Monday, 30 November 2009

St. Andrews Day

In the past we threw a lot more parties than we do now. At one point, I aimed to gather people in my house at least once a month and I think we just about managed that one year. I tried to have some sort of theme for each and in reviewing each month, two obvious ideas came up for March: Bill's birthday or St. Patrick's Day.

In the States, St. Pat's Day is all about wearing green or getting pinched, telling leprechaun jokes, wearing a shamrock, watching parades and generally being lighthearted about Irish-ness. Over here in England, only the pubs acknowledge St. Patricks Day, by pushing sales of Guinness and sometimes selling green beer. Aside from that, because of the sad and violent history of England and Ireland, people have a much more serious view of anything to do with Irish-ness. One of the criticisms I've heard is that the US celebrates St. Patrick's day, but what about all the patron saints of the other countries in the United Kingdom? Since I didn't even know their names, I decided to look into these other dates.

This is what I learned about St. Andrew and Scotland's National Day:

  • Scotland is one of only a few countries whose patron saint is an Apostle.

  • St. Andrew is also the patron saint of Greece, Romania and Russia.

  • Only in the last couple of years did the Scottish parliament make St. Andrew's Day a bank holiday. However, banks are not obliged to close nor are employers obliged to grant leave to employees. (So why bother?)

  • More to the point, it is a flag day on which the Scottish flag was flown from Scotland's government buildings in preference to the British flag; that flag is only flown if there is a second flagpole. On UK government buildings in Scotland, flag policy is the reverse. Only recently has Scotland started flying it's own flag in preference to the Union flag on days other than St. Andrew's. The whole flag thing is of course very complicated, which is to be expected. Complexity is an inherent part of British mentality, however I have found that many Scots seem more logical and straightforward in their approach to things.

  • The Scottish flag is called a Saltire, or diagonal cross. St. Andrew is said to have been crucified on a cross this shape.

  • There are all sorts of superstitions about this date around unmarried girls discovering the identify of their future husbands. Things like throwing a shoe, a clog to be precise, over the shoulder at the front door; which direction it points tells whether one will marry in the coming year. Or sleeping nude and dreaming about one's future spouse and something about standing naked and kicking a bale of straw. Doesn't sound like the peasants were very saintly to me.

  • In addition to taking care of unmarried women, St. Andrew is also responsible for looking after gout, singers, sore throats, stiff necks, and women who wish to become mothers. As he was a fisherman, it is more understandable that he is assigned to fishermen, fish dealers and fishmongers.

  • Finally, I grew up with the word hodgepodge, which refers to a disorderly collection of things. Turns out it's also the name of a Scottish mutton stew, called Hotch Potch:

1½ lb neck of mutton;
½ teaspoon salt
2 quarts water
2 chopped onions
2 diced carrots
1 slice of turnip
½ lettuce
½ pint green peas
1 medium cauliflower
1 teaspoon sugar
pepper to taste

Place the mutton, with bones, salt and water in a saucepan. Bring slowly to the boil, then skim. Simmer 1 hour. Add onion, carrot, and turnip. Cover and cook gently for 30 minutes, then chop and add lettuce, and peas. Divide cauliflower into small sprigs. Trim off stalks and add. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes till all the vegetables and meat are tender, then remove bones and meat. Add sugar, pepper and more salt as required. Serves 6. The mutton can be served as a separate course, delicious with chappit tatties and mashed neeps.

Sounds reasonably tasty to me, however, I still have turkey leftovers to deal with.

Anyhow, to my cousin Frank in Scotland, enjoy your National Day!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Green Room

Re-decorating the bathroom took far longer than either of us anticipated. I’ve not been physically involved with this sort of thing before retirement and so was surprised at how complicated it all was. All those old-styled features I love about my house, like high ceilings and wide woodwork became nuisances.

Ceiling – Tape around the bottom to protect the coving from the green paint. Then put on two coats of green paint, standing on the top rung of the ladders, against safety recommendations, with the brush taped to a long stick.

Coving – Then decide that the coving should be green after all. Also discover benefits of painting ceiling with mouth closed, as blob of bright green paint hits my lips.

Walls – Removing wallpaper is rather fun in a destructive sort of way. Bill put up plain white paper to sort of cover the flaws in the plaster.

Radiator – Empty to get to the wall behind. When about to put it back up, Bill finds a hole in the wall (where there should be bricks, this a bit worrying). So, another trip to B&Q for cement mix to fill the hole before papering, painting and replacing the radiator. Later learn there is a gadget called a radiator paintbrush for getting behind the thing. Perhaps the shortcut might have done?

Dado rail – Bill amused at seeing I got carried away taping off the tile around the bath and taped all around the wall. He gets much exercise the day he replaces the bits of rail around the window, murdered when shower done back in May. Repeated mis-cuttings of corners means lots of trips on stairs between garage and bathroom.

Baseboard – I tape around the edges to protect the old wood floor. With the carpet gone, a gap between wall and floor needs filling with some half-round. Discover new and interesting ways to relate with the toilet when accessing the corner behind it. Must dust under there more often.

Shower – Bill’s beloved object of much labour to be protected with great care from green paint. New wood trim around it very rough, drinks paint instead of wearing it, opposite to Bill and food.

Bathtub – Wood panels surrounding tub to be painted green, except for woodwork at bottom which is white. Any meeting of two stark colours is challenging – which to tape and which to paint last? I chicken out and Bill manages it without tape at all.

Curtains – Taken down, washed and ironed. Gosh, they don’t look that wide when they are hanging. Top window sill nearly inaccessible as Bill had removed the tall ladder and buried behind 16 heavy objects in the garage. Did a rather hit and miss paint job up there on the basis that I don’t know anyone 11 feet tall. Mainly have company in the evenings when curtains are closed anyway.

Mirror – Take down for wall treatment, put up to measure where dado rail pieces go, take down to finish wall treatment, put up again. Begin to wonder if we really need a mirror in the bathroom.

Toilet paper holder and cup holder – The latter simple to paint, just tape the tile behind it; former has never been the same since Ellen used as support railing; removing and replacing hardware hasn’t improved functionality. However, suspect that new holder will have to await next renovation.

Ceiling rose – Very simple, only pristine white, never painted and certainly never painted green.

Light pull cord – Just discovered it got a swipe of green paint near the top of the cord the last time we painted the ceiling green. Not sure my taping job was up to scratch. Not sure I care at this point.

Cupboards – Bought inexpensively at B&Q a few years ago, finished in a weird antiqued shade of yellow-y green, the only green available. To be painted white to blend in with white wall. Emptying contents into many shopping bags which for weeks lined both sides of upstairs hall. Bill remarks that if we actually need all those cosmetic and medicinal products, we should be very worried indeed.

Taken out to garage to be painted with 2 coats of grey base paint and 2 coats of white gloss. I am not familiar with use of grey base and Bill explains it would also go on chest and tub panels, in short, anything to be painted green. These last five words stick in brain. Painted the cupboards with 2 coats of grey and then a coat or two of green, oil-based gloss, over several days to let them dry. Just after finished applying green oil-based paint to last cupboard, I take a break and realize they were supposed to have been white. Damn!

Weather turns quite cold and paint isn’t drying, even a week or more later. Move painting work indoors where temperature above 10 C. (50 F) at least during the day. Involves creeping past possible wet paint surfaces to use bathroom. Spend days in cold garage scraping and sanding off gooey green paint, re-painting with base, then flat white, then gloss white. Learn to stand on a board to keep feet off of ice cold concrete. Also scrape and pick green paint off of hinges and screws after taking doors off cupboards; fingernails will never be the same, but at least they are no longer green. Lesson from cabinets: when doing physical work like a long run, turning off the brain is useful; when painting, need to keep brain engaged.

Chest – Move into bedroom to make space in bathroom. Discover it is well made as have to unscrew hardware to release drawers. Take drawers back into bathroom to paint; outer shell is one of the last things to be painted. Drawers don’t like their new slots very much. Add to ‘someday list’ to change them around. Sure, that’s going to happen in my lifetime.

Floor – Very much like the dark brown colour, even though might just be accumulation of 90 years of dirt rather than actual colour of the wood. Errant drops and smudges of paint distress me no end, but Bill says it’s easily remedied, it looked like a painter’s drop cloth when he first took up carpet. A bit of scraping followed by polish does the trick. I’ve read something about rubbing walnuts on the pale bits; seems a waste of good food. I’m thinking brown crayon, myself. Blame my Grandmother for addiction to dark coloured wood.

We did finish bathroom just in time for the Thanksgiving party. I was amazed at how few

people needed to use the bathroom all evening. As an American I get away with a lot socially, but

I stopped short of sending each of our guests to the toilet to view fruits of our labour. Guess we'll

just have to be content with enjoying it ourselves. I'm certainly enjoying the work being finished.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Newcastle Town Moor Marathon

It wasn’t too cold, just cold enough to lose the feeling in one’s fingers. It wasn’t very windy, just with gusts enough to clear the table of filled cups. It wasn’t really raining, there was just the odd shower to dampen the outside of clothing and to keep the ground muddy. Not too bad a day to run a marathon. However, given that this

was 5 times around the Town Moor, parts of which are quite exposed and windy, and 5 times around anything is boring when one desperately needs new vistas to pull one along; as each person passed yet another time, my enduring thought was “Hey, better you than me.” I could probably come up with 95 other marathons I’d rather do, not that I want to do any just now. I’ll be lucky to finish the next half marathon we’ve committed to do next month.

Bill set up the club tent and the club banner and I helped set up the drinks table. After the race

started we Bill and I just stood out there along with Bob and about 10 other silly souls, holding out a choice of water or orange squash and saying “Well done!” or (in my case as it is apparently Very American) “Good job!” to people. I even told several they were “Looking good,” which in some cases was a lie. I would never say “Keep it up!” because they already want but may not be able to; I also avoid “Only XXX to go” because in my experience whatever distance that is, it’s too far to contemplate with any joy.

The fact that there were at least six of us holding cups out for the one or two runners straggling by, and saying the same thing to the same people 5 times made it a bit farcical, but I suppose there are worse ways to spend a Sunday than to support Newcastle’s first Town Moor Marathon. We took turns filling cups, offering drinks, picking up trash, fetching coffee (mainly to warm hands) and going to the loo.

I learned that one of our club members is involved in the online running community of Runners World magazine and ‘knew’ several of the runners that he got to meet in person. Also, I learned of the existence of the 100 Marathon club. I noticed most of the members in Newcastle that day were older. I walked along with Superman to the cafĂ© before the race

started. He volunteered that this was his 151st marathon, he had traveled up from London to compete and he had so far raised over £49,000 for charity. As soon as they got home from Newcastle that evening, many of the runners wrote George, the race organiser, thanking him and even saying they wanted to do it again next year!

The man who came last clocked in just under the 5½ cutoff point. He also wrote and thanked George. Turns out he walked a good part of the marathon, having celebrated his 62nd birthday the night before with more enthusiasm than sense. It is well known amongst runners that speed is the gift of youth, but endurance comes with age. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Having been involved in a group to look at organising a local race, I do appreciate that weekend shopping, increasing road traffic, changing roles of the police (who no longer want to be involved in road closures) and tightening budgets of local authorities (who now delegate responsibility to companies who do traffic management for profit) have all put a choke hold on road racing. Without the sizable pocket book of Brendan Foster (who is behind the Great North Run) or the political clout of the London Marathon (whose profits all go to support leisure centres in the London boroughs), many old races are being killed off and new ones are pushed off road or reduced to running in circles. It is regrettable, races being a huge motivator for many runners, but we’ll just have to be more creative and perhaps in time the public and political will may change. In the meantime, I’ve deleted my tirade about public health and public policy, and about nitwits in the national organization dedicated to get more runners involved in clubs in order to get more money for elite and Olympic athletes.

I decided just to tell you we had a good day out with friends.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Happy Birthday, Uncle Pat

Hope you have a great day!

With much love from
Shelley & Bill

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Happy Turkey Day!

I'm wishing you a sumptuous harvest feast in the company of people you love. We are doing our Thanksgiving celebration on Saturday with about 20 friends as, obviously, this is not a holiday here in the UK. The 2nd of three 16-19 pound (7.4 - 8.6 kg) turkeys is cooking as I write. The party marks the day when my house is at its cleanest which may not be saying much this year.

If you are not in the company of feast and family on this day, for whatever reason -- or even if you are -- can I suggest the making of a Gratitude List? I always think there is little point in being rich (as undoubtedly we all are if we just had the right perspective) if we don't recognise it. If you don't think you are wealthy, then list half a dozen of the things you value most and then put down how much money you would trade them for. Most of us have quite a number of things we would count as 'priceless' -- what better definition of wealth?

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving Day!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Adventures in Exercise

If anyone wonders, I’m still doing long runs – or rather, doing them again. When we got back from Australia I picked up my route up the coast where I’d left off in Blyth. I have to say that the next few runs weren’t particularly photogenic. In fact, some of it was quite ugly. Cambois beach is nice enough, though my main impression was that if I ever wanted to collect sea-smoothed rocks, this was the place. Unfortunately the rest of that run was down Dog Poo Lane and along a public footpath along a tall spiked fence with frequent threats to parents that any child en caught trespassing would be hung by their little toes, which is fair enough. The only attractive place I saw was a wooded area and I got so engrossed looking through the trees that I turned my ankle in a pothole. You can keep Cambois as far as I’m concerned.

The next week, I started at the bottom of the beach at Newbiggin-by-the-sea. That beach was also pleasant enough, though it wasn’t rocks but a whole new wardrobe one could collect there. I resisted the temptation for once and left the wet, sand encrusted articles. I stopped a man and his grandson to ask where was the library, as it would have a public toilet. He pointed to the loo I’d just passed, but I said I didn’t have any coins with me. He explained where I’d find the library, but while doing so fished a 20p coin out of his pocket and handed it to me. I thanked him profusely and thought he was setting a fine example for his grandson.

Once around the point at the top of the beach, I found a muddy trail that went past a “caravan” site on which I had to trespass to get past the ‘dangerous cliff’ area. (That’s “mobile home” in American, and they are generally located at seaside locations for use as vacation homes). For a mile or so beyond that I ran between a huge golf course and the cliffs over looking the sea. It didn’t look like a good idea to climb down the rocks to the beach, so I just kept going. Already I wasn't really keen to come back the way I'd come. I could see some sort of industrial site ahead and hoped the trail ended up in a nice friendly car park. No such luck. Instead I found myself behind another tall spiked fence, this one belonging to Alcan’s power station at Lynemouth. Fortunately, I managed to squeeze out between the gatepost and some big uneven blocks and escape out onto the road, thinking this wasn't a very dignified thing to do at my age. From there it was pleasant enough, if you like paths along the highway, which I did after what I’d been through.

The next week I was determined to stay on a recognizable road. I started at the south end of Lynemouth village, just beyond the power station, and ran north towards Cresswell, except that the road first went south and then curved around. Fine by me. I ran past fields full of horses, with glimpses of the sea between dunes.

Once into Cresswell village, I was seduced by the beach and it was gorgeous, with only one other person – and their dog – on the whole stretch that was visible. Sadly, I’ve watched too many scary movies and so I decided to leave the beach before I got down to the end where the other person was. There was no pavement and the road was only a two lanes so I ran facing the traffic and stepped onto the lumpy verge as the odd car passed. I passed a couple of road-side campers, a bird-watcher with binoculars and a sign warning that cows with calves could be aggressive.

As my hour out was finishing, I set my sights on a small house at the top of the next hill. It turned out to be only a stone hut with a chimney. It was possibly something to do with lambing season, though I didn’t see any sheep around. I still had another minute or two to go, and it turned out the next marker I could find was a big farming complex with a sign outside, which was good. It would be useful to track where I went on a map and measure the paltry distance I covered.

I turned around at the farm house which is also Calico Barn, open Tuesday through Saturday to sell quilting and patchwork supplies. The Cresswell area is pretty enough I wouldn’t mind driving up there sometime to see what they have and snapping a few pictures for you. In the meantime, we’ll just have to settle for the links I’ve found. On the way back I passed a field of cows, but with no calves in sight. The ones near the fence all seemed to take notice when I passed and one was particularly nervous. Having read the sign I was, too; I’m not sure which one of us jumped sideways the furthest.

Our neighbours across the street have a King Charles springer spaniel who isn’t really as old as he acts. When he is headed home from his walk, he could star in a dog food commercial, he runs so happily and carefree. Heading out is another matter. I’ve seen him sit on his fat rear and make the grandmother drag him down the street, he’s so lazy. I know just how he feels. I made it back to the car 14 minutes short of my two hours. However, years ago when I was training regularly with Bob, I learned that if you say you are going to do 2 hours, nothing less will really do. So, I trudged past my car through Lynemouth village long enough to turn around and end up at the car at 2 hours.

I just managed the drive home. The heating hadn’t come on in the house yet, so I had no choice but to hop right away into the shower. I was so trashed, that run was the only useful thing I did all day.

(Note: apologies to anyone who thought today was Pat's birthday. I scheduled it on the wrong date. He'll have to wait another couple of days to be yet another year older...)

Sunday, 22 November 2009

I'll Call It Poetry If I Want

The sodden grey sky
Dropped cold water all night
The sodden ground, squelching
The sodden trees, drooping and dripping
The sun finally triumphed
Pushing aside cloud to reveal blue
The raindrops glisten on limbs and leaves like wet rhinestones
(This is the North, we don't have diamonds up here)
Some small short-lived relief from sodden weather
Sodden, soddin', wind and wet, cold and damp.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Can't Resist

I know I said I was leaving Australia, but I did say I would tell you more about a couple of things.

This is what a cockatoo sounds like. Mind I think this one is more upset than any I ever saw, but it explains why Bill calls them pterodactyls.

These are to let you hear kookaburras. I don't remember which was better -- I had to research this on Bill's computer, as the sound doesn't work on mine.

I was also sad to realise I'd not shared my

favourite pictures of Jane and granddaughter

Nelly Joy, so decided to rectify that.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Blog Protection

I got an email the other day from the husband of a dear friend, Joanne. Rick, a fellow blogger, wrote:

I've always wondered what would happen if Blogger decided to go away or they had a crash of their server. Previously, when I was on AOL, I had a couple of webpages set up, one for me and one for the dogs. Without notice AOL decided to discontinue this service and everything on those sites was lost.

Anyway, a RV friend that I keep track of came up with a website that will convert the blogs to either written form or to .pdf files that you can store. Of course, this is for a fee. Here is what Rod sent:

"We have often wondered what would happen in all of a sudden the provider of our blog would disappear along with our blog. We would sure hate to lose almost five years of our adventure blogs.

"Have been looking at ways to simply archive our blog. We found this site

"The site will print out your blog for a healthy price but an option is to create a PDF file for a very reasonable price of $7.95

"Took the plunge and got a PDF file of this summer's Alaska trip. Was well pleased and now will get a file for all our blogs. The file for the three months was 144 pages long and 47MB so is a big file to download.

"If interested you can go to the website and do a trial run. The result can be put in first to last or last to first, pictures appear as they appear in the blog and can not be enlarged, pictures don't appear in exactly the position as when viewed in blog format, can add cover photos, title, introductions."

This is me (Rick) again. Being on the cheap side I decided I can do this myself. Last night I was able to go in and pull up each blog from the past three years and print them out. I now have them in a loose leaf notebook where I can add to them. Additionally, I have a copy of Adobe that allows me to make my own .pdf files. In the next couple of weeks I'm going to convert each blog entry to a .pdf file and then store them on a flash drive.

Not that my ramblings are all that earth shattering but I have put a lot of work into them over the past three years and have found it interesting to go back and re-read them on the different trips we've taken. I'm sure you probably feel the same about your blogs so I'd thought I pass this information on.

This me (Shelley): I do treasure my blog, strangely, and enjoy re-reading what I've written even if it wasn't that long ago. I've attempted backing the blog up just calling up a month's worth of posts, highlighting it all and copying it into Word documents. This is what has allowed me to replace pictures that have been accidentally deleted.

Now that other bloggers are beginning to come by for a visit, I just thought I'd ask:

How do you back up your blog?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Shoebox Utility

I've never counted the number of pairs of shoes I own. The ones cluttering the closets and under the bed are bad enough, but were I to add those in the attic and include old running shoes I'm certain I could easily come up with 3 figures. Of course they all came in boxes. If you add Bill's shoes -- more running than others, but by a shrinking margin -- we have had a lot of shoe boxes pass through our hands.

In changing over from warm to cold weather running clothes, I did some culling and found myself holding an empty shoe box and had no doubt it would come in handy. Just in case you've never developed a keen appreciation for your shoe boxes, I have the following suggestions:

1. Keep the shoes that came in them (duh). Take a photo of the shoes and stick the printed snap on the side of the box you can see. This is my least favourite use and I don't bother. The exception is for silver evening shoes and a matching clutch. These are in a labelled box in the top of the closet gathering dust. As we aren't likely to go out more than we do (and if we did I'd lean towards flat shoes, not these), I must make it a priority to do more dinner parties. Have I digressed?

2. Shoe boxes have been perfect containers for posting Christmas presents home to the US, particularly the ones with attached lids which tend to be sturdier cardboard. Fill the space around the wrapped packages with newspapers (which perhaps make amusing reading, being foreign) or plastic bags, so they can breed where there is more space for landfill. The boxes are occasionally the right size for gifts to be wrapped and placed under the tree; wrapping a box is infinitely easier than most other shapes.

3. The last time we re-decorated the West Wing (our bedroom), I decided it was going to be purple, in honour of my earliest memory of Rita's bedroom on 31st Street, where she had a floral bedspread with purple and lavender roses. Bill had taken to stacking things on top of his wardrobe, but I put a stop to that; it looked too messy. Instead I stacked things on top of my wardrobe, in shoe boxes covered with any shade of purple paper I could find. That made it OK. You see the difference, don't you?

(BTW I made those curtains and it's one of the hardest things I've ever attempted, dealing with the sheer size and weight of the fabric.)

4. Boxes with detachable lids that can be fitted to the bottom become compartments for the socks / bras / gloves in the running clothes drawer. If I didn't have the little shelves and compartments in my Victorian wardrobe (must show that to you sometime) which meet the need, I would use shoe boxes for other drawers as well.

5. I've mentioned before that the ladies at the sewing club give me their scraps and I do actually have uses for them. For this stash to be accessible, however, it needs to be sorted at least by colour group. Shoe boxes are great for this.

6. When Ruby first showed me how to make these sewing boxes, she went out and bought card stock from a stationery shop in North Shields. However, they no longer carried the heavier version we ended up using double thickness of what she bought. Never mind just shoe boxes, looking at all the other card stock that comes in my front door and into the re-cycling bin, I've never bought flimsy card stock for this again.

I'm certain there are tons of other uses for shoe boxes I've not listed, but these are the ways they get used in this house. And once too ragged to be of further use, they go into the re-cycling bin to be re-created into something else.

What do you do with your shoe boxes?


Update: Add to this list

7. Keep all those photos you can't be bothered to put into albums until someone comes along and volunteers to scan them for you.

Also, per Vivien, refuse offer of shoe box to begin with and save the hassle of figuring out what to do with them at all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Out of Salad Dressing

There are only certain movies and TV programmes that Bill will watch. I can't reliably put my finger on what he will or won't like. To date, I've learned that he'll watch Harry Potter, Cold Comfort Farm, Smiley's People, American Werewolf in London (I won't dignify it with a link), Lord Peter Wimsey films (I much prefer Petherbridge to Carmichael, not to mention Harriet Walter), Day of the Jackal, The Italian Job (the old one, of course), and Inspector Maigret; if you can identify the theme here, I'd love to know it.

This last series was completely news to me and I didn't realise until Bill told me that the man who plays Inspector Jules Maigret is the same as the most recent Dumbledore, Michael Gambon. Although the setting is supposed to be Paris (I'm beginning to sound suspiciously like a Francophile, aren't I?), the episodes were actually filmed in Eastern Europe. I think that just goes to show how much the old European cities have in common architecturally.

For the longest time I kept saying the name May-gret, which Bill said made him think of vinegrette; it is of course supposed to be said May-Gray. In any case, we've watched these episodes all the way through, and I'm sorry to see them finished. Until the next Harry Potter film comes out on DVD, I guess we'll be reading in front of the fireplace instead.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Last November

I was catching up with some of my favourite blogs the other day and came across this one that mentioned Stendhal's syndrome and linked to a definition. I'd never heard of this psychosomatic illness that some people get when exposed to extremely beautiful art.

The listing also mentions Paris Syndrome, to which apparently Japanese tourists are particularly susceptible; I gather it's a form of culture shock. Which led me to this amusing article in which the author states that 'polite French society' is an oxymoron, because she was tripped up by her ignorance of French customs. Many of her difficulties are those listed among these Top 10 French Challenges.

The first time I ever went to Paris it was with the running club to do the Paris to Versailles road race (about 10 miles). I will have to tell you about this sometime; those of us who went generally class it as one of the best weekends we ever had. But enough about France.

What I really wanted to mention was that it was this time last year that we were in Prague, (just in case you wanted to look at those pictures again). Now that's a place worth getting Stendhaled about.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Foreign Food

A month or so ago, I read with amusement a post titled, "Top 10 French Foods I Don't Eat." Not speaking much French, I spent quite a bit of time looking up the translation for each dish and found it all quite interesting.

1.) Boudin Noir AKA "black pudding", a basic component of the full English breakfast (or Scottish for that matter; the Irish go for white pudding which is still made with suet). I call these hockey pucks, because that's what they look like to me. I've eaten a few bites just to try it. It's quite salty, which you would think would put it at the top of my favourite foods, but no, the gross factor cancels that out, so I have to agree with Tish on this one.

2.) Ris de Veau I had to laugh. She says that she ordered this in a restaurant on her first visit to France, long before she lived there, thinking it must be some sort of rice, "... that looks safe..." A few years ago Bill and I took a bicycling tour in France and discovered it included two nights at a fabulous chateau. I must tell you more about that trip sometime. At dinner the first night, Bill decided ris d' agneau was something to do with rice and lamb and suggested it for me. I ordered it and ate it all, it was very nice, but nothing to do with rice. We looked it up in Bill's dictionary and all it said was 'laugh of the lamb', leaving us to speculate: what makes a lamb laugh? I was pretty sure I wouldn't care much for the answer. As penance, Bill ordered it himself the next evening. We overheard the conversation between a very elegant gentleman eating alone and Madame. Bill said the man had travelled far for the opportunity to enjoy this very dish. I'm not sorry I ate it, but I probably wouldn't choose it again given a wider choice.

3.) Tripes de Caen. Nope, not likely to eat tripe, though everything else about this recipe (bar the calf's foot) sounds wonderful. Might try it with plain old beef.

4.) Rognons. Again, kidneys are not my first choice. Having said that, I've been known to order steak and kidney pie in a British pub and have lived to tell the tale. I routinely eat calf's liver (with loads of bacon and onion), so why turn up my nose at kidney?

5.) Sanglier. Turns out this is wild boar, which I've never had. I love pork, so I would probably at least try this.

6.) Lapin. There are tons of rabbits around here even in the urban areas. I can't imagine going out of my way to eat a cute little bunny, but then I would have said I couldn't eat duck for the same reason and I do love crispy duck. I expect that if someone served rabbit to me as a guest I would eat it. I didn't like the idea of eating Bambi the first time either, but I enjoy venison very much. Bill says "they say" rabbit tastes just like chicken. I'll let you know if I ever find out.

7.) Cervelle. This translates as 'brains' but I can't find whose brains (apparently it can be anybody's, ie pork, lamb, etc). The internet talks a lot about Cervelle de Canut, which is cheese and herbs and looks like a recipe I might try sometime. As for the animal brains, I think I'll just struggle along without.

8.) Andouille is a type of pork sausage, which according to Wikipedia is associated with Cajun cooking. If the large white spots in the picture were say, onion, and not pork fat, I suspect Bill and I would both eat this, but we have not done so to date.

9.) Tete de Veau is Calf's Head. There is a real life description of having attempted to eat this dish by someone from California. One wonders how this can differ from number 7. The first link says, "Don't try this at home." I think I'll take their advice.

10.) Marrons Glacé are candied chestnuts. I've never had them nor am I likely to, given that I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I ate roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in London one year when Bill and I went down to do Christmas shopping at Harrods and the like. Can't say I cared much for them, but I'm pleased to have given it a go.

She didn't mention frogs legs or snails, but we'll save those delicacies for another post.

Friday, 13 November 2009

New Garden

As promised, photos of the "finished" garden.

I'm finding that the more you

fix the more you see that needs fixed, but we're

busy inside at the moment and so this will just have to do.

Bill and I both felt it was quite a change and of course a brand new lawn looks very elegant. I sort of miss the colours of the flowers, but the brown area will be developed further, as well as the small area in the corner of the side yard.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

November Foods

I meant to do this list each month starting way back, but obviously got distracted. I still consult my reference each time I go shopping for fruit and veg at the green market.

apples (available year round -- best in October, November & December); I tried a new type this time -- Cripps Pink. Who would have guessed they come from Western Australia?

artichokes, Jerusalem - never see them, can't say I would buy if I did; but maybe someday I'll try them. I've eaten an artichoke (you sort of drag the leaves through your teeth, rather messy) but not a Jerusalem artichoke

bananas (year round) - there was a banana war between the two larger supermarket chains last month. In case you didn't know, bananas are very political as well as being high in potassium.

(year round, best September, October & November). Ours in the garden turned out so-so; some got to a decent size whilst others remained tiny. I will grow them again, though, as even if the roots don't turn out great, there are still the greens and the stems and they are wonderful stir-fried.

- a superfood I try to keep in the house always.

(year round, best December, January & February)

(year round, best April, May & June) Bill ran across a news story that reported research findings I try to implement: apparently you get more nutrition from a carrot that has been steamed whole, rather than one that has been chopped up. Hey, it's one less thing to do...

(best this month!)

- Didn't see any at the market; tend to buy in a jar for Thanksgiving, though we used to buy cranberry juice a lot. These, as most berries, are also 'superfoods' and if I found a reasonably prices source I would probably try to figure out what you do with them.

(year round); I prefer spinach, particularly as we grow it; also because it can be cooked as well as eaten raw.

(year round) - Jane and Chris's neighbour grows these, somewhere on a farm, I think. I ate several when I was there. The juicest, most delicious grapefruits I've ever eaten.

(year round) - we prefer red seedless, but will settle for green if necessary; good in fruit salad with sweet yogurt for dessert

- never seen nor eaten, apparently they are not the same as a garden variety red radish, though related.

(best this month!) - We've eaten all we grew; they were tiny compared to store bought. I've learned to slice the white part lengthwise to facilitate getting out all the soil, otherwise the grit hurts my teeth. Leek and potato soup is very popular on blogs I read, must try it some time.

(year round, best in June, July and August). We still have some in the garden, so it's pretty tough stuff. Obviously not the iceberg variety. Must keep buying tomatoes for salads until we use up the lettuce in the garden.

(year round). I never ate a mushroom until I was 22. I love them now. Also, another veg to eat raw or cook.

(year round) - so cheap I would never bother to grow. Tried red onions but didn't find them worth the difference in price.

(year round) - more difficult to eat than a banana or an apple, but as they were 10 for a £1, I bought them and have enjoyed snacking.

(best this month) - I like parsnips OK; best when roasted, I think.

- didn't have on my list for some reason, but read recently that women who eat 2 pears a day lose more weight than women who do not. Should I go back and buy some?

(year round) - tinned pineapple does me fine. In fact, probably just the juice to make sweet and sour sauce for stir fries would probably do; must look around and see if pineapple juice is a good deal.

(year round; new potatoes in May) - I bought a big bag last month when I had big muscles around to carry them into the house for me. I asked the foreman if I could borrow one of his guys for just a couple minutes. He asked which one I wanted, which gave me pause to consider, but in the end I decided not to play favourites.

savoy cabbage
(best this month!) I now know this is a favourite of Jane’s. She was here this time last year, but the supermarket didn't have any savoys and I apparently didn't get any at the green market. Come again in November, Jane and I promise you this will be on the menu!

sea kale
- I've eaten kale and thought it was alright, but don't think I've ever had sea kale. My original source for this list was an old book from the Lit & Phil; I gather sea kale is now relatively rare.

shallots - I bought and used some of these for the first time this year. They were very nice, but for the price, I can settle for regular onions.

(year round) - Not sure I agree these are available year round, not nice ones anyhow. Most times I buy cherry or on-the-vine to ensure they have any flavour at all. Don't think home grown is really viable for the return, though we did get maybe 2 or 3 dozen very small tomatoes this year.

(year round, best in June and July) - I don't recall ever buying white turnips, but regularly buy swedes when they are on offer at the green market for 25 pence each...and they take a month to hack our way through. A turnip and a swede, however, are not the same.

I've not eaten most of these items and I'm unlikely to, in spite of living so close to a fish quay. Bill's not keen on most types of fish other than salmon, prawns or tuna. I quite like most of the white fishes, mild in flavour though they are; I'm not, however, keen on the prices. Still, I try to keep an open mind. We have a good supply of tinned fish: salmon, tuna and mackerel. I'm trying to work of the nerve to try some anchovies as they are also high in omega-3 oils.

(year round)
(year round)
(year round)
cod - very popular as fish & chips; more expensive due to this popularity and increasing rarity
(year round)
- have eaten smoked herring once at the Fish Quay Festival. Don't need to do it again.
(year round, best December, January & February)
(year round)
(year round)
red mullet (year round, best June, July & August)
(year round)
(year round)
(year round)
(year round)

Of course, I will soon be collecting food to cook for Thanksgiving. First, I need to get the spare refridgerator in the garage cranked up and ready...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Poppy Day

I have a running buddy these days, a woman from Spain named Raquel. She’s faster than I am, but doesn’t like the pace of the ‘slow’ group. She’s taking a 6-month business management course at the university with the main purpose of improving her English. The first few times I run with anyone I’ve learned to get them to talk; if they can’t talk we’re going too fast (which at my pace would mean crawling on hands and knees). This practice opened the door to our English-as-a-Second-Language-while-You-Run sessions. She has lots of questions about things and I think her English is coming along in leaps and bounds. It’s good fun; more to the point, knowing she’s there or even just might be, gets me out more regularly than in a long time and my running – not to mention navigation -- is improving at least as well as her English.

One of the questions Raquel had was why everyone on the TV news was wearing a red flower on their lapel. She thought it had something to do with political parties, but then thought it odd that everyone would belong to the same party. I thought that was a hoot. I explained about Remembrance Day, how much the world wars impacted on Britain and how it was a major part of the culture here to remember the soldiers. I’m not sure there is a village in the UK that doesn’t have its war memorial on a green or in a square somewhere.

The red paper poppies are sold everywhere over here in early November to raise money for veterans’ organizations. I remember attending my first film in Newcastle about this time. The movie was held up by the usual trailers of other movies, then by a black and white trailer from the 40’s followed by all the lights coming on for the collection box for Poppy Day. Being used to dollar movies in the US, I was still smarting from full fare I’d just paid for admission, but I forked over another pound so we could get on with the show.

The old joke over here is that the US showed up late to each of the previous World Wars, but is determined to start the next one. Joking aside,
I read somewhere that the horrific loss of life during WWI was in part attributable to the default of giving officer positions to the men from the upper and middle classes, irrespective of their aptitude. That the resulting slaughter of the working class was a factor in Britain’s development of socialism.

It is hard to imagine the hardships brought to Britain by each of the World Wars. Though that memory doesn’t belong to the present generation and the lifestyle here is more and more American, when I first came across 14 years ago, I remember overhearing older people talk about their childhood during the 2nd war. Many of the reminiscences were of the kindnesses of the American soldiers. Then again, the feeling of their British counterparts was that the Yanks were “over paid, over sexed, and over here.”

Not only did Britain experience the bombing of major cities and sea ports, but thousands of children were sent to the countryside or even abroad to keep them safe during the war. This often resulted in a schism in the family that couldn’t be repaired, the children having seen a different way of life and finding it difficult to return. Even after the war, up into the 1950's there were shortages. In today's recession, ideas about 'make do and mend' that were then published by government departments are being recirculated on TV programmes and in the news media, though not quite as dire as "eat your bread and butter butter side down".

My Dad always talked about his WWII experience like it was the best holiday he’d ever had; he carried fond memories of Italy all the rest of his days. Which is not to dismiss the hardships of the Army Air Force in which he served. He and Mom married the week before he was shipped and her daily letters to him, which I have, give a glimpse of the shortages everyone was experiencing and the interesting ways they coped. I’m sure that for everyone involved, War is Hell, but I have to say the Brits are exceptionally good at honouring those who fight for them. Now, if we could just figure out how to keep from going there to start with.

So, while the parades, the speeches and the TV programmes were all shown last weekend, on ‘Remembrance Sunday’, today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month, everyone -- I’ve even seen cars pull over on the roads – stops for two minutes, to Remember.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Brenda's Card

Brenda was born in Canada, but has lived here most of her life. You know the latter as soon as she speaks, she has a thick Geordie accent. She sits next to me at the sewing group and for many weeks insisted on making my coffee.

Then she wasn't there for a quite a while. About this time last year her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. Brian died a few months ago.

So perhaps the wish for a happy birthday is fairly futile. On the other hand she's pretty tough and pragmatic.

She just shrugged her shoulders one of the first Tuesday's after the funeral. She said, "What can you do? You just have to get on with it." I think these ladies can teach me a lot besides crafting and sewing.

It's nice having her back with us.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Shelleys House Etsy Shop

You may or may not have noticed the Shelleys House Etsy* Shop added to the column on the right. I've meant to do that for absolutely ages. It took me a full year to get those hangers made, figure out how to open the shop and then how to add the shop to this blog. I'm thinking the photos could have been a bit better, but improvements will have to await a sunny day not already filled up with meeting other deadlines.

Yes, I do recognise that the hangers are a bit odd, but as I said in an earlier post, they really make me smile. So I thought they might make someone else smile, too. I love making them.

On the other hand, I may be at risk of being listed on a new website which makes fun of the odder items on Etsy, called Regretsy [Handmade? It looks like you made it with your feet!].

I'm not linking to it, you'll have to go find it for yourself. Before you do, be warned it selects some of the very weirdest items listed in Etsy, items I had no idea were there. I think of Etsy as being full of cute, cuddly child-friendly stuff mostly made up by SAHM's. These are not like that. Some are perhaps classed as 'adult'. Personally, I think there should be a category for 'certifiable', these items are disturbingly insane.

That's not all she lampoons, though. She, "Helen Killer", is fairly cruel to some of the listings by some possibly rather naive shop owners (perhaps I am one?). There's also lots of just plain silly stuff and her scathing comments are a riot.

Strangely, however, most shop owners are mainly concerned that she links to their items to give them more exposure -- and many apparently are sold. If I worry about the mental state of the creators, I certainly hope never to meet any of the buyers alone in a dark street. Creepy stuff aside, much of the content is hilarious and I did laugh a lot.

So one does wonder if it's best to get into Regretsy and increase the traffic to your crafted items; some of these items have been viewed like 6000 times.

Hmmmm....neh. I think I'll leave that as a last resort, eh?

*Etsy is a weird name all by itself and apparently what it means is a secret...

Friday, 6 November 2009

Some Feedback

I'll warn you the rest of this is a rant, so you may want to stop here. I see I need to capture some more pictures to illustrate my complaints, so will add those later!

I thought there was huge room for improvement in the way this business operated. For one thing, the foreman wasn't there more than 5-10 minutes morning and afternoon, just droppping off and picking up crew. I had issues with the brick layer, who was seemingly in charge otherwise. I wasn't very impressed with most of his work.

I didn't have a drawing or anything in writing detailing what Bill had agreed with the boss who bid the job. In spite of this, the guys were asking me what they were supposed to be doing.
I managed spend another £250 of Bill's money with just the wave of an arm and 'I think all that goes.' Bill wasn't unhappy with the result, but it frightened me to have made an expensive change so unintentionally.

The brick layer seemed to be thinking that half the concrete slabs were supposed to remain, which was completely daft. He had a drawing on which he relied, but it was wrong. Bill came home early that afternoon to help sort it; he found the measurements on the sketch that showed what was actually supposed to happen.

This company does decent brick paving, but I think they trashed my brick walls. One morning the brick layer pointed out a problem with the front wall in that the old brickwork on one side of the gate wasn't level with the other; he was going to have a problem making the brick wall level at the top enough to put the capstone back on. I'd made it clear from the start that I liked my old, coal smoke stained capstones. He was saying that to do a half-course of brick would add a couple hundred more to the cost of the job. He told me this first thing one morning. My initial response was "Why are you asking me? You are supposed to be the professional here!! What the hell do you mean it will cost more?!! Don't you think you should have spotted that problem before you ripped out half the wall, not after?!!" I remember opening and closing my mouth several times, and finally came out with "I haven't really had enough coffee yet to have any ideas here. I'll phone Bill and see what he wants to do." Bill, fortunately, was up to the challenge. He proposed leaving the post in place, which would alleviate the problem of matching the brickwork on the other side. So we have a gate with a post on either side, like before, plus another extraneous post with a matching capstone (which cost extra). It looks a bit strange, but it's not a big deal. The brickwork and the capstone look a bit wonky to me, but I don't look at it much.

The house is on hill and this slope was a apparently problem for them. They decided to put a big step in to make the back and front join up; big as in the long side of a brick. When Bill did his usual evening perusal, he asked me to see if they could sink the bricks about half way to lower the step and he suggested a place where they could make a second step if needed. I explained this to the brick layer but it didn't happen; they lowered it a bit, but not much. It did seem to me that if Bill stayed to talk with them in the morning or came home early to talk in the evening, things worked out. If I relayed the information, it got ignored.

The worst casualty, I think, was the brick wall at the back. They took it down carefully and re-used as many of the bricks as they could. Unfortunately, the brick layer didn't have the skills to maintain the slope of the wall and it looks strange. When I complained that it didn't look right, the brick layer and the foreman both told me it couldn't have been done any better because the bricks were old, etc., etc. When Bill got home the first thing he did was to put a level on it. As I understand it, the first and last principle of brick laying is that the bubble needs to be in the middle; this is not the case. I try not to look at that very much either; I'm thinking about growing some ivy over that section.

Bill paid the first half of the bill at the end of the first week, in cash. He made out a receipt for himself and had the foreman sign it; otherwise, I doubt he would have got one. Bill then expected to receive an invoice at the end of the job and to send a check for the balance, as with every other builder with whom we've done business. Turned out they wanted the balance immediately, like 5 minutes after they finished at 3pm on a Friday. The check was to be made out to their supplier so they could take it there on the way home. I wrote a slightly warm check that Bill covered via electronic transfer. Then I got a call from their office saying they were still short £50 and would I write another check. I did, but it was just another thing on the list about which I wasn't very impressed.

I took the foreman around, since he was there, and gave him my opinion about the work, ie all of the above.
Had I been paying for this job, I think I would have been way pushier and I certainly would have had something in writing to fall back on. However, the boss who bids the jobs spends 6-7 weeks at a time 'off-shore', which usually refers to work on an oil rig in the North Sea. Given that I don't normally associate brick paving and oil rigs I don't know what to think, particularly as his children go to school with one of our neighbour's children.

I rang his office today, as suggested by his secretary, to schedule an appointment with him. I want him to see the work his crew did and to see if he will put the brick walls right. Turns out he's only in the country for tomorrow and the weekend (he doesn't work weekends). She was only in the office for another 30 minutes; the office is closed until further notice, possibly even through Christmas, because there are no jobs. I don't know what to think about that. If he's not in the country he can't bid jobs; if he's not going to bid jobs, why put up a sign to advertise? I'll chase his office for a while longer -- a phone call a month isn't very hard. If worst comes to worse, I can always send him a letter with photos -- or a link to this post even.

Still, I thought I'd share all the excitement, not least the eye candy. (I'm referring to the brick paving, of course.) And there will be more to come next week!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

A Solution

They showed up at 8 am on the appointed Monday (and every other morning). A whole army of them (well, 6 or 8). They didn't knock on the door or anything, just came through the gates and set to work. With jackhammers.

And, given our corner location on a well used road, of course they were keen to put up their signs.

I never did figure out why they have a teddy bear on their truck, but Bill says it's a British thing.

I had asked the woman in the office who scheduled the job whether we needed to do anything in preparation and she said no, they'd move everything. On the other hand, they needed to be told where to put things, like big planter pots and the like.

I wasn't going to get to just sit in the house and let them deal with everything. I don't think the square foot garden will ever be quite the same, not that I blame them -- there just wasn't enough room for all that junk and all those men and equipment. I asked them to put aside a dozen or so of the concrete paving stones. I thought they would make a better path in the square foot garden than the red wood chips that kept blowing away.

Then came the questions, "Are you American?" What part of America are you from?" "What is it like in Oklahoma?" "Have you been here long?" "You don't sound like you've been here that long, you still have your accent; it's lovely." "Do you like it here?" "Why would anyone live here instead of in America?"

It's rather strange having three or four muscular young men, hang on your every word. I had got used to people's interest when I was out in the work world, but it's been a couple of years, so this caught me off guard. I finally managed to extricate myself back into the house with, "Well, best let you get on with things; no work is getting done at this rate!"

In the two weeks it took, they almost got used to me taking pictures. I almost got used to the constant noise: jack hammers, chatter, radio (and singing along), trucks dropping off supplies, picking up skips.

After a couple of days I was made aware that it is customary to provide workmen with tea and coffee several times a day. According to Bill, supplying the kettle, the condiments and the cups wasn't appropriate; I had to do the waitress thing, taking and filling orders. I didn't mind too much, it was just something else to fit into the schedule and they just had to do without on Tuesday mornings when I was at the sewing group.

The garage door stayed open to allow access to water for the concrete mixing. The 10-year old trampoline I've never used was a convenient lounge at lunch time and the bike seats were coat racks, of course. I kept finding apples in the garden with only 2 bites removed and kept wanting to explain this was not the way to make their 5-a-day, but I guessed they didn't want a mother, just a tealady. They rang the door bell increasingly often, to use the toilet, to get access to the water outlet, to ask advice about the job.

At the end of the day it suited them to leave wheelbarrows, mixers, etc. in the garage and the back yard. They put down paving stones leading from the front and back doors across the mud for me, after I stacked up a supply of shoes in the front and back porches. All the hard standing was removed at once on the first day to put in the skip for re-cycling (and cheaper disposal costs). Once that was all gone and the ground was more or less leveled, the paving work began.

Bill had asked for the brindle coloured bricks as they would best blend with the house, but we were surprised by the fancy charcoal edging. I wasn't sure I liked it at first, but soon found I didn't really notice it. Truth be known, I much prefer lawn to bricks, but that just wasn't realistic given the position of the house and the amount of work either Bill or I are prepared to do in the garden; we do well to keep up with the green areas such as we do.

The process of creating the design with the

bricks and of marking and cutting the puzzle pieces with a huge circular saw was interesting to

watch and I thought the result was a big improvement on what we had before, though Bill didn't get quite what he thought he would.

Oh, and by the way, it's Guy Fawkes' again. No doubt the fireworks will be going most of the night.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Problem

When we returned from Australia, the next big thing was having some construction work done around the outside of the house.

Bill has long wanted to do something about the damp problem in the garage, which was a later add-on to the original house built in 1920. Also to address the mish-mash of hard standing around the house, which included cracked and

mossy antique concrete, a quaint (well, I thought so) but too narrow little rock path and some mouldy concrete paving slabs. There was also this weird break in the side wall, dating back to when the present breakfasting kitchen was a small kitchen and a scullery and before there was a garage at the back of the house. I suspect our garden was fully enclosed by the brick wall, just like our next door neighbour, Dorothy's is, except that the black wood part was the entrance into the scullery.

He met with the builder and organised for the workmen to come on a Monday after our return. Bill showed me the plan and I asked about the possibility of moving our front gate over. So we got the builder to come back out and he saw at once what I had in mind.

The house faces west-ish with the long side to the north-ish. The evening sun is by far the best hope for sitting in a warm outdoor place but it being in the front there is no privacy. Bill hates, hates, hates the leylandii shrubs and whacks one down whenever he thinks I won't notice; I think he'd find a way to inflict pain and suffering on them were such a thing possible. It's no joke that space, sunshine and light are in such short supply here in Britain that neighbours have legal wars over these fast-growing, potentially tall trees. I just see shrubs. Bill sees...something else.

He promises me there are other shrubs and plants that can grow 6 feet and higher to provide just as much privacy and so I'm resigned to losing what was once a solid green wall.

It always had the shortcoming in that the gate was right in front of the front door and with that break in the shrubbery, every passer-by was given full view of the front door, the bay window and the two postage-stamp-sized patches of lawn. If said gate was moved further along, the view would move to eventually (with new tall plants) include less of the front of the house and down the north side. So that was the plan.

I skittered around and snapped these 'before' pictures to help explain The Problem.