Category Archives: family

USA Trip 2018: Nevada City & Sacramento Valley

Greetings! This is the fourth and final post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYCa few days in San Francisco, and time exploring the Point Reyes National Seashore, we journeyed to the foothills of the Sierras then into the Sacramento Valley for the remainder of our trip. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Day 1: Sunday

Out of the fog and into the heat: that sums up the drive from Point Reyes across the Sacramento Valley and into the Sierra foothills. Not complete without a stop at California institution In-N-Out Burger, of course!

Upon arrival in Nevada City, we strolled through the cute, hippie, old west town center before splashing in the Outside Inn pool and relaxing in the heat with the New York Times. We had a delicious dinner at the New Moon Cafe (recommended by J&E) then called it an early night.

Day 2: Monday

I knew nothing about Nevada City before this trip. Why did we choose it? Well, we had originally considered Lake Tahoe but then realized it would be jammed with tourists and vacationers in August. As an alternative, a number of friends had recommended a stop in Nevada City, one of the first Gold Rush towns in the Sierra foothills.

Monday was a kind of rest day for us. We slept in then had a delicious brunch at Ike’s Quarter Cafe (thanks for the recommendation, Liv!) and lounged around in the 90F+ heat. Later, we roused ourselves enough to drive to Edward’s Crossing and take a dip in the Yuba River (another spot-on recommendation from Liv). The sun was hot, the water was cool, all was well. And luckily we didn’t come across any rattlesnakes. Smoothies and wraps from Fudenjüce (good tip from B) rounded off the day.

Day 3: Tuesday

We spent a leisurely morning writing postcards, then made our way out of the foothills and into the Sacramento Valley. First stop: Folsom, home of the eponymous Folsom Prison made famous by a Johnny Cash song, but also home to family friends (and avid athletes) J&E, who generously hosted us for two nights. After we arrived and admired their fleet of bikes and rowing shells, E took F and me on an easy 8-mile cycle on the paved “Johnny Cash Trail” to stretch our legs before dinner. It was also a test-ride on their “guest fleet” bikes for the next day’s adventure…

Day 4: Wednesday

…a 30-mile cycle from Folsom to Old Sacramento, almost all on paved paths along the American River and including a mini pace line to help the miles pass. It was fantastic to ride so far and not encounter any cars. We enjoyed lunch on the classic Delta King riverboat and then strolled through Old Sac before taking the light rail back to Folsom.

Cycling to Old Sac. Photo by E.

Day 5: Thursday

E took F out for a final cycle – faster this time, since I wasn’t there to hold them back – while I went for a run. We all met at Karen’s Bakery for a post-workout coffee. It was a nice end our stay with J&E – they treated us well and E was an excellent cycle tour guide! In the early afternoon we drove to my grandmother’s house in Roseville, where we caught up on the family news, showed off our holiday photos, and met Uncle K for dinner.

Day 6: Friday

F and I got up early with Grandma; she did her regular 2-mile walk and we went for a short run. After breakfast, we drove back to San Francisco, returned the rental car, and flew back to London and reality. We had an amazing trip. I enjoyed introducing F to the west coast while revisiting some of my favorite places and sharing many new experiences with him. We’ll be back, California!


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USA Trip 2018: Point Reyes National Seashore

Greetings! This is the third post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC and a few days in San Francisco, we drove across the foggy Golden Gate Bridge to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Do you associate smells with places? I have two strong smell-place associations: the damp sea air of Cape Cod, and the dry, earthy, eucalyptus-tinged smell of golden northern California. The latter is what Point Reyes smelled like and it was glorious.

Smells aside, you’ve probably gathered that the next stage of our USA trip was on the Point Reyes National Seashore. We had found a cute-looking AirBnB in Point Reyes Station to set up our base for the next few days and planned to see some big trees, walk/hike, and relax. (The “tiny house” AirBnB was perfect: comfortable bed, great outdoor shower, porch, fridge, and coffee maker. I’d stay there again.)

Day 1: Thursday

After renting a car from SFO, we drove back up through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping at the vista point for some great views of the fog rolling over the San Francisco Bay. Another hour or so in the car brought us to the cute little town of Point Reyes Station. We spent part of the afternoon exploring the town and bought two delicious cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery, which at least four people had recommended to us! I wanted to go for a run, so F suggested we drive 10 minutes to the Bear Valley Trail parking area and get in a short jog before dinner. We ran a 5km out-and-back on a sneakily uphill trail to the Divide Valley. It was beautiful and peaceful.

Day 2: Friday

Muir Woods was a non-negotiable activity on this trip; it’s one of my favorite places from childhood and F loves trees, so I knew he’d enjoy it. Luckily, a few people had tipped us off to the fact that you now have to book tickets and parking in advance, so we reserved the earliest possible parking spot for Friday morning. We rolled out of bed at 6:20am, made coffee and PB&Js in our tiny house, and drove down to Muir Woods via foggy Highway 1. We got there at 8:20am and it was really peaceful in the woods until about 9:45, at which point we were on the way out anyway. It was totally worth going early to beat the crowds and enjoy the redwoods in their natural, peaceful magnificence.

On the way back to Point Reyes Station, we stopped at Stinson Beach; it was still a grayish day but there were plenty of people out. We cooled – more like chilled! – our toes in the Pacific waters and enjoyed a beach walk before grabbing hot dogs for lunch. Back in town, we browsed in Point Reyes Books and then drove up the road to Inverness for a delicious dinner of fish tacos and sweet potato fries at The Tap Room. Fast and fresh!

Day 3: Saturday

Our main activity for this day was to hike the Tomales Point Trail, a 10-mile out-and-back hike to the end of Tomales Point, promising to feature Tule Elk and other wildlife. We made a leisurely start and got to the trailhead around 10am. It was cool and breezy when we set off, but we warmed up fast in the bright sunshine. The hike was 2/3 easy walking on well-trodden dirt trails, and 1/3 on loose sand. It was a beautiful hike, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Tomales Bay on the other. The Tule Elk were out in force and many California Condors were circling overhead. Stunning.

Day 4: Sunday

Before checking out of our AirBnB, we drove to the Bear Valley Trail area again and did the same out-and-back run that we did the first night. It was good to shake out the legs before we got in the car to drive to our next stop: Nevada City.


USA Trip 2018: San Francisco

Greetings! This is the second post in my mini ‘USA Trip 2018’ series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC, we spent the rest of our time in California. San Francisco was our first stop. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

California feels a bit like home to me: my mom grew up in the Sacramento area, so my childhood was punctuated by regular visits to see family on the west coast. My family also lived in Berkeley for a year when I was 9 (ah, the memories of collecting Beanie Babies and seeing Spiceworld in the cinema!). I hadn’t been to San Francisco since 2010, so was excited to get reacquainted with the city and introduce it to F.

Flying over the Sierras

Day 1: Monday evening

We landed at SFO in the late afternoon and made our way into the city via BART. After settling into our hotel near Union Square, we went out in search of dinner. Hungry and thus somewhat indecisive, we eventually settled on Tacorea, a clever Mexican-Korean hybrid featuring burritos in various flavors. F had the kimchi burrito and I had a more classic California-style burrito. It hit the spot! After eating, we went for a long wander up and down the nearby hills until falling jet-lagged into bed.

Day 2: Tuesday

I convinced F to get up early for a run down along the Embarcadero. It was a grayish, foggy morning – typical San Francisco summer – and we got a good calf workout running up and over the ridge to the Embarcadero. Once on flat ground, we settled into a nice pace and stopped for the occasional photo. The best part of our run was the 15-minute break to watch the sea lions at Pier 39! It was shortly after 8am so hardly anyone was out: I told F that if we had tried to see the sea lions during the middle of the day, the area would be packed with tourists. After our run, we found the nearest Blue Bottle Coffee to rehydrate and fuel up for the day. Very nice coffee and delicious oatmeal.

Post-coffee, we spent a great 2.5 hours at SFMOMA, one of my favorite museums. They had a fantastic Magritte exhibition on. We had seen a Magritte exhibition in Brussels a few years ago and the art had not really spoken to me; SFMOMA’s show changed my mind. The exhibition focused on Magritte’s “Fifth Season” – his late works – and displayed how varied his style was: much more than just pipes and hats. After Magritte, we covered most of the rest of the museum. Saturated with art, we stopped for a BLT lunch at The Grove nearby. A spot of Levi’s shopping brought us to dinnertime, when we met my cousins K and A for a Burmese feast at B Star.

Day 3: Wednesday

Another nice day in San Francisco! Breakfast and coffee at Sculleryfancy PB&J and tasty coffee (do you sense a trend? Much coffee was sampled throughout our trip…America does do a good drip (aka filter) coffee).

We then met one of my aunts, a cousin, one of my uncles, and my grandma at the Legion of Honor Museum for lunch and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition. It was great to catch up with some of my family, who I hadn’t seen since my grandma’s 80th birthday celebration/reunion four years ago.

Dinner was delicious quinoa-lentil and roasted cauliflower tacos with watermelon-feta-mint salad at Liv and Iain’s place! They were wonderful hosts and we had a lovely, relaxing evening with them. They also gave us a lot of suggestions for the next two stops of our trip: Point Reyes and Nevada City. Stay tuned!


Year in Review: 2017

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I haven’t written a “year in review” since the end of 2014, but this year I felt the desire to do so as 2017 becomes 2018. While there are plenty of awful things that happened globally in 2017 – politically, environmentally, etc. – I would like to focus on the more personal positives in this post.

Running and fitness in 2017:

On the way to a 5-mile PB at the Perivale 5, Dec 2017. Photo credit: Bespoke Photos.

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2017 I ran 973.1km =  604.66mi. This is about 39 more miles than in 2016, so I’ll take that as a slight improvement.
  • The first half of the running year wasn’t great, as I had a really nasty virus over the Christmas holidays so had a slow return to fitness in early 2017. I had a brief return to the track in the summer before developing some plantar fasciitis. Since then, I’ve focused on building up my fitness base with tempo work and longer runs. That has seemed to work, as in fall/winter I ran my fastest 10k since 2015 and a 5-mile PR/PB!
  • In 2017 I discovered how much I love trail running/racing. Now that I have invested in trail shoes, I hope to do more trail running in 2018. I ran in Trent Park for the first time and loved it.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,760.3km = 1,715.17mi of commuting to/from work in London. About 200km/124mi more than in 2016.

Favorite books read in 2017:

  • In 2017 I read about 21 books. I didn’t love everything I read but here are some books that have stuck with me after finishing them:
  • Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard. I’ve loved Chevalier’s writing ever since reading Girl with a Pearl Earring as a teenager. Chevalier also happens to be an Oberlin graduate and I was fortunate to see her speak when I was in college. At the Edge of the Orchard is a historical novel of migration to the American West during the Gold Rush in the 1840s and ’50s. The human characters are interesting but much of the novel is actually about trees: apple orchards and then California’s redwoods and giant sequoias. It has really stuck with me and I’ve recommended it to a number of people.
    • I also read Chevalier’s newest novel, New Boy, this year. It’s a chilling retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello set on a school playground and I’d recommend it to any English teachers for their students to read alongside the original play.
  • Somehow in all my study of English literature, I had never read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. My parents recommended it to me after reading it for their book club a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with this early detective novel. It has all the good stuff – missed messages, mistaken identities, charming villains – while remaining accessible even for those who aren’t used to reading 19th-century novels.
  • I absolutely love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series (the first one is called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) and this year I read the seventh and eighth books back to back. Every time I open a Russell-Holmes novel, it feels like coming home. Something about King’s writing style just sits well with me. The novels are at once historically dense, character-driven, and detailed but not slow-moving. My dad first got hooked on the series years ago, and I would recommend it to anyone who, to use Netflix-speak, enjoys “historical novels with a strong female lead”. There’s also plenty of mystery and detective work involved!
  • I loved Robin Hobb’s 4-book series, The Rain Wild Chronicles, recommended by a fellow choir singer. Hobb creates a fascinating and robust fantasy world – realist but with touches of the magic and mythical – and tells a good story.
  • Rachel Sieffert, A Boy in Winter. A poignant WWII novel set in a small Ukrainian town. Sad but beautifully written and worth reading for a slightly different perspective.
  • Darragh McKeon, All that is Solid Melts into Air. Wow was this good. A close family friend – my Belgian “aunt” – recommended it and I loved it. It’s set in Soviet Ukraine/Russia/Belarus in the late 1980s around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The shifting perspectives never felt jarring and it’s quite timely, despite being a historical novel. Highly recommended.
  • F and I finished reading Walter Moers’ Die 13 1/2 Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär, an epic fantasy-type novel that we took turns reading aloud. It helped my German a lot and was good fun! I also finished a book of short stories in German – Karen Köhler’s Wir Haben Raketen Geangelt – that were almost all depressing but I loved the writing style and it was accessible enough for me to understand most of what was going on.

Other highlights & achievements, in no particular order:

  • Singing Bach’s St John Passion in English with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Bach Camerata at St John Smith’s Square in central London.
  • Visiting my close friend Hannah in Bulgaria, where she’s working as a Fulbright ETA.
  • Spending a lovely long weekend with F in Bath.
  • Family and friends descending on London for our post-wedding celebration in July. It was lovely to have a casual party in a local pub and that so many people made the effort to come from near and far.
  • Spending a week walking in the Cotswolds with F. We stayed in a little AirBnB in the village of Longborough and spent each day walking a different loop, stopping for pub lunches and enjoying our escape from big city life.
  • After three years teaching ESOL to migrant women at a charity in Tower Hamlets, I got a new job at a charity in Hackney. I’m still teaching ESOL mainly in Tower Hamlets but also learning about and sharpening my skills in project management and partnerships. It was hard to leave my old team – a close-knit group of amazing women – but it was the right move to make and I’m enjoying my new role. It’s also interesting to see how two charities in the same sector operate quite differently.

Cotswolds walking

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2018 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things. We hope to travel a bit more this year and I’d like to build up my running mileage to 10-mile or even half marathon fitness.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2017:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2018

Out & About in London – October 2016

My parents visited F and me in London for five days this month. Luckily, their visit coincided with both a chorus concert and Half Term, which meant no teaching duties for me and so the ability to take a few days off work. It was fun to be a bit of a tourist around London for a few days — I hadn’t done that in a while. Here’s what we got up to, including pictures.

Bletchley Park

A co-worker of mine recommended visiting Bletchley Park as a nice day trip outside of London. My parents wanted to get out of the city for a day, and it turned out that Bletchley Park was an easy train ride away from Euston Station. In case you don’t know, Bletchley Park is where the British Government Code and Cipher School (CG&CS) set up their codebreaking endeavors during World War II. CG&CS recruited bright young minds from Oxford and Cambridge to work machines, translate, and cipher/encipher/decipher enemy codes, the most famous of which being the Enigma code. Alan Turing, perhaps made better known recently by the movie The Imitation Game, led a team in developing the Bombe Machine to help crack the Enigma code.

Bletchley Park is centered around a mansion on lovely grounds surrounded by lots of “huts,” where various teams were set up to work on codebreaking projects. It was a lovely day when we went, which made for pleasant wandering in and out of huts and learning about what went on at Bletchley Park. There’s also a very detailed museum, which we didn’t spend much time in, having already become saturated by the information in the mansion and huts. It was a nice and informative day out and I’d recommend it.

Dinner at Ottolenghi Islington

Eating at Ottolenghi has been near the top of my “to eat in London” list for a while. We’ve got one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks — Plenty, or Genussvoll vegetarisch in our German version — that I’ve enjoyed using at times. A few friends recommended the Islington restaurant, and my parents, who love trying new restaurants, were game!

Ottolenghi Islington has cold salads and desserts in the front window and operates a bustling (upscale) takeaway business. The restaurant consists of two long, communal tables and a handful of small two-person tables. The decor is more modern than I expected, but I quite liked the simplicity with splashes of color. The menu consists of small plates that are conducive to sharing — I love this kind of eating, because I get to try a few bites of a lot of dishes! We ordered eight dishes for the four of us, which was plenty and allowed us to save room for the delicious desserts. Dinner highlights for me were: the beetroot and cumin mash, the cauliflower, the braised artichoke and fennel, the pork belly, and the octopus. The almond financier cake for dessert was incredible.

National Portrait Gallery

Looking for something to do before afternoon tea (see below), I suggested to my parents that we pop into the National Portrait Gallery for an hour or so. I had never been there before, and to be honest was not sure I’d like it — how interesting can it be to look at a bunch of dead people’s painted portraits? Turns out, it’s fascinating! We stuck to the 19th and 20th century displays, and they did not disappoint. It was cool to see painted portraits of famous historical figures, from statesmen to the first woman admitted to the British Medical Association to authors like Dickens and Hardy. There was a small but powerful photograph of Virginia Woolf’s husband (or maybe father? I can’t remember) in the foreground with an out-of-focus but so obviously Virginia Woolf in the background. Wow.

My favorite part of the Portrait Gallery was a temporary exhibition, “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948.” It was incredibly moving to see such dignified, soulful photographs from the early-ish days of photography. There is something much deeper about photographic portraits from 100+ years ago: carefully composed poses and backdrops, and no cheesy smiles, as people had to hold poses for a long time for the exposure. It is a stunning exhibition and highly recommended.

Afternoon Tea at The Delaunay

My mom suggested that we go out for a proper afternoon tea, like we did a couple of years ago when my parents spent time in London. And who am I to refuse afternoon tea? I had The Delaunay on my list as a well-reviewed (but I can’t remember by whom!) and affordable afternoon tea spot. We each ordered the full Afternoon Tea — my dad and I with scones, and my mom with Gugelhupf (remember that from Bake Off last year?).

Two tea towers (what are they actually called?) arrived, chock full with sweets and savories. The tea also came with brilliant straining devices that had solid bottoms to catch drips when you put them back on the table. It’s the little things! I have a big sweet tooth, but surprisingly I ended up preferring the savories at The Delaunay. The smoked duck sandwich had a great blend of flavors, and I could have eaten five of the cheese puff/choux flatbread-like things sandwiched with cream cheese. The fruit scones were deliciously light and balanced. I found most of the cakes a bit too sweet, although the pistachio financier with poppy seeds and orange cream was really nice. The Delaunay’s afternoon tea selection was very generous, and the three of us agreed that next time we’d only get two full tea menus plus a couple of extra scones.

Wicked

In addition to afternoon tea and a day out of London, my parents wanted to see at least one theatre show. We settled on Wicked, the music of which I knew thanks to my Oberlin housemate Claire, who introduced me to the soundtrack in college. But I didn’t know the story that links the songs together (other than that it’s about the Wicked Witch of the West). 

Well, the musical was brilliant. Along with the hits like “Defying Gravity,” “No Good Deed,” and “For Good,” Wicked actually has a relatively complex plot with a good deal of character development and many messages about trust, friendship, love, and self-regard. The cast was great, with Suzie Mathers and Rachel Tucker more than living up to my expectations as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively. They had personality, depth, and great singing voices — I got chills more than a couple of times.


Race Recap: Jubilee Hall Trust 10k, Hampstead Heath

Ah, Hampstead Heath, you are one of my absolute favorite places in London. Being on the Heath is like being in a different world; you can forget that you live in a metropolis of 8 million+ people. Sheer bliss.

View from Parliament Hill in July 2016.

View from Parliament Hill in July 2016.

And in this case, a bit of healthy pain to go with that bliss. F and I tromped over to Parliament Hill on a gray and windy Saturday morning for the Jubilee Hall Trust “Run for your life” 10k trail race. J ran it last year and convinced me to sign up, then had to miss it due to another commitment, so F was able to run in her place. The group of 100-odd 10k runners had a low-key feel, with only a handful of us wearing club jerseys. It’s nice to run a race with a lot of “normal” runners from the community sometimes — a bit like the Crouch End 10k.

Pre-race

Pre-race

The course started at the bottom of Parliament Hill, near the athletics track. One of the race marshals led a remarkably effective 5-minute warmup just before the start; it did more to warm us up than the slow 4-minute jog F and I took. Then we were off for two 5km laps of Parliament Hill. (Side note: a few of us only had 9.3km on our Garmins after the race, so we’re not sure it was a full 10km long.) Distance discrepancies aside, it was a tough course: undulating, uneven terrain — mostly trails — up and around the Heath. Luckily the ground was dry, and the cool, breezy weather was actually welcome once we got going.

jubileehalltrust10k-pace

As you can see from my splits, the hills definitely affected the pace. F and I had agreed to run the first 7-8km together — it’s great to have a partner you can be active with! — and then if one of us was feeling good towards the end, (s)he could pick it up. That ended up being F, as I felt pretty knackered after about 7km; I managed to pick my pace up for the last kilometer or so, but it wasn’t quite enough to catch him!

Overall, I’m pleased with my run (50:18) and was happy to treat the race as: 1) a way to spend time with F after a busy week, 2) my “long” run for the week, 3) good general training, and 4) a preview to cross country season! Running on the Heath is one of the great joys of living in north London, and it was F’s first time doing so, which made it extra special to look around and take in the woodland beauty.


 

Birthday Wisdom 2016

Another year older, another birthday reflection post! I turned 28 this week and F baked me the best cake anyone has ever made me:

IMG_2976

Last year I wrote about completing an MA and DELTA and starting a new full-time job. I offered a word of wisdom on prioritizing and finding balance. This past year has tested those words of wisdom on more than one occasion, but I like to think I tried my best to stick to them.

Looking back on this year, I’m coming up on two years as an ESOL and Functional Skills English teacher to migrant women in a deprived area of east London. I’ve taken on responsibility as a line manager and am completing a leadership and management course through work to help me develop in those areas. Teaching continues to bring its joys and challenges; switching to a new exam board for our ESOL courses has helped our students’ achievement rates, but there are still kinks to work out. I have an incredible set of colleagues, inspirational women all.

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

This year was big because F and I got married! It felt like the right time. He proposed last summer on Cape Cod, a memorable and meaningful spot for my family and for us, with fond memories of cycling, swimming, running, pastry eating, and relaxing. We got married in Germany this April, in a small civil ceremony with parents by our sides.

This past year has also seen a good deal of choral singing, with highlights being Rachmaninov’s Vespers at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; Bach’s Mass in B minor; and even recording a Christmas CD. F and I saw Steven Isserlis in a solo recital and we attended a few other concerts, theatre and musical theatre productions. We must take advantage of London cultural life while we can!

Running and sport(s) have been up and down. I did run a 5k PR/PB last September  but slowed down after that, due to busyness and stress in other aspects of life. I’m currently focusing on rebuilding my running fitness base and starting to incorporate speedwork again. I also did my first multisport event this past year: a team duathlon! It was a blast and I could see myself doing more run-bike-run events in the future.

Recent political events in the UK/EU and the USA made me gravitate towards the following quote as my word of wisdom for this year:

We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign – and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us.

-Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, after the ‘Brexit’ vote

With that, I wish you all a tolerant year of unity.

(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.

Walking the Cotswold Way

IMG_0741

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.

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At the Theatre: English National Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance”

I grew up attending the occasional community theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the most memorable being HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. That’s partly why discount TimeOut London tickets to the English National Opera (ENO) production of The Pirates of Penzance caught my eye. Even better, the dates coincided with my parents’ visit to London last week. My parents always enjoy a bit of theatre and music — after all, they’re the ones who dragged me to those community productions as a kid — so I snapped up some Saturday matinee tickets for Pirates. As if I needed further incentive, I also hadn’t yet been to see the ENO. Here’s my mini review of the production.

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The ENO’s The Pirates of Penzance was hilarious and good fun all around. We all liked the colorful, minimalist stage set: bold orange, green, and blue sliding half-circles, stairs, and a half moon “ship” worked effectively and kept the focus on the acting and singing.

Vocally, Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stole the show. Her effortless runs, pure tone, and range were particularly evident in the first half’s “Poor Wandering One.” The female chorus — playing the Major General’s daughters — produced a lovely one-voiced sound, and the male choruses (the pirates and the constables) were also strong.

While the singing was solid all around, unfortunately Robert Murray’s acting as Frederic was flat and couldn’t match Boyle’s comic timing as Mabel. Luckily, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as the Sergeant of Police was spot-on and complete with a great Cornish accent; the character worked well alongside Rebecca de Pont Davies’ comically tragic Ruth.

David Parry led the orchestra well through the light and hummable score, although occasionally it took a few measures for the orchestra and singer(s) to settle into the same tempo.

I hadn’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since before my days of musicology courses in college. With a much greater knowledge of 19th-century opera, I really appreciated the parodies of Romantic opera that Gilbert and Sullivan slip into Pirates: the overdone melodrama, impossible-to-fulfill promises, and an improbably (but pleasingly) happy ending.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance makes for a hilarious, rollicking afternoon and I’d highly recommend that you see the ENO’s production before its run ends.

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Recipe: Dianne’s Cranberry Cake

For me, Thanksgiving is not complete without something cranberry-ey, and all the better if cranberries appear in multiple guises: in my family, they usually appear in cranberry sauce, a surprisingly delicious jello “salad,” and this incredible cranberry upside-down cake.

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Ever since I can remember, my mom has made this cranberry cake for Thanksgiving — and often for Christmas, too, on my request. For me, it is an inseparable part of Thanksgiving and of the wintry holiday season in general. There’s something about that combination of whole cranberries baked into an orangey cake batter and topped with homemade whipped cream that puts a smile on everyone’s face.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and it’s one of the things I miss most about not living closer to home. Since Thanksgiving’s not celebrated in the UK, it’s hard to take off that random week in November. Last year, we had a lovely Thanksgiving celebration with Sarah and Joe, but alas they’re back in the US of A now (miss you guys!). F and I were going to try and host our own Thanksgiving this year, but my all-consuming DELTA course and various other scheduling conflicts mean it probably won’t happen.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes! With the holiday coming up on Thursday and the DELTA course starting to taper off (less than 2 weeks & 3 assignments to go…), I decided to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in the warm kitchen making cranberry cake.

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The cake is pretty easy to put together: pour some cranberries into a well-buttered cake pan, whip up the thick batter, spread it over the cranberries and bake! With luck, you’ll be able to invert your cake without incident and spread it with some warm jam for a finishing touch. Mine turned out a bit on the rustic side, as I used a springform cake pan which is a little bigger than your standard round cake tin — the cake was thus a bit thinner and stickier. I probably could’ve baked it for a little less time, but it still turned out deliciously and tasted exactly like it should. Go make it and you’ll know what I mean.

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Dianne’s Cranberry (Upside-Down) Cake (my mom’s recipe, adapted years ago from a Gourmet magazine; makes 1 cake)

Ingredients

  • Cranberries:
    • 3 tbsp unsalted butter
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 1lb/16oz/500g fresh (or frozen) whole cranberries, rinsed, picked over & dried
  • Cake batter:
    • 1.25 cups all purpose (plain) flour
    • 1.5 tsp baking powder
    • 1/4 tsp salt
    • 6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 1 egg
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • zest of 1 orange
    • 1/2 cup milk (I used semi-skimmed)
  • Topping (optional):
    • 1/3 cup currant or other closely-related jam/jelly (I used F’s mom’s black currant jam, as that’s what we had)

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).
  • Butter a round cake pan with the 3 tbsp butter. Sprinkle the 1/2 cup of sugar evenly over the butter, and pour in the rinsed and dried cranberries.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  • In a separate bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and orange until well-combined.
  • Alternate adding the 1/2 cup milk and flour mixture to the butter-egg mixture, beating until well-combined. The batter will be quite thick.
  • Spread the batter over the cranberries, sealing the edges and smoothing the top.
  • Bake for 1 hour, until the top is well-browned. Let cool for 20 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert onto a platter.
  • Heat the jam (if using) in a saucepan, then brush it over the top of the cake. Top with homemade whipped cream, if desired (plain yogurt is also nice, for the more health-conscious out there), and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Enjoy!

Recipe: Whole Grain Bread

This bread was the third new recipe I tried over the (now long-past) August Bank Holiday weekend. After making stuffed flatbreads on Saturday and peach crisp on Sunday, I dedicated Monday to my first attempt at making/baking bread from scratch!

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After perusing many a bread recipe and reading tips from various blogs, I settled on this recipe from smitten kitchen (without the cinnamon swirl). Overall, the bread making process was enjoyable — if you have a free few hours, it’s fun to set and re-set the timer to wait/watch the bread proof, knead it a bit, then start to smell it as it bakes. Satisfying, too, to turn out your very own loaf from the pan.

risen & ready for the oven

risen & ready for the oven

In terms of the bread itself, I was very pleased with the taste — nicely wheat-y with some added depth from the rye flour. The crust, however, was disappointingly soft. I think that’s due to my novice bread making skills (or lack thereof), as further reading enlightened me to the fact that for a crustier bread I must bake it free-form and with some added steam in the oven. Note to self for next time! F professed to enjoy this loaf regardless, even though he also prefers a crustier and less crumbly bread.

just add butter

just add butter

Whole-Grain Bread (adapted from smitten kitchen; makes 1 loaf)

Ingredients

  • .63 cups warm water
  • 150g lukewarm milk
  • 25g (2 tbsp) brown sugar
  • 7g (.75 tbsp) instant yeast
  • 28g (1/8 cup) sunflower oil
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 318g (2.5 cups) whole wheat flour
  • 60g rye flour
  • 10g cornmeal
  • 10g wheat germ
  • 7g (1 tsp) salt

Procedure:

  • Make bread dough: in a large mixing bowl, whisk together water, milk, sugar, & yeast until everything dissolves. Add the oil and half of the beaten egg, and whisk to combine. In another bowl, whisk together the flours, cornmeal, wheatgerm, & salt. Add to the wet mixture and stir with a wooden spoon (or with a paddle in an electric machine) for 1 minute.
  • Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
  • Now mix the dough for 2 minutes, either with a wooden spoon or with a dough hook on medium-low (machine). The dough will become firm and smoother yet stickier and more supple. If it is very wet, add flour a spoonful at a time. Conversely, if it’s quite stiff, add water a spoon at a time. Keep mixing for 4 more minutes.
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured counter. Knead it a few times then gather it into a ball. Cover the dough with the empty bowl (upended) and let rest for 10 minutes. Repeat the knead + 10-minut rest process 2 more times.
  • Proof/prove dough: lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it proof/prove for 60-70 minutes at room temperature or until it has doubled in size. (You can also proof/prove it overnight in the fridge.) While this is happening, lightly grease a loaf pan.
  • Form loaves: turn the dough out onto a floured counter and form it loosely into the shape of your loaf pan. Place it in the loaf pan.
  • Proof/prove #2: cover the loaf pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and let the bread proof/prove for 45-60 minutes at room temperature, or until it has risen to about 1 inch over the pan’s rim. Partway through this process, preheat the oven to 175C (350F).
  • Bake bread (finally!): pop the loaf into the oven and back for about 40 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 88C (190F) and it sounds hollow when tapped. Let cool a bit before turning out of the pan and slicing.

Enjoy!

Recipe: Basil Pesto

green=good

green=good

Every summer since I can remember, my dad has made an amazing basil pesto with basil from the garden. He used to make it with pine nuts — the classic combination — but those are so expensive now that he has started using a mixture of pecans, walnuts, and almonds. We always eat it on whole wheat spaghetti — the secret to extra creaminess is a dollop of buttermilk or yogurt — with frozen peas on the side.

peas are a must

peas are a must

F and I had been wanting to make pesto for a while, and when Simply Recipes published a pesto recipe — which coincided with Cookie and Kate posting this dish — I knew it was time. My dad has always used the classic Silver Palate recipe, but as I forgot to write it down during my most recent visit, I went for the Simply Recipes version. Making pesto is so simple and satisfying: combine basil, nuts, cheese, garlic, and olive oil in a food processor, and blend until smooth. Toss with pasta or spread on pizza or a sandwich.

Do you have a favorite pesto recipe? How do you like to eat it?

Basil Pesto (adapted from Simply Recipes; makes 3 cups of pesto)

Ingredients

  • 4 packed cups basil leaves
  • 5-6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 – 1.5 cups grated parmesan and/or romano cheese
  • 1 cup nuts (I used 1/2 cup walnuts + 1/2 cup almonds)
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • to taste: salt & pepper

Procedure

  • Place the basil and garlic in a food processor and pulse until blended (you can use an immersion blender if you don’t have a food processor). Add the cheese and nuts and continue pulsing until the mixture is uniform.
  • Slowly add the olive oil while running the food processor continuously. Keep blending until the pesto reaches your desired consistency. Stir in salt and pepper.
  • Note: If you’re adding pesto to pasta, reserve/mix in 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid per 1 cup of pesto.

Enjoy!