Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 25 or Christmas At Last!

Window #25

Let's be honest, it is about the gifts! And what a great haul of gifts this year for all of us this morning. Somehow we all managed to make the right buying choices, sometimes when we were flying blind, leading to great gasps of "this is exactly what I wanted, but forgot to ask for..."

My gifts pretty much all revolved around food. My daughters have decided I should stop being such a rubbish baker and Megan, who is the gift for baking, contributed the very very hot Flour Cookbook that she is cooking her way through. Her photos of this week's doughnuts and sticky buns qualify as food porn. Then Susan kicked in with Macaron heaven: the useful how-to handbook, and the Ladurée gold plated picture book to remind me how long it has been since I have been to Paris.

We all got pie makers, Megan courtesy of Williams Sonoma over Thanksgiving when we spotted it in our favourite catalogue. Then I discovered the pricey W-S offering is just a repackaged version from a B-list English TV chef, offered here for cheaper and cheaper as you move down the food chain of discount outlets. Megan kicked in the cookbook of English Pie fillings.

I'm not a fan of coffee table restaurant  books, but Noma would be a major exception. I think it was ranked as the best restaurant in the world recently. Noma is part of an amazing cultural centre in Copenhagen that is devoted to Denmark's northern island possessions. The lunch Bob and I had there a few years ago was a life experience to savour forever.

The salt grinder is practical in that it will replace the one that is all gummed up. The chocolatiere is the
fun extravagance for whizzing up some hot chocolate as England's coldest December in 100 years grinds on to the bitter end. Posh Crosswords from Susan, an Andy Cutting CD (world's cutest accordion player), some sock knitting yarn, and a tiny box of treats from Paul A Young, the best chocolates in London, round out the best Christmas ever.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 24 - Christmas Eve is Here!

Window #24

What would Christmas be without favourite story books read to our children long ago, and still secretly enjoyed. Richard Scarry's Animals' Merry Christmas may be the first Christmas book we bought for Megan. Everyone in the family knows they can make me weep by merely mentioning "The Christmas Tree Lamb" story. Santa Claus and his Elves is a translation of a famous Finnish book that recounts a year and a day in the life of Santa Claus. The Finns know these things because he lives there apparently. I haven't seen any adverts this year, but when we moved to London, there used to be daytrip flights to Lapland for families to visit Santa at home. Everyone knows The Polar Express, which was maybe never a big favourite of our children, but it does remind us that Chris Van Allsburg was our next door neighbor in Providence when he was writing and illustrating it. An Early American Christmas is our all time favorite. Last year we were able to find a copy for our grandchildren, so a new generation can continue to be enchanted by the story of the German family who brought Christmas to an American village steeped in Puritanism.

Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night — as the most famous story of all concludes!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 23

Window 23

We have presents! Our local bookstore provided and then wrapped most of what I needed. A present all the way from South Africa arrived in the post today. Christmas can come on time, on schedule.

We also have two more cookies — Lemon Spritz and Bob's favorite Almond — the last cookies are still dough, sitting in the refrigerator awaiting Susan's Thumbprint tomorrow.

Tomorrow is devoted to food — buying it, preparing it, and serving it. Tonight is devoted to making the final list of the season, keeping everything in order tomorrow. On the other hand, maybe curling up in bed with a book and a cup of mint tea sounds like a better idea.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 22

Window #22

Out with the old. . .the world is reborn on this post-Solstice day. . .  and in with the new. . . My feet can rejoice in the arrival of my new Giesswein slippers were delivered today. I've been wearing these comfy Austrian boiled wool slippers since buying them first at LL Bean decades ago. Every 4 or 5 years they give up the ghost and need replacement.

The pink pair has real sentimental value because I bought them in Venice. There were people who thought that slippers as a souvenir of Venice was an odd choice, but hey, I got to remember Venice every time I wore my slippers. The pink ones from Venice had a covering of cable knit over the boiled wool, a style I had never seen before, but I'm afraid they didn't wear quite as well as the plain old boiled wool. Today my favourite bright red Giessweins arrived, and when my navy fleece robe arrives from Beans, I will truly be ready to settle in for that long winter's night.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 21

Window #21

The Shortest Day
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Susan Cooper's poem written for and recited at the Boston Christmas Revels. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 20

Window #20

Heading toward the Winter Solstice Watch: Sunrise at 8:03//Sun peeks through gap in Hampstead roofs at 8:34//Sun reaches top of same Hampstead roofs at 8:53//Sun disappears behind low clouds by 10:36//Sun   breaking through clouds at 11:23//Some pale blue sky as the sun reaches midday on its low arc across Hampstead rooftops//Sun has once again dropped to the height of the roofs at 13:54//Sun has dipped below the rooftops at 14:27//Grey sky has replaced any wisp of pale blue by 14:52//Lights on as darkness descends at 15:28//Sunset at 15:53.

This year's Winter Solstice will be tomorrow, 21 December, close to midnight at the Universal Time/Greenwich Mean Time of 23:39 which happens to be our local time, but this year the sky has a special event planned for the Shortest Day — a total lunar eclipse. The first time since 1638 when the two phenomena have occurred on the same day. The eclipse will begin here in London at the time Bob's alarm is set for every morning, but because the moon is so low in the sky right now, we won't be able to see much of anything.

1638 was another period of political and religious unrest. Civil War would break out in England in a few years. Meanwhile unhappy religious sects and congregations were settling themselves in North America, including in Hingham where the Norfolk congregation of Peter Hobart had been living for three years. Mainland Europe was tearing itself apart in the 30 Years War that pitted Protestant reformers against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. The Ottoman rulers offered support to Hungary, and Austria to this day still can't quite accept the idea of Turkey as a member of the EU.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 19

Window #19

We put on a good spread last night, but the star of the post-sing-along supper is always the cheese Bob chooses at our local market's Neal's Yard stall. Much of it has been nibbled away last night and over the course of the day today.

Two goat cheeses, two cow cheeses, and the big hunk to the left is Stichelton the amazing new unpasteurised version of traditional Stilton. We have been gobbling it ever since Bob read a recommendation from a food critic. Neal's Yard has been a major distributor of artisan cheese made in the UK for 30 years. Cheesemaking is becoming an important industry as the UK now makes several hundred cheeses, many of which are becoming notable exports.

I can't imagine life without cheese. My life changed when I had my first taste of Brie during college, bought at the beloved Chanticleer shop in 1960s South Hadley — fresh fried doughnuts in the morning, giant size cookies in the afternoon, and a deli counter with French cheese — and can you believe it, all attached to a yarn shop!

While we were in the States last month there were two relevant cheese stories in the news. One on a British cheese winning the Gold Medal at an international competition; another on the FDA's efforts to stamp out artisan cheesemaking in the US. We were terribly disappointed when we ate all but one* of the New England artisan cheeses served at Henrietta's Table, Cambridge (Massachusetts) local food haven, and I will link to Bob's blog post on cheese for his thoughts.

*Searching the Henrietta's Table website and their list of local sources for food, I think I can credit Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Massachusetts with making the Hannahbelle cheese we liked.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Window #18

Jonathan's Cohen's Christmas Sing-Along at the Royal Albert Hall is a much enjoyed event in the run-up to Christmas. We have been attending for probably ten years now.  Jonathan's mother first invited me to go with her when she had an extra ticket.  I came home and told Bob that was the best Christmas concert I had ever been at, and next year we must both get tickets. Since then we have invited various friends, and every year everyone comes back again, that's how much fun it is. Today we had a box for 12, but sadly the weather was atrocious across London, and only 9 of us managed to make it to the Albert Hall. Ironic that as we sang of our longing for a White Christmas and Winter Wonderland, half the hall was empty at this sold out show because we in fact had a White Christmas Winter Wonderland to contend with.

Mid morning the snow came down at blizzard force in North London. We probably had four inches of snow in two hours. Fortunately, the storm wound down pretty quickly, and the Tube was running at almost normal speed.

With all the snow and excitement I forgot to take a single photo so I had to crib this photo of Jonathan and Sophie-Louise Dann from the Albert Hall website.

As usual we hosted a supper for everyone here afterwards.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 17

Window #17
Around midday, a snow squall blew through Hampstead. Blizzard conditions lasted for about 45 minutes leaving a covering of snow before the sun came out for the remainder of the afternoon.  Our afternoons are very short these days with sunset sometime after 3:30. Much of the country is being blasted with terrible weather.  Airports are shut on the busiest flying weekend of the year as everyone heads off for Christmas week. Roads are clogged with cars and lorries. And the weather forecasters are saying this weather pattern could last for a long time. Much of the country will certainly have the white Christmas they thought they wanted all this past years. No one can predict if we will be that lucky in London.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 16

Window #16

Today was devoted to Christmas food shopping and preparing for a supper party on Saturday night. Between trips to Marks and Spencer and Borough Market, I also signed my Last Will and Testament. The solicitor's office overlooks the Thames at London Bridge. Today London was dressed in taupe and greige between the grey buildings and sky and the brown churning river. Our weather is about to take a turn for the cold once again with perhaps some more snow this weekend. There were flurries in the City when the BBC was reporting from the Old Bailey the welcome news that Julian Assange has finally been freed from jail.

I haven't been to Borough Market in a couple of years. The birthplace of London's food revolution has been co-opted by the tourists, clogging the aisles, taking photos, but not actually buying food except take away sandwiches, so the character of the place has changed. Today was nice though, few tourists, not crowded in today's sloppy weather, and lots of stalls with old familiar food. I was there especially to buy the most amazing butter Bob found when he stopped off at the Market after signing his will a few weeks ago. So my haul consisted of French butter from unpasteurised cream with chunks of Ile de Ré salt, French Comté cheese, English potted shrimp, and Spanish smoked paprika.

I started baking my Christmas cookies tonight. I am going to cut back to only six kinds this year, so I am half way there with shortbread, clove crescents, and maple-ginger in the tins. On Megan's recommendation, I also made some fine looking banana bread from some not very fine looking bananas using the Flour Bakery cookbook recipe. If I hadn't nibbled too much cookie dough, I could try the bread, but that will have to wait for breakfast I think.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 15

Window #15

Christmas Concerts have always been a key part of celebrating the holidays. During the Providence and Boston years we tried to never miss the Boston Camerata's Christmas concert. And of course since Bob started singing with choral groups in New Jersey and then with Musica Sacra in Cambridge (Massachusetts), we always attended his concerts. That was a wonderful way to introduce Megan and Susan to concerts when they were quite young because it was exciting to see Daddy on stage. Megan was old enough to hand out programmes too. Later our favourite family Christmas event was the Revels in Sanders Theatre at Harvard, especially dancing to the Lord of the Dance in Memorial Hall's giant foyer. 

I certainly miss the Revels, but the cornucopia of holiday concerts in London is unbelievable. Tonight was Joglaresa singing In Hoary Winter's Night, early carols and holiday songs from (mostly) the British Isles. In tonight's window their instruments are set out pre-concert on the stage at King's Place. Belinda Sykes, director of Joglaresa, is a huge fan of the late John Fleagle who sang with both the Boston Camerata and with the Revels. The programme included two of John Fleagle's settings of medieval songs, so that was a lovely reminder of where we came from. Bob couldn't come tonight because of an office party event, so I invited my friend Ann who is a great music lover, and actually raised a string trio/quartet of musicians. A few years ago one of her daughters had us in stitches telling us about playing on the streets of Washington, D.C., where they lived, for pocket money. And how they hit the jackpot playing at the ferry landing on Nantucket one summer, raising enough cash to attend a  music camp in England. Ann loved the concert, so Joglaresa has a new fan. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 14

Christmas is cooking season, so every year the cookbooks come out for the old favorites and for some new options. Sarah Leah Chase's Nantucket Open House Cookbook has been around forever, and provides the important Christmas Breakfast Recipe, and a regular mix of party recipes.

The others are much newer. Delia's new Happy Christmas book replaces her 20 year old standard (adopted by me when I moved to London). Sarah Raven, now mistress of Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst through her husband Adam Nicolson, is the trendy vegetable foodie of the moment, with a series of books over the past few years. Her Garden Cookbook and the Complete Christmas have become standards for traditional recipes with a modern, but not too radical, twist. 

So like Santa, I am making my lists and checking them twice to buy the ingredients and prepare a cooking schedule for our supper party guests this weekend.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 13

Every year I agree to hostess my quilting group's potluck Christmas lunch. We call ourselves the Flying Geese because we are forever flying off to visit family in our home countries or flying off on holidays or flying off to live in some other country. The natural world of the expat is flying somewhere else.

Having a fixed date for the potluck means that I have a real deadline to get the Christmas decorations out and up for the event. Now most everything is in place, and I can enjoy having them around me for the next month. This is my Turkey Tree, a traditional nearly lost American folk art of dying turkey feathers and wrapping them around wire with tape to make the branches and stem.  Santa is by Tim Jumper, a nationally known wood carver who lives in Hingham. The sheep parade is led by hand-sewn English wool sheep from the Country Living Fair in London.

For lunch the Geese enjoyed carrot soup and deviled eggs, chicken teriyaki with rice pilaf and a festive red and green vegetable medley, apple crumble and a giant fruit salad.

Now the decorating is done and the potluck is over, so the next job is shopping, my least favourite part of the season. Fortunately, Bob loves the shopping, so most of the hard work can be left with him.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 12

Window #12

Here it is the Leaning Tree of Hampstead! 

Decorated with all our wonderful ornaments.  The glass balls that date back to my childhood trees. And the ornaments collected over a lifetime. Some I've made. Some the children made. Some are gifts that remind me of special people every year when the ornament is unwrapped. Some were bought on holiday trips. Each ornament has its own story. And the star is still the felt one I glued together in Providence 36 years ago when we finished decorating our first tree and discovered we had no star to set on the top.

And here we are half way to Christmas already.

Advent Calendar Day 11

Window #11

I love visiting the Christmas Markets in Germany. The first trip we took was to Nuremberg in 1999 where this mug is from. The Glühwein helps keep you warm as you wander in the market square. You buy the mug with your first cup of wine, then with every refill you pay just for the wine, and trade your mug for a clean one. We collected tons of mugs every time, enough to pull them out at Christmas for mulled wine gatherings.

My favorite Christmas markets are in Nuremberg and in Munich. We haven't been able to get to Germany during the Christmas season for several years, so tonight I decided the next best thing was a Christkindlemarkt dinner with potato pancakes, applesauce and sour cream, my favorite nibble at the markets, with some Glühwein to accompany.

I didn't make any Lebkuchen the traditional treat of Nuremberg, but I did make a traditional doorstopper English fruitcake today. I've been macerating the dried fruit for several days. Today I whipped up some butter, sugar, self-rising flour, and eggs, mixed the fruit in, and baked it in a slow, slow oven for most of the afternoon. Couldn't be simpler, but then you are left with a fruit cake to eat — which is somewhat easier with  brandy butter on the side. I am always fascinated by traditional foodways, and realised that in northern climates in December there are no fresh fruits, so of course sweet treats for the holiday season were based on the fruits and nuts preserved when they were harvested months before. And the fruitcake has a shelf life that will last the winter as the fruit is doubly preserved by drying and by alcohol.

Today was a busy day. We bought a Christmas tree this morning, but whilst having a terrible struggle setting it up at home, we realized the poor tree has a terrible kink in its trunk so it can't stand up straight and tall — our poor scoliosis tree. Tomorrow will be the decorating day.

Tonight we went to a June Tabor concert at Kings Place Concert Hall.  She has such an amazing voice. I always feel so calm after hearing her sing. She was previewing her new album to be released next year with music about the sea, very eclectic music from across the British Isles and France. She hasn't played London in a couple of years, and the small Kings Place is a perfect venue for her intimate music.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 10

Window #10

Santa and Rudolph have been with us for a long long time. (Mama Goose is a more recent adoption.) Santa was one of those fabric printed novelty items to cut out, sew together, and stuff that I made some 30 years ago when Megan was a toddler. A very 1970s sort of decoration. Rudolph was a gift for Susan back when Santa brought the girls a stuffed animal every Christmas.

Today the big job of shoving furniture out of the way to make a space for the Christmas tree whilst still having places for guests and us to sit and enjoy the said tree has been accomplished. So tomorrow we can go tree shopping.

Bob is a connoisseur of trees. In Hingham where the trees were a lovely shape, our ceilings were so low, we could never have a huge tall tree. Here our ceilings are high, but the trees are short and shapeless, and the top third has no branches to decorate. The tree stands were opening when we were in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving. I so wanted to pack one to bring to London. Well whatever, this year's tree will still be the best one ever.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 9

Window #9

The Onion Man was back today! He always turns up in Hampstead around this time of year. The first year we were here, we saw a man on a bicycle dripping with strings of onions and thought perhaps he was some sort of carnival act. I don't remember if I bought any onions that first year, but I have bought a string or two of shallots, onions, and garlic every year since — at least every year that I see him when he passes through Hampstead. Wearing his beret and striped Breton shirt, he parks his bicycle near the Tube Station on Hampstead High Street or in front of the Chemist/Natural Food Store in South End Green. Every year he says he will be back in January, but I don't think I have ever seen him after Christmas.

This link to Wikipedia on Onion Johnny offers the whole historical-cultural story of the Breton onion trade.

Wikipedia claims there are very few Onion Johnnies, although the numbers are growing, so I feel blessed that we have one. My onion string looks a little sparse, so I might have to try to catch him and buy another. The shallots are especially good, big and fat and pink, so I bought two strings because recently I have been reading lots of recipes that include shallots.

Three cheers for traditional agriculture. . .

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 8

Window #8

Finally I am unpacking the Christmas decoration boxes.  This is the carved wood display bought on various holidays mostly in Germany, but the pedestal is from Norway. The tree is from Dresden. The musicians are from an antique toy shop in Nuremberg. And the animal audience is from Rothenburg in Bavaria.

Still cold here in London, but the Farmer's Market is going until Christmas. My vegetable box was also delivered this morning filled with goodies that have survived the weather.  A Cauliflower and Stilton soup for supper was just the ticket.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 7

Window #7

Stopping at Marks and Spencer to pick up some dinner, I discovered the Christmas Radio Times is already on the news stands. This is an important event in the life of the country because Christmas is celebrated by eating and drinking, and watching special TV shows. Once the Radio Times is available, we can block out the TV schedule and plan other events accordingly. As the strap line says, "It just wouldn't be the same without Radio Times!"

This year's 6:00 pm Christmas Day Dr Who will feature Michael Gambon as Scrooge; The Royle Family will be back too at 9:00 pm, but up against Agatha Christie's Poirot. Of course the BBC i-player and similar on-line repeats for other networks makes the world a simpler place for compromise. I am very excited about an update to the wonderful 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs which begins on Boxing Day with episodes on the following two nights.  Keeley Hawes and Ed Stoppard move into the Eaton Square house in the 1930s after the Bellamy's sell up. I haven't had time to look much farther than that yet.

Much of today was devoted to making shopping lists and placing orders for food deliveries for our regular Christmas parties. It's also time for another fruit cake to use up the ends of dried fruits and nuts that have collected since last year. It was a bit of a shock to discover that Christmas Cakes (baked) and Christmas Puddings (steamed) would be classified as dreaded fruit cakes in the States.  Last year I made a fruit bread that was quite good from the dried fruit and nut leftovers, so this year I will try a cake recipe, but I am not ambitious enough to have started it three weeks ago on Stir-Up Sunday so the fruits can macerate for days and the alcohol soaked cake can ripen for weeks.

By the way, another local holiday obsession is what pop single will be the best selling Christmas Number One this year. At the moment I have no idea who the contenders are, but undoubtedly they have something to do with Pop Idols and X-Factors.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 6

Window #6

Today the Christmas Muffy VanderBears and her animal friends came out of their 10-month estivation and began grouping for the Annual Dress Up Parade. Muffy's motto after all was Life is One Big Dress-Up, and Megan took it to heart for her Muffy collection — much cuter than any Barbie collection. When Muffy morphed from toy to collectible, Bob began buying me the annual Muffy Christmas Bear with themed costume — Muffy Santa, Christmas Tree, Snowman, Mouse, Eskimo, and so on. When we needed more bookshelves and added them to the long hallway through the flat, the shelf tops became the perfect venue for Muffy to step out and show what she does best. After the Welcome Santa Bears, the Muffy Parade is my favourite Christmas decoration.

I finally left the flat today for more than a food purchasing expedition. Bob and I went to a concert at Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square:  Richard Thompson singing bawdy English Renaissance songs backed by Phillip Pickett and the Musicians of the Globe Theatre. A great concert in a packed hall, and Harry Shearer was sitting across the aisle from us. Bob recognised him right away. Other people were stopping to talk to him, and I heard him say things like, "Thank you, that's very kind of you to say." So he must be a nice person.

Phillip Pickett used to be one of our favourites when he directed the New London Consort and was the artistic director for Early and Baroque Music at the South Bank Centre. He put on great concerts and terrific themed Early Music Weekends every September. Then poof he was gone, the Weekend was gone, and Early Music concerts at the South Bank were sparse. The Folk-Rock that made Thompson and Fairport Convention famous in the 1960s was based on English folk music much of which was derived from the words of these sorts of songs of the street which in turn were sung to popular musical airs. In other words it all comes around in the end. So Richard singing songs about Faust, playing a period reproduction Renaissance guitar (made in Duluth by a craftsman also sitting across the aisle from us, identified when he took a bow at Richard's introduction) backed by a gamba, a lute, recorders, and other period stringed instruments sounded great, but the encore of a recent Richard Thompson song backed by these same instruments sounded equally great. For more and better information on the people and the music link to Bob's review here.

Pickett's programme notes talk about a time when music was not divided into narrow categories. This afternoon I watched/listened to a viral U-Tube of the Hallelujah Chorus being sung in the food court of a US mall that was great fun to watch, as people either look confused, look enchanted, or joined in because they know the music. The immediate comments attached are what is pathetic: some are upset that people are daring to mention Jesus in public, others seem to think this is a religious display by evangelicals, but it is clear that few are either familiar with the piece or recognise it as simply a great work of art that lifts the human spirit completely separate from personal points of view.

And finally, Happy Saint Nicholas Day in the lead up to Christmas!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 5

Window #5
Christmas began today when the decoration storage boxes were lifted down for unpacking over the next week. The Hallway Greeter Bears (and their puppy mascot) are now dressed for the season so we can all feel cheerful.

Other than that, a very slow day of sleep, eat, and visit with Susan who I had not seen in nearly two months. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 4

Window #4

Today we were supposed to begin unpacking Christmas decoration boxes, but it was a lazy day, and I could only find this little puppy who probably never was put away last Christmas. There are always a few strays around. We did get around to some necessary food shopping which included these Mince Pies that are a special English Christmas treat.  Are mince pies, everyone's least favourite — except for my long dead mother so I have always had a warm feeling for them, if not much of a taste for them — even still made for Thanksgiving dinner? The glory of the English version is that they are always tiny, just a bite or two so there is never too much of that spiced fruit filling to go with the yummy flaky crust. These pies are made by an artisan baker somewhere out there and sold at our local market butcher stall.

Bob ordered the holiday supply of wine and beer on line, and I began paging through the Christmas cookbooks to put together shopping lists for the old standard recipes. Christmas Dinner will not be my meal this year, so no decision on Turkey or Goose need be made. I much prefer the other meals: Christmas Eve, Christmas Breakfast, and Boxing Day left overs, so I am happy to forgo the roast and veg cooking. 

Looking at the calendar, I see that we are having a banner holiday season. With Christmas and Boxing Day on Saturday and Sunday, that means a four day weekend, and with New Year's Day on a Saturday, the following weekend will be three days, not counting the half-day Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve preceding the weekends. London will empty out with everyone going to Egypt and Bali and Barbados. I  figure I won't really want to have an away Christmas until the year we face the season with none of our children at home, and so far that hasn't happened. I love our Christmas decorations too much to want to be away from them!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Advent Calendar Day 3

Window #3

What could be better than homemade bread on another cold blustery day in London. This is a spelt loaf made in an attempt to use up numbers of grains in storage jars that have probably passed their sell-by date, but chucking them seems sinful in a commodity bubble universe. Eaten for dinner with some French artisan butter studded with chunks of salt from Ile de Ré that Bob bought at Borough Market and some smoked goat cheese from a farmer's market, along with a cup of mushroom soup from Marks and Spencer (no artificial ingredients, no preservatives, on special, two soups for £3 — the cauliflower cheese soup was excellent too). Thank heavens to be back in the land of real food.

Bob made it home from Paris just as I was slicing the warm bread, so he got dinner too. The Eurostar is suffering from the weather along with every other transport system, half the trains cancelled, including Bob's, but he managed to get a seat on another train. Mick Jagger also got a seat on the same train. Bob saw him on the platform being led by security staff to a First Class carriage, and says he looks really really old. The journey took hours extra, but at least they aren't stranded in either the tunnel or a snowdrift in Kent.

The Advent Calendar Day 2

Window #2

Today I am recognising the wonder of wool socks to keep feet warm and comfortable all winter long. I began knitting socks a few years ago when sock yarn of wool reinforced with nylon for strength became available. I have my friend Sunny to thank for introducing me to these yarns when she was visiting and pulled out an intricate Fair Isle pattern sock on her needles. I was impressed, but she said, "No, no, no. the intricate pattern was dyed into the wool." Way back in the 1970s, I had knit a few pair of socks. but the wool ones shrunk pretty quickly, and what was the point of spending time knitting with un-natural acrylic yarn. The striped and patterned socks are great fun to knit as the pattern develops.

The spiffy patterned yarn was not available in England for years, so I stocked up on trips to the States, to Germany, and to Italy. Then the whole sock knitting trend exploded in the UK too. I signed up for a sock- of-the-month club, and a nice woman in Scotland posts a skein of yarn every month. Of course at this point I am years behind in sock production, and my potential wool sock stockpile is a bit massive — but very attractive to admire. Some on-line groups are signing up members to 52-pairs-of-socks-a-year pledges, so I guess I'm not the only one to be over-yarned and under-socked. My goal is 30 pairs so I can wear a different pair everyday for each winter month. I figure they will last me forever then.

The above socks which I wore today are heavy Norwegian Ragg wool bought in Oslo and knit in Hingham nearly two years ago when my grandson Bobs was born. The heavy Ragg wool makes them a bit uncomfortable in shoes, but lovely to wear with slippers around the house.

The cold and snow continues here in the UK with most problems in Scotland and Northern England.  Here in London we seem to be having geographically disproportionate snow accumulations. Our back garden in North London as it was this morning had a little snow cover, and we have had only a few flurries over the day.

Talking to Susan in South London this afternoon, she tells me she is literally snowed in. The snow has fallen non-stop last night and all day today, with accumulation of at least a foot. The trains and buses are not running so she was unable to get to work today. And there seems to be little end to this wintry weather pattern according to the news reports. Visions of Dickens's Christmas Carol and Thomas's Christmas in Wales are dancing in everyone's head!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Advent Calendar

Window #1

I love Advent Calendars, and here it is the first of December, and we don't seem to have a calendar window on hand to open and begin the countdown to Christmas. Before he left for the States, Bob went to his favourite Advent Calendar store and bought two for the grandchildren, but I don't think he chose one for us at the same time.  I can't ask him because he is off sleeping in Paris after two very long days. We flew back to London yesterday on the longest flight in a long long time — no tail wind at all.  A long flight with little food except for pasta at 9 am and a muffin —just a muffin — for lunch (unless you were Bob, upgraded to First Class, where there were two full meals).  A flight then extended by the Winter Wonderland of the UK where snow has shut nearly everything down including the runways at Heathrow which needed de-icing, since nothing could take off,  there was no room for any planes to land. 

Bob was then up at 5 am to find his way to St Pancras International for a Eurostar trip to Paris where he was giving his debut presentation at a bank conference today.  Late afternoon, London time, he phoned, "I'm walking on the Champs-Élysées. . ." which sounds exciting except he couldn't find his hotel from the incorrect address given to him, and Paris is no warmer than London. So via the hotel's website and a Google-map, we found his way to a warm bed for an early night.

Back here in London, a warm bed was also my sought after Holy Grail. Susan had turned off the boiler, rather than turning down the thermostat, while we were away. In ordinary weather that would have been a green and prudent thing to do, but London is having the coldest autumn weather in decades, with temperatures hovering at the freezing mark for weeks now. The boiler is back on, but thick masonry walls take time to warm up. Then many of the radiators needed bleeding to get them to heat up. Some still aren't cooperating.

Now 24 hours later, I am no longer feeling chilled to the bone. I attribute my survival to my beloved LL Bean Norwegian Sweater that got me through every winter in Massachusetts. I filched the sweater from Bob because the Extra Large size allows various under layers of long underwear, turtlenecks, jumpers or cardigans as needed for current conditions. I brought my beloved sweater to London in 1998, but the weather was never cold enough to need it. Eventually I brought it back to the States, and sort of lost track of it for a decade, then last summer when it turned up in a pile of clothes,  I presciently set it aside, thinking I might like having it in the autumn when I returned to Hingham for Trixie's birth. Indeed I did wear it nearly everyday, and now it is back in London keeping me warm. So my first Advent Window pays tribute to the sweater that I may need for a good long time after hearing the BBC forecasting snow and cold for days to come. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Old Home Providence

Of the various places I have lived, my very favourite is of course London, but the second favourite is Providence, Rhode Island. My history with Providence goes back to 1974 when Bob was offered a graduate place in Brown University's Linguistics Department. And now much of a lifetime later, we have come back full circle to another Providence connection through our son-in-law who is working there at an internet start-up company.

We lived in Providence from 1974 until 1978 when Bob finished his Ph.D., left for four years in San Diego, and returned to Providence, with two children, in 1982. I desperately wanted to raise my children in Providence, but sadly there were no jobs for an unemployed Ph.D., even with re-training for the 1980s finance boom, and by the end of 1983 we had packed up and left Providence for good. Wall Street and New Jersey became the future. As Bob says, living in London has been the reward for that forced march to New Jersey.

We have been back to visit since 1983, but the wrench of leaving was so painful, we cut off all contact with the people and the place during the New Jersey years. When Bob was offered a Boston job in 1991, we briefly considered the commute from Providence as an option, but the nightmare of the long commute on New Jersey Transit for seven years quickly brought us to our senses. Now of course poor Barnz is suffering the commute in reverse from Hingham.

Last Thursday, Veterans' Day, the only holiday, except Christmas and New Year, not Monday-ed in the States meant no school for Bibs and three children at home all day, so Megan popped us in the mini-van for the Great American Tradition of Visiting-Daddy-at-Work. Sadly there was no time for photocopying favourite stuffed animals — 25 years ago, we had some dynamite copies of Susan's favourite woolly mammoth from several angles done at Moody's Xerox machine — but the children acquitted themselves well and have been dubbed the Barna-babies by office colleagues.

And I had a chance to see a bit of Providence, which is such a different place from 1974, despite the economic hard times of the past few years. Rhode Island has had an unemployment rate second only to the perennial first place Michigan recently. In 1974, Rhode Island was nicknamed the "armpit of New England" with Providence the axilla at the head of Narragansett Bay. We were charmed by the place, but endlessly gobsmacked by its eccentricities.

Rhode Island is not an island, although some of its area includes islands in Narragansett Bay, and as the smallest of the states, is more like a city-state — think medieval Florence — than like any of the other 49 states, except perhaps Hawaii, which is a real island state. Geographers talk about the lasting importance of Initial Occupation, which in the case of Rhode Island, if you don't count the Native Indians, was Roger Williams, a true eccentric. Born in Smithfield London, educated at Cambridge where he became a Puritan, he emigrated with his family to Massachusetts in one of the early years of settlement. Living in the Massachusetts theocracy, he managed to piss off everyone with his rabid belief in the complete separation of church and state, and his dedication to treating the Native Indians fairly. He was eventually tried for treason and heresy and found his way into the Narragansett tribe's territory where he established a settlement he named Providence Plantations which joined with the settlement on Rhode (now Aquidneck) Island to form one of the original thirteen colonies — the first to declare independence, the last to adopt the Constitution — more eccentricity. The official name is still the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, affirmed earlier this month, when residents voted down an initiative to drop the Providence Plantations from the state's name. Puritanism was too tame so Williams founded the first Baptist Church in the New World, and the classic meetinghouse built during the 1770s is still the site of Brown University's undergraduate commencement. He then went on to join other fringe sects.

Soon after our arrival in 1974, Buddy Cianci was elected mayor of Providence and the world turned upside down. The 1970s was my favourite decade because that was the last time I remember when problems could be confronted honestly and sometimes things even got done smoothly and correctly. Prime example, Nixon was a crook and a liar, and when that was evident to all, he was ousted. The Sixties overturned mores; in the Seventies, for a brief few years, we still believed we could change the world. Providence was falling apart in the mid-1970s, the last department store — The Outlet — where I bought my first beloved Bernina sewing machine closed down, and the centre city was essentially moribund. At the same time, the country was gripped with commemorating the Bicentennial of the United States, and few cities could offer up a feast of history like Providence could.  The Providence Preservation Society had been protecting houses and streetscapes on the tony East Side from incursions by Brown since the 1950s, but they were expanding their interests to the greater city, and with support from the new city administration, hotels were rehabbed, theatres and performing art centres were opened and reopened by the time we left in 1978. Sadly Buddy Cianci was also on his way to court and possibly jail by then too.

Another eccentricity of Rhode Island — once again think medieval Florence — is that smallness breeds familiarity, tribalism, and ultimately crime. In this case some of it organised crime, since the premier New England Mafia operated out of Providence at the time, but much of it more on the order of: we grew up together on the Hill (several to choose from: Federal (Italian), Smith (Irish), College), you help me, I help you, everyone gets what they need. When we were having trouble with a new car, a kindly neighbour offered to have it stolen so we could collect the insurance. He knew the parking lot where it could be best done. (We declined the offer, but did consider.) A few years later, he headed up an important City Board that he was probably not really qualified by expertise to sit on, but he had grown up on the right Hill, and he needed a job.

After we left for good, Buddy Cianci returned as Mayor and really undertook a massive overhaul. A giant downtown enclosed mall brought department stores back, condos and office buildings, and the project he is most associated with is uncovering the river. The American Industrial Revolution began in the village of Pawtucket, at Providence's northern edge, when Samuel Slater illegally slipped out of England having memorised the design of Arkwright's Derbyshire cotton mill machinery which he promptly sold to the wealthy Brown family of Providence. Mills needed water power, and there were plenty of rivers at the head of Narragansett Bay. When steam took over, rivers were in the way of development, and often channelised and paved over for roads that were by then more essential. By the Millennium, every successful city boasted a waterfront or a riverfront, so Providence tore up the roads at the foot of College Hill to uncover the rivers beneath, created the RiverWalk greenway, and thousands visit the city on Summer weekends to view the thrilling WaterFire Festival events.

Soon enough, Buddy once again was back in court and back in jail a few years later, accompanied by quite a few colleagues this time. Including someone I worked with briefly in the 1970s, but I am happy to see that his old job was held for him because Rhode Island is a forgiving sort of place, and he was a very nice guy, and I'm sure he didn't really mean any harm by whatever it was that he did. I have no doubt he was just doing something to help a friend he grew up with on the Hill, while doing good for his wife and kids. just the Rhode Island way. In recent years, the boom and bust of the past decade have not been kind to the city and the state. Saving treasured places is always an uphill battle, and often one that needs to be fought more than once.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Autumn Glory

When we say we live in London for the food and the weather, people tend to think we are either joking or being cruel. We are telling the truth. I now have three grandchildren, all born in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. The first was born in July — much too hot that time of year to want to be in New England; the second was born in February — much too cold that time of year to want to be in New England. The third grandchild has hit it right — born in October, my very favourite month to be in New England. The leaves turn colour in September in the northern New England states, then the colour line moves southward week by week. This year I arrived in mid-October when our southern Massachusetts leaves were reaching their glorious colour peak. 
Our house where the elm has already shed all its leaves.
Our overgrown back field is beginning to turn
A maple at peak colour 

A mix of colours carpet my friend's deck

The view from a friend's window

My favourite shade of autumn leaves is this reddish gold
The grounds of a local cemetery

Down the street from our house

So it is true that in this one season of the year, I might rather be in New England than in old England.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's Election Day. . .

A dejected future voter
It's the first Tuesday in November, Election Day, in the US. The rest of the world holds their collective — socialist? — breath waiting for the results every two and four years. The rest of the world may pay more attention than US citizens since not very many people care enough to go out and vote. In Presidential election years 50% to 60% of eligible voters bother; in non-President years, the turn out of voters doesn't even reach 40% of those eligible.  Once upon a time I might have vented about dereliction of duty as a citizen, etc., but I can no longer work up that sort of ire, when most outcomes of elections seem to run the gamut from disappointment to outright disaster. Election fatigue also needs to be seen as a major factor in suppressing voter participation. For months, citizens have been subjected to a barrage of political adverts in the press, in the post, on TV and radio, and very worst are the robo-telephone calls, whose frequency force people to turn off their phone ringers for a bit of household quiet. Last night the robo-calling reached such a crescendo that Bob could not telephone us from England because the message "all circuits are busy" was a constant refrain. I read that something like $5 billion dollars has been spent this year on the election — yes I did say Billion; a third of the country is on food stamp assistance and 50 million people have no health insurance, but the political machine rolls on.

I have voted in every Presidential and Congressional election by absentee ballot in the 12 years since we moved to London. Today I was able to go to the polling place at our town's high school to vote — taking a black marker to fill in the boxes denoting my choice of candidates on the large A3 size card ballot. I also voted NO on the three silly and damaging voter initiatives, such as reducing the state sales tax, when this state, like all 49 other states, is nearly broke, but I did vote YES on my support for medical marijuana if such a law is ever considered by the state legislature. So I have done my civic national and international  duty, but I have little hope for the outcome that will trickle out tonight and tomorrow from across the country. Friends are talking about making inquiries on the possibilities of moving to other, saner, countries.

Meanwhile, the post-Halloween pumpkins are still cheerfully adorning front steps around us here in New England.

Bibs and Bobs with our pumpkins.
The Jack-o-Lantern designed by Bibs
Down the street . . .

Up the street . . .

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Special Edition, Special Addition

Megan had her third baby this afternoon!
A second girl joins big sister Bibs and big brother Bobs. She is 7 lbs 13 oz and 20 inches long.
She doesn't have a name yet. Probably tomorrow. 
Her gestational nickname was Trix or Trixie, so we usually refer to her by that nickname.

Daddy Barnaby came home from the hospital and took us back for a short visit tonight.

Introducing the Family of Five
Bibs says hello
Megan always looks great 
Swaddled and asleep after her first feeding

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Favourite September Tradition: Sunday

Most years during the Open House weekend, we stick to to the inner boroughs, but this year, with our newly expansive view of London, exploring an outer borough or two seemed appropriate. We set off on Sunday bright and early for the farthest west borough of Hillingdon.

First stop was St Mary's in Harefield, one of our 1000 Best Churches, which is decorated outside and in with fantastic carvings and monuments.
An ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer lies here.
Sunday was the congregations seasonal Harvest Festival, and the church was beautifully decorated.
Hop vines and apples decorate the piers
A magnificent vegetable arrangement

Hillingdon was once rural land dotted with hamlets and villages dating back to medieval settlements.  During the First World War this empty quarter, 14 miles west of central London, was used for landing aircraft. The hamlet of Heath Row was demolished as the airport began to expand with the growth of air travel in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the government purchased land from the village of Harmondsworth  to build the runways, and the surrounding hamlets were subsumed by the enormous airport.

Our next stop was the village of Harmondsworth to see the magnificent Great Barn dating to 1426.  The previous government had approved a Third Runway for Heathrow that would have obliterated the remnants of medieval Harmondsworth still extant including the barn. Fortunately, the new government overturned approval for the scheme as one of their first acts.
190 feet long and 40 feet high
Dubbed the Cathedral of Middlesex by John Betjeman 
Original early-15th century wood structure is intact
In anticipation of the windfall to come with the runway expansion, an offshore Gibraltar company purchased the barn for £1 a few years ago and has let it deteriorate. Last year, English Heritage (the public-private quango that takes care of historic public property) stepped in to repair the roof to prevent further structural damage. EH is now suing the owners and may be able to get a mandatory purchase order if the company does not respond.

We moved on to another tithing barn in Ruislip which is still part of an extant medieval manor complex managed for commercial and public use by the town. Manor Farm has been occupied since the Normans arrived and built a Motte and Bailey fortress.
The Motte and Bailey site
The present Manor House dates to the 16th century, and has been refurbished and turned into a local history museum.

The Tithing Barn is said to be the second largest in England and was hosting a wonderful crafts fair with food stalls. The huge Tithing Barns were used to store the harvested crops owed to the Lord of the Manor and the Church as rent by the farmers who worked the land.
The Tithing Barn
Other Manor outbuildings are used as a public library, workshop space for artists, and meeting rooms.

We then drove east to the neighbouring borough of Harrow to visit Pinner, a medieval town that deserves more time than we had this afternoon. We stopped off at West House, once a gentleman's country estate set in a private park which is now a public park, and the house has recently been refurbished and opened as a museum exhibiting a collection of artwork by Heath Robinson, a one time resident of Pinner. Robinson's great love was landscape painting, but he made his living with illustrations and satirical cartoons.
The First Aeronautical Wedding was on display
West House will rotate the Robinson work on display so we will have to return regularly for further treats in the gallery and in the lovely cafe on site.

Finally, as the afternoon wound down, we arrived at the Church of St Lawrence in Little Stanmore, one of our 1000 Best Churches, and what a stunner. James Brydges, Paymaster General to the Duke of Marlborough, made himself a fortune and was made Duke of Chandos. He married a North London girl with a nice house which he elevated into a Baroque palace to match his boss's Blenheim. He incurred so much debt, his son had to sell off everything, a famous Georgian Fire Sale that furnished other great houses across the country. Chandos took on the medieval parish church and turned it into a Baroque masterpiece with grisaille painted Evangelists and Virtues on the side walls, Bellucci murals on the end walls, and a Laguerre decorated ceiling. Chandos hired Handel to compose for him, and the organ with Grinling Gibbons carved ornamentation, was built for Handel to play the commissioned work.

The Duke's Mausoleum stands in a side chamber, designed by James Gibbs, architect of some of London's most famous Georgian churches including St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, the template for most of New England's lovely spired churches.

Looking through the Open House booklet, I can see that in the past two months, we have visited, or at least been through, nearly all of London's boroughs. But the list of places to see and to walk grows longer rather than shorter, the more places we visit. I know London never ranks high on the pervasive lists of the "Best Places/Cities to Live/Retire" etc. because it is dirty and crime ridden and expensive, according to the criteria embraced by list makers, but I can't imagine a better mix of cultural landscapes, available activities, and international reach, all tied together by a public transport system that continues to expand, than this city in which I am lucky to now live.