Archive | October, 2011

Smells like home

31 Oct

We moved in to our house last week.  Thanks go to everyone who shared thoughts about the houses we viewed — we are in ‘Cul-de-sac‘ and I couldn’t be more pleased.  My very first task, on our very first morning, after singing the birds out of the trees and getting the dancing mice to sweep up, was to make some breakfast.

A strong cup of milky coffee got me started.  (There’s no other way to meet the dawn.)

These are English rashers.  You ask for ‘bacon’, you get this.  Come to me, my lovelies.

A quiet word to the English: here is an easy, unfancy way to scramble eggs:

Crack them, stir them, cook them, eat them.  It’s not hard.  Really.  And it tastes just fine.  So if, say, a five year old American girl asks for scrambled eggs with her restaurant breakfast, maybe it would be okay to scramble one up instead of insisting she can only have fried eggs?  Maybe?  Pretty please?

To me there’s just something wonderful about standing in my own kitchen, cookware arranged in front of me, spatula at the ready, ingredients lined up and ready for action.  Then the slicing, stirring, frying, baking … the warm smells of butter, sugar, coffee, bacon … and sitting down in our own space to enjoy a meal together.  Ahh.

Once a house starts to smell like home, it starts to feel like home — don’t you agree?  We can start unpacking some of that tightness of being always a guest somewhere.  We can let down our hair, have friends over, wear pajamas in the living room, fill the refrigerator(s) with snacks, dance to loud music, be silly in the yard, throw toys down the stairs (I don’t encourage this, but … it is fun), clean our own sinks, and start to put small tokens in happy corners to encourage ourselves to settle in, settle down, and breathe deep.

Starting tomorrow I’ll be posting every day as part of  NaBloPoMo.  Wish me luck — see you tomorrow!

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Day Out: Cambridge

29 Oct

It’s not everyday I find myself in King’s College Chapel, listening to the Choir rehearse, weeping at the sound while the sun dapples multicolored waves over the vaulting stone.  A single deep basso echoes up from the foundations, while the haunting, arching soprano floats up and beyond the heavens.  It was a moment of pure presence.

My youngest sits down next to me and pats me on the hand.  “It’s like the ocean, Mommy.”  What a genius, my daughter.  Sunlight through the long stained glass windows shines like water through grasses and flowers and jellyfish.  The walls ripple in the illuminated air.  The delicate fanned tracery of the vaulted ceiling (the largest fan vault ceiling in the world, but that’s irrelevant in the moment) wave and wash over head like sea-foam.  “We’re like Ariel,” I reply.  “We’re under the sea looking up at the sky and the world above us.”


No photographs can possibly do justice to the moment, to that feeling of sound and light made physical.  It’s almost fantastical to realize the Chapel is a mere 289 feet long and 40 feet wide – it feels infinitely light and infinitely tall. The College has an online virtual tour which gives some idea of the space.

Or listen to one of the CDs of the Kings College Choir and contemplate Wordsworth:

Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering–and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.

We took that eternal moment in the Choir, then a walk under the Organ Screen into the stalls and up to the altar for a view of Ruben’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’.  I had wanted to visit Kings College to see this masterwork, but after the overwhelming sound of the choir it was almost an afterthought.  To the left is a small jewel of a space called St Edward’s Chapel, reserved for private contemplation.

What a spot to muse over the bloody history of Lancaster and York, so entwined with the growth and building of the College (and which is conveniently described in an exhibit next to this chapel).

Other stops in town included the Mathematical Bridge:

Views of punters on the Cam:

Cows in the Backs:

Walks down medieval passageways:

Opening to peekaboo views:

Fleeing the all-powerful porters:

Dramatic vistas:

A stop for cupcakes (at Fitzbillies):

And ever-present bicycles:

We also discovered the secret to the perfectly manicured English lawn:

Middle child asked how old she would need to be to study at Cambridge.   I’d better start saving my pennies and pence.

Sneak Peek — moving in!

21 Oct

We’re moving in to our house today!  Yippee!  We are also going to be without regular internet for an as-yet unknown period of time.  So, here is a teeny tiny peek at my new kitchen, where I will begin baking up warm happiness as quickly as I may.

Review: Tiffins

20 Oct

Step inside the cozy cafe and be greeted by the beautiful fragrance of bacon, strong fresh coffee and the smiles of owners Julie and Gary … we’ve been in Cheltenham less than three weeks and have eaten here five or six times.

Tiffins
4 Montpellier Walk,
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1SD
01242 222492

Ambiance
The downstairs is definitely snug, with a few very small tables crowded near the register and deli/pastry cases.  Comfortable seating outside with a view of the Montpellier Gardens.  For seating with a family, try going up the picturesque wooden stairs to the top floor, where you’ll find tables with seating for five and bright sunny windows overlooking the street.  One of the many young women on staff will come by with menus and to take your order.

Kid-friendly
Upstairs or outside is great with kids.  We tend to chase away the patrons who have come to have a quiet read and a nosh upstairs (sorry!).  There is not a kids menu but the kitchen has been great about modifying orders to suit the kids’ tastes.  (Exception is scrambled eggs, which I don’t think anyone in England knows how to make.)

Food
Let me say to you: Bacon.  Bacon.  And more Bacon.  Bacon with brie, bacon with avocado, bacon for breakfast, bacon for lunch, can you ever have enough bacon?  To Americans the bacon will be extraordinary — more like ham steak or large slabs of Canadian bacon than what we think of as bacon.  This is a good thing.  Kids have enjoyed bacon baps (a bacon sandwich) as well as cheese toasties (grilled cheese) and smaller portions of a full English breakfast.  (This is a large breakfast, which can be portioned out among more than one child.)  Pastries like pain chocolate and croissants have also been delicious and fresh.    Coffee and tea are both good, and generous in size.  I’ve enjoyed trying out regional choices like cheese and pickle sandwiches, or brie and cranberry with (of course) bacon.

Value
To be honest I’m not sure how the orders are rung up — sometimes we seem to pay more than I expect, sometimes less.  We typically spend about 20 pounds for four meals, which seems reasonable for the area.  The full English breakfast includes egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, two large slices of bacon, local sausage, four slices of toast, and orange juice, for 8 pounds.  Many of the sandwiches are right about 4 pounds each, and large.  It’s certainly worth it to me for great, homey food in a friendly environment with a great view.  Please note THEY DO NOT TAKE CREDIT — this is a cash-only establishment.  They are not open Sundays but are open Saturdays — opening time is about 8am and they close at a time which seems to change but is usually mid-afternoon.

Recommendation
Go for breakfast and you’ll be full all day.  Go for lunch and you can skip dinner.  If coffee and bacon smell like home to you, go for a whiff of comfort.

Notes from the basement

19 Oct

We’re living in a basement apartment for the moment.  It’s really not good for my mental health down here.  Between flashbacks of our decades-ago crawl-space-sized basement apartment in Toronto and my natural claustrophobia and need for sunshine, I’m finding myself in a low mental place. But I’m trying to look on the bright side.  If you look at it from just the right angle, it’s romantic.

And if you look at it from another angle, it’s like living death inside a subterranean coffin.

It helps that we’re getting out and about in the area as much as possible.  In the past few days we’ve visited:

Stratford-on-Avon

Sudeley Castle

Hailes Abbey

Banbury

Bourton-on-the-Water

and Gloucester

Not bad.  The kids are on ‘half-term break’ — a very civilized invention that splits each school term into 6 weeks of classes broken up by two-week breaks.  Their school year runs in to July, but they have much more vacation time interspersed within the school year.  I like it, and it’s especially welcome for us as we were more than ready for a break from adjusting to the new school routine.  (I’m also thankful their school doesn’t follow the distressing invention of ‘Saturday school’ — an extra morning of classes on Saturday. Just for kicks, I guess.)   Mostly, I needed a break from the morning freak-out about which uniform combination to wear.  Having lunch served at school has been a mighty bonus.  My youngest has been the most adventuresome with new foods at school, and tells me she eats ‘beans for lunch’ along with a variety of vegetables.  Son would live on a diet of french fries (‘chips’ since they are the thick cut kind) and unfortunately the cafeteria line seems to allow that.

As we explore, we’re learning more new phrasing.  For example, when buying tickets for the bus, asking for a ’round trip ticket’ will get you the crazy eyeball stare from the bus driver.  You want ‘a return’.  And god bless the pub chefs who will cheerfully make a ‘cheese toastie’ (grilled cheese sandwich) for any child who looks hungry.  A ‘smash’ is a juice concentrate, so don’t be afraid to order your child a ‘apple smash’ if they want it.  A ‘chip and pin’ card is what everyone expects you to use if you show a credit card — it is common here to use a debit card and pin for all card purchases, and everyone has these handy portable card machines. Heaven help you if the retail staff can’t figure out how to swipe your card — “It’s so unusual to need to sign, isn’t it?” I’m asked regularly.  By unusual, I’m given the impression that they assume my bank has refused to give me a pin and chip card because I am a wicked thief who will likely try to rob them blind … and they really examine that signature … and then ask for more ID … and then reluctantly let me leave with my purchases.

During a moment of homesickness the other day, I was relieved to see an English mother pick up her screaming daughter and drag her from the playground.  (Yes, I am a horrible person.) Up to that point I had only seen well-behaved children with mummies who called them darling and pet and poppet and promised them chocolates and biscuits and spun sugar lives of being eternally cosseted.  A two-year-old having a full-on tantrum and a mom at her wit’s end picking her up and carrying her off the playground (gently!) was a downright homey sight.  Then I discovered an indoor ‘soft play’ area (Chik-fil-A on steroids) where children wet their pants, hit each other, ignored their mothers (come here darling, come here darling, COME HERE DARLING) and mothers sat in shell-shocked groups on comfy chairs drinking coffees.  Yes.  My tribe.  I’ve found you.

Danger – reality ahead

12 Oct

I’ve spent the last several days feeling gobsmacked, discovering again and again the distance between my experience and my new reality.  As a wise friend commented: we’ve realized we’re not on vacation any more.

Here the wind seems to blow ceaselessly, driving in rain and sun in succession so quickly I don’t know if I’m hot or cold.  Emotionally, it’s been much the same.  A moment of competence – giving someone directions to our apartment.  (Me!  Giving directions!  And they didn’t drive wrong way into traffic or fall off a cliff!)  A moment of crushing failure — trying to learn how to drive a stick shift.  And failing.  (Desperately.)  Being asked by a taxi driver: “Guess what Middle eastern country I am from?”  (Worst.Game.Ever.)  Discovering a gorgeous park two minutes walk from the house we hope to move to.  Being told we must leave our temporary housing on Friday, and not knowing where we will go.  The big kids stepping up and being responsible for their little sister on the school bus — I’m so proud.  And so worried.  And so proud.  My horrified realization that I sometimes sound like fake-accent Madonna when talking with strangers — otherwise they don’t understand me.  (Apologies, Madonna.  I’ve been making fun of you for that for years.)

Finding something beautiful — like a bacon sandwich — and wanting to share it with friends who aren’t here.  (You don’t think a bacon sandwich can be beautiful?  Wish you were here, so I could show you.)  Being jet lagged and exhausted and confused … And finding moments of pure serendipity, like sitting at a bus stop next to an ancient village inn and having tea in a gentle rain.

I’d like to say I have a grand realization to wrap all this up in a sweet little bow.  (Maybe in a Cath Kidston ribbon.)  But, no, all I have is a cup of coffee and the intention to keep eyes and hands open to new things as they come.

(Except stick shifts.  That may require therapy.)

House Hunters International, part two

9 Oct

Okay, not really House Hunters International.  Because, do you remember that couple from Utah who was on the show a while ago, and they found a house in Oxford?  She actually has a blog.  And she’s friends with another expat blogger, who takes amazing photos of her life in Oxford.  So apparently Oxford is some kind of expat, blogging, photo-taking, beautiful family heaven kind of place full of reality television characters, and you all should not bother reading this and go follow them.  Or, you can still visit here with me and choose my house.*

You may be under the impression that, living in England, we’d be looking at houses like this

Or this

or this

Or this

You would not be correct. I know, I was shocked as well.  Apparently people in England live normal lives in normal houses, just like everyone else.  So after turning the dial on my reality meter, we set our criteria: close to husband’s work (but doesn’t have to be so close he can walk); close the kids’ school (again, doesn’t have to be walking distance but close enough we won’t be in the car all day); four bedrooms — can’t be less, that’s a deal-breaker; garage or reserved parking; decent kitchen; quiet neighborhood; kid-friendly; takes cats; some hope of finding space for all our books; must have an outdoor space.

On House Hunters you have a mere three homes to choose from, but because I am way more generous than that (and can’t decide on anything) you will see four.  Four!  It’s a bargain because it’s free!  Meet TownhomeFunkalicious, Cul-de-sac, and Meadow.

I’m not including photos from the inside of the houses, because there’s probably a law against it or it is horribly rude or something … but let’s break down each option in relation to the criteria:

Townhome
A very large four-story home on a busy street near the center of town.  About equidistant from work and school.  Four (or five, depending) bedrooms and includes a basement living space with its own living area and kitchenette. (No entry to the basement area from within the houses; requires a walk outside and re-entry.)  Small yard in the back, very quiet, overlooked by neighbors.  Lots of great features like fireplaces in each room, high ceilings, and cool ceiling moldings.  Kitchen is updated but narrow and dark, carpeting throughout looks a bit ragged.  Parking is on the street with a placard — there should be a space somewhere, but I’d need to fight for it each day.  Biggest pro: huge amounts of living space.  Biggest cons: strange arrangement with living spaces, busy street, questionable parking, not quiet.

Funkalicious
You like this house, don’t you?  You see the photo and wonder what we’re waiting on.  Deceptive photography by real estate agents is a whole other post.  A five bedroom house outside of town, requiring a bus or a longer drive to work and school.  Very good size yard including a hedge maze (a hedge maze!), crazy water features (water features!), a family of badgers (badgers!), and a tenant who has right of walk to walk through the yard (quirky!).  Double garage and driveway parking.  Kitchen is crazy-makingly split between two rooms separated by a long hallway.  The fifth bedroom is ideal for guests as it includes its own bathroom and is in a quiet corner.  Fixtures in the house are strange and funky — straddling the line between ‘retro’ and ‘tasteless’.  Biggest pro: cool outdoor space.  Biggest con: kitchen makes me want to shoot myself in the head.

Cul-de-sac
A quiet house equidistant from work and school, off a private drive and a cul-de-sac.  Outdoor space includes a small yard between house and double garage as well as a fenced space encircling the house on three sides.  Downstairs living spaces are large, kitchen includes American sized appliances and even a new gas top stove, real clothes dryer, extra freezer, and double ovens (sorry, I get chills when I write all that down).  Four small bedrooms upstairs which may present a challenge to our furniture.  Double garage and room to park three or more cars on the driveway (or ride bikes and scooters).  Biggest pro: location and downstairs space.  Biggest con: small bedrooms and kind of boring looking.

Meadow
Again, we’ll talk about deceptive real estate photos another time.  This is a beautifully decorated home — truly amazing — nicest finishes we saw by far.  At the end of a shared driveway in a development of identical-looking homes, the furthest house out of town we saw.  It is next to meadowland and a great view of the hills on one side, and cookie-cutter houses on the other sides.  Four bedrooms — large master and rest probably considered average but look small to me.  Up to date, eat-in-kitchen. with very pretty marble counter-tops.  Small outside space, with gravel (boo) and  raised beds (yay) for easy gardening.  A small detached garage, accessed through a gate outside the house.  I was a little worried when the owner mentioned that this was a very quiet area of the development, with older couples and no kids.  I do not think we’d fit in with our three active and loud kids (or be very welcome).  Biggest pro: gorgeous finishes.  Biggest con: interior is small upstairs and down, and far from town.

So, what do you think?  Pick – My – House!  (*)

 *I will actually choose my house.  But I want to know what you think. Because I like you.