Category Archives: Highlights

#BecauseESOL

I don’t share a lot on this blog about my job as an ESOL teacher for migrant adults in London. This post, though, hits home in how accurately it encapsulates the ups and downs of what it’s like to be an ESOL professional. It’s not an easy job, but most of the time it’s worth it. I hope Sam’s post gives you some insight into what I do most days at work!

Sam Shepherd

I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to…

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50th Parkrun

It has taken me almost 5 years, but I’ve finally done it: I’ve run 50 parkruns! Remember when I ran my first parkrun in April 2013? That run is still one of my fastest parkrun times (ignorance is bliss when you don’t know about the hills on the course). I ran parkrun occasionally but not consistently for the first 4 years, but when I started getting into the 30s last summer/autumn, I resolved to make it to 50 parkruns by early 2018.

Post-50th parkrun email. In the 50 Club!

I would’ve hit 50 before this weekend if I hadn’t gotten a bad cold over Christmas – I had plans to run 2-3 parkruns over the holidays! – but here we are on 17th March 2018 and my goal has been achieved.

When you look at how many people have run upwards of 100 and even 250 parkruns, 50 doesn’t seem like much, but it still takes commitment to get up for a 9am run on a Saturday. For me, it helps that F gets up over two hours earlier (!) than me on Saturdays to cycle in Regent’s Park, so my 7:50am alarm doesn’t seem too bad compared to his wake-up time.

In celebration of my impending 50th parkrun, I baked these oatmeal raisin cookies to share around afterwards. Fellow Heathsider Shaan was running his 25th and Hannah was running her 30th parkrun, so they provided some millionaire’s shortbread (yum). Gabi mustered a few other Heathsiders to join us at Finsbury Park, and it was fun to be cheered on my milestone before the start.

Some Heathsiders post-parkrun

Did I mention it was snowing and blowing this morning? You can see bits of snow on the grass in the photo above. After a balmy week of 10+C temperatures, the mercury dropped on Friday night and Saturday morning was a brisk 2C with some gently falling snow that the wind subsequently whipped around up the backside of the Finsbury parkrun course. But we braved the elements and felt extra virtuous for it. I had a busy week and felt tired so decided to run a steady Z3/4 parkrun and came in at 24:02. Not so speedy, but a solid time and a good up-tempo run for me.

My 50th parkrun stats

Now that I have reached my 50 parkruns milestone, let’s take a moment to look at my parkrun history. While a lot of people try to run as many different parkruns as possible – dubbed ‘parkrun tourism’ – I’m a creature of habit and usually run at Finsbury Park or Ally Pally due to their proximity to my flat. I have run Hampstead Heath parkrun once and F and I even ran a parkrun in Liverpool when we were up visiting friends a few weeks ago.

I love parkrun because you can run it however you want. When I feel like testing my fitness, I’ll go to Finsbury park and hammer it (did that last weekend, hence this week’s steadier run). If I’m up for a scenic run on mainly trails, I’ll go to Ally Pally and sometimes push it but sometimes run at social pace with Gabi or Jo. I’ve volunteered twice and need to do more of that to give back to such an amazing community.

Now that I’ve reached 50 parkruns, what’s next? In general running goals, I have a number of 10k races coming up over the spring and summer so I am working on building my endurance and long run distance. Maybe I’ll try to do Hampstead Heath parkrun more often and build that into my weekly long run. We shall see. For now, I’ll rest on my small laurels and enjoy the weekend!

Parkrun tourism at Princes parkrun, Liverpool!


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

Race Recap: Golden Stag Mile (#MyMile)

I ran a mile this week. So what? you say. A mile is no big deal.

What I mean to say is I raced a mile this week — on the track. Now that’s serious stuff!

The stars aligned this month as Strava (the social network for athletes) put on a 1 mile initiative, encouraging people to run a mile hard, record it, then tag it and share it with a #MyMile hashtag. Coincidentally, a north London running club was putting on the Golden Stag Mile event at Finsbury Park track, which is home base for my club‘s training sessions. A short jog from home and only £4 to enter and test my fitness with a mile on the track? Yes, please!

I have started getting back to speedwork in the past couple of months but have only managed to get to the track about once every two weeks. Not being in top speed form, I put my estimated finish time down as 6:30 and hoped to finish under that.

Luckily, I was put in a race with a few other Heathsiders whose speeds I’m somewhat familiar with. I knew if I could keep Esti and Hannah in my sights, I could run a good time. I talked strategy with a few other Heathsiders while warming up — turns out, there are conflicting views on how to pace a 1-mile race. Do you go all out and just try to finish? Do you save some for a final kick? Pace it like a 400m or 800m race (go out hard, steady, push, finish)? One guy said he breaks the mile up into 1000m, 400m, and 200m and recommended trying to stay with anyone near me, letting other runners pull me along. I liked that suggestion and decided to try and stay with people as long as I could.

Well, that worked for the first two laps of my race. I got out fast and Esti soon pulled up alongside me. We stayed more or less together for the first lap and were in a nice pack with Hannah and a couple others. They pulled away and I set my sights on staying near the man in the yellow shirt; I passed him towards the end of the second lap.

That’s when things got tough: I was in no-man’s-land with no one near me for the last 800m of the race. Not ideal. There was a guy 5 seconds ahead of me and someone 5 seconds behind me. There was no time to look at my watch — I just had to run by feel and try to keep going. My mouth was dry and my legs were tired, but I pushed as much as I could, had a little bit left to kick, and finished in an official time of 6:20.1 — an automatic PR/PB, since I’d never raced a mile before, and under my goal time! It was very hard but I felt accomplished afterwards. Heathside had a great showing and the event was really well-organized by Barnet and District AC. Looking forward to next year!


Dim Sum Class at London Cookery School

Early this year, I came across a Time Out London discount for two people to attend a dim sum cooking class at London Cookery School*. Excited (who doesn’t love dim sum?), F and I jumped at the opportunity. Neither one of us had ever done a cooking class before, despite (or maybe because of) how much we both enjoy cooking. But dim sum is not something either of us would have attempted to make at home without some prior knowledge, so the class was the perfect opportunity for us to learn some new cooking techniques. By chance, we ended up booking the class on our first wedding anniversary — what better way to celebrate than that? (And how have we already been married a year?!)

Our dim sum class taught us how to make three of the most popular steamed dumplings that might grace a dim sum table:

  • Har Gow  蝦餃 (crystal prawn dumplings)
  • Chiu Chow Fun Gwor  潮州粉果 (chiu chow steamed dumplings)
  • Sui Mai  燒賣 (open top steamed pork and prawn dumplings)

I won’t share the recipes, as you should probably do the class to learn how to make the dumplings, but I’ll provide some pictures and commentary/observations on the class and techniques that we learned.

First up, tea (yum cha): the instructor Will explained that tea is an integral part of the dim sum experience. In Hong Kong and southern China, people will often say, “Do you want to go for some yum cha?”, meaning “Let’s go have dim sum (but of course there will also be tea).” The first page of our class booklet included explanations of some common teas (wulong/oolong was served during our class) as well as some key dim sum etiquette:

Once everyone had washed hands and poured tea, the class got going. We started by making three different fillings for our dumplings: a prawn-based mix for the har gow; a pork-based combination for the chiu chow fun gwor; and a pork-and-prawn mixture for the sui mai. Here are some things we learned while making the fillings:

  • Corn flour (cornstarch, to any Americans reading this) is used as a binding agent.
  • It’s best to use fattier minced pork (~20%) for dumplings.
  • Baking powder is often added to Chinese meat dishes as it gives the meat a lighter, springier feel and helps tenderize the meat, too.
  • Salted radish adds a depth of flavor (umami, if you will).

Fillings at the ready!

Next, we prepared the dough for the har gow and chiu chow fun gwor. This was quite fun and similar to making chapati dough: add hot water to starchy mixture, bring it loosely together, then let it sit and hydrate for a few minutes before the final kneading and rolling. The dumpling dough did require a couple of specialty ingredients like wheat starch (regular flour won’t cut it) and tapioca flour, but overall the technique wasn’t too difficult and the dough turned out a beautiful alabaster white with a smooth, silky feel.

Will demonstrated how to roll, cut, stuff, and fold the dough into dumplings. The har gow were difficult, as it took some dexterity to make the neat pleats for the classic shape. You can see that my first couple of attempts (top of the picture below) were not successful, but it got easier with practice. The chiu chow fun gwor were easier to form into a simple crescent shape.

The first batch of dumplings then went into the steamer while we formed the sui mai (with pre-made dough, as it’s a trickier dough to make and get thin enough). Those went into the steamer, too, and we were ready to eat!

The class lasted about three hours, and it was a great experience to learn how to make an entirely new sort of cuisine. If you’ve never done a cooking class before, I’d recommend it. Take a friend/partner along and get cooking!

*All opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any way for this post. It was just so enjoyable that I couldn’t help sharing with you, dear readers!


Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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International Women’s Day 2017: Be Bold For Change

Today is one of my favorite holidays: International Women’s Day (IWD)! On this day, people celebrate the achievements of women past, present, and future, and also raise awareness about gender inequality that still exists today.

IWD holds a special place in my heart because I first learned about it during my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. The 8th of March is celebrated in fine style in Ukraine, with women receiving flowers, chocolates, gifts, and many well-wishes from others (mostly men but also pupils/students, if you happen to be a teacher).

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year it is “Be Bold For Change,” focusing on how people — women and men and everyone in between — can help forge “a more inclusive, gender equal world” (IWD website). I can’t complain about that theme! Teaching English to all women, with all women means we talk a lot about empowering women. This term, my ESOL Entry 3 class has had a number of lessons about volunteering, work, and employment and we’ve had a few discussions about gender (in)equality in the workplace. My Functional Skills English Level 1 learners spent part of a lesson reading about the suffragettes and discussing women’s rights historically and now.

Today, we had a lunchtime IWD event at work for our learners to come and celebrate with us. We encouraged staff and learners to wear traditional dress from their or another country. Many of my colleagues wore beautiful saris, and I rocked up in my Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered blouse), recalling fondly the two Women’s Days I spend in Sniatyn:

Wearing my Ukrainian vyshyvanka on IWD

Tutors designed a number of activities for our learners to engage in. These included “find someone who” with positive and empowering elements: Find someone who has run a marathon, who has made someone smile today, who has fixed something at home, who has give someone advice, etc. There was also a gap fill quiz with facts about women’s rights around the world, a map to identify where you are from and write what you like about your country or another one, and places to record a dream job and personal strengths.

Over 60 of our learners attended the event and had a great time chatting, snacking, doing activities, and watching speeches by inspirational women like Malala Yousafzai. I wish I could post pictures of our learners all dressed up and mingling, but many of them are vulnerable and so you must imagine instead!

I like to take International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate all the incredible women in my life, from family to friends to colleagues to students and more. You inspire me to be stronger, fitter, kinder, and more thoughtful. You inspire me to push myself and to encourage others. You inspire me to keep life in perspective and move through it with joy. You inspire me to persevere. Thank you, and keep fighting for equal rights for all humans.


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:

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.

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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