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!

PARKS
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.
MARKETS
  • 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.
MUSEUMS
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.
VIEWS
  • 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.  
RAMBLES
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!

PUBS
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.
FOOD
  • 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!
BEVERAGES
  • 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....