Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Christmas Past, New Year to Come

I think I may have to break down and buy a new cord to connect my camera with the computer. One I can tie a pink ribbon on and threaten Bill's life if he so much as thinks about tidying it away in some mysterious cubbyhole... Aha! Found it!! (in, I have to admit, a very logical place for a change.)

Moaning aside, I was going to tell (and perhaps show) you about our Christmas celebrations, which took place on Boxing Day. Bill usually works Christmas Day so that staff with small children can be off. His 3 children (and son-in-law) spend that day with their mother /in-law and so Boxing Day is more convenient for all.

I spent Christmas Day mostly in bed but eventually dragged myself around to decorate the Christmas tree. I was thinking it might be just about the most unloved Christmas tree I've ever had, and it didn't even get the full treatment. Simon noticed I hadn't put any icicles on it this year (those apparently being very American). I told him tough -- the tree got what it got and the house got the attention it got and there wasn't going to be any more done; I just didn't have the energy to spare. I didn't have a lot of patience either. There were a number of times when I found myself throwing and kicking things and swearing out loud, not part of my usual behaviour, thankfully, and certainly not in front of anyone! Still, I thought the tree and the house (well, the public rooms anyhow) looked mostly OK all things considered.

Even if the tree isn't as well dressed as usual, I did manage to get some of Mom's oldest ornaments on, the ones from her and Daddy's first Christmas together in 1945.

She always said at the time she thought they were horribly ugly, but of course they eventually became her very favourites, particularly this one with the paper top,

metal being in short supply during WWII. They are amongst my favourites as well, though I also like some of the ornaments she and I bought

together in the sales after her last Christmas,

also the ones she made herself one year,

and the ones made by my friend, Joanne.

I bought a couple of ornaments this last summer from the Oklahoma Cowboy Hall of Fame

(at least that's what it was called when I was a kid)

to put '2008' on. Sarah also bought us an ornament this year with the date as part of the design. I don't think we break many ornaments, though I have a box full of ones needing a bit of repair. It's just that having an 8 foot tree means that it is hard to have too many ornaments. Maybe next year I'll manage to get more of them on the tree (fingers crossed for better health).

I meant to ask Bill's kids, but forgot, whether they put up their own Christmas trees at their houses or not. It would be useful to know whether it's time to start helping them collect ornaments or not, for future gift ideas. My guess would be that they don't yet. I sort of think that's how I knew I was really grown up, when I started putting up my own Christmas tree in addition to enjoying Mom's.

Bill produced a wonderful Christmas meal as usual. We had ham, roast potatoes and parsnips, peas, some stuffing left over from Thanksgiving (and there is still more...), baby Brussels sprouts from our garden, and traditional 'Christmas pudding' with cream poured over it. I should explain that 'Christmas pudding' is actually a kind of very moist, rich fruit cake. Also, Buck's fizz which is orange juice mixed with sparkling wine.

Bill had intended that he and I should open our gifts to each other before the kids arrived, but then he decided his gifts looked so pretty in their wrapping, he wanted to wait so the others could see them. I have to say I was pleased with how his gifts turned out.

I hate the whole thing about buying Christmas paper, using it once and then wadding it all up and putting it in the garbage. I do manage to salvage some occasionally for re-use, but it's not part of Bill's mind set to do this. So I finally acted on an idea I had ages ago, at least part of the idea, which was to use fabric for wrapping presents. I found some floor length curtains at a thrift store for £1.99 in this shiny champagne colour that I thought would go well with any ribbon. I didn't think the texture of the fabric would have been very nice for curtains, but it made brilliant gift wrap, and really took to being taped. Where I didn't manage nice neat corners, I thought the fabric draped rather nicely.

I used ribbons from Rita's sewing stash. I tied most of the ribbons such that they didn't need need to be cut to open the present. The fact that Bill wanted to show off the wrapping told me it worked perfectly.

The gifts I received were mostly body lotions and books (both on my wishlist). Bill got sweaters and socks (store bought, but I'm planning on developing my skills in that direction). I knitted everyone scarves and baked spice cakes and bought some small kitchen utensil for each of the kids. One of the stranger gifts was from Bill to Simon. Simon wants to build guitars as either a hobby or perhaps a side business. His wishlist included bits of wood (specific types and sizes) and these odd looking things, which turn out to be vices sufficiently large to hug the width and sides of a guitar. I thought they looked rather like long-legged birds.

Tonight we are staying in and having a quiet but sumptuous meal at home. I've bought all the luxury items we could think of: smoked salmon, cream cheese (we love boursin, but apparently so does everyone else, as it was completely sold out), crackers, steaks, broccoli, vegetable salad, tortilla chips and salsa, a bottle of red wine. In short, probably enough food for several days of gluttony, not just one evening!

I've also put some black-eyed peas to soak over night. Tomorrow they will go in the crockpot with some bacon and tinned tomatoes for dinner. My mom always insisted that we have black-eyed peas on New Years Day in order to ensure good luck for the coming year. I really hated these beans as a child, and we had to agree that 3 were sufficient to ensure luck. Funny enough now I eat them several times a year, voluntarily and on purpose, even. Perhaps another sign of having really grown up?

I'm pleased to report that Bill and I are both slowly recovering, even it seems like 3 steps forward and 2 back. My main issue now is just getting the asthma settled down so I can sleep at night and allow the muscles around my rib cage to heal. I'm living on Hall's cough drops just now. Of course, those will have to be put aside to enjoy the smoked salmon, the chips and salsa, the cream cheese...

Friday, 26 December 2008

It's Boxing Day!!

I think I vaguely heard of Boxing Day when I lived in the States, but I'd no idea when it happened. I was delighted to learn that in the UK that it followed Christmas Day and was also an official holiday. The funny thing was, whenever I asked what Boxing Day was about, I got different answers so it seemed few people really knew.

Looking it up on Wikipedia it turns out that there is more than one explanation, though all have to do with giving associated with a box (and so the person who said it had to do with the Box Room was pretty far off). Actually, it's not even
a box but to box, a verb meaning to give a Christmas box. On the whole it's about giving to people in a lower social class (Jolly Good Show and All That).

Apparently, the (noun) box might be the alms box at the church, a collection box in a work place, the servant's box brought to work the first day after Christmas and filled with goods or coins by the master, or the practice of boxing up leftover food from Christmas Day (a work day for servants) to enjoy their day off the next day, Boxing Day.

In Western Christianity (as opposed to Eastern Christianity) -- I've lived a sheltered life and never realised there was this differentiation -- Boxing Day also happens to be the Feast Day for St. Stephen, which has all sorts of interesting meaning in different parts of the world.

(Isn't Wikipedia just Wonderful?)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

What to Do with Old Fruit - Spice Cake!

2 cups all purpose flour*
2 cups finely chopped zucchini (or fruit puree)
¼ cups sugar (I usually half this for our own use)
1 cup chopped nuts (or raisins)
½ cup vegetable oil**
1/3 cup water
1 ¼ tsp baking
1 tsp each: salt, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, vanilla
3 eggs (or 3 TBS soy flour and 3 TBS water)

Heat oven to 350 F (175 C). Grease and flour rectangular pan, 13 x 9 x 2 inches (or use muffin tin). Beat all ingredients on low speed, scraping bowl constantly, until blended, about one minute. Beat on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, 2 minutes. (I don’t bother with the mixer, just stir it well enough to mix in all the flour). Pour into pan/muffin cups.

Bake until wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. 15 servings, 265 calories per serving (with original recipe).

*If using self-rising flour, decrease baking soda to ½ tsp and omit salt.

Any fruit that is overly ripe goes in the freezer until I have time to make a batch of spice cake. I pull out 6-8 pieces and thaw them either over night or in the microwave. Remove the core and/or peel and put into a blender and puree. Just as you can substitute soy flour & water for eggs in most baking recipes,
**you can substitute applesauce for at least half to all the fat in many recipes.

As pureed fruit has many of the same qualities as applesauce, I lower the fat content on this, sometimes to only a TBS or 2. It may be an acquired taste, this low/no fat version, but worth experimenting to see what suits you.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Short on Everything but Wind and Damp

BBC's weather forecast for the 21st of December is:

Sunrise: 8:29 am
Sunset: 3:39 pm
High 54 F.
Low 39 F.
West, south westerly wind at 21 MPH
Relative humidity 78%

I've always said moving to England taught me to be grateful for daylight, never mind sunshine. The good thing about today is that it's the turning point: longer days for the next 6 months!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

From Good Guy to Bad Guy

On our way to one of the Christmas parties last week (at which I caught a very nasty code which has slowed my preparations to a feeble creep), we noticed a poster on the Metro advertising a pantomime at the Sunderland Empire Theatre.

Pantomimes are another of those very British things that happen in the holiday season. They are aimed primarily at children, but there are usually lots of double entendres to keep the parents amused. There is usually a lot of audience participation and if there is a leading female role, particularly of an older woman, it is always played by a cross-dressed man, which is part of the humour. In fact there is a whole host of portly older gentlemen making a living off of cross-dressing in this country. I don't go out of my way to see them, but when I do, I must admit they are hilarious.

Anyhow, this particular panto advert caught my attention because of the dramatic make up and the vaguely familiar name: Paul Michael Glaser. Bill reminded me that he was formerly of Starsky & Hutch. Remember this guy? Old cars with growling big engines are the stuff of Bill's dreams, and probably over half of the rest of the British male population. I'm guessing S&H may have been reasonably tolerated over here for this reason.

Well now Paul Michael is playing the part of the baddie in Aladdin right here in River City Sunderland, which I gather bemuses a number of Brits. I was going to remark that the make up was one way to hide the wrinkles, but actually he is still strangely attractive.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Music in Prague

One of the main tourist-y things to do in Prague is go to a concert. You are --ahem -- one is inundated with flyer's inviting one to concerts in churches, museums and ...concert halls, even. Most are concerts are classical, but there is the odd jazz offering or something more Czech-ish, by which I think they mean costumes and hand-clapping and probably the option of sampling and buying the local distilled drink, Becherova.

Not everyone in our party of 8 liked the same music, but the classical won out. I suggested we do that on the first night to get it out of the way and if we wanted, we could always do it another time. So we went to this place

to hear some music.
(I'm hoping to find the crumpled up programme to scan and include here. I know I have it somewhere...)

The general idea was that we would sit on cushions on the stairs. I was pretty tired from walking (well, walking, stopping to photograph, then running to catch up) all day and I wasn't thrilled about this idea, but thinking the place would be crowded I joined in at the top of the stairs. A few smarter people went down and seated themselves in the chairs near the performers.

After the first 3-4 notes, I didn't think much about where I was sitting.

The acoustics were amazing and I actually recognised much of the music. This is is yet another way, in addition to liking gardening and cooking programmes and thinking policemen aren't old enough to be out of school, that I know I'm officially old. I really do like classical music, along with the Stones, Def Lepard and Christina Aguilera, mind.

I did get a bit distracted when I saw something brown and furry run along what I thought was the corridor behind and sharply turn the corner out of sight. I alerted Jane that there were rats about, but later Bill said I was only seeing the top of some one's head, that wasn't a floor it was a window sill.

There was lots else to look at too, as the building was of course beautiful.

I thought the lead violinist looked a lot like Simon Cowell -- it was probably the hair cut.

The girl was the best part of the act. She flicked her hair a lot and flirted with Simon.

And the music was magic.

When we came out it was dark and all of Wenceslas Square was lit up like Piccadilly Circus.

Crossing Over to the Dark Side - V. 2

Just a note of warning that you may be seeing certain commercial additions to this website. Not that I actually expect to make any money.

There is an interesting survey (3,500 voters so far) on ProBlogger that says in the month of October gone,

33% didn't make any money from their blog (then again, were they trying at all?)
35% made up to $99 (not too bad)
12% made between $100 and $499
15% reported income between $500 and $19,999
5% said they made over $20,000 in October (not sure I believe this, given other data)

I've collapsed the categories for brevity. Anyhow, I'm going to try to join any of the categories other than the one I'm currently in, and the reason is this: tells me "You are currently using 366MB (35%) of your 1024MB." I expect there is a brick wall coming up in a couple of months, hurdled only by the regular payment of money. This is fair, though I've enjoyed the free ride thus far.

I'm not really willing to pull down any of the pictures I've posted and I was planning on sharing lots more, so I'm hoping to make the site at least pay for itself. I started to say that making $20,000/month wouldn't upset me, but I did actually promise myself never to pay 40% income tax to the UK government again, even though it meant living on a smaller income. Let's just say that at this point I'm in very little danger...

So, if you start seeing funny little adverts or invitations to buy stuff on Amazon or Etsy, just ignore them...unless you're really interested, of course.

Note: You may remember a bit of conversation in a couple of comments having to do with clicking. Having read (and attempted to understand) all the rules about this, I decided to remove those comments in case they could be interpreted as breaking those rules. I didn't get all of it, probably, but one thing I'm sure about: I absolutely must not click on my own ads, no matter what. They didn't say that the mouse would go blind, but that's what I figure they meant...

Saturday, 13 December 2008


Last night was Bill's work Christmas party, this year at the Holiday Inn at Seaton Burn. This is actually not for the staff from his residential home down in Stockton, but for his previous work place, which is up here in Newcastle and therefore more accessible. The managers are all in and out of each other's places for audit and support, training, etc. so he still sees these people fairly regularly. He's going to do the festive manager thing with the lot at Stockton next Friday on his way back up from Hull. I won't be doing that one with him, thankfully.

I have to say that although the food is usually good, I enjoy the dancing and his work colleagues are always very friendly, I was already about partied out. I just fit into the black velvet trousers I bought in Colchester, which have seen me through every party event since that time, but unless the running picks up or the calorie consumption drops off, that won't be the case for much longer.

It's a predictable routine and I could have written this in advance (and I did draft bits of it), but this is the first year I had my handy-dandy camera. Everyone gathers in Naz's room before going doing to dinner and then we all troop down to the dining hall.

We all commented on how packed together the chairs were.

I don't think I've never seen so many people squeezed into a room for a meal.

The food was fine -- nothing special, but pleasant enough. I took pictures of the people I knew from previous years - the lovely Michelle with her step-mom who reminds me a lot of Angelica Houston.

Richie and his girlfriend Karen were good company.

Naz brought her niece and her husband. I didn't meet the niece, but she sure is pretty.

Then the 'band' came on, a tribute (what they call copy cats here) band to Take That. I don't know if I was just too busy when they were 'big' or if they just didn't make it to the US or what, but I never heard of them until I moved here. Has Robbie Williams made it out of the UK? I mean, does anyone in the the US or Australia know who he is? I quite like his music. Apparently he was once part of Take That, which if I'm honest I'd rather Leave It.

Anyhow, Brits are really big on singing along and the dance floor was pretty much just a bunch of girls dancing together and singing along to their favourite hits. The music was OK, but probably not as good as if I'd recognised it.

I did try for some fashion shots (since you liked those, Pat) but truth be known there wasn't much worth capturing. I did notice that tattoos are very popular here.

I danced a few with Bill and then Karen invited me to dance (that's very common here in the UK, girls dancing with girls; I think it's a great custom) and I think I did a couple more with Bill.

About midnight we decided we'd had enough and we went to bed. I don't think we'll be doing that particularly party again next year. I'm sure there are better things to do with the money.

Friday, 12 December 2008


Tuesday was the day of the Sewing Group's Christmas lunch. We went to the Grand Hotel on the seafront at Tynemouth. It was a cold, sunny day.

Bill and I have been to the Grand a couple of times before, once for New Year's Eve. His mother, Ellen's, 90th birthday party was held there in July 2004. It's a gorgeous building

in a great location at one end of Long Sands.

This is the first time that I've ever had to pay for my meal in full in advance of the day, but that was required for us to book a table; I think that's quite strange. A £5 deposit is the more usual custom.

I was about the first to arrive, but saw others arriving as I went in the front door.

We met first for coffee in the lounge,

where we had a look at the menu (the Christmas Fayre lunch).

We then took our places at our table in the dining room and began our meal.

Those shiny tubular things are "Christmas crackers'. One invites another to pull the other end, causing a small firework inside to 'crack' and the toys inside to fall out. In addition to a toy (mine was a key ring with a dolphin; others were small sewing kits, tiny playing cards and a set of round dice), there is always a joke inside (What is a boxer's favourite part of the joke? The punch line) and a paper hat.

We all dutifully donned our hats. It's one of those British things I couldn't believe the first time I saw it.

Full grown, serious adults all wearing paper hats at an elegant restaurant. Isn't it wonderful?

There were a few staff dressed in charming little maid outfits (nothing kinky, mind), but I never could catch their pictures.

We were seated under this massive chandelier. Nora told us that years before she had been seated in the same place with a bunch of the girls from the factory at which they all used to work. The plaster above it broke and the thing actually fell down onto their table. The title of the newspaper article reported that 'Group of Girls Get Plastered'. I was hoping the building was in slightly better repair now.

This is a popular venue for weddings and wedding photos, particularly this gorgeous stair case.

This is the 'Prawn, smoked salmon and cucumber tian, beetroot jelly with dill mayonnaise dressing'.

I'd never heard of a 'tian' (and I love salmon and shrimp), so I had to order it. According to this website, "The tian is really just a small stack of three different layers." The Tightwad Gazette has an article about the way menu writers glorify ordinary food and it's a hoot. I'll have to share it with you one day. I know that chefs here in England are trained to write flowery food descriptions as part of their schooling. Flowery words or not, my 'tian' was delicious. I'd skipped breakfast to save room for this meal!

Unfortunately, the four ladies who ordered the "Smooth chicken liver parfait, cranberry and cointreau sauce, oatcakes" all said the liver was off for some reason. They all seemed familiar with liver pate but no one wanted to eat this stuff. The waitresses removed the plates, but nothing else was offered in place of the liver, which I thought was bad form.

This is 'Roast northumbrian beef, fondant potato, red wine porcini mushroom sauce'

The beef was more than a bit tough in places and the potato (just a big one cut into a tower shape, so far as I could tell) was a bit under cooked; the sauce was lovely.

'Served with buttered sprouts, honey roast carrots, and parsnip'. Actually there were also baby new potatoes and a few green beans in there, but I don't remember finding any parsnip. (Joan ordered the 'Seared salmon fillet, leek mash, citrus hollandaise').

Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of my dessert. I went with the 'British cheese, biscuits, grapes, celery and spiced plum chutney'. I was going to get the 'Winter assiette - white wine and thyme poached pear (warm), mulled wine jelly, vanilla pod ice cream', but Joan said the last time she had it there, the pear was quite hard. And then she went and order that dessert herself! I told her my cheese plate had better be really good. I enjoyed the Brie and the smoked cheese. The crackers were OK and the cheese with red fruit mixed in was nice. There was a toothpick with 3 grapes threaded on it and no celery, so I didn't find out what the chutney was like. I was really disappointed in the presentation of the cheese board. Maybe that's why I forgot to take the picture.

As we began to gather our things to leave, I asked Nora if she'd asked for the bill. She reminded me that we'd all paid in advance, so there was no bill. I got up and spoke to one of the waitresses about the 4 ladies whose starter was sent back. Should they not get some of their money refunded?

As we gathered our coats, the girl brought me a £10 note, which I took to the desk to get changed to distribute the £2.50 to each of the 4 ladies. I probably should ahve tried for more, but since none of them had said anything, I wondered if it was only me who thought it was wrong.

Just reviewing the pictures here, I've spotted that the lounge has a wonderful selection of magazines on offer. I may wonder in some day (appropriate dressed, of course) for a coffee and see if I can order some liver pate and crackers for £2.50. What would you guess were my chances?