate touristy thing (short of going to Madame Tussaud's) and rode the London Eye.  But you know what?  On a clear sunny day, it's actually stunning.  This entire city of distinct borough and villages which can take hours to cross is suddenly all within your view, spreading out in one big sparkling panorama.  
Brompton Cemetery
  • Brompton Cemetery - I know it sounds dark and creepy, but it's fascinating.  There are so many interesting names and epitaphs that leave you wanting to know the stories behind them.  And if you go at dusk, the light falling through the unkempt growth and across the old stones is marvelous. 

07 December, 2011

Some Right Honourable Mud-Slinging

One thing I would love to see imported into American political life is the regulated shouting match that is Prime Minister's Questions (or "PMQ" to the in crowd).  PMQ is a half hour of pure, unadulterated government transparency -- or something like that -- every Wednesday at noon.  The leader of the opposing party is allowed to ask the Prime Minister up to six questions during the session, while other MPs must put their names in a sort of lottery and hope to be randomly selected to ask their question.

The questions cover almost any topic you could imagine.  This is one reason I enjoy it so much; no issue is too small for consideration in this weekly audience with the leader of the Queen's government, giving small, rural constituencies a forum in which to make their concerns known right alongside those of higher-profile areas.  In one moment the PM is fielding a question regarding Britain's future in the European Union, and the next moment he is asked for a reaction to the recent flooding in Little-Toddersfleet-on-the-Wold.  Just today David Cameron was grilled on the topic of a referendum on the Euro area, but also on whether he felt it is necessary to make changes to Britain's fishing rights laws.  Only in Britain.

Prime Minister's Questions is a fascinating blend of incredibly passionate politics contained by the dignified language and rules of engagement that Americans expect of Brits.  Members preface thinly veiled insults by addressing each other as "the right honourable gentleman"; they shout "here, here"; they jump from their seats and bicker across the aisle with opposing members until the Speaker has to call for order.  There is actually a red line in the carpet on either side of the room, which the members are not allowed to cross...maybe a vestige of earlier, more violent times in Britain's political history. :-)

It can get ugly, but at the root I think it's a really excellent practice that we Yanks might do well to adopt.  I would love to see our President going beyond the occasional tightly controlled press conference or "town hall" meeting, instead fielding direct, unscreened questions from Congressional members on a weekly basis, responding to broad policy matters as well as very localized concerns.  It may be a small thing, but it's an effort toward consistency and accountability from those at the top.

Check out this example of a rather heated Prime Minister's Questions...

04 December, 2011

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

As I prepare to head back across the pond for the holidays, I've been thinking about some favorite places, things, and experiences from the last four months.  Posting a list feels a bit cliche or obnoxious at this time of year, when "best of" lists are as proliferate as renditions of "Oh Holy Night."  But I'm writing it anyway...It's good for me to look back and see the garland of good things strung together over these four months.  And I just love spreading the word!  For now, here are the food-and-drink-related favorites...More to follow.  Cheers!

The Coach and Horses
  • The Coach & Horses - I'll gladly make the trip across town just for the chance to sit at the corner table with a good Belgian beer and a notebook.  Beautiful dark wood interior, excellent food, and pleasant people-watching.  It's an unspoilt, local place.
  • The Gipsy Moth - This is a simply gorgeous pub with outstanding food in my favorite haven, Greenwich.
  • Herman Ze German - I passed Herman several times before actually going in to give it a try.  Honestly, I was a doubter.  I doubted that I would actually find good, authentic German food in what appeared to be a fast-food chain with a cartoony logo.  Wrong!  Mouth-watering wurst, amazing pretzel rolls and the best fries in London, served with a smile by German expats.  My addiction is such that I often plan my route home so that a pretzel roll stop at Herman "just happens" to be on the way.  I even got a loyalty card.  And I don't get loyalty cards for just anybody.
  • Jersey Black Butter - Discovered in the shop of Slow Food UK, tucked away in Neal's Yard off of Monmouth Street.  This is regional specialty from the island of Jersey is the best apple butter you will ever eat; apple cider is boiled and reduced over several days, then jazzed up with apples, sugar, lemon, spices, and licorice...It's perfect on toast, and is a great cure for porridge's natural blandness. :)
  • Ploughman's sandwich: Good bread, mature cheddar, pickled onions, lettuce, tomato, mayo.  Thank you, Britain, for this combination.  Also good with plum chutney.
  • Paul - Oh my stars, the macarons!
  • Monmouth Coffee - The first time I went to Monmouth I was overwhelmed by the number of options, and by the aficionados in line ahead of me, placing detailed, rapid-fire orders with authority.  A tall skinny barista with ironic hipster glasses must've sensed my social awkwardness levels skyrocketing because, despite the long line, he turned his full attention to helping me find the perfect coffee, asking all sorts of questions like a doctor diagnosing an ailment.  "Do you like your coffee strong?  Do you take it with milk?  Sugar?  Do you prepare it in a cafetiere or in a filter machine?  Do you prefer a more acidic coffee, or something more nutty and caramel-y?"  He scooped several different kinds for me to smell, describing each one's different aromas and taste characteristics.  I was in love.  My favorites so far are the Fazenda Serra do Bone (Brazil) and the Finca Las Nubes (Guatemala).
  • "Flat white" - So honestly, I didn't actually know what it was the first time I ordered it; the woman in front of me just sounded so expert and classy when she ordered it...So when I arrived at the till and the frazzled cashier needed my order, pronto, I found myself breezily saying, "Yes, a flat white, please, for takeaway."  Thankfully this mystery drink proved to be delicious.  Is it treasonous or in some other way controversial to say that I prefer it to a latte?
  • Badger Ales -  I've been surprised by how little craft beer I've come across here.  It's been sweeping the US over the last couple of years, and in DC/VA I was spoiled by close proximity to  ChurchKey, Bier Baron, and DogFish Head.  Most of the pubs I've been to here have fairly generic offerings.  But in the grocery store I've come across a line of good ales by Hall & Woodhouse, a Dorset family brewery.  I haven't tried all their offerings yet, but so far I've especially liked the Fursty Ferret ale.  Partly because it's so fun to say.  Fursty.  Thirsty.  Fursty.  Hehehe....

30 November, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess : Fruitcake

 I have often thought that there are entirely too many raisins in the world.  Making fruitcake for the first time did not help endear them to me. 

Fruitcake is a multi-step process that requires some advance planning.  First, all the fruit soaks in brandy (or whatever form of alcohol you're using) overnight...or over two nights if, like we did, you forget about it because you tucked the bowl in an obscure corner.  This is going to be one potent fruitcake.

Next, you make a proper cake batter and stir in the boozy fruit.  After mixing everything together according to Nigella's instructions, we were really concerned that there was nowhere near enough dough to hold all that fruit.  It was just a mass of raisins with a bit of batter binding them together.  We decided to not trust Nigella on this one, and added another cup of flour.  I think this was a good decision; the final product looked more like a cake and less like a raisin landslide.

After baking the cake, you brush more brandy over the top, wrap it up tightly, and promptly set it aside for several weeks.  My authoritative sources over at Wikipedia tell me that the alcohol helps prevent mold, and that the flavor of the cake obviously improves with aging.  Since we plan to give this particular cake away as a Christmas gift, I guess we'll never know...

25 November, 2011

Thanksgiving abroad

Five kernels of corn
 My inner (okay, it's not really that well-hidden) history geek almost exploded from excitement when I realized that this year, although far from my loved ones, I was celebrating Thanksgiving in the very part of London from which the Mayflower originally embarked!  Its captain, Christopher Jones, is also buried in an unmarked grave in a churchyard nearby.  It seemed very appropriate to share this American tradition with new English friends as well as fellow expats. 

This is the first time I've been responsible for almost the entire Thanksgiving menu, and I've never been away from my loved ones while preparing it.  But I still felt somewhat connected to them, because I used favorite recipes inherited from my mother, cousin, and friend, and I thought of each one of those women as I prepared the dishes they introduced to me.  There was my cousin Carlie's oyster dressing, which she made for my family the year that my dad suffered a spinal cord injury.  My parents had been in Atlanta for weeks before Thanksgiving, undergoing therapy and preparing for adjusting to life in "the real world" with new limitations.  They were due to fly back home on Thanksgiving Day, arriving just in time for dinner.  Sweet Carlie drove up from Virginia with a magnificent feast and thorough instructions for the items that would need some assembly.  We were all in such an emotionally fragile state that the enormity of her gift can't really be described.  That was the first time I'd even heard of oyster dressing, and I know that it will now only and always ever remind me of Carlie's generosity and that special Thanksgiving.

There were my friend Bonnie's legendary green beans.  Bonnie is an amazing cook.  I think she and Ina Garten would be friends!  Every Sunday for many years Bonnie would put out a veritable smorgasbord of Southern comfort food at its finest, showing rightfully uninhibited delight in each dish and the stories behind them, exhorting each guest to "Please go back, y'all, there's plenty more!"  And there always was plenty, and there always was a great deal of laughter.  After eating we would take a walk around the block to avoid succumbing to a post-feast coma, but upon re-entering the house we'd discover a further bounty of desserts, coffee, and more conversation.  Bonnie's green beans have become a particularly cherished favorite...You just have to forbid yourself from feeling any guilt about the fact that they involve bacon and bacon grease...

Finally, there was my mother's zucchini bread.  When I was a child, my mom would always bake two loaves of "zuke bread" before visiting her parents.  One loaf for us, one for grandpa.  It was grandpa's favorite, and no one in the world could get a crust just like my mom's.  She's bewildered when we ask what her secret is, assuring us that she doesn't do anything special, but I haven't been able to replicate it.  Making it makes me think of her and her father.  I didn't get to know him very well before Alzheimer's disease drew him away from us, so I'm glad to share something he loved.  Zucchini bread has been a staple of holiday meals in the Heidel home for as long as I can remember, and I intend it be a staple in my home, too. 

This year in London there were 8 of us at the table: 6 Americans and 2 Brits, old friends and new.  We introduced the Brits to classics such as candy corn, pumpkin pie, and the ever-classy cranberry sauce from a can.  We told the story of the five kernels of corn and shared things for which we are thankful.  We laughed a lot.  And I gave thanks for God's perpetual faithfulness in surrounding us with fellowship however far from home we go.

Easy herb-rubbed turkey (I really just used this as a reference point; I was willfully heavy-handed with Herbs de Provence.  Let me tell you, the flat smelled like heaven.)
Cousin Carlie's oyster dressing
Dead Simple Gravy (Not only was it really dead simple, it was a little nod to the Brits since it calls for Marmite!)
Bonnie's green beans
Mom's zucchini bread
Butternut squash risotto (my friend Jess brought this dish, something she basically made up as she went along!  Super impressive, but also sad because it means there's no written recipe for me to steal...)
Pumpkin pie with whipped cream

14 November, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds

Alison Krauss, London, 11/13/11
Last night I went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear Alison Krauss & Union Station.  It was such an entertaining marriage of my two worlds.  Emanating from the stage was the most infectious, soul-stirring, toe-tapping, clap-inducing American music; looking out over the very British audience, I saw polite heads timidly bobbing back and forth, palms softly tapping on knees in time with the beat, smiles threatening to give way to grins.  They loved it; they just couldn't - or didn't - let loose the way an American bluegrass audience might.  At the end of each and every song, though, massive waves of appreciation spilled forth in applause and cheers.  Each time, I heard the English couple sitting next to me and my friend breath sighs of astonishment and relish, uttering "Wow" as they clapped.  The audience's reserve was partly just a cultural difference -- we're not in Kentucky anymore, Toto -- but I believe it was also simply the awed, adoring stillness that is sometimes the only appropriate response to excellence.

When it was all over, the couple next to me and my friend stood and turned to us.  The man looked at us very thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "What a wonderful gift your country has given us.  Marvelous." 

I laughed.  "Yes, we get a few things right now and then."  What I thought about later was the irony that we wouldn't be able to give the gift of bluegrass if we hadn't first received the gift of British folk music, brought to our shores by migrants with centuries of stories and melodies to share.  The best we can do is riff on what has been sung and played before, adding grace notes of thanks for the possibilities handed down to us.

12 November, 2011

In Which I Go on a Pilgrimage

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green...
- Prologue to "The Earthly Paradise," William Morris

Today I visited Red House, the home of William Morris.  Morris was my "first love" in art and design history...I guess you could call this beauty-seeking, story-loving Socialist my historical crush.  In his work, writings, and ideals I found so many things that resonated with me: a love of story, a craving for beauty, a delight in honest design, and a desire for the marriage of beauty and utility.  "My work is the embodiment of dreams," he said at one point; yet he wanted those dreams to be realized very practically in the lives of ordinary people, giving the commonest of common men access to beautiful, useful, well-made things.

I took the train from "the hideous town" to Bexleyheath, which I must assume was "small, and white, and clean" countryside in Morris's day.  Today it is, honestly, a drab, nondescript little town full of drab, nondescript little houses.  Walking from the train station, I wondered to myself what Morris would think if he saw it today.

Red House
I turned off of Red House Lane and the house appeared as a haven, set amidst gardens protected from the road by high brick walls.  I think I went in believing myself too old and studied to feel any sort of childlike wonder at whatever I might discover inside, but I was wrong.  I couldn't hold back gasps of delight as I moved from each part of the house to the next.  Delight is the only word for it.  I grinned and laughed like a child, taken aback by the thoughtful skill -- love, really -- that was present in every detail of this house.  There is restraint and simplicity in the materials and fixtures, but they prove the makers' knowledge of craft, story, and context.  I was so glad to find that I can still be surprised -- disarmed, even -- by beautiful things.  The words trip from my mouth when I try to speak them, and tumble awkwardly from my fingers when I try to type them -- the things we feel most deeply are often the hardest to articulate -- but it feeds and restores my soul to be in surroundings such as these.  I've been teased for my love of buildings and objects...but they are all swirling with a meaning I can hardly begin to explain to you.

"Apple" wallpaper, Morris & Co.
Albeit a dreamer, Morris was a real man who really lived and really died.  He really lived in the house I walked through today, and he really believed in ideas that still influence the way people think and live and create.  I wonder what he found lying under and over and in all the beauty he adored.  What Truth did he find wrapped in the Icelandic sagas and medieval poems and Greek epics that stirred him so?  What was revealed to his heart during many hours of drawing, writing, carving, stitching, weaving, dyeing - - tasks that, in one way or another, emulated the divine creation of order out of chaos?  Did he find what I have found, that all these things we long for are, as my sister put it, "a constellation of good things" tracing the image of their Source?  I hope someday I'll find that he did.

Morris's motto: "Si je puis" ("If I can")

Wood block used to print Morris wallpaper

05 November, 2011

A Dinner Party, and O.D.G. : Chocolate Loaf Cake

Last night we had Denise (the beautiful giver of cupcakes) over to our flat for dinner.  It was the first "dinner party" we've hosted since I've been here, and the first time Denise has been invited to a meal in someone's home since she moved to London.  I didn't manage to get any photos before we tucked in, but this was the menu:

Curried butternut squash and apple soup
Crusty bread
Quinoa and black bean salad with apricot lime vinaigrette
Loosen Bros. 2010 Mosel Riesling
Nigella's Chocolate Loaf Cake

My flatmate said this was the best iteration of butternut squash soup we've had so far this fall, and I had to agree - I absolutely loved the flavors.  Roasting the butternut squash adds a bit more richness of flavor, and using Bramley apples added a nice undercurrent of sweetness to counter the curry spice.  The black bean salad was very filling and very healthy!

I used the occasion as an opportunity to jump ahead in "Operation Domestic Goddess" and bake something chocolatey!  Oh, is this chocolate loaf cake marvelous.  It's so dense and moist, and almost tastes like gingerbread due to the dark muscovado sugar. I forgot to get whipped cream to put on top, but it didn't really need anything extra after all -- delicious on its own!

Denise is a beautiful, funny, kind, fearless woman who radiates a zest for life.  I am very glad to have this lovely neighbor just across the river and hope this was just the first of many dinner parties!

04 November, 2011

In Which I Return to Irish Dance (Not to be Confused with Clogging)

Me, Amy, & our fans at an Irish dance competition, circa 2003.
On Monday night I joined an Irish dance class. (Allow me to get one preliminary out of the way: Irish dance is not clogging. This is clogging. Kenneth the Page does clogging. I don't do clogging. Mkay.) It's been eight years since I've danced regularly, and while I've retained the inevitable gargantuan calf muscles -- sort of an "inverted Popeye effect" -- developed by spending hours on the balls of your feet, I have most definitely not retained any semblance of flexibility or aerobic endurance. I read on the dance school website that the instructor formerly toured with "Riverdance"...You know, just the worldwide phenomenon, but whatever. No pressure.

I arrived at the address and beheld a run-down hundred-year-old building whose front door was blocked by three burly blokes. If it's possible to smoke a cigarette in a foreboding manner, that's what they were doing. I strode confidently up the steps, asserting my right to be on the premises. Walking past them with a "Y'alright?" I barged into the building and found myself standing in a quiet, sad, nearly deserted pub. No dance class or hint thereof. One of the two living souls in the room spotted the social awkwardness bubbling beneath the surface of my cool city girl demeanor, and simply said, "They're at the back." Sure enough, behind the bar was a door leading down to the event room. I could hear the old familiar click-clack of jig shoes on hardwood floors, and the accordion music that every Irish dance school seems to use for practice. It's ghastly...but nostalgic too, so it prompted a sort of half-grimace, half-smile from me.

The instructor opened class with a series of drills which, to my horror, involved jump ropes. I was a disastrous tangle of limbs and ponytail and plastic rope, trying to just keep the whole mess bobbing in time with the beat. Warm-ups in the US were never this militant, I thought; ironic, considering that my first dance instructor was a military man by day.

Having survived the jump ropes, I embarked on the most exhausting hour of aerobic activity to which I've subjected myself in eons. The muscles in my very toes were sore until today. I am so out of shape that I even managed to end up with sore arms. That's right, arms -- which you don't even use in Irish step dance. Good grief. Still, it was unbelievably fun and I found myself grinning uncontrollably as I danced. What a good thing it is to find the kind of exercise you can truly enjoy enough to push through the pain! I'm looking forward to going back next Monday. But this time, Jump Rope, I will be the master...

30 October, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess: Gateau Breton

This weekend's bake was a "Gateau Breton," or Brittany butter cake.   As I looked at the picture of it in Nigella's book I confess I felt a little impatient to move on to more colorful recipes...  The parade of plain cakes and tea loaves is getting just a wee bit monotonous.

Thanks to this site I learned that this cake was created in the Breton (or "Brittany") region of France, a common way to use the region's staple buckwheat flour.  Nigella's recipe doesn't require buckwheat flour, nor do we have any in our cupboard, so I guess we weren't bound for a totally authentic French experience here -- but the 250 grams of butter and 6 egg yolks seemed in keeping with the spirit of French baking!

So.  Four ingredients: flour, butter, sugar, egg yolks.  Mix it all up, pour it in a pan, put it in the oven.  Result: A charming, rustic, chewy cake -- or so we thought, but appearances are deceiving.  What looks to be charming, rustic, chewy cake is in reality a hockey puck of butter and sugar.  What this picture does not show you is that it took me a full minute to hack out a slice, and that the entire bottom of the cake is essentially candy, where 250 grams of sugar caramelized.  R took one (and only one) bite, chewed thoughtfully, then said, "That is a disaster."  I had a taste, and it is, indeed, so overwhelmingly buttery that it's not actually enjoyable.  I think if it were not such a dense cake and had some other flavor, like citrus zest or vanilla extract, it might be more palatable.  (No insult the region and foodways of Breton intended; maybe the magic of Gateau Breton has just been lost in translation!)

Needless (and sad) to say, we won't be inflicting gifting this week's bake to anyone...But we decided it would probably make a lovely Frisbee, sundial, or clock face.

28 October, 2011

Stuff British People Like

Stuff British People Like
(a new series, with apologies to Christian Lander)

1. Queuing up
Some people will lead you to believe that football (that's soccer for all the Yanks out there) is Britain's favorite sport.  Others will say rugby.  The very bravest will try to persuade you of the thrills of cricket.  But in truth, Britain's favorite past-time is something seemingly very simple yet fraught with strategy and complex rules of etiquette:  queuing up.

Lovely day for a spot of queuing!
 In the sport of queuing there can be any number of players, male or female, young or old.  It really doesn't matter, because everyone is on their own team.  The ultimate aim of the game may vary depending on whether you are queuing in a shop, a transportation hub, a sporting venue, etc.; but essentially, you are trying to wait your turn in the most orderly fashion possible.  You maintain your place in the queue even if there is no cashier at the till or no bus on the horizon; they'll be there eventually, of course.  Extra points may be scored by attaining the spot at the front of the line or securing the best seat once on board the bus, but you certainly don't want to look too eager to accomplish these excesses.  There's usually a referee present in the queue.  Queuing referees are remarkably skilled, because they don't bellow penalties or use hand signals to hold back the chaos of the game; rather, they use only their eyes.  Their two piercing, judging eyes, supposedly engrossed with a newspaper but subtly scanning the other players to make sure that everyone is playing fairly.  One glare from a referee is enough to turn an offending queue-jumper to a whimpering pup, trudging to the back of the queue with his tail between his legs.

I was in line at at a cash point (translation: ATM) recently.  There was just one person ahead of me, and he was nearly done with his transaction.  I was pulling out my wallet when a young man strolled right up and planted himself in front of me.  I wasn't in a rush so I wasn't really bothered, but I wondered whether I should just make him aware of my existence to satisfy my sense of justice.  As I stood there trying to make up my mind, my Awkward Radar picked up on several squirms of discomfort emanating from the woman behind me.  The source of her agony was evident:  The young man had clearly violated the principle of the queue - but she was too polite to inconvenience him terribly by asking him to move to the back.  Oh dear!  I decided to put her out of her very English misery.  I "ahem"ed and said, "Pardon me--"  He turned around and looked quite embarrassed.  "Oh!  I'm so sorry, I didn't realize!" he said.  The woman behind me looked immensely relieved and said, "Yes, I'm so sorry, it's just that there's a queue..."  (Another very British thing, by the way: Apologizing for something that's not your fault.  Maybe that's where I get it from, Dad!) 

Always respect the queue.  For the love of all that is good, respect the queue.

24 October, 2011

The Hour Before Dawn

Lately I sleep poorly and wake early.  I open my bedroom door and am greeted by a panorama that Turner would've taken as an invitation to paint: the sun's approach is announced by a mother-of-pearl sky over the Isle of Dogs, and a lone rower pulls his way down the Thames at low tide.  Soon there will be tugboats and clippers introducing a dissonance to this harmony, but in this hour before dawn the waters are the rower's, and his alone.  Where he goes to work for the rest of the day I cannot guess, but I wonder if he goes about his tasks happier for having let the sunrise and the tide be the beginning of his day.  I have no boat of my own to row, but our wall of windows overlooking the river make the flat feel like a ship of sorts.  So I sit on the "deck" and watch the day come.  I wonder what these shores and life on them were like many, many years ago when sailors could only rely upon the wind, the stars, and their Maker for a safe journey.  I think about the songs that were born from lives reliant upon and subject to the tides...songs of discovery and songs of loss. 
I am trying to carve out a life beside this river.  I am learning the pattern of seeking, finding, losing that runs through life, advancing and receding like the tides.  In these hours before dawn, before the rest of the city is awake to distract and overwhelm, I am glad to let the quiet morning tell me of my Maker.  He has painted the sky and ordered the tides and fills the rower's lungs with breath.  He is behind and above and before any loss; he stands ready to be found in all my seeking, in the great things and the small.  If I am torn by wind or set my course by a dim star, he is still there.  The songs of this season of life will be songs of deliverance, songs of redemption. 

22 October, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess : Almond Cake and Rosemary Loaf Cake

Today I became further acquainted with Nigella the Contradictory (thus hath she been dubbed in the kitchen of Flat 47).  On the one hand, she persistently advocates making things easy, taking shortcuts, preparing things in advance, etc.  Most of her cake batters are thrown together in a food processor.  Is that normal?  Maybe it is over here, but it was a new concept to me... On the other hand -- and despite her own claims that "None of the ingredients listed should prove troublesome" -- she has a penchant for exotic, hard-to-find and/or expensive ingredients that no average person normally keeps on hand.  Today wasn't the wildest example -- marzipan is easy to find, I just had never used it before -- but looking ahead through the book I see that we shall eventually require things like rosewater, pomegranate molasses, greengages, and gold leaf.  Maybe you tend to keep gold leaf lying in the cupboard, but it's not a staple here.
Nigella's starting us off gently, though, with some easy batters.  Today R and I decided to double up and do two recipes since we had the time, inclination, and necessary ingredients (how often does that happen?).  We made the Almond Cake first, our inaugural foray into using marzipan.  
Marzipan is a thick, sticky paste of sugar and ground almonds that comes in a block like the one pictured and can be rolled out and formed into various shapes -- or, as it happens, cubed and added to cake batter!  I expected the marzipan to have a really strong almond flavor, but when I sampled a piece of it (which I did several times...you know, quality control and all that...) I found that it's really mild.  After I stopped snacking on the raw marzipan, we threw it in the food processor with butter and sugar.  Eggs and almond extract (boosting the almond flavor perfectly) are added next, and finally the dry ingredients are pulsed in until you end up with a very smooth batter:
Now, at the dry ingredients point of the proceedings we discovered a slight lapse in Nigella's concentration.  The woman asks you to "mix the flour and baking powder..."  "What baking powder, Nigella?" you might ask, and with good reason, because after consulting the ingredients list three times you still do not see baking powder called for.  Tsk, tsk, tsk...We threw in a teaspoon of the stuff and hoped for the best.
What baking powder?
We don't have the cake mold Nigella recommends using, so we split our batter into two round pans and sandwiched the cakes.  In between the two layers is some of the passionfruit curd we bought recently, as well as some whipped cream with a little bit of orange juice for flavor.  Dieters beware: there is a lot of butter in this cake.  And six eggs.  But we plan to top it with berries, which will make it healthy.  Note how that was an assertion, not a question.
Next up in our carbohydrate double-feature was the Rosemary Loaf Cake!  I'm an unabashed rosemary addict.  When I lived with my aunts for a little while after college I would often go out into the yard and run my hands across their enormous rosemary plants, relishing the aroma the leaves left on my palms.  It now always makes me think of those two incredible women.  But I don't just love it for sentimental reasons (cue Linda Ronstadt); I love the flavor it imparts to both savory dishes and baked goods.  I may or may not have thrown in a bit more rosemary than Nigella called for, and an entire sprig across the top...
R and I were both REALLY pleased with the results!  This cake was more flavorful and a much more enjoyable texture than the Madeira Cake; very moist and soft.  We ate it topped with some Bramley apple compote that I made recently.  Apple and rosemary is a perfect flavor combination.  Delicious!

18 October, 2011

My Favorite Driving Song

It was summer in Elkton, Maryland. I was eight (I think...The Elkton years have all melded into one golden era that seemed like it would last forever). We piled into the white Dodge caravan with Dad and headed to a friends' house. At that time in my family's life we didn't listen to very much music...I guess my 6,000 siblings and I provided enough sonorous distraction on our own. But on this day the sky was too blue and our hearts were too buoyant - we could not be without song. Dad tuned the radio to the oldies station and sang along to every single song. I felt jealous and intrigued - jealous that I didn't know any of the songs and couldn't join in, but intrigued by this glimpse of my father's history. These were the songs of his childhood and teen years, and as he sang along with a joyful abandon I wondered what memories each song was conjuring up for him. I knew the 30-something tall-dark-handsome family man and amateur landscaper; but these songs were awakening the boy who played a million sports, wore madras suits and spent a whole summer listening to rock records while reading "The Lord of the Rings."

Suddenly I heard it for the first time: "A long, long time ago - I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..." Dad's eyes lit up. He turned up the volume, rolled the windows all the way down, and lifted his voice. I remember it all vividly. I was young, but I remember having a keen sense that there was something different about this song. It was catchy, which we equate with happiness, but this song wasn't entirely happy. There was something lost, something being mourned. I didn't really understand it, but I loved it. And I loved that it was eight minutes long, giving me time to learn the chorus and sing it with my dad. I think that was the day I started to understand bittersweet.

I still love when my dad sings something from his past. And I still love to sing with him. And I will always love me some "American Pie" by Don McLean, preferably while driving fast with the volume up and the windows down. What's your favorite driving song?

17 October, 2011

Four Days in Sweden

Monday, 10 Oct. 2011
2:53am - Car arrives to take me to Stansted Airport for my 6:05 flight to Sweden. I ask the driver how he's doing this morning.  He says, "Fine, fine," then swiftly moves to protect himself from any further conversation with me by turning up the radio.
4:00am - Zipper of borrowed duffel bag breaks just as I enter the security line. The rest of the traveling public gets to admire my orderly packing job.
4:45am - Still no gate number. I mill around the main terminal and decide that Stansted is basically a big warehouse that became an airport by accident. Whilst waiting I chat with an Irishman who's flying back to Cork on holiday. "You must have some Irish blood in ye," he says, "because you're so chipper and chatty." Thank you?
10:35am - I finally have Swedish kronor in my wallet and a cup of Zoegas coffee in my hand, and am on a bus taking me closer to my dear Swedish friends. Bus driver announces that "This bus is equipped with seat belts. And the law in Sweden tells us that we have to use the seatbelts." His tone implies that he doesn't think much of the law.

[This is where I stop keeping track of time] I'm met in Linköping by Karin, and we're soon joined by Caroline, who triumphantly glides up to us on her shiny new blue bike. We follow her to Berget Cafe & Tehus for lunch, coffee, and dessert. 
I absolutely love Swedish "Dammsuggare," which translates to "vacuum cleaner" because it's as if the marzipan coating has sucked up all the bits of broken cookie inside!

Tuesday, 11 Oct. 2011
Karin, my brother-in-law J, and I enjoy a long breakfast and a lot of coffee.  We talk about all sorts of things. And I drink more coffee.  I bask in their wisdom.  And did I mention the coffee? 
I take a long walk through the woods surrounding the house. When a beautiful place is described in a book, there is often a mention of the air smelling sweet. I've never exactly known what sweet air smells like, but I think I might have found it...
I go into town and have lunch with J and the pastor's family. We eat something that I've only ever seen in Sweden: kebab pizza. Shaved meat, onions, spicy sauce on top of pizza dough...It's delicious and I don't know why it hasn't made its way to the States.
That night J and I watch some [European] football.  I wonder if the day will ever come that I don't need to have the offside rule explained to me again.

Wednesday, 12 Oct. 2011
I take a bus to Jönköping to visit J's sister Jenny and her husband.  As we pass the enormous lake Vättern, I think what a treat it is to see water that's actually blue (no offense, River Thames).  Sweet Jenny and I do a little shopping, then head back to her flat for good conversation and good food.  I think how rich my life is, rich with relationships and opportunities I didn't earn or expect, but now can't imagine living without.  All this, and heaven too?  Amazing.

Thursday, 13 Oct. 2011
I embark on my journey back to London (train to Linköping; bus to Skavsta; plane to Stansted; train to Liverpool Street; Tube to Canada Water) thinking that I've got everything under control.  I'm used to public transport. I've even managed this whole traveling-alone-in-a-non-English-speaking-land thing without any major disasters, public embarrassments, or reinforcements of the "obnoxious American" stereotype.  What could really go wrong?  Well.  I'll tell you what could go wrong.  What could go wrong is that the train station could decide to not provide English instructions for the coin-operated public restrooms.  All I can discern is that I must insert 5 kronor into a slot in order to open the door, activate the lights, and use the toilet.  But when the lights switch off after 30 seconds and someone else inserts coins and opens the door, it occurs to me that maybe I should start learning Swedish pronto; it would've been nice to know that 5 kronor only buys you 30 seconds of privacy...
So I end up having to play the ignorant American card after all, to escape the angry tirade of the intruder.  Happily, no incidents more serious (read: embarassing) than that occur over the rest of my journey.  I've enjoyed beautiful Sweden and my beautiful friends, but it's rather nice to be back where they speak my language.  Toward the end of the 90-minute flight, at the moment when we finally break through the clouds and see the green fields of England below us, this thought involuntarily floats through my mind: "Oh, good -- I'm home again."

Operation Domestic Goddess: Madeira Cake

Nigella Lawson is a slightly odd bird. Odd in a fascinating way, so that I really can't help but like her. She's an incredibly smart, articulate woman, but there is something about her tv presentation style that flirts with the edge of the ridiculous. She has a breezy air about her, throwing in "splodges" and "smidges" of things and sharing kitchen shortcuts in a joyfully subversive, "I-can't-be-bothered-with-stodgy-technique" sort of way. Should I trust her as an expert? I don't know, but she's just so darn likeable.

Eccentricities aside, her food is really quite good. One of my favorite things to make at the holidays is her Pomegranate Jewel Cake, which looks and tastes wonderful. A good one to tuck away if there are any gluten-intolerant people in your life, as it uses ground almonds in place of flour.

The first time we met, R and I bonded over our mutual fascination with Nigella. We've decided that over the next .....however many weekends, we're going to bake our way through her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess." Not only will we get to indulge our love of baked goods, we also hope to make a lot of new friends since we'll need help eating it all!

First up, "My Mother-in-Law's Madeira Cake."
It's somewhere between a sponge and a pound cake, flavored simply with lemon zest. My reliable sources over at Wikipedia tell me that Madeira Cake is so named because it was typically served with Madeira wine for dessert in the 19th century. It's a very easy, basic loaf cake; I must admit that I wasn't exactly swept away by it on its own, but it's a great vehicle for various toppings.

--Which is my oh-so-subtle segue to telling you about our curd and chutney shopping spree! We went to a wine and cheese festival on the Southbank last Saturday and ended up buying four jars of deliciousness from this company's stall. I can't decide which curd to try first with the cake: lemon lime, or passion fruit? Or, shoot -- both!

04 October, 2011

Street Shenanigans

It is funny to experience London again after three years in DC. DC is organized on a grid of sensible, predictable streets running north-to-south (numbers) and east-to-west (letters), with a few diagonal avenues (states) thrown in there just to keep things exciting. An average person with an average sense of direction can navigate with relative ease. London, however...Ah, London. Its streets are an entirely different beast, a pulsing bundle of off-shooting nerves that tell the story of a city in their wildly diverse names, widths, and directions. When I am on a ramble with no real deadline or intended destination, it's the most delightful place to be because there is something new to discover any which way I turn. "Sweden Gate," "Helsinki Square," "Greenland Quay," and "Russia Dock" all help tell the story of the former shipping and trading activity in the Docklands. "Bread Street" and "Saffron Hill" remind us of things sold or grown long ago on spots that have long since been paved over to make way for a metropolis. "Gracechurch Street" -- well, Pride and Prejudice, need I say more?

So when there is time to bask in my discoveries, I love the rhyme-and-reason-less tangle of London streets. However, when I really need to be on time or am trying to find a specific place, the Washingtonian in me rears her ugly head. Would it hurt to be just a little bit more systematic, Britain? What's wrong with letters and numbers? Why does the same street change names five times? Why does the GPS say that my flat is in the river?! Was there a secret meeting between the city planning authorities and the cab drivers to craft an elaborate scheme ensuring that tourists get so lost, they give up and hire a cab? Or is it just the result of your national obsession with walking, walking, and more walking?

DC loves efficiency, order, and clear definitions between groups. London is happier to sacrifice those things for greater visual interest, the preservation of stories, and a real organic flow from neighborhood to neighborhood. When all's said and done, the latter approach really is fun. Just keep a map handy. :)

My re-acquaintance with the grand muddle of London streets has reminded me of "How to be an Alien," George Mikes's wonderful little book of observations on Britain and the British. Here is his analysis of this whole street situation: http://f2.org/humour/howalien.html#Plan

29 September, 2011

Ode to Butternut Squash

My love affair with butternut squash began late in life...three years ago when I was really starting to cook for myself. It's now one of my favorite things to cook; it's versatile, delicious, and a sure sign of autumn. London is experiencing downright summery weather this week, but in the kitchen I'm trying to usher in the best season. I wanted to share this wonderful butternut squash soup recipe I discovered on Greedy Gourmet, because it's a fantastic and easy basic formula with endless options for flavor directions...You could add curry spices and chickpeas for some protein, then top with a dollop of yogurt, chopped peanuts, and shredded coconut. You could stir in some chopped apples, drizzle with cream, and top with croutons. Or you could spice it up with sweet red chili and a garnish of coriander. So many options! It's also quite a healthy base since it uses stock rather than cream (though I did add a bit of Greek yogurt to thicken it up slightly). Enjoy!


24 September, 2011

In Which I Love Greenwich and Stalk Robert Downey, Jr.

For most of my life the name "Greenwich" has prompted these kinds of thoughts: "So that's where the western world decided time starts?" "Greenwich must be the end of Interesting London, because that's where all the tourist boats and Thames dinner cruises terminate." "Greenwich...Sandwich...I'm hungry..."

 Greenwich has always been a Great Unknown to me, an abstract magical other world that has something to do with time but doesn't have much else going on.  Today I did the grown-up thing and actually went to Greenwich to see what the fuss is all about.  It's just two stops down the river from me, so I couldn't ignore it forever.

Well, in short: Greenwich is my new favorite.

I alighted from the Clipper and strolled through the downtown area, which oozes as much charm and as many Cute Little Shops as your heart could desire.  If I hadn't been on the way to meeting a friend, I surely would've stopped and become a few pounds poorer (because I clearly need another tote bag and some custom stationery and a few loaves of artisan bread).

Anyway -- Surviving the lure of the shops, I arrived at the main attraction: the expansive complex that is the Royal Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and planetarium, the Meridian Line, and Greenwich Park.  Walking through the park up the formidable hill to the Observatory, I asked myself numerous times why I had never come to Greenwich before.  The park alone was worth the trip, for me; in a city such as London it's a truly restoring thing to lose yourself in leaves and grass and the open air for a while.  London has its faults, but it cherishes green space better than any other city I've seen. I can't wait to go back as the leaves change over the fall.

At the top of the hill I got an incredible view of the city from a whole new perspective:
My friend and I checked out the [free] exhibits and took photos, then wandered back down the hill toward the Maritime Museum.  There was something exciting going on there, judging by the enormous trucks and filming equipment and extras wandering around in "Victorian beggar chic" while chugging Starbucks.  All became clear when I noticed two directors chairs with "SHERLOCK HOLMES" across the back!

We were snapping photos and keeping our eyes peeled for celebrities, when we came across four men sitting by one of the trucks.  Three of them were dressed in worn-out work clothes, but the fourth - a grey-haired, rosy-cheeked, twinkle-eyed, and every other cliche sort of gent - was dressed in nice slacks and a blazer with a kerchief tucked in the front pocket. He made eye contact with me and said hello. I said hello and stopped to ask how they were all doing. We chatted with them for about ten minutes, talking about the movie and about London.  We learned to our shock that we were actually speaking with the producers of the film! They proceeded to tell us that the shiny, retro-style trailer around the corner belonged to "The guy -- you know, ehm, he's in Ironman..."  "Oh, Robert Downey Jr?"  "Yeh, that's the one!" Not only did they point out his trailer, they told us which pub he's haunting whilst here and where they'll be filming tomorrow. The producers of a major motion picture basically gave us instructions on how to stalk their star...

From the outdoor ramble to the history to the stars (both terrestrial and earthbound), Greenwich was unexpectedly delightful. I'll be back!

22 September, 2011

In Which I Did Not Bring a Baby

Today for the first time I went to the Thursday morning Bible study held by the church I'm attending whilst here.  It's hosted by the pastor and his wife in their beautiful riverside flat.  I arrived at the same time as another woman holding a baby (1) on her hip and toting a stroller up the steps.  She rang the bell for the same flat I was headed for, so with my cunning wit I deduced that she must also be attending the Bible study!  I introduced myself and held the door for her.  We were greeted at the flat by a tiny tow-headed person (2) with an impish smile and a complete knight's costume...Adventure awaited!

Crossing the threshold I was warmly greeted and introduced to another woman and her baby (3)...Walking past the kitchen I saw a roly-poly toddler (4) eating breakfast in his highchair.  It was at about this moment that these sort of thoughts began floating through my head:

"I will probably be the youngest one here."
"Oh, no - I didn't bring a baby..."
"I will probably be the only unmarried one here."
"Where can I find a baby to bring next time?"
"They're all moms - Will they want to talk to me?!"
"Oh, no - I didn't bring a baby!"
"I wonder if she'd let me keep hold her baby?"
"I didn't bring a baby!!"
"They're SO CUTE.  Lord, give me strength..."

 As more women trickled in the Official Baby Count shot up to 7, all of them adorable and named things like Jemima and Reuben.  The Lord sends us these trials to make us stronger, I thought somberly as I fed Daniel animal crackers and raced trucks across the carpet with Benjamin.

I am thankful to report that, despite my lack of a baby, I was warmly welcomed and had a delightful time. Furthermore, I did not steal any of them.  Will I be back next week?  You betcha.

14 September, 2011

In Which I Succumb to the Obnoxiously Immortal Fad

Tonight there was one other person waiting for the 10:08 Thames Clipper home.  She was a sixty-something woman with a beautiful grace-filled face, a soft smile, fading blond hair that fell to her shoulders.  She wore a floral patterned skirt, ballet flats, and and a big butterfly broach.  For a while we all sat in silence; R and I were shattered (there's some Brit lingo for you) from the long day, and the woman was flipping through a magazine.  However, at one point I opened my eyes and she said,

"Would you like this magazine?"
"Oh - that's very kind, thank you!"
"Oh not at all -- Here, would you like this cupcake as well?  I was just given it at an event, it hasn't been touched."

I took the cupcake.  It was frosted in pale green icing and topped with pink flowers.  Now, I have reservations about cupcakes.  They're fine, but I wouldn't go so far as to say they're amazing and deserve to be a global phenomenon.  I've stood by in bewilderment as the Cupcake Craze has grown and simply refused to die.  Can anyone help me understand what it's all about?  They're actually rather messy to eat and don't present me with anything I couldn't enjoy in regular cake form, eaten neatly with a fork.  But...when an absolute angel of a woman hands you a cupcake on a night when you are particularly missing your mother, cupcakes...really are...kind of wonderful.

So we fell to talking.  Denise recently moved from peaceful Dorset to bustling London and literally could not be happier.  Her eyes shone as she told us all the things she loves about London.  We boarded the boat and encountered an Australian named Simon and his English wife Heather, who knew R slightly.  The five of us sat chatting, basking in the delight of stumbling upon friendships floating down the river - and my joy was made complete when a woman crossed the aisle and said, "Can I join you all?  You seem to be having such a good time."  So Nicola from New Zealand was added to our merry band.  We all swapped email addresses before parting and plan to have a pub night soon.

It made me happy. ...And also rather annoyed to find myself indebted to a cupcake.

11 September, 2011

A decade noted

The other day I saw this prayer at Southwark Cathedral, by the tomb of Bishop Lancelot Andrews: "Lord, be thou within us to strengthen us; without us to keep us; above us to protect us; beneath us to uphold us; before us to direct us; behind us to keep us from straying; round about us to defend us."
I walked through busy markets and across crowded bridges today, September 11th, and thought about that day ten years ago when we were afraid to go anywhere. I was fourteen and didn't really know anything about life or about how cruel people could be.  I didn't really know very much about God either. I am twenty-four now. There are still cruel people, very wicked people, in fact. I know that on this side of Christ's return there always will be. But there are also a lot of people with the grace of God spilling from their hearts and out into their work, their play, their families, their friendships. They drive city buses without fear, the seek justice in the halls of power, they say "I love you" when they hang up the phone. (We're all hopefully a little bit better at saying "I love you" than we were ten years ago.) They can do all these things because they know that a good God is within, without, above, beneath, before, behind, and round about us. They know the end of the story, and so the painful final chapters do not bring them to despair.

07 September, 2011

Fake Blood and a Bucket

The last several days have been a flurry of activity leading up to the opening of R's play. I'm R's assistant behind the scenes; she is disabled so needs help with costume changes, makeup, various entrances and exits and prop changes...Her character is also the lucky winner of a climactic stabbing near the play's end, so I am now more familiar with fake blood than I ever expected or wished to be! At several points this week I've sat back and thought about the fact that just several weeks ago I was working for the US government...and now I'm a volunteer stagehand for a play in London's West End, applying punk rock eye makeup and mopping up fake blood. I've decided to put off figuring out how I will bring any sense at all to my resume'...

I did have my first "celebrity"sighting on Monday!  Blitzing into the theatre with my hands full of bags and phones and lunch, I nearly collided with the adorable Clive Swift, known to American public television viewers (I know, geek alert) as Richard Bucket, the long-suffering husband of Hyacinth "Bouquet"!

In true Ginny fashion, I sort of gawked like an awestruck fish until he had passed, at which point I turned to the cheery Scottish barista named Angus and said, "Was that -- Was that ---- "  Yes, Ginny, yes, that was.

I saw Clive (we're on a first name basis now, obvi) there again yesterday, and once again was too startled to say anything.  R's play runs for a month, though, so I have plenty of time to come up with the perfect witty, charming, not-too-flattering-but-still-genuinely-complimentary thing to say...

02 September, 2011

Father Cabbie

Tonight we got stranded in SE1 when R's electric wheelchair ran out of battery power. We eventually got a cab that had a ramp, so that she could roll up into it. As we made our way toward home we commented to the cabbie that he must have to deal with all sorts of drama all day long.

"Oh, are you kiddin'? It's a bloomin' confessional box, this is!"

Good cabbies, hairdressers, and bartenders must all possess that same listening ear and talent for giving advice, like a priest hearing confession - because for a handful of minutes, they are trapped in the same space with you and all your problems. But I'd hazard a guess that the priest doesn't get tipped as well.

31 August, 2011

In Which I Resist the Urge to Kidnap

This afternoon there was a young man playing traditional Irish fiddle tunes by the Millennium Bridge. He was doing such a beautiful job and it was such a pleasure to hear, so I dropped a couple quid into his case as I walked by and said, "It's beautiful music, thank you!" As I passed he began to play "The Butterfly." Now, there is of course no way he could have known that it's one of my favorites, but I let myself think it for a split second...

While waiting for the Clipper I chatted with an unbearably cute little boy and his grandmother, who were sitting beside me on the bench with his baby sister. "She is zero-and-a-half already," he proudly declared to me. Then, "These boats are the FASTEST on the river!" His eyes grew enormous as the #11 boat approached, as a higher-numbered boat MUST obviously be even faster than the #4 he'd ridden earlier.

Sometimes I miss being four, when every half-year and quarter-year and eighth-year mattered, and little commuter boats could garner uncontainable excitement. ...But ponderings aside, the main point of this post is to announce, dear reader, that I successfully resisted the urge to steal an adorable British child. Whew.

30 August, 2011

In Which I Cope With Being Casual

Today R and I rode the Thames Clipper down the river to go to her play rehearsal. Now, I admit that I rather pride myself on being able to navigate and survive the Tube – but a bit of that glutton-for-punishment instinct is melting away, unable to withstand the dreamy allure of the Clipper. Not only does it dock literally right outside our door, it is also extremely comfortable, warm, and equipped with a Costa Coffee counter to add that vital vip and vim to your morning commute. Also, very few people seem to know about, or take advantage of, this service. The Clipper is the transportation equivalent of the Civil Wars: I want every single person on the planet to know about and benefit from it, but I also don’t want every single person on the planet to know about it because then it would become all popular and common and stuff. Hmph.
Anyway – so we floated down the Thames (in luxury – oh did I mention that already?) at a pace leisurely enough to allow my eyes to feast, FEAST, I say, on all the architecture. Many of the old warehouses of Dickens’s day have been converted into residential flats, office blocks, restaurants, etc., though there is still the odd tiny, rickety pub nestled amongst them. I imagined Rogue Riderhood, “wa’erside character,” straggling in for a drink at Miss Abby’s between sessions of scouring the muddy Thames for lost bodies. …But on a lighter note, with no Dickensian villains to be found we alighted near the Globe Theater and strolled across the Millennium Bridge. It was then that I began to notice something. I was out and about in a city during the morning rush hour, but for the first time in several years I was not heading to an office and not wearing professional clothes. I was in blue jeans, and that was okay. I am working, but not from 8-5 at a desk. It’s going to take me a little while to get used to this.
While R was rehearsing, one of R’s friends and I popped out for a coffee (Again: It’s 11am on a Tuesday and I am in blue jeans! I don’t have a Blackberry! We are sitting down to drink our coffee! What is happening?!?). For much of the day I read Steinbeck while R rehearsed. This was a little strange, at times. I would be chuckling and Aw-shucks-ing at Steinbeck’s pithy observations on New Englanders, when suddenly from the other room would come screaming and cursing and fake stabbings, triggering great distress and concern in my little heart. My emotions were very confused about this day. Nothing that a quiet sojourn back down the river at twilight couldn't cure, though.

29 August, 2011


I am now in London and am settling into the beautiful flat on the riverbank. This morning was clear and bright -- for once, London boasted better weather than DC. My flatmate "R" had arranged for a driver to pick up me and my luggage at the airport so I didn't have to bother with the Tube or an expensive cab ride; I was very, very grateful for this. The driver was a 40-something Turkish immigrant who seemed to think that traffic lanes are just suggestions...It was an exciting ride! He asked me about Hurricane Irene, and said, "See, America sticks its nose in the rest of the world, so God sends you a huge tornado." Well...Nice to meet you, too...

I couldn't resist a brief nap this afternoon, but then walked to the pharmacy to pick up a few things and to explore my new surroundings...

24 August, 2011

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

I'm packing up all my belongings in preparation for moving overseas for several months, and I'm making all sorts of fun discoveries. At the back of my closet, hidden under bookshelves, and buried in old purses are all sorts of things I'd forgotten about that are bringing back good memories. Highlights so far include $40, a Celtic cross pendant from Ireland, and mementos from various trips overseas. Today I unearthed some old notebooks and came across some thoughts I scribbled down shortly after I'd moved into Blake House two years ago. I wanted to share them here because they are full of hopes that God definitely fulfilled -- and reading them again has renewed my gratitude for the opportunity to live in, and open up, this beautiful home with my beautiful housemates.

I recently moved into a house with my older sister and two good friends. It isn't new or glamorous, but as our separate lives spill out of boxes into shared space, it is becoming home. We spent much of the weekend in the kitchen, as if in unspoken agreement that that room simply had to be settled first. We silently gloried in the newfound freedom of a big kitchen. Every task seemed elevated - even grating carrots and slicing mushrooms were actions filled with celebration when performed on gleaming granite counters and destined to feed dear folks. In this new home, basil smells more nuanced, fruit tastes sweeter, coffee is supremely rich, for they are defining our hope for the way we will eat and drink and fellowship in this place. This weekend's meals were our first offerings to those who partook of them -- Be comforted around this table. Be known. Eat much, eat well. Come often, and linger. I look forward with great anticipation to the lively gatherings or uplifting conversations that might take place here as friends old and new pass through.

Thanks to all those who came, ate, drank, lingered.

06 August, 2011

Ode to hand-me-downs

This summer my parents marked the 28th anniversary of their wedding. I have poured over their wedding photos countless times, taking such delight in the wide smiles on their young faces. I look at their photos knowing much more of their story than they could have imagined on that day.

I had volunteered to make a cake for the big celebration. I packed up all the ingredients and headed up to my parents' house, completely forgetting to bring the behemoth KitchenAid standing mixer - a non-essential, yes, but it certainly makes life easier for this impatient girl. Thus, arriving in my mom's kitchen, I pulled out her little tan and brown hand mixer. I should see what these things are going for on Ebay, because this mixer definitely qualifies as "vintage" by now; it was a wedding present to my mom and has been well-used over the years. I remember using it to make chocolate-chip cookies with my mom as a little girl, impatiently waiting to lick the batter off of the dough hooks (which is more fun than eating the finished cookie, as 8 out of 8 kids will agree). I opened one of the dish cabinets and pulled out another relic, a metal mixing bowl that was given to my parents for their wedding. It bears scratches from many years of mixing, stirring, serving, etc. It has held salad, popcorn, cookie dough, bread dough, and may or may not have also proven to be an excellent swimming pool for toy soldiers and plastic sharks. The mixer and the bowl were once as fresh and new as my parents' marriage, and they are still here serving us well and enabling us to celebrate another year. A few more dents and scratches in us, but we're all still here.

Maybe being one of eight homeschooled kids pre-disposes me to appreciating hand-me-downs, but I do so appreciate the objects that stay with us through so much of our stories. I love having things that have played a role -- even the very ordinary role of mixing or serving -- in the lives of the people I love, the people who handed life to me. ...Except denim jumpers. Denim jumpers can stay gone. :-)

21 July, 2011


Once a month, three of my girlfriends and I get together at our favorite wine bar to catch up and enjoy great wine and great cheese! It never gets old; there is so much joy found in relishing excellent things together, and learning together to articulate what we do or don't like, and why.

Last night was our July excursion. We always go on a Wednesday for the "Wino Wednesday" special, which last night happened to be $10 off any bottle of rose'. Perfect timing, because the heat and humidity here in DC are getting pretty abysmal! (Though, I'm not gonna lie, I like having a reason to use the word "abysmal.") We split a bottle of Jeio Bisol Rose' Prosecco from Veneto, Italy. The color was gorgeous, and a sparkling wine was a wonderfully refreshing choice.

The real star of the night, though, was THE CHEESE. Oh, did we ever go crazy with the cheese. For our first round (yes, there were two. We may look dainty but when it comes to cheese we do not fool around.) we got a plate of 5 cheeses and 1 meat. The Cabra Paprika was not very memorable, but it was fun to try and it added a nice dash of color! The Kunik was incredibly luscious and worked well with the Prosecco. My hands-down favorite, though, was the Humboldt Fog. Even my friend who can't stand goat cheese loved it. Not only was it simply beautiful to look at, the grey-blue ribbon of ash around the rind lent a fun, unexpected tangy note to a deliciously rich cheese. I tried to leave a little for the other girls to enjoy...The cheddar was also fantastic; very nutty, and similar to a Parmesan in texture.

L to R: Robiola, cow & sheep, Italy; Cabot Clothbound Cheddar; Humboldt Fog, goat, California; Kunik, goat & cow, New York; Cabra Paprika, goat, Spain.

For round 2, we were all interested in different things to drink so we got individual glasses. I ordered the Elizabeth Spencer Sauvignon Blanc, 2010, Mendocino CA. It was much less "grapefruity" than my all-time favorite Sauv Blanc, but it was still really pleasant, with those subtle mineral notes that taste a lot better than they sound. :-) We got "just" three cheeses this time around: Drunken Goat, goat, Spain; St. Angel, cow, France; and Prairie Breeze Cheddar. My favorite of these was the St. Angel, though nothing eclipsed the Humboldt Fog!

I'm already looking forward to next month's Screwtop outing :-)