Archive | September, 2012

Party Rock Anthem

30 Sep

There are five in my little family.  Out of five, four of us have birthdays in a six week span here at the end of the summer and start of autumn.  Fun!  Exciting!  Exhausting!  And, of course, this year: cross-cultural and confusing!  Where to have the party, how to send out invitations correctly, navigating rsvps, making sure thank-yous go home promptly, making sure no one is left out.  Missing our friends back home, with whom we’ve shared birthday celebrations for years.

But mostly, it’s all about the cakes.

Each child has cake requests, which I try to honor.  They know not to ask for cakes in elaborate shapes or with fancy icing designs.  But sprinkles, that I can handle.

No combination of toppings is too extravagant.

Even Moshi Monsters, one of the current playground crazes.  With wafer flowers.  And Maltesers.  And candy stars.  It all makes perfect sense, right?

In one of the many examples of small cultural differences, we see that when children attend parties here, the candles are lit, the birthday song is sung, the cake is sliced — and then no one eats the cake at the party.  Slices of cake are wrapped in napkins and handed to each child on the way out, or put in to a goody bag.  Why is this, I wonder?

British cakes tend to be very firm, with fondant icing, so the cakes hold up to this rough treatment.  (Sort of like elven travel bread.  I once found a missing slice of party cake in the van two weeks after the party.  It appeared unchanged.)  I make what I now realize are “American style” cakes, which are soft and plushy, with whipped icing that would not tolerate being wrapped in a napkin and placed in a bag, no matter how delicately.  So we light the candles, sing the song, and then — shocking — eat the cake.   I don’t mean to be odd, but there are some Americanisms I’m just not willing to leave behind.

Hooray for another year’s birthday blitz successfully — and sweetly — celebrated.  Here, have some cake.

Time for lunch

26 Sep

I have a huge backlog of days out to share — as always — and — as always — I’m so busy running to the next thing I don’t seem to have time to sit down and write about any of it.  One thing I do have time for — every school night, every week, all year long — is packing school lunches.  We opted out of the school’s hot lunch this year and so five nights a week I pack three lunches and four snacks.  I turn on the mp3 player, line up the boxes, pull out the ingredients, and go to war.  Work, I mean: go to work.

I start with this:

 (No editing for lighting or tone.  Feel the raw force of late night lunch packing.)

And end with variations on this:

Lots and lots of this.

It’s fun, kind of like being on Top Chef: My Kitchen, but without the celebrity guests or 30 minute shopping sprees at Whole Foods.

I didn’t have any real objection to the lunches provided at the school, but I didn’t have any real attachment to them, either.  When the kids asked for packed lunches this term, I didn’t need much convincing.   I was getting a bit worried about the stories of the too-long lines and the all-I-ate-was-a-roll lunches and there-was-no-time-to-eat-anything-but-pudding tales.  I know I’m denying them a bit of cultural integration by packing their lunches.  I mean, they can now successfully navigate beans on toast, sausage and mash, jacket potatoes as a main course, and calling absolutely everything served after the main a ‘pudding’ — all new things they brought home and shared with me, to our overall enrichment.  (I say “overall”, because: Beans on toast?  Meh.)

Anyway, for lunch inspiration I check out Happy Little Bento or Laptop Lunches.  And then I cry, because I’m not that creative and I don’t have that much patience.  But I try to stock up on a variety of portable of fresh ingredients and keep the cupboards full of dry goods that I find acceptably nutritious and easy to toss in to round out the lunches.  It’s a work in progress.  Every night, every week, a work in progress.

How about you?  Do you pack lunches for school or work?  How do you keep it interesting?

Always be prepared

23 Sep

Ah, yes, the days of darkness.  They’ve grown in terror in my memory, so I almost start to whimper and whine when I let my mind imagine the winter months here in England.  I was woefully unprepared for the lack of sunlight here in the garden of England, and confounded by my very real inability to cope.  So, meet my new best friend:

This is not a product endorsement.  In fact, if it doesn’t help, it may be a product indictment.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of some very good suggestions for handling the winter blahs.  Like:

  • wear warm clothing that keeps you dry and lets you get out in all kinds of weather;
  • have a stash of warm, comforting drinks that make you feel glow-y inside;
  • light the fire and enjoy the bright snapping flames;
  • always wear warm wools socks;
  • take your vitamin d!;
  • eat flavorful soups with strong sweet and sour flavors;
  • hang out with people who make you laugh (instead of people like me, who cry about the darkness all the time);
  • keep active, at the gym or outside;
  • read books that grab you and take you away to immersive and engaging worlds full of interesting characters;
  • and book a sunny vacation in the middle of the winter.

I’m not sure that last one is going to be an option, but I know I can handle all the rest.  How about you — how do you handle the winter dark days?

Sudeley snapshots: figures in the garden

21 Sep

Sudeley Castle is known for its art installations and patronage of the arts.  (Did you know that much of the Tate Gallery collection was kept at Sudeley during WWII?  Apparently having all those masterpieces stacked around in the living room enhanced a bone-deep appreciation for art in the family bloodline.)  On a recent walk through the gardens, I was struck by the many fantastical man-made figures who walk the Sudeley gardens along with the many tourists and guests.

A sunbather in the pond between the tithe barn and the Castle.

A flowering chair awaits beneath a tithe barn arch.

I have no idea if these are meant to be art or not, but they caught my attention and made me think romantical thoughts — good enough for me.

Oh, dear, heads in the garden again.

A winged messenger, near the dungeon tower.  I wonder if he is coming to set someone free — or put them away.

A young woman with a gown of metal lace emerges from the trees.

A mosaic sword in the knot garden.

An I’m-not-sure who in a courtyard overlooked by the ruins of the old state apartments — where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I would have walked — which were destroyed by Cromwell.

Katherine Parr would have walked this path from her private apartments to her private pew in St. Mary’s church (where she is now buried).  She was attended then in life by Lady Jane Grey — and now in immortality she walks and reads from her prayer book as a hedge figure, followed by a smaller Lady Jane Hedge.

Here is Lady Jane in one of the many stained-glass portraits in the fifteenth century St. Mary’s Church.  (More photos from a previous visit to the Church here: Sudeley snapshots: Kathering Parr)

Here also in the Church, a temporary modern exhibit of photographs of wax figures created based on original paintings — here Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn.  These are from Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s “Portraits” series commissioned by the Guggenheim in Berlin, and they are intriguingly, fascinatingly lifelike — except for the hands, which look all wrong.

The name of this work was lost in the flowers.  No, I don’t mean that was the name, the name was written down on a placard which was buried under flowers.  Kind of beautiful to have the man-made art mixed in so closely with the natural blooms.

He may be hard to spot, but I promise there is a charming putto hiding inbetween the flowers of the Secret Garden.

Lady bathers, taking their metal lives into their own hands if they are going out on that bright boat (it’s full of water).

Another bibliophile hedge lady in a quiet garden near the tithe barn.

At the visitors’ entrance, a life-sized figure of Katherine Parr, holding the Rosa Mundi — a striped rose showing the colors of York white and Lancaster red — the Tudor Rose.

All these figures at Sudeley enhance my appreciation for the hundreds of years of human action that still feel alive at the castle, and the many characters who strolled these same paths in flesh and blood, leaving behind their footprints in history — and nature.

Milestones and lessons

17 Sep

We’re coming up on our one year anniversary of living in England. We’ve seen a full turn of seasons. (Does England have true seasons? I leave that up for debate.) I’ve heard myself say “We didn’t get to see [insert castle or event] last year, let’s go this year.” I’m in love with online grocery shopping and home delivery. Two large vehicles passing side-by-side on a one-lane track blocked in by hedges doesn’t bother me a bit. I like the habit of ordering and paying for food at the bar and then sitting and enjoying a leisurely meal at any local pub. I’ve found a hard cider that I enjoy, and I devour mushy peas. I’m ready for winter, with my “happy light” set and bright. I — almost — know when to say “cheers” and when to say “ta” and can have a phone conversation with a native British speaker without leaving us both in tears.  I know my way around this corner of England and can — sometimes — even get somewhere without the satnav.

I suppose we’ve acclimated to our lives overseas.  It definitely took me longer than six months, but  finding a unopened box of salt water taffy when we did some clearing out over the summer didn’t bring me to tears, as it might have last winter.

Maybe going to Cornwall in the spring helped me ward off my usual summertime biological imperative to jump into the Atlantic, walk along a boardwalk, get a sunburn, eat ice cream and fries, and watch dolphins.  Anyway.

The kids are back in school, excited about their new year and jumping with all limbs forward into even more clubs and activities than last year. My dreams of a Parisian vacation have turned into fees for endless music lessons and tennis lessons and ballet lessons … and that’s okay. They’ve adjusted to this being our home, not our vacation spot, and they want to do all the normal things kids do day-to-day.  Still, the bulletin boards by my youngest’s classroom give me pause:

How much acclimation is too much, really?  Eyes to the side, I want to tell my kids: look around.  Who knows where the person in front is going — find your own path.  Hold your hands out, so you can reach high, or catch yourself if you fall.  Run.

Day out: Hailes Church

15 Sep


Another small and almost tender small spot to visit, close to Sudeley Castle and only a few steps away from Hailes Abbey.  These small churches — like Odda’s Chapel or Elkstone Church — have an emotive appeal that transcends their size and relative lack of fame.

Hailes Church sits quietly between cemetery, parking lay-by, and agricultural fields.  The exterior looks small and tidy:


The church was built in the 12th century by a local lord, attached to a local castle which was eventually taken over by Henry III, then ceded to his brother Richard of Gloucester, who founded the nearby Cistercian Hailes Abbey  in the mid 13th century.  The Church then acted as the gate-chapel for the Abbey, used by visitors and pilgrims.  It is still a functioning church.  Which kind of blows my mind.  Read more about the history of the Church here:

What I found most amazing — almost shockingly amazing — are the medieval wall paintings:

A hunting scene, with greyhounds and a rabbit.  A local lord and benefactor, immortalized?  An obscure christian metaphor?  All I know for sure is the delicate tracery of these paintings will not last forever, and need to be preserved and renovated.  Where was that million dollars I had stashed away in my kitchen cupboards?

Because St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers and anyone who feared an unconfessed death and the visitor’s first view when entering the church, needs our help.  He’s mostly ghost, already.


For reasons unknown to me, there is a pail full of smooth stones near the entry.  Perhaps travelers along the Cotswold Way leave a stone to commemorate this stage in their journey?  An offering to ask for pebble-free shoes along the way?  Or maybe something as simple as new stones for the flowerbeds?

Turn to the right and see the Church in its entirety.  (To the right, a parishioner is tidying up the benches and altar.)  Almost elegant in its extreme simplicity, but age has worn down all the clean and clear lines and left meandering wrinkles and bumps.

Which makes me think of vampires.  I’m weird that way.  But, what a scene.

Walk through to the chancel and check out the 15th century window.

Painted frieze in the chancel (near the altar), showing the twelve apostles.



Here’s the smart and high-class (and very very dead) St. Catherine of Alexandria.  She turned down a handsy Emperor, outwitted all the guys in a philosophical debate, rode a spiked wheel (but not for fun) and was beheaded.  Yup, that’s my patron saint!  Rock it, chica.The altar itself, with its humble cloth.  I almost fainted when I saw all the colorful, medieval, hand made stone tiles.  These are not original to the Church, but were removed from Hailes Abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries and laid out here in somewhat random fashion.

Just take my word for it: this is completely amazing.

What would have stood in these recesses by the chancel door, I wonder?  Statuary, flowers, people, candles?

This grumpy owl would have looked over it all.  (He might as well be grumpy, he represents sin and darkness.  Poor thing.)

To one side of the altar, surrounded by more of those tiles, a medieval tomb.  Who wants to go all Indiana Jones and open it?

With the door behind you, owl to the left, tomb to the right, this is your view over the altar toward St. Catherine.  There’s a lovely hush in the Church, but it is small enough to feel intimate.

Walk out over stone memorials, between rough wooden benches …

And return to the modern world, and sunshine.  (And, on this particular day, a stunning stroll through Hailes Abbey .. but that’s a story for another day.)















Cinnamon Pinwheels

12 Sep

Well, I am so pleased with myself I could burst.  Some days you just want to try something new, right?  So we tried homemade cinnamon pinwheels.  The recipe is so simple — mine based on the Joy Of Cooking rolled biscuit recipe:

Put together your dry ingredients:
1 & 2/3 cups flour
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt

Cut in 4-6 tablespoons of cold butter
Make a well in the center of the mix and pour in 3/4 cup of cold milk

Combine all, then turn the dough out on to a floured work surface.  Fold the dough 6-8 times then roll it to something less than 1/2 inch thickness.  Cover with a bit of soft butter, brown sugar and cinnamon (to taste, or to what you guess your taste would be).  If you have people in your family who eat nuts in baked goods, toss on some chopped pecans.  Loosely roll the dough into a log shape and gently slice into about one inch thick rolls.

Place the rolls (not touching) on a baking sheet and put them in a pre-heated 450 degree oven for 12 minutes.  When they come out, top with a simple icing (1 cup confectioners sugar to approx 1/4 cup milk, blended — add vanilla for a taste miracle.  Or use orange juice instead of milk for a different flavor.)

Then sit back and pat yourself on the back for making amazing cinnamon rolls in less than 30 minutes!  And put your favorite one aside, quick, before anyone sees it, or you might find everyone has eaten all the cinnamon rolls while you were tidying up the countertops.

It started out like this:

And I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen …

It was still pretty iffy when I rolled it out and poured on the sugar-love:

But I liked the look of the roll:

Oh, what’s that you’re hiding?

BOOM!  A vortex of sugar-cinnamon awesomeness!

GASP!  You all poofed up so beautifully.  You … you … you gorgeous things you.

But you.  You’re my favorite.  I admire you greatly.  WAIT!

Then I added icing.  I love you.