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.


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:

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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.

At the National Theatre: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

On a recent Wednesday evening, F and I took a weeknight out to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre (NT). I had never been to the National Theatre but when I found out that they have £15 tickets to most shows — practically a steal in London — I jumped at the opportunity.

Aside from knowing the NT’s As You Like It production had gotten good reviews, I didn’t know what to expect of their production (would it be modern? Period?). I read As You Like It years ago so briefly refreshed my memory of the plot before the play started: essentially, the Duke gets overthrown and exiled, then his daughter Rosalind gets banished and so does young Orlando. Everyone ends up in a forest, there is some crossdressing and foolery, and all turns out well in the end.

The National Theatre’s production included an open office with computers, modern-leaning-corporate dress, and a brilliant set design to create the forest for the second half: the tables and chairs were attached in groups and lifted up into the rafters on cables to create obstacles and hiding places in the forest. Real people sat in high up in swings and the wings to create “live” forest sounds: hoots, howls, wind blowing, and more. There were also some great sheep.

As You Like It was such fun to experience. Seeing Shakespeare live brings so much more life to his words than just reading them on the page, and the actors did a wonderful job emphasizing the precision of Shakespeare’s language and turns of phrase. Rosalie Craig made feisty and fun Rosalind and was balanced by Patsy Ferran‘s Celia.

Although Rosalind and Celia shoulder much of the play’s plot, As You Like It is really an ensemble piece. There are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. There’s a bit of melancholy from Jacques. And there’s music! I had forgotten how much music is incorporated into Shakespeare’s comedies. The NT’s production of As You Like It did a wonderful job with the forest ballads, sung by an actor with a lovely, lilting tenor voice. The final scene was also largely sung and made for an enjoyable and happy end to a thought-provoking comedy.

I would highly recommend the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed live, and the comedies are accessible and fun for all. There is not a bad seat in the NT’s Olivier Theatre — our seats were in the very last row but because the theatre is sloped so steeply, we could see the entire stage without any heads blocking the view.

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Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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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!

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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!

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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?

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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…

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(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.

“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

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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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