Archive | December, 2011


31 Dec

We visited Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral yesterday.  I considered writing up this trip as a ‘day out’ but really, it’s more of an endless grueling drive broken by walking around in serene joyful amazement.  So, is that a day out, really?  More like a life experience for which I think we all deserve recognition from the English Crown, as well as complimentary enrollment in the Marine Corps.  And maybe a bottle of gin.  So, yeah.

Also, everyone on earth has already written about Stonehenge, and more lyrically than I could and with more gorgeous photos than I ever expect to take.  But in one area, I do have something to contribute:

The best book about Stonehenge … ever.

If you hold it just right (I’m still working on it) you get a view of the winter ‘sun’ setting through the sarsens, a sight usually reserved for druids and their friends.

You’re welcome.



29 Dec

We have relatives in from out of town.  They flew all the way over the ocean to see us, and the very first thing I did was drag them to the panto.  Well, I let them take showers, first.  I do have standards.  I know, I’m seventeen kinds of cruel, but be honest, is there a better way to jump in to the dynamics of English culture than a night at the panto?  Especially when you are already sleep deprived and semi-hallucinating?

What is the panto, you may ask?  I’ll let wikipedia fill you in — or  that awesome school in Kent has a page about the panto — or just google it because c’mon, do I need to do all the work around here? — but let me assure you: it is not mimes. It’s slapstick, vaudeville, shenanigans, cover songs, cross-dressing, small explosions, audience participation, and over-all child friendliness.

There was a fairy tale

A Dame

A Fairy

A Giant

A … disco ball?

A … dancing cow?

Not pictured are the heroine (pretty), the hero (a woman playing a boy), the villain (also a woman), a crowd of young actors, and some kind of Fool character who gets my vote for Hardest Working Silly Person On Stage — Hellooooooo Billie!!  Um, maybe you had to be there.

And a grand finale!

The audience participation was … I’m not sure I ever thought this would be an appropriate description for a British evening entertainment, but it was a hoot.  The kids waved and sang and shouted, and even the proper (and elderly) couple seated next to me danced in their seats and called out “booo” to the villain and cheers to the hero.

Our local panto has a six week run and has been booked flat almost the entire time.  I can see why.  A couple hours of hilariously random entertainment that pleases young and old?  Perfect.

I’ll let you know if the family is still speaking with me this morning.

Things I love and hate about my English house which may or may not be uniquely English but which I perceive as such since we are living here

27 Dec

It’s a working title.

I’ve already mentioned the keys Why?  WHY?  I truly hate that I need a different key to open every separate window and door in the house.  Not love.

Heated towel racks.  Love.  Love.  Love.  This is genius.  Every British person ever born should win a Nobel Prize for heated towel racks.  The joy of a warm towel to wrap up in after a shower on a cold dark morning … priceless.

The warming closet.  I don’t know what this closet ought to be called, but I love it.  It sits in the upstairs landing, a light turns on when you open the door, and a blast of super heated dry air engulfs you as you walk in.  It’s a perfect place to store blankets and towels.  On dark and damp days, sometimes I cuddle in there for a minute, just to warm myself up. Love.

Driveway of disaster.    I love having a driveway.  I love that more than one car can park in it.  I love that the kids can scooter or bike on it.  I value these features to the extreme.  But I hate that I cannot back up out of the driveway without risk to bushes, trees, fences, lightposts, small children, rubbish bins, and various wildlife.  Who takes what ought to be a straight shot from road to front door, and turns it in to an obstacle course? Love and hate.

Three refrigerators.  Okay, I realize that this is in fact not at all an English thing.  It’s not even an American thing.  I don’t know what kind of freaky thing it is but for whatever reason my house has three refrigerators.  One is fridge only, one freezer only, one half and half.  I think I love it, but it does take up a lot of space.  Unless I buy half a cow and have it stored in the freezer, I’m not sure I’ll need all the space.  Ever.

American sized washer and dryer.  Yeah, I love that.  I was all “whatever” about the state of British washing technology, until we spent three weeks in our temporary apartments trying to wash clothes for five in a  dollhouse sized washer that doesn’t dry.  No disrespect to the English.  In fact, nothing but respect.  You manage to look proper and clean, and you use one of those things?  Another Nobel Prize for you.

Pull switches in bathrooms.  Who knows what these are called?  When I asked the handyman why there were these crazy nooses hanging in the bathroom instead of light switches, I thought he’d have a heart attack.  It’s because you might electrocute yourself if you flipped a switch coming out of the shower.  Holy crap, America, you’re all going to die!  I wonder if English people come to the US and sit in dark bathrooms, because they are afraid to flip the switches.  Love? Hate?  Mostly seems silly, but the decorative pulls are pretty.

Roof windows.  I don’t know what to call these either.  They are like skylights, but at slightly above waist height. I am glad that they open, but slightly weirded out by the way it appears to open a hole in the  slanted roof.  When oldest child left the window slightly too ajar, rain poured down the window pane and all over the carpet.  That’s not normal.  But since the alternative is windows that don’t open or no windows at all:  love.

Radiators.  They work, but they take up the few free wall spaces where I would like to put up bookshelves.  A whole wall dedicated to a radiator — gaaaah!

Conservatory.   I don’t know what to call this either — basically I just stumble around England and point at things asking “Me learn English now? This is what?” — I’ve been told it’s a conservatory, a solarium, an orangerie (!!), and I want to call it a sun room but apparently that isn’t correct.  No matter:  I love it.  It’s cold in the winter and will probably be boiling in the summer but  It is made almost completely of glass (and keys), has a pointy sort of roof, lets in a ton of sun, and I can close off the rest of the house and sit in it like a queen in a winter palace.  At night with the lights out, I can see stars through the roof.  In the day when the clouds are away I can actually feel warmed by the sun.  It isn’t huge  but it is full of: Love.  Love.  Love.

(I’m in here now, and although it is gray outside I’m in a bubble of light … heaven.)

Boxing Day

26 Dec

I envy the children at Woodlands Junior School in Kent.  Their school has a great, informative website full of information about British cultural history.  I wish Americans could enroll there for summer courses on ‘what the hell is going on’.  They have a lovely page about Boxing Day.  Go ahead, read it through.  It’s fascinating.  I’ll just have a cup of tea.

… slurp …

Weird and interesting are the ways of cultural tradition, no?  I don’t expect we’ll be doing any of those things today — no fox chasing, no wren killing, no mailing clay boxes of coins to impoverished anyones, no early morning shopping — I’m a little worried about leaving something for the dustmen, to be honest.  They are so finicky about our rubbish, I have no idea how they’d take to a five pound note taped to the top of the bin.  Or a six-pack in the composter bin? No clue.

We will assuredly enjoy the tradition of eating leftovers, and I’m sure a walk in the park will be in there somewhere.  Although we didn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving, there were plenty to choose from for Christmas.  That liar Charles Dickens had convinced me that everyone in England ate roast goose for Christmas, but that is a complete fabrication: turkeys, turkeys, everywhere.  Fresh, organic, and plump.  And as expensive as a Mercedes, but let’s not talk about that.

But since we are on the topic of expensive foods and leftovers, let’s talk about turnips.  Apparently turnips have had a bad rep as a lowly peasant food with no panache, and it is possible so many were eaten during World War II no-one British can imagine every having another one … but their inexpensive nature and unique flavor is giving them a comeback in frugal and creative households, peasant or not.  Here’s a turnip soup recipe I made it in bulk using veg from our box scheme and I think I’ll toss in some leftover ham or turkey from yesterday and a few reheated rolls on the side for a warm and cozy Boxing Day afternoon tea.

Start with whatever root vegetables you have to hand: I used two turnips, two parsnips, three carrots, two potatoes, and one large celeriac.  Plus one large onion and four cloves of garlic.

Peel and rough chop all the root vegetables and set aside.  Meanwhile saute the onion and garlic in butter in a large stockpot.  Toss in all the vegetables and let them saute, about 20 minutes or until everything has a bit of a glisten and is getting softer.

(That’s a turnip there in the middle.  FYI for the turnip-impaired, like me.)

Pour four cups of very hot water over all and toss in a bouillon cube (or put in four cups of stock, whatever you have).  I added some tarragon, parsley, and white pepper, fairly plain, but you could go to town with the spices.  Bring everything to a boil, then reduce heat to very low and cover.  Let simmer for two hours.  Or whatever.  I’m not very precise about these things.  You may want to add some more stock or a cup of water at some point.  When you think it’s done, pull it off the heat and let it cool for a bit, then use an immersion blender, or very strong arms, to combine it all into a smooth, thick soup.

I like to serve it with a dollop of sour cream in the middle and a bit of chives over top.

Happy Boxing Day!


24 Dec

The Cotswolds is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  You can’t get lost down a country lane without noticing.  The famous stone villages hit me in some groovy spot I didn’t know I had.  They glow; they charm; they coze; they spill thousands of years of history in to their stone streets like flowers.  When I come to any pause in a conversation here, I’ll ask “so, what’s your favorite Cotswold village?”  I have a list as long as my arm of villages to visit, times of year to visit, specific places to visit in the villages, places to eat, places to shop, places to just be.

But you know when you are seeking and searching and looking and walking, and you suddenly look around and realize you’ve found a place you didn’t realize you were missing?  That’s how I feel about Bourton-on-the-Water.  Something about the river Windrush gently spilling through town; the crooked streets; the graceful stone footbridges; the ducks; the fastidious and gorgeous houses; the frankly tourist shops that still retain their friendliness and quality; and of course the model village, with its miniature model village, with its even more miniature model village …

And not least, the Christmas tree floating in the middle of the river:

Happy holidays, y’all, however you celebrate, or even if you don’t.  Soak up that magic of the everyday all around you and enjoy.

Day out: Prinknash Bird and Deer Park (and Santa)

22 Dec

I love holiday lights.  I’m a regular at the local drive-through city or county lights displays.  I drive around the neighborhood looking for houses with bright decorations.  Love it.  I haven’t seen lights as a drive-through destination here in England, and I’ve missed taking the kids out in pajamas with their snuggly animals, candy canes, hot chocolates, listening to holiday music in the car, talking over our favorite displays… When I heard about the Prinknash Bird and Deer Park Santa’s Grotto and lights display, it was a no brainer to book our tickets and head down one late December early evening.

When we first arrived, the sun was still setting, and we could get a good look around.  It’s not every Santa’s Grotto and lights display that has peacocks roosting in the trees, swans in the pond, and free facepainting.

And a small bonfire.

And a Christmas Fairy who hands out sweets from her Gypsy Caravan.

And deer to pet.

There were also reindeer — not to pet! — and small crafts and even an antique sleigh — Santa’s of course — to climb over and around.

There was something romantic about watching the sun set as the lights grew brighter in the trees.

The walk to Santa’s Grotto is through a magical — and slightly spooky — forest of lights.

But isn’t most magic slightly spooky?  I was very fond of the lights reflecting in the pond.  Were we above water, looking down, or under water looking up?

Some of the lights were a simple display of color on the trees, but evocative and eye catching all the same.

Finally reaching Santa’s Grotto, in the Wendy House.

Ooo, who is that?

Santa gave presents to the children — a standard here — and we left gleeful and full of fresh air, dazzled by lights and ready for more hot chocolate.

Bye, Frosty!  See you next year!


21 Dec

I’ve mentioned once or twice that recycling is often on my mind.  The size and number of my recycling bins is near-critical to the function of my household.  Today, we experienced a solstice miracle — our new recycling bin was dropped off!

As I watch the sun set at 3:30, I’ll be chuckling gleefully while I sort my paper, plastics, and bottles.  Happy solstice, everyone!