Race Recap: XC Met League #2 – Stevenage

Saturday 7 November saw the arrival of the second Start Fitness Met League Cross Country fixture of the season, in Stevenage. The course used to have a lovely section through the woods — many were dismayed to learn that this year the woods had been taken out (something about permissions for using the area and the woods getting too torn up by XC runners…what, us?!).

So this year the course at Stevenage was run solely around the undulating grassy field — two laps for the women and three for the men — with some snaking back and forth to keep things interesting. Although the women’s course was advertised at 5.8km (3.6mi), it ended up being 6.6km (4.1mi) according to my and others’ Garmin watches. I believe the men’s course was also longer than usual.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

Post-race. Photo credit: Ken T.

The most interesting part of the race had to have been the weather: windy, wet, but oddly warm for November. Proper cross country weather, some called it. There was plenty of mud to slog through and water to slosh into spikes, not to mention a brutal headwind over half the course. The Heathside ladies’ contingent stood shivering together after taking off our layers and waiting for the start, but once we started running it was quite warm.

The first bit of the course’s large lap had some ups and downs with muddy corners — spikes were a necessity — before it flattened out along the backside of the loop. When my Garmin ticked off 3km just as we finished the first lap, I knew the course would be longer than advertised. No matter, I thought, just keep running. I didn’t feel particularly energetic after a busy week with no running and not much to eat the evening before, so I didn’t push very hard but tried to run steadily and notched pretty consistent splits per kilometer: 4:42, 4:41, 4:32, 4:53, 4:43, and 4:20 pace for the last .6km to the finish. I came well back in the results, at 133rd of 218 women and the 27th or 27 Heathside ladies finishing, but am pleased and in retrospect enjoyed it.

We certainly looked a bit bedraggled and wet-rat-like after the race (see photo above), but we also felt tough and virtuous after braving the less-than-ideal conditions. Well done, Team Heathside!

Next up: Perivale 5 road race in early December


Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!


Race Recap: VeloPark Team Relay Duathlon

The event: VeloPark Team Relay Duathlon

The task: each person of a 4-member team (all women, all men, or 2 of each) must run 2 miles, bike 6 miles, and run 1 mile before handing off their ankle chip to the next team member. Winners are determined by aggregate times.

The background: F is an avid cyclist and I’m more of a runner, so I thought it would be something fun we could do together. He and I formed a “mixed team” along with my fellow Heathside runner J and Hampstead Tri Club member N. As the weekend approached, I admit that I started to regret signing up for a race the morning after a chorus concert, but in the end I’m really glad we did it.

The recap: A group of us met in the not-quite-light morning to cycle down to the VeloPark, a 1-mile paved, outdoor loop in East London’s Lee Valley Olympic Park complex. Upon arrival, team captain J checked us in and handed out our colored, numbered, letter-coded stickers: we had to race in order of registration, which meant J went first, followed by me, F, and N. One sticker on the bike’s seat post, one on the front of the helmet, and bibs pinned on front and back of your shirt.

Once we settled our bikes in bay 11, we rushed over for the race briefing: run on the left, cycle on the right, pass on the right, no drafting. The competition looked stiff, as most people showed up with snazzy bikes and tri bars. I felt a bit silly with my Canyon “fitness bike” with a rack, but I’m much more familiar with its handling and shifting than my road bike so am glad I stuck with my gut feeling to ride it. Plus, F and I decided we were out to have fun, not to crush everyone in sight (although of course, the competitive instinct kicks in once you’re out on the course).

Shortly after 8:30am, the first runners were off! The course looked undulating, and I was glad I’d be running a couple of laps before cycling to get a feel for the curves and hills. J and G looked strong coming through the first lap. I downed a banana shortly after J got on the bike, knowing I had about half an hour before my turn.

The sun came out partway through J’s leg, which helped me warm up while skipping in place in the transition box. Before I knew it, J was coming in from her second run and putting the chip around my ankle. Off I went to run two 1-mile laps of the course. Use the downhills, I reminded myself as I leaned into the first descent. I was pleased with a first mile just over 7:00 and tried to keep up the pace for the second lap. It felt hard, but I managed to pass a few runners on the second lap and shouted encouragement to Heathsiders D and S, both already on their bike legs.

As I finished the second run lap, F and J were in our transition box to hand me my helmet, glasses, and bike — great team support — to send me off for 6 laps. One advantage of cycling in my running shoes was that I could run my bike to the mount line much more easily than those in cycling shoes with cleats. It felt good to be cycling after a hard two miles of running, although I did have 6 laps ahead of me. Use the downhills, I again told myself. Once I figured out how to negotiate the tricky corners and the long hill, I settled into a pretty steady pace of about 3:25/mile (lap). It helped to pick out riders ahead of me to try and pass — which I did. F and J shouted encouragement each time I went by the transition zone, and the marshals were equally encouraging.

I finished the 6-mile bike leg in about 20:45 and handed off my bike, helmet, and glasses to my teammates. Just one lap to run. Come on! Wow, running after cycling is hard…it felt like I was running through tar for most of the lap, but I somehow managed a respectable 7:14 mile before whipping off my chip and giving it to F.

The results: After J and me, F and N both had strong races, each of them making up a lot of time on their bike legs (16:48 & 17:59, respectively and including the bike-to-run transition) for our team. N’s fast running also helped, and surprisingly our mixed team, “Heels and Wheels,” came 3rd out of 14! None of us were expecting that, and it just goes to show that if you turn up you never know what might happen.

My overall official time was 43:09 with official splits as follows: Mile 1 Run 7:06; Mile 2 Run + Transition 7:36; Mile 1 Cycle 3:24.9; Mile 2 Cycle 3:23.4; Mile 3 Cycle 3:27; Mile 4 Cycle 3:25.7; Mile 5 Cycle 3:22.1; Mile 6 Cycle + Transition 3:53.8; 1 Mile Run + Chip Handover 7:29.1. My bike splits were faster than I anticipated, with a total of 20:56.9 for the 6 miles plus transition, and I’m pleased with my three miles of running just over 7:00/mile pace.

There was great camaraderie and team spirit among us North London clubs: there were all-Heathside ladies’ and mens’ teams alongside our mixed-club mixed team. The ladies team came second in their category and the men also had a strong race.

The team relay duathlon was my first multi-sport event, and while it did not make me any keener to do a triathlon, I could see myself doing more run-bike-runs in the future. The distance was short and sweet — manageable without having to do major training in either discipline, and painful but over quickly.

Next up: two cross country races in November. Stay tuned for the next race report!


Race Recap: Return to Cross Country! Met League #1 (Claybury)

Ah, Autumn. Crisp, (ideally) sunny mornings, warmish days, and cool evenings. I love this time of year, as it evokes thoughts of warm, comforting vegetable dishes (sweet potatoes, squash, you know), sweet apple desserts, and of course cross country running! After taking part in a bunch of cross country (XC) races two years ago, I missed all of last season due to working full time while doing a DELTA course. Needless to say, my new spikes and I were keen to get back to the muddy, hilly trails. Here’s my recap of this season’s first Start Fitness Met League cross country race:

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

Heathside ladies out in full force (photo credit: Cathy J.)

The first Met League XC race took place at Claybury Park in north London. Two years ago, I ran in regular running shoes (or “trainers” for you UK readers) on what I recalled to be quite a muddy afternoon. The course was much drier this year, so some people even opted to keep their trainers on, but I was excited to don my spikes — and am glad I did.

One could only describe the Claybury course as undulating. There’s one long, steep uphill in the woods that we had to tackle twice — the downhill is equally as steep, and uneven enough to merit caution while descending. As you can see from my splits below (click the image to enlarge), the kilometers including the steep hill were my slowest two of the race.


The start of the race was much too crowded: a mass of women running downhill through a narrow passage between the trees. There was a good deal of jostling and trying not to step on other runners. After the first half kilometer or so, though, the field spread out enough to settle into a consistent pace.

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

Blurry me in the foreground (photo credit: Dulce)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body after racing twice in the past few weeks, but the change of terrain and atmosphere seemed to be good and I was pleased with my pace throughout. I ended up alternating leading and chasing another Heathside runner for the second half of the race; she would bound effortlessly up the hills and I would catch up with her on the flat sections. We used great teamwork in the last couple of kilometers to gain on non-Heathsiders and she encouraged me up the last hill to the finish, where she just edged me out. I was pleased with my time of 27:03 (7:15/mi or 4:31/km pace) for the 6km/3.73mi course and felt good. My ankles needs to get used to running in spikes again, though!

Loads of Heathsiders turned up to run for the club; I think at least 30 women and even more men came out. Everyone ran well, and in cross country each person scores points, so the more that show up the more points we take away from other teams! I was 83rd out of 198 ladies but just missed out on scoring for Heathside’s C team because so many fast women came out to run. I’m already looking forward to the next XC outing.


Race Recap: Middlesex 10k 2015

‘Twas a crisp, sunny morning in early October, as club runners turned out in droves to run the Middlesex 10k in Victoria Park (one of my favorite London road race locations). I’d forgotten what a competitive race this was — it serves as the Middlesex County road race championships, so lots of fast runners show up hoping to nab a medal.

I had no such hopes, but set my personal goal at a somewhat ambitious 45:00. Since I ran a big 5k PB a week and a half ago and felt on the edge of a cold all week, I wasn’t too bothered about trying to gun for a PR/PB in this race. 45:00 would be quite close to my PB from this past April, so I knew it might be a stretch. In terms of pacing, I was aiming to run relatively consistent splits as close to 4:30/km as possible until the last couple of kilometers, when I planned to push to the finish.

Things were going well as J and I settled into a nice pace together. A 4:17 first kilometer before we settled into just over 4:30/km for the next few. An annoying boy around 3km threw us off by dancing around in front of runners before stopping right in our path — I barely squeezed past him while Jo had to dodge at the last second; we both yelled at him (I believe “idiot!” came out of my mouth) and alerted a marshal to the kid’s dangerous behavior.

J and I slowed a bit in the 5th kilometer and came through the 5k in 22:50. That was still on track to run under 46:00, so I was fine with it but knew I’d have to dig in and try to pick up the pace in the second half of the race. The next kilometer was a quicker 4:31 before I started to pull away from J as we approached the last lap. Perhaps I picked it up a bit too much, as my 7th and 8th kilometers were 4:23 and 4:43 respectively…oops! Probably should’ve tried to split the difference and stick to 4:30s. With 2 kilometers to go, I started pushing towards the finish. Things went well until 500m to go, when I suddenly felt like I had hardly anything left. I was able to fend off a runner behind me for the finish, but I didn’t have much kick.

My final time was 45:37 (average pace 7:20/mi, 4:33/km), good for 208th/292 overall and 36th of 79 women (told you it was a competitive race). I’m pleased, as it’s my second fastest 10k time to date. What did I learn from this race? I definitely need more practice pacing 10ks.


Moral of the story: 10k pacing is hard!

Heathside runners did well in the race, picking up quite a few of the Middlesex championships medals in various individual and team categories. S ran a big PB and J and C also ran well; we all enjoyed some smitten kitchen apple slab pie afterwards.

will run for pie

will run for pie

Up next: Cross country! I’ve got some snazzy new spikes and am excited to get back to the muddy hills after missing all of last season.



Race Recap: City v Wharf 5k & a PB!

Last month, one of my co-workers sent me a link to the City v Wharf 5k and said ‘We should run this!’ A Wednesday evening race in flat Victoria Park, on my way home from work? And a rare chance to run a timed 5k that isn’t a parkrun? Heck yes. This race is set up as a corporate challenge of sorts, pitting runners from companies in the City of London against those from companies in Canary Wharf. Our little charity isn’t really either, but the main office is on the Isle of Dogs, just hop across the Quay from Canary Wharf. We got three of our other fitness-minded co-workers to join us so we had enough for a team. Here’s what went down:

Post-race with running co-workers (photo courtesy of HP)

Post-race with running co-workers (photo courtesy of HP)

A lovely day — cool and partly sunny — dawned for the City v Wharf 5k in Victoria Park. The race was at 6pm, a slightly unusual running time for me, but I fueled well for lunch and packed a peanut butter and honey sandwich along with a banana for my pre-race snack. When we got to the race HQ, we dropped off our bags and were instructed to pick up our “City Runner” or “Wharf Runner” sweatbands — not a bad perk for the entry fee.

I wanted to use this chip-timed 5k as a test of my fitness and to see how close I could get to my PB from 2012. I have been getting to the track pretty consistently over the past month and have had some good longer runs in preparation for the Middlesex 10k next weekend, so a PB was not impossible to consider. As usual, I set myself two goals: a dream goal — run a PB — and a more conservative, achievable goal — run as close to 22:00 as possible and ideally under.

Since 5k races are over almost as soon as they begin, it’s good to have a race strategy. I recently read an article on Runner’s World about how professionals pace mid-distance track races: in the 1500m and 5000m, the first and last laps are almost always the fastest. I thought that could work well for a flat road 5k, so I decided to try and run the first kilometer fast, the middle three steady and more relaxed, and the last one fast. To run a PB I needed to run the first and last kilometers around 4:00 and the middle three at an average pace of 4:20/km.

The pacing strategy worked: I ran an almost perfect inverse pyramid of 4:04, 4:18, 4:30, 4:22, and 4:00 kilometers. I might have gone out too fast, as the 4:30 third kilometer was probably too slow, but it paid off in any case because I ran a PR/PB by 6 seconds! I stopped my Garmin at the finish exactly on my previous PB of 21:18, so it wasn’t until I got home and saw the official chip time results that I knew it was a PB. My official time was 21:12 (average pace of 4:14/km / 6:50/mile). I was the 13th woman of 260 and 146th of 801 runners overall. I am really pleased with the time and it proves that I am in good shape at the moment.

Two of my co-workers also ran PBs and the other two ran really well — one had a dramatic sprint finish with a guy from another company. The post-race food was unfortunately non-existent — just bowls of candy — but the atmosphere was great and it was fun to race on a weekday evening. Cycling home felt really easy after the effort I gave in the race.

Next up: Middlesex 10k in Victoria Park — a fast club race back in my favourite racing location!


What’s Been Cooking? Late Summer Edition

Gosh, the summer has flown by. Was it the same for you?

This blog has fallen a little by the wayside… I’m still here, just less frequently and with fewer of my “own” recipes, especially now that I can save all my favorites to NYT Cooking. Even though I’m posting fewer recipes doesn’t mean I’ve stopped cooking…on the contrary, our kitchen remains an exciting and comforting place amidst the stresses of daily life.

Here’s a peek into what F and I have been cooking over the past few months, in no particular order.

IMG_1421Ottolenghi’s “Chickpea Saute with Greek Yogurt” — light and bright summer flavors went beautifully over rice with a rich and creamy Greek yogurt sauce on the side. Highly recommended and very easy to throw together on a weeknight.
IMG_1163Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil, courtesy of David Tanis at NYT Cooking. Creamy and rich yet summery, thanks to lemon zest and basil.

IMG_1407Smitten kitchen’s takeout-style sesame noodles with cucumber. Simple and delicious — I made them when F was away at a conference and managed not to get too tired of them despite having them over the course of 4 meals in two days…
IMG_1455The Woks of Life’s Shanghai-Style Braised Pork Belly — it took 3 hours but was totally worth it for the melt-in-your-mouth texture of the pork belly in rich, sticky sauce. So so good. We will definitely make it again on our next leisurely weekend.

Non-photographed but just as tasty dishes:

  • Melissa Clark’s Lunchbox Harvest Muffins (NYT Cooking) are moist and not dense at all, despite using only whole wheat flour. They’re packed with grated apple, carrot, and zucchini and made great afternoon snacks for F and me during the workweek.
  • We made Martha Rose Shulman’s Spicy South Indian Cauliflower for the second time. F browned some cubes of paneer cheese to add in and I made naan bread to go on the side.
  • I had always wanted to try making bircher muesli and finally did this summer. I used Nigella’s “basic bircher muesli” recipe and it turned out exactly like I’d hoped. Last week I made a double batch, which got us both through two weekday breakfasts.
  • These blueberry pancakes are SO FLUFFY, thanks to whipping the egg whites before folding them into the batter.
  • Rather have blueberry muffins? I made some of those, too: Call Me Cupcake’s blueberry lemon muffins were just right and didn’t even need the cardamom topping, in my opinion.

What have you been cooking?


Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.


The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.


Summer Singing: An “All-Night Vigil”

This month I participated in wrapping up the Crouch End Festival Chorus concert season with two performances of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37, also known as the All-Night Vigil (or Всенощное бдение, for those of you versed in Russian).

Composed in 1915, Rachmaninov’s Vespers is a monumental work: 15 movements of Russian Orthodox texts set a cappella with lots of lush, thick harmonies. As our director DT pointed out, recordings of the piece can last anywhere from 50 to 75 minutes, depending on who is conducting. DT opted for us to sing a speedier rendition, clocking in at 50-53 minutes.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov kept the texts in an older form of Russian, which was more phonetic than modern Russian. For example, in today’s Russian the letter о would be pronounced as а after some consonants. In the Vespers text, the о‘s remain о‘s. (Side note: in our first rehearsal of the Vespers, my brain got quite confused because I could read both the Cyrillic and transliterated texts so didn’t know where to look. I opted to cross out the English transliteration and read the Cyrillic instead. I had to put in some pronunciation reminders for myself, though, since even the older Russian is less phonetic than Ukrainian. It was fun to brush off my Cyrillic-reading skills.)

Language digression aside, the Vespers are much harder to sing than they sound. Lots of hairpin swells, dynamic changes, and sopranos having to sing high and ppp — not to mention the Russian. All those elements together meant I didn’t enjoy singing the piece quite as much as I thought I would, but it was certainly a good challenge and I did like singing in Russian. Have a listen while you’re reading the rest of this post:

We bookended the Vespers with four short a cappella works: Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella, de Victoria’s O quam gloriosum, Gabrieli’s Jubilate deo, and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 (total musical orgasm — just have a listen below — also that guy is impressive).

We performed this musical program twice: first at Southwark Cathedral in London (where we sang summer concert #1 last year) and then at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Southwark has great acoustics, but the concert there was tough: it was a Friday evening, so everyone was tired from the workweek; the cathedral was way too warm; there were a lot of us positioned close together but facing out (naturally), which made it hard to hear the other parts.

The concert in St. John’s Chapel was completely different: it’s smaller than Southwark and has incredible acoustics — probably the best I’ve ever experienced as a singer. We performed in a horseshoe shape, which made it easier to hear the other parts. It was also much cooler. There’s a benefit to performing the same program twice (and the second time on a Saturday) — we were all more rested and relaxed, and it was inspiring to sing in such a beautiful and resonant space.

The St. John’s audience was very appreciative and the Rachmaninov harmonies sounded glorious. F said it was his second favorite concert of ours, after February’s Monteverdi Vespers. I’m glad to have finished the concert season on a high note (ha!). Stay tuned for the new concert season…


(Belated) Birthday Wisdom 2015

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

Last week was my “golden birthday” of turning 27 on the 27th — only happens once! Things have been busy around here so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and reflect on my 27th year until now.

Last year I wrote about settling into London life; this past year has brought more of that but from a different perspective.

After finishing my MA in English in September, I started my first “real” (i.e., full-time) job as an ESOL teacher at the Women’s Project of a charity in London’s Borough of Tower Hamlets. Perhaps stupidly, at the same time I embarked upon four months of DELTA training; the “part-time” course plus a 9-5 job brought my working hours per week up to about 60. Somehow I got through (and passed), but I wouldn’t recommend doing a DELTA while working full time. Over the year I have grown and developed as a teacher, drawing on my training and past experience while sometimes resorting to good ol’ trial-and-error.

This year there were also a stressful couple of weeks in January when the UK Border Agency almost deported me (for unfounded reasons)… Luckily, a lawyer and my workplace intervened in time to secure me a work visa.

I haven’t run many road races — and no cross-country races — since June 2014 but I have run two PR/PBs, at the 10k and 10 mile distances. My commute to work is almost 8 miles each way on the bike, which is great for maintenance and base fitness.

If I were to offer a brief word of wisdom this year, it would be this:

Prioritize the important things/people/activities in your life — the things that make you the happiest and best person you can be — and use those priorities to find balance.

With that, I wish you all a balanced and peaceful year.

Book Review: “The Essence of Jargon”

Just a quick note to point you towards my most recent book review for Full Stop, of Alice Becker-Ho’s The Essence of Jargon. A teaser:

Slang both communicates and protects: those who understand slang — in this case, the “dangerous classes” — receive and absorb straight information, while those who are not part of the groups using such slang — i.e., policemen and other “adversaries” — are deceived by the double or covered meanings in the language.

“Reflections in Lifelong Lifewide Learner Journeys”: RaPAL Conference 2015

Some of you may know that, in addition to being a runner, amateur cook/baker, (former) literature student, and singer/enjoyer of music, I am also a teacher of English as a foreign language. There have been hints of that on my blog, from my experiences teaching English in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer to blogging about my journey through the CELTA course a couple of years ago. Last fall I slogged through the DELTA course but didn’t blog about it since I was working full time in parallel.

Anyway, at the moment I am an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher for the Women’s Project of an east London charity; we work with settled migrant women in the community and I teach courses from basic English and literacy to accredited ESOL courses. I love it. As part of my job I was fortunate enough to attend a half-day conference last week in London, put on by RaPAL (Research and Practice in Adult Literacy). The theme for the annual colloquium was “Reflections in Lifelong Lifewide Learner Journeys.” Here’s what I got out of it.

Jim Crowther, a University of Edinburgh Senior Lecturer in Community Education, gave a keynote speech on embracing the uncertainty of a learner’s ever-changing, continually unfolding journey. He talked about Scotland’s Social Practice Approach in literacy and numeracy, which 1) starts with learner strengths, not weaknesses; 2) makes the material relevant to the learners; and 3) fosters and supports critical thinking in an “informal” (i.e., community education) setting.

Crowther said:

Education is about a relationship built on trust.

We may learn things we didn’t want to learn or things we didn’t think about learning. He also said:

Risk and trust are important ingredients in learning.

Claire Collins gave a presentation on Practitioner-Led Action Research (PLAR). I had to do a bunch of action research for my DELTA course and this session helped remind me of its importance and usefulness for self-development and professional practice as well as to keep exploring what my own “best practice” is.

In short, PLAR aims to improve and involve teaching practice while increasing the understanding of practice by practitioners. PLAR helps us to engage in real problems and can be useful to other teachers in similar situations. It’s useful for critical reflection and linking theory and practice.

We did a group activity to brainstorm what we would consider carrying out research on:

I would consider carrying out research on...

“I would consider carrying out research on…” (view larger: https://www.mindmeister.com/550860722)

My favorite part of the conference was Julie Furnivall’s presentation on applying the Reflect Approach to professional practice in adult literacies, which she calls Reflect ESOL.

Reflect ESOL is a learner centred approach with the following characteristics:

  • It addresses power relationships between teacher and students
  • The teacher steps back to listen for the students to have more say
  • The teacher empowers students rather than forcing things on them
  • It gives students a voice
  • The teacher uses his/her facilitation skills

This approach works to help students create their own meaning through sharing experiences, which produces language that can be developed. To use Reflect ESOL you start with a visualisation of issues. This could take the form of a map, photo, or diagram. Furnivall showed an example of a tree image in which the trunk represents a problem, the roots describe the cause, and falling fruit represents issues that arise.

We did a Reflect ESOL taster with a river image: where will we go (flow)? My colleague and I decided to use our river to represent a woman’s journey through study at our centre:

Reflect ESOL River: Women's Project learner journey

Reflect ESOL River: Women’s Project learner journey

Here’s what some of the other groups did with their rivers:

Reflect ESOL: Rivers

Reflect ESOL: Rivers (view larger: http://padlet.com/bexferriday1/rapal2)

The Reflect ESOL approach reminded me a little of the Dogme ELT approach, in which the teacher presents the class with a discussion topic — or, in Reflect ESOL, a drawing project — and uses that as a jumping-off point to share thoughts and opinions before the teacher identifies a language point or two to help his/her students develop.

I am excited to try and implement some mini Reflect ESOL sessions in my classes, both to help my students develop creativity and autonomy, and to help me better recognize and cater to their learning needs.

In sum, I took a lot of useful tidbits away from the RaPAL Colloquium that I can share with my colleagues and think about trying out in my own teaching practice. Thanks, RaPAL!

Walking the Cotswold Way


My parents visited F and me in the UK a couple weeks ago and took us northwest of London for a glorious five days of walking in the Cotswolds. The Cotswold Way consists of 102 miles of trails, starting at Chipping Campden in the north and finishing at Bath in the south. We spent four and a half days traversing half of the Cotswold Way north-to-south, from Chipping Campden to just above Stroud.

While we could’ve carried our stuff with us, my parents booked through a company that provided us with maps and route descriptions for each day’s walk and transported our luggage to a new B&B or guest house every night. The route descriptions also included lunch and dinner recommendations, so all we needed to take with us each day on the trail were the maps and small day packs. Very civilized.

I’ve written a short recap of each day below, but to save repetition let me just say that the Cotswold Way winds through many fields, pastures, meadows, and wooded trails. There were lots of sheep — some shorn, some wooly — along with the occasional herd of cows or horses. Bucolic England at its best.

Day 1: Chipping Campden to Stanton
  • 8:00am: Breakfast at the Lygon Arms, our hotel in Chipping Campden. Delicious porridge, fruit, and yogurt for me; home-boiled ham and eggs for F; smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for my dad (T); poached eggs and toast for my mom (D).
  • 9:35am: Let the walking commence! Over hill and dale…well, through field and meadow and over stile. It took us just over 3 hours to walk the 5.5-6 miles to the town of Broadway; a leisurely, conversational pace of about 2 miles per hour.
  • 1:00pm: Best lunch of the week at the Market Pantry in Broadway. Goat cheese and caramelized onion tarts and a chicken, bacon, and leek pot pie. Fresh salads all around and a few bites of a lovely lemon curd cake to finish it off and fuel us for the rest of the day.
  • 2:00pm: Walking up across a ridge and down into a vale to the tiny village of Stanton. We racked up a little extra mileage trying to find our B&B but it took us just over 2 hours for the last 4-5 miles.
  • We stayed in The Old Post House — a large, old house with a gorgeous garden owned by a friendly (and very well-off) couple.

Highlights of the day: Lunch at the Market Pantry and our B&B’s flat-faced cats that enjoyed licking F’s hand and sneaking into our rooms.

Day 2: Stanton to Cleeve Hill

The walking distance for this day had been advertised as 15 miles but ended up as “only” 12.2. It was quite a hilly day through lots of lovely meadows, fields, and farm roads, and past a manor house. Lunch was jacket potatoes with various toppings in Winchcombe followed by coffee/tea and lemon polenta cake. We  skipped Sudeley Castle & Gardens in favor of getting back on the Cotswold Way after lunch.

The day’s walking ended with a trek across Cleeve Hill Golf Course: knobby, rugged, windy, and sheep-filled! We unpacked at Cleeve Hill House Hotel near Cheltenham (famous for its horse racing and steeplechasing) for the first of two nights there.

Highlights of the day: F petted a pony and my mom was butted by a sheep… F also impressed us with his flower and plant identification skills (hooray for biologists). I took a lovely hot bath before bed.

Day 3: Cleeve Hill to Seven Springs

Lovely trails on this part of the route: up and along Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course, quite a few wooded trails, lots of ascending! We finished our walk at Seven Springs were driven back to Cleeve Hill.

8.3 miles on the Cotswold Way (with a tasty Indian lunch) plus a little strolling in Cheltenham brought us to around 5 hours of walking and 9.65 miles in total. F returned to London in the evening, leaving my parents and me to do one and a half more days of walking together.

Highlights of the day: Walking along the ridge of Cleeve Hill Common/Golf Course in the morning for some amazing views.

Day 4: Crickley Hill to Painswick

Our second-biggest walking day: 12 miles in total, mostly through forests on lovely wooded paths. It was nice to be less exposed — expect for the first bit, up on a hill in the wind — and to walk on some soft and peaceful paths. I even ran for 25 minutes/2.6 miles in the morning. We walked across another blustery golf course near Painswick and had some great views throughout the day.

Walking 8 miles before a late lunch at the Royal William Pub certainly worked up our appetites: pie and chips was the only logical choice! We spent our last night in the quirky Cardynham House Hotel in the village of Painswick.

Highlights of the day: Great views from Crickley Hill. Running in the woods and walking on forest paths. I even spotted a young buck at one point, but he bounded away before I could get a picture.

Day 5: Painswick to (Almost) Stroud

After four days of perfect walking weather — partial sun and cool enough not to sweat — the weather gods of course sent us rain on our last morning. D, T, and I had a wet morning: drizzle starting out turned into steady, medium-hard rain. Walking in the rain builds character, right? The trail consisted of some meadows from Painswick and more lovely woodland trails around Haresfield Beacon. I think we walked about 6 miles on this last morning before catching the train back to London.

Highlights of the day: Feeling hardy while walking through meadows in the rain — the grayness certainly brightened up all the colors around us.

In sum, I’d highly recommend walking the Cotswold Way. It is well-signed, towns and villages are well-fortified with food and lodging options, and it is wonderful to have nothing to do but walk every day. F and I particularly enjoyed getting out of London for a few days to disconnect and appreciate the glorious English countryside. Thanks to D&T for taking us on a great trip.