Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wedding Obsession

I've been shopping the after Christmas sales the past few days, and have noticed that I'm starting to go into overdrive mode on the wedding.  We're still 4 months out, but especially given the festive, party bits that are on sale-and that won't exactly be around in March/April, I find myself obsessing whether or not I can buy this bit at 90% off and use it for something in the wedding.  I love a good bargain, and apparently, my wedding is no exception! :)

Christmas in London

For the first time in my almost 38 years on the planet, I'm not home in North Carolina for Christmas.  Given the stress and expense of travel, the fact that we're pinching pennies and pence to save for the wedding, and I was just in the US in October-oh, and Simon asked...-I decided not to go home this year.  Hindsight 20/20, given the travel woes due to weather-London airports shut down for *days* due to a few inches of snow-I may not have made it home-or back to begin with! Best. Decision. Ever.  Yes, I miss my family & friends, but it was nice starting what will be Simon's & my first Christmas tradition for hopefully years to come. aw.

Anyhoo..This post isn't meant to be about that.  Rather, as I've been puttering around town the past few weeks-I've tried to make note of all of the glorious things that seem to happen in London/England at Christmas.  Since I was here for the full experience this year, I wanted to take a moment & mention some of the things I've observed.  I've tried to group them, as otherwise I'd be all over the place:

The Sights....
Having never lived in a super-touristy, large city before, I can't comment if other places do this or not.  But, what I will say is that London decorates for Christmas really well!  All of the major shopping streets get lit up, and even the minor ones too. :)   The scenes below are from Oxford Street & Regent Street this year: 
Oxford Circus
Regent Street

I could fill a book with all of the street lights, but these were my two favourites.
Oh, and never mind that until just a few days before Christmas, there was actually snow on the ground (oh, thiiiis close to my first White Christmas)!

The Food...
Oh, where to begin?!?  This year, Simon & I decided not to swap presents (re: penny pinching for the wedding)-and we extended that notion to everyone.  So,we gave nor received any presents this year.  It was nice not to have to deal with the stress & mayhem of buying presents (and are already talking about not doing presents again next year), but in the course of doing so-and perhaps because Simon was so excited about me staying here & us having a proper Xmas meal (I swear, he's been talking about the meal since *August*)-that I find that I've thought non-stop about Christmas food the past few weeks.  That being said, there seem to be non-stop Christmas Cooking shows on day & night as well...
Regardless, along the way I've noticed some similarities & differences in what we'd eat in the US v the UK at Christmas.
The Similarities:  Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, Gravy, Stuffing.  The true basics don't change from country to country. 
Differences:  Brussel Sprouts-very, traditional Xmas veg. It's like the ubiquitous British equivalent of the green bean. :); Mince pies are everywhere!  Duck/goose seems to be a bit more common.  And, though snacking is a big part of the day in the US as well, here, the main snack of the day is Cheese.  The planning that goes into selecting your cheese & other bits-crackers, chutneys, side fruits-is considerable.  And, if the 20 minute, 30 person queue I waited in at Neal's Yard Dairy (best cheese in London....) on Christmas Eve is any indication, folks aren't simply going to settle for a wedge of grocery-store-bought cheddar & a cream cheese ball! :)

Entertainment (TV/Music/Sport)...
Three things to note here...For some odd reason, the 'Christmas Number 1' for the music industry seems to be a national obsession. Again, perhaps it's me, but I don't ever remember it being a big deal who had the number 1 song on the charts at Christmas in the US.  Here?  It's discussed & speculated for weeks before-and, as the X Factor (think, American Idol) winner is crowned just ~2 weeks before Christmas, there's a huge push for the current winner's single to reach number 1.  Ah, Simon Cowell.  As much as I hate your music machine, you are a genius.
Second...Though this year wasn't a good example from what I understand, what's on TV on Christmas Day & Boxing Day (Dec 26) is ususally supposed to be really good TV-lots of recent movies in particular-and the networks seem to be quite competitive over showing good programs.  Personally, aside from the annual 24 hours of A Christmas Story on TBS, US TV seems to be fairly poor this time of year, but as England does a better job of shutting down for the day, staying in & watching TV is about the only thing to do, and the networks are happy to oblige!
And last...what kind of expat would I be if I didn't mention Boxing Day Cricket?  Every year, England & Australia play (effectively...) a month's worth of Cricket-almost a game every day.  Christmas is about the halfway point, and the Boxing Day match is always very popular.  As the games are in Australia this year (they alternate locations every other year), the match didn't start until 11.30pm on Christmas (it's the 26th in Oz), and it would go until ~8am.  I called it a night at 1am, but Simon & Scott (our Aussie friend who spent Xmas night with us) stayed up a bit longer.  Though, I guess in truth, the Christmas Day Sporting Event is no different from the US-it's just the choice of sport that's different! :)

General Bits...
I love Christmas Crackers.  It's one of the best parts of Christmas in the UK to me-though they were an entirely foreign concept to me until 2008.  Crackers are opened with your Christmas meal by grabbing on one end-and having someone grab the other end.  When you each pull, the cracker (with help from a bit of gunpowder) pops ('cracks') as it tears open.  Crackers usually contain a trinket of some kind, a joke, and a tissue paper hat. You put your hat on & wear it while eating your Christmas meal.  It's my favorite part of Christmas, and I love the irony that a country that is considered to be so 'stiff upper lip' sits around eating their Christmas Meal with paper hats on!
Another great part of Christmas in London is that everyone says 'Merry Christmas.'  Regardless of who they're saying it to (read: someone who isn't Christian).  I think I blogged about this once in 2008 about how surprised I was about this, and though I'm still surprised 3 Christmasses on, the child in me likes that PC-ness simply gets tossed out the window this time of year:  I was in my local grocery store on December 23rd, and overheard a store manager say to an employee who was leaving for the weekend, 'I know you aren't Christian, but Merry Christmas anyway!'  If we would have been in the US, a lawsuit would have ensued, but here, the employee just took it in stride and wished the manager a Merry Christmas in return.  Nice.
The Queens Speech...I can't quite figure this one out.  Tradition as long back as I know, every Christmas Day, the Queen/King of England gives a public speech that's broadcast throughout the UK & even the Commonwealth. No more than 10 minutes long-and the speech this year was barely 5 minutes long-it's usually just a simple 'yea, England' type message from the Queen.  Simon says he hasn't watched the speech since he was a child, and a chat with some of my British friends yielded the same commentary.  Nonetheless, I was glued to the BBC at 3pm when the speech came on.  In truth, I can't remember a thing she said.  Hee.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Oh, Prague...

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways....I love your beautiful architecture, your amazing food, your delicious beer, ridiculously reasonable prices, and most of all, your many and varied (and beautiful) Christmas Markets.

Simon & I went to Prague last weekend (good timing...Prague airports shut down the weekend before; London airports shut down this weekend.  Both due to snow).  It was his second trip, and my first.  All I can say is: oh. my. god. What an absolutely lovely city.  Yes, it was a bit overrun with tourists, but it was still simply amazing-and a stark contrast to my Marrakech experience just a few days before.

We arrived late on Friday-too late to do anything-so our trip really didn't start until Saturday.  But, once we were up, fed, and bundled from what was supposed to be freezing cold (in reality, the weather was mild-mild not only for Prague, but mild even by my standards), we headed out.  Straight to Wenceslas Square for a wander around-and view of the first of several Christmas Markets we'd encounter.  After a bit of a wander, we decided to check out the Communist Museum (a sharp contrast to the Sex Museum-don't judge us-the only other museum we went to on the trip...).  After the Communist Museum, we continued our wander thru town, and on over to the Charles Bridge.  Sooo beautiful-stunning views of both sides of the river-one with the Prague Castle in the background.  We had a nice wander over the bridge, and continued our meandering for another hour or so before deciding to stop for lunch.  Simon had been talking about the 'leg of pork' he had on his last trip, so we decided to find a place that served them.  Not that it was a challenge, it seems to be a very common item on the menu.  I ordered steak, but had serious food envy for Simon's pork, and in truth, it was large enough that we could have both feasted on it!  Absolutely delicious!  Didn't even need a knife to cut the meat-just a fork to scrape it from the bone.  Oh, my.  After stuffing ourselves on meat, it was time to walk off lunch, so we continued on with the meandering.  Prague is one of those cities that you could easilly go from museum to museum or simply have a wander.  And, given our limited time, we opted for the wander (we can do museums the next time we're back!) for the most part.

Our wandering eventually took us to another Christmas Market (super-small, and this one 'felt'' local), and to a stop at a pivo (beer) hall.  After a few beers, some warmth, and a trip to the loo, we were back out for more walking.  We crossed back over the Charles Bridge to our side of town for a bit of touristy souvenir shopping.  After the shopping, we visited the Sex Museum.  Not to sound prudish,  I don't know what I expected, but that wasn't it!  Oh well. :)  Shoulda stuck to the wandering around. :)  So, we head over to the Old Town square and stop into one of the outdoor (heated) restaurants for some hot chocolate to warm up. Then, we head over to yet another Christmas Market (by my count, we're up to 5 for the day...), and then decide to start thinking about dinner.

After dinner, it's pushing 9.30pm, and there's one more pivo hall I want to go to-it's close to our hotel, so perfect for our last stop of the evening, and according to what I've read, supposed to be outstanding.  And, it is.  Pivovarsky Dum is the name.  They brew all their own beer-including banana, coffee, nettle, and vanilla beer.  Seriously.  My favorite is a 'champagne beer' (no idea how it's made, but it had the *best* flavor-and you drink it out of a champagne flute) called Samp.   Pivovarsky Dum closes at 11.30p, and we were back in the hotel by 11.45pm-after being gone for over 12 hours.  We were pooped.

Sunday was just a quick trip back into town to the Old Town Square-I wanted to explore in the daylight, as it was very crowded on Saturday night-before heading back to the hotel to shower up, pack, and head to the airport to leave.  Sigh.  I can't wait to go back.  I'm betting Prague in the spring must be simply lovely...Hopefully, I'll get to find out!

 Prague Castle as seen from the Charles Bridge 

Simon's knee of pork with side sauces and a side of cabbage.

Christmas Market 
The "Champagne of Beers"-quite literally.

Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square 

Oh, Marrakech-The Photos

Have finally managed to get my photos uploaded.  No pun intended, but hopefully, a bit of the 'flavour' of Marrkech comes thru:
A bottle of Coke.  I am so not in Kansas any longer....

Shoes.  Shoes.  Beautiful shoes.  This is the shop I bought my $9 (yes, $9) wedding shoes in!!!

Olive stall.  Sooo good...

Just thought it looked cool the way the plant was creeping up to the window-though it's outside.

Birdseye view of the Djeema el Fna, the main square, ffrom balcony of one of the restaurants on the square.

A bit blurry as I was far, far, far away...but it's a snake charmer!  Once I got closer (just a bit closer...), I can confirm it is indeed a *very real* snake!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Oh, Marrakech

I've got some blog catching up to do!...

A few weeks ago, I got a last minute hair to book a trip 'somewhere warm', as the weather in London was cold, cold, cold and I was in serious need of even just a few days where I didn't have to wear 4 layers while out & about just to stay moderately warm.  I've wanted to go to Marrakech for a while, and though Simon wouldn't be joining me on this trip due to work, I decided to book a last minute trip anyhow-the flight was only 3 hours, the trip was less than 300 GBP, I'd only be gone for a few days, I've travelled by myself difficult could it be?  Oh, famous last words. There was so much going on on this trip-and especially in my head, that instead of keeping a flow of journal 'posts', I opted instead for bullet points-otherwise, I'd be writing for days!  In somewhat chronological order of thoughts/experiences...
  • When leaving my taxi to head into the maze of 'roads' to find my Riad (like a hotel), my taxi driver patted me on the arm.  Big mistake-on his part. The throng of women that were standing nearby talking amongst themselves immediately descended on him and began doing what I can only describe as 'giving him what-for.'  In Muslim countries, it's a bad, bad, bad idea for a man to touch a woman publicly.
  • The streets are an endless maze.  I wonder how many times I'll get lost while I'm here (update: only twice!)
  • Snakes, monkeys, and kittys-oh my!
  • Are the men friend or foe?
  • I drank the tap water...
  • Best. OJ. Ever!
  • I bought my wedding shoes for 80 dirham!  That's roughly £6 or $9!  Whee!
  • On a related note...I've noticed on this trip that when I translate prices, my impulse is to translate to GBP first-not USD.  huh.
  • Sitting in what is clearly the 'expat cafe' of Djeema el Fna-Les Terraces de l'Alhambra and I'm somewhat relieved to hear even the accented English around me
  • I've lost count of the number of sexist (is that even a concept here?...) comments men have made towards me in the past 36 hours
  • As I continue to ponder the taxi driver incident of my first few moments on the ground and juxtapose that with what I've seen since, I can't help but is it possible to be that repressed but so dominant in society all at the same time?
  • I'm surprised/shocked/disappointed at the number of female tourists here who are either oblivious to the culture (wearing shorts/sleeve-less clothes..) or don't give a damn.  I'm also frustrated that as a solo female traveller (the only one I've seen on the trip), I'm annoyed as hell that though I've tried to respect the culture, I'm the one that is singled out and, for lack of a better word, harassed non-stop.
  • Relatedly...not that I dislike my body (though I wouldn't complain if I dropped 20 pounds), but on this trip, I'm even more grateful for my size-I can only imagine how much more I'd have to tolorate if I were a petite woman.
  • I've noticed a surprising micro-economy in the streets while here; instead of buying a carton or pack of cigarettes, there are men walking around with an assortment of open packs of cigarettes providing the option to buy just *1* cigarette.
  • Immense challenges getting out of the airport in Marrakech and back to London.  Initially a wind storm delayed flights for a while, and then the King of Morocco decided to fly out once the storm ended (meaning the airport was closed for a period to all inbound & outbound flights).  Five hours later than originally scheduled, our flight takes off. The only saving grace of this is that I met two lovely American women-Michele and Lindsay who were individually at the airport leaving Marrackech after breaking from their travel groups.  We had a fantastic flight back to London-chattering the entire time, having a sneaky Heineken that I bought in duty free (I swear, the woman behind the counter *really* didn't want to sell them to me....), some Moroccon sweets and comparing life/travel stories.  Ironically, this may have been the hilight of the trip for me! :)
In general, I'd read articles about the 'challenges' that face single, female travellers when in Morocco:  You don't sit in a bar & drink alone as some men may think you're a prostitute, you don't touch a man (and vice versa)-even casually in public if you aren't married, it's best to keep as much of your body covered as possible (I wore long sleeves & trousers the entire trip.  I brought a scarf to cover my head but felt like I would have been acting like a 'poser' had I worn it...), it's best to avoid too much eye contact...etc.  I tried like the dickens to be as inconspicuous as possible, but I guess single, white, female travellers should always proceed with caution.  It's a pity, really.  From what Michele & Lindsay said of their adventures, I think that had I been in Marrakech with someone else-male or female-I would have genuinely loved the trip/city/experience.  But, as a solo traveller, my experiences were almost 180 degrees away from theirs.

What a bummer.

Dear Link Builders...

I understand that you have a job to do, but I would gratefully appreciate it if you would stop posting crap comments on my blog with links in an attempt to provide a bit of link juice for certain clueless dentists who seem to believe that you're doing a good job in helping them to improve their natural search rankings with these links.

Not only does Google have a tool now which pretty quickly spots spam posts and prevents the comments from showing at all, there's this little thing called a "nofollow" tag which I personally can use if I decide that I don't want a link from my blog to be followed by a Search Engine robot.  Like the one I used above with my 'clueless dentists' link.  Get the picture?

Oh, and in case it wasn't already obvious, I work in this space professionally and can spot a purchased/promoted link a mile away.  You would be better served by spamming someone else's blog-or rather, not doing it at all and going about link building the old-fashioned way-by asking for the link.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Can I Buy This?..

Gennifer with a G, I thought your question was so good, I decided to move it away from the comments section and blow it up into a post. 

Gennifer just asked about the relative availability/cost of the following food items, a typical grocery list.  I'll admit, I certainly didn't think about something this practical until I arrived-and was then surprised at what I could/couldn't find that I used to buy in the States.  Generally, it's largely the branded, pre-packaged things that are a challenge to find here (and as you'll note from my 'I'm a Hoarder' post....).  The below commentary is simply based on my personal experience-if anyone knows otherwise, give a shout!  Here's Gennifer's list.  My commentary follows:

biscuit dough (like American bread-type biscuits, not "cookies")

1 pkg. Velveeta 16 slices
1 pkg. 12 hamburger buns
1 box Banquet-brand frozen fried chicken, 8 pieces
1 pkg. bacon bits/crumbled bacon (like for salad)
1 quart of heavy whipping cream
1 quart of olive oil
3-pounds/48 ounces ground beef
1 pound-16 ounces ground lamb
1 ounce cinnamon
1 ounce white pepper
1 ounce paprika
2 eggplant/aubergines
1 ounce parsley
1 pkg. pita bread (5 per pk.)
3 ounces of loose orange tea
2 ounces of white loose tea (I have my own bags, brew my own, blah blah)
5 yellow potatoes
2 bags of spinach leaves for salad
6 Bosc pears
1 sweet yellow onion
8 ounces gorgonzola cheese
8 ounces of baker's chocolate
1/2 dozen brown eggs
1 can-diced tomatoes
4 pkgs. toilet paper, 4 rolls each
plastic food storage containers
one 5-pound bag of sugar
2 pounds of coffee
1 gallon of milk, approx. 4 litres
2 oz. pine nuts

The top hilighted items may prove a bit difficult/impossible to find here, but a few comments to clarify...
*'American biscuits' a proper souther girl, there are certainly few months in my life that go by when I don't eat a biscuit.  Made, not purchased-and if you ever find them pre-made here, I'd be stunned.  But, I find even making them has provent to be a challenge-yes, I 'import' my own Crisco shortening (ahem..), but the flour here-even self-rising-must be different.  I haven't actually been able to produce a good biscut here, as they simply don't rise properly. :(  On the flip side, you should introduce yourself to Yorkshire Puddings ('yorkie puds').  They're simply lovely, and you can find pre-made/frozen ones.  I hear Aunt Bessie does a good one (ask me again after Xmas, as they've gone on the shopping list! :)).
*Hamburger buns...You won't be able to find them year-round; they're a summer-only product.  And, the ones that I have found aren't completely like in the US-they tend to be much smaller, and for some reason, a bit harder-and never pre-sliced.  The one thing I haven't done is gone the route of 'butty' buns (butty's are simply sandwiches.  as are 'sarnies.'), and though they don't taste like hamburger buns, they are larger-and if you find good ones-would probably be just as good.  Any good bakery would carry them, and likely and larger grocery store would have packs of them year round as well.
*Banquet frozen fried chicken...Banquet doesn't exist here to my knowledge, but the frozen fried chix part won't be a problem.  I can't comment on quality, but a very quick search on the online grocery store I frequently shop at quickly returned a page of results.
*Velveeta...not a chance.  In fact, I've only once seen 'american-style' sliced cheese here, and it was during the summer.  I've never eaten Velveeta, so I can't actually comment on availablity, but at the least, if you google 'american food store' you'll get a  robust list of both brick & mortar and online shops where you may very well be able to buy Velveta.  Price will certanly be an issue (example: most imported, American boxes of cereal in these shops usually run ~$10), but if you've gotta have it, you've gotta have it! :)
*Bacon bits....I haven't seen these, but I don't eat them, so it's possible they're out there.  As a great substitute however, you can easily purchase 'lardons' (think 'bits') of fresh chopped bacon in the meat cases and make your own!

Everything else, you can easily find-or the subsitution would be so close (not sure about 'bosc' pears, but pears for sure..), you'll be fine.

As far as cost is concerned, I think it comes down to a personal preference.  And it's worth noting that some of the things on your list (spices for example..), you'd buy in bulk once at a higher price-but it couldl take months to fully use.
Presuming the above is just for one person, you could very likely go the basic/essential route that many grocery stores are running these days on their private label brands and probably get away with just spending ~£20-25.  However, if you decide to go a bit up-market, perhaps go for a higher level of quality either in the grocery store, or even venture out to a farmer's market, you could go as high as £40-ish.  In general, for Simon & I, I spend~£25 a week at the farmer's market -and that food tends to get consumed in the week-and I then spend another ~£25 a week at the grocery store, and probably half of that is for things with a multi-week span.  Our food shop also involves buying things we can take to work for lunch, so we eat out less for lunch during the week, but do tend to eat dinner out about 3x a week.  However, I almost *always* use a voucher (coupon...), or my taste card (indespensible!), so we rarely pay full price for our meals out!

Great question, Gennifer.  Hope the above helps.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In the Public Domain

I've often thought that if I say something outloud to others-in the sense of commit to something-I'll do it. ie I'll have witnesses to my claim, and therefore have to do it. :)

So, it's time to put up.  I've had a goal for several years now of running a marathon by the time I turned 40.  Mind you, I'm not a long distance runner now; in fact, the furthest distance I've ever run has been a 10k-1/4 of a marathon...This was done last year, in preparation of running the goal marathon.  See-being the scardey cat that I am, I have been working up to running a marathon for 3 years now!  Three years ago, I ran my first 5k (after never being able to run more than 2k, and after recoveirng from knee surgery). Two years ago, I ran an 8k. Last year, 10k.  This year was supposed to be the year of the half-marathon-20k.  And, then next year was to be 30k, and the following year, my last year in my 30s, was to be 40k-a marathon.

Well, I've been thinking lately that I'm simply postponing what is hopefully the inevitible, and if I continue to 'prepare', I may just psych myself out of being able to do it. SO HERE IT IS:

I'm going to run that half marathon by the end of the year (never mind that my gym attendence the past year has been horrible...), and I WILL run that marathon before my wedding day next year. 

So, that gives me until April 30, 2011 to do this.  And really, as I'll be heading to the US the week before the wedding, it really gives me until April 22.  And, as I don't really want to be hobbling on the plane as I head to the US, my plan is to run 40k by April 16th.  If anything, this will be good wedding-fitness preparation, right?  Right?...

There you go.  It's out there in the public domain now.  If I decide not to do it now, I'll have to publicly 'fess up, and I'm not one to do that.  No pressure.

Oh, and did I mention that I don't run anywhere but on a treadmill?  I'll run this entire marathon at my local gym.   Should be fun. :)  And painful.  ok.  Now, I'm nervous.