Wednesday, February 25, 2009

History is Standard here

It’s Wednesday so that means it’s time for another hike. We had a pretty good sized group today. There wasn’t any snow on the ground like we had a couple of weeks ago and the temperature was slightly better than our last hike, but the skies were definitely greyer. The rain held off which was nice but we did have to trounce thru some pretty deep mud in places. Thank goodness for wellies.

I love mine. I am free to stomp thru as many giant puddles and muddy paths as I like. I feel like a 5 year old when I wear them. The word Wellie is a slang word for the Wellington Boot which is basically a rain boot. They’re called Wellies because they were made popular by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself. Wellington boots were very fashionable among the British aristocracy back in the early 1800’s but today everyone with a kid or a dog or the need to set foot in the out of doors in England owns a pair. I have some furry inserts I put in the bottom of mine in winter because they aren’t well insulated and I usually wear my ski socks with them too at this time of year.

Our hiking group met today at The Royal Standard of England (the pub, not the flag which would be a whole ‘nother post). The Royal Standard is the oldest Freehouse in the country and is located way off the beaten path in a village called Forty Green, just a few miles from our home. Btw-a Freehouse is basically a pub that is free of the control of any one brewery but since we arrived at 9:30 in the morning the whole brewing thing is immaterial to my story today.

The Royal Standard is one of our favourite places and is just oozing with charm and history. The history actually goes back some 900 years. Yes you did read that right. When you visit the pub you can check out the back of the menu to get the whole story. It’s printed there in about a size 4 font and it’s quite lengthy because hey, a lot can and does happen in 900 years! If you’d like to know more right now you can read here. Let’s just say the Saxons started brewing ale on this very site about 900 years ago and that tradition continues to this day. Well, not the Saxon part, but the ale part anyway. After the Saxons came the Normans, followed by the Roundheads and Cavaliers and then the Highwaymen and rakes right up to the locals and visitors who frequent the Royal Standard today. Now, enough history...what I really want to tell you is that The Royal Standard will serve you the most awesome plate of fish and chips around. Really, it’s like a whale or something. I’ve been enough times now that I know to order a child’s portion which is still huge but I manage.

I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself because before we could eat we had to work for our lunch. We hiked about 4 miles up hill and down, across valleys and thru some very muddy woods.

Sometimes on our hikes we have to climb over fence stiles. This is perfectly legal and is part of the fun. I think we hauled ourselves over at least 8 or 10 on today’s walk.

Quite often we pass animals and today was no exception.

Mostly though we admire the truly beautiful countryside that when you see it all you can think is how much you love this place and how you want to remember always what it feels like to walk across a farmer’s land and laugh at the sheep, to see a postbox around a narrow bend in a sleepy little village, to climb a hill and see nothing but wide open spaces stretching out in front of you, to walk thru woods filled with snowdrops and holly and conifers and laurel and have to step to the side of the trail so someone on horseback can pass you by.

You try hard to take a picture inside your mind so you can come back here again and again when you are far from England.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Got Books?

I participate in two book groups with my women’s club, one meets monthly in the daytime and one meets monthly in the evenings. Can you tell I like to read? We select our books at the first meeting of the year and then meet once a month to discuss and share our opinions. Once a year the daytime book group ventures out on a field trip of sorts and today was such a day.

We met at Marylebone train station in central London and then took a bus just a few blocks to the British Library. The British Library is the largest public building constructed in the UK in the 20th century. It is massive and modern.

The library receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland and their collection includes over 150 million items in most known languages. Approximately 3 million new items are added every year and they say if you saw 5 items each day it would take you over 80,000 years to see their entire collection. Some of their special items include the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels (an illuminated Latin manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, approximately 310,000 manuscripts ranging from Jane Austen to James Joyce, from Handel to The Beatles, roughly 60 million patents, and over 4 million maps.

We wandered around at our leisure spending most of our time in the Ritblat Gallery which is a permanent display of some of the library’s greatest treasures, arranged by theme. There is an entire room dedicated to the history and significance of the Magna Carte. We also viewed many Shakespeare manuscripts and even Lewis Carroll’s original Alice manuscript. (btw- his real name was Charles Dodgson and he was an Oxford boy like Lewis and Tolkien).

Around noon we walked next door to the St. Pancras train station. This station has been recently renovated and it is absolutely beautiful. (The weather, not so much...forgive the color but the sky was it's favorite shade of gray today)

If you travel to France or Belgium via the Eurostar train this is your point of departure. For a minute we contemplated hopping on a train to Paris…after all, we did read a book set in France this month…but instead we walked through the station and then headed to my friend Peg’s flat just a few blocks away.

Our book this month was Fire in the Blood, by Irene Nemirovsky. Nemirovsky is a novelist who was killed at Auschwitz during the war and she wrote mostly about French village life during the world war years. Some of her stories were found only fairly recently and have been published to great acclaim, particularly Suite Francaise which we read last year.

We wrapped up our outing today with a wonderful lunch prepared for us by Peg which was finished off with an incredibly delicious creamy lemon pie. Friends, books and lemon pie…that’s my kind of day!

Cheers, Joyce

Sunday, February 22, 2009

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and me: Do you have an Inkling what this is about?

Oxford, of course. Lewis and Tolkein were both members of a literay society at Oxford known as the Inklings. I'm not, but I do love their writing and I am in love with Oxford...does that count?

My husband works in Oxford and we had plans to meet some work colleagues on Saturday evening for dinner in the city. Since our home is about 40 minutes away and we knew it would be a late evening my husband suggested we make a weekend of it and spend the night in town. (Hey, we're empty nesters and we can do that now ya know!) Saturday was a spectacular day weather wise here, bright blue skies with lots of sunshine and pleasant temps. We took the scenic route rather than the motorway and drove thru some of the most picturesque little villages around. Little Milton is one of my favorites with its beautiful stone walls and cottages.

We stopped for lunch at a lovely country pub called The Mole Inn in Toot Baldon (no, I didn’t make that up). This is an absolutely picture perfect spot. Plunked down in the middle of some beautiful English countryside is this adorable pub that serves wonderful food. It was completely booked when we drove up but since it was a warm sunny day we said we’d sit in the garden and wait for a table. Everything is better when the sun is shining.

After lunch we made our way on into Oxford where my husband had booked a room for us in the very lovely, very unusual Malmaison Hotel in the heart of the city. Malmaison is unusual in that the building itself was an honest to goodness gaol (that's the 17th century spelling of the word 'jail' in case you aren't up on your 17th century spelling). The gaol sits beside what was Oxford Castle which had been a royal residence until the late 13th century. Oxford Castle itself was built in 1071 by order of William the Conqueror. If you're not familiar with William the Conqueror let me just tell you that he was one busy boy back in the day. I'm pretty sure he had his hand somehow on every castle that I've toured in England and the surrounding area, including parts of France (and we're talking a whole lot of castles here). Gradually the gaol grew to take over most of the site and today all that remains of the Castle is the mound and St. George’s Tower with it’s medieval crypt lying below.

Malmaison occupies a large part of the former prison block with converted jail cells now serving as guest rooms. Our room was in the ‘Corrections Wing’ and we had to pass thru the ‘Exercise yard’ to get there. There was a fantastic photo exhibit going on all around the property called Earth from the Air and we enjoyed wandering thru that during our stay.

After we got checked in we wandered around the streets of Oxford, taking pictures, admiring the beautiful architecture and magnificent buildings.

Later that evening we met our friends for a delicious dinner in the restaurant beside our hotel. It was good to meet two of my husband’s co-workers who I’ve heard a lot about but hadn’t met and also their wives. It was a fun evening and it was especially nice to just walk next door to our cell ­when dinner was over.

Sunday morning was a lot cooler and a little grayer but no rain so after breakfast we walked over to Christ Church, just one of the 30+ colleges that make up the University of Oxford, and one we’ve visited many times. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you’d recognize the dining hall in Christ Church because it served as the inspiration for the Hogwarts Dining Hall. Since we were in town on a Sunday we decided to attend their 10 o’clock church service. We’ve been inside the cathedral a number of times but never for an actual service. The cathedral choir is a real treat to hear in person and the building itself is magnificent with beautiful stained glass. We have been in countless cathedrals and churches all around Europe (just ask our kids!) and there is something about a truly beautiful church building that makes you want to come inside, to sit and be quiet and worship.

We both enjoyed our unexpected little getaway this weekend. We do feel like we've definitely taken advantage of the opportunity for travel and sightseeing in our 6 years here. I'm pretty sure though, that I could be here another 600 and not see all that England has to offer. I'm going to sign off now. I feel a sudden urge to re-read The Chronicles of Narnia .

Cheers, Joyce

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thai cooking, with a happy heart of course

I had a fun day Wednesday with a few friends from CAWC (that's the Chilterns American Women's Club, a group of American and International Women living in England). Eight of us had signed up for a Thai cooking class at a newish restaurant called, Thai Fusion, located in the nearby village of Amersham. The day started with a welcome coffee and introductions. I always like to begin a cooking class with a fabulous cappuccino so I was a happy camper right off the bat. Mark is the owner of Thai Fusion and he introduced us to head chef, Yuttana, and the restaurant manager who is called P O.

Yuttana first gave us a wonderful crash course in the fresh ingredients we would be using. These are flown in on a weekly basis direct from Thailand. Our fresh ingredients included bird's eye green chillies-I thought he was saying burns eye green chillies which also would make sense, lemongrass (Mmmm), shallots, garlic, baby eggplant, and something called galangal which I'd never seen or heard of before. Galangal looks a little bit like a skinny piece of ginger root but the flavour is different, slightly sweet. Yuttana concluded this part of our lesson by telling us the four essential elements of Thai cooking-

1. Good fresh ingredients

2. know the taste these ingredients will create in your curry (spicy-chili, salty-fish sauce, sweet-palm sugar, sour-something is wrong!)

3. technique-know what needs to go into the dish first and what needs to be added at the end

and, most importantly,

4. Your heart must be happy to cook. I love that.

After we all agreed that our hearts were indeed happy we moved into the cooking area for the only slightly unpleasant part of the day...donning the red caps and white aprons. The aprons were fine and much appreciated but the caps, oh my. Let's just say the cap makes me reconsider furthering my Thai cooking expertise.

Everything about the class was so well organized. We were each given a folder with recipes and descriptions of all the ingredients and spices we would be using. We each had our own workstation with a cooking burner, a pan, utensils for creating and cooking our dish, and a tray with ingredients all laid out for us, each in its own little ramekin. Mark instructed us as to the fire drill procedure before any burners were lit but I'm happy to report that our cooking did not require the services of the fire department today. We were making two dishes and would be dining on our creations by lunchtime.

The first dish was Kheang Kaiew Waan Kai -that is Curry Green Sweet Chicken or Thai Green Curry as it is commonly known. Yuttana patiently walked us thru each step beginning with making the curry paste, a fully satisfying experience which involved a whole lot of pounding with a mortar and pestle. We could add anywhere from 0-3 chillies and I think most of us went with the nice middle number of 2. We each made a double batch of the paste and Mark put the half we didn't use today into our goody bags (more about that later) so we could recreate the dish at home. Everyone made their sauce, gently adding the spices, the coconut milk, the fish sauce, the chicken, the vegetables and…

Voila!...a beautiful Kheang Kaiew Waan Kai appeared.

Once we finished patting ourselves and each other on the back we washed our hands and went to work on our second dish, Pot Pia Khoong (an asparagus prawn spring roll). Because the filling for the spring roll needed to be prepared in advance and then cooled, Yuttana had already made filling for us to use today. We did get to see him demonstrate how this was done. Next came the fun part…we each rolled our own Spring Rolls and Golden Bags. Yuttana had to get back to the restaurant kitchen so Mark demonstrated the technique for us and then had us each make our own. In the restaurant each spring roll should look identical to the one before. Not as easy as it sounds!

When everyone had their spring rolls completed we were invited to sit down for lunch.

Throughout the morning PO had been labelling everyone’s dishes so we were given the actual spring rolls and golden bags we’d made. Let me just tell you when they carried out the cooked spring rolls you would have been impressed. We sure were! And they didn’t just look pretty-they were delicious too. The curry didn’t disappoint either and even though we all appeared horrified when Mark suggested dessert we all managed to order something. I had what was described as coconut custard but was more like a flan…yummy! There was a scoop of fabulous strawberry ice cream served with it too.

I do love a goody bag and Thai Fusion didn’t let me down. Mark had packaged our curry paste, our Spring rolls, and a complimentary jumbo bottle of fish sauce into bags as a takeaway from the day (I know, I know…it doesn’t take much to make me happy). We each received a personalized certificate saying we’d cooked authentic Thai dishes and we also were given information about the other cookery courses the school offers which I’d love to try. Overall it was a great day. I enjoyed the cooking and the company of friends, learning something new and of course tasting what I’d cooked. And, I even managed to book a table for the weekend so I can come back with my husband. I love any day out that promises a night out in the near future!

Cheers, Joyce

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

You say potato I say potahto

Actually I say potato too...I don't think anyone says potahto. I do however say tomahto because I live in England and when you say tomato they look at you funny. Anyhoo, the reason I am mentioning potatoes today is because I'm posting a recipe (guess what's in it?) over on Kim's blog. Kim is hosting a recipe exchange every other Wednesday so be sure to visit her blog and get in on the fun. Today's theme is soups and stews so I'm sharing one of my favorites....

Hearty Potato and Leek Soup

Let's start with the ingredients...

3-4 Tablespoons butter

3 medium/large leeks, thinly sliced (leeks need to be washed very well)

1 medium white onion, chopped

6 large potatoes, thinly sliced (I usually peel 3 and leave the skin on the remaining 3)

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (I always use chicken broth), plus a bit extra to thin at the end

1 cup double cream (that's heavy cream in the USA)

1 tsp. salt (maybe more depending on your potatoes, broth, and personal taste)

1/2 tsp black pepper

Step 1: Melt the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the sliced leeks and chopped onion. Cook, stirring occasionally until mixture is soft and onions are slightly golden.

Step 2: Add the sliced potatoes to the pot and pour the broth over so the potatoes are just barely covered. Cook over medium heat til tender (the time needed will depend on the size and variety of potato but I cooked mine about 25 minutes).

Step 3: Once the potatoes are tender carefully put them into a food processor or blender to puree. Do this in batches and take care when putting hot liquids into a food processor-vent it at first. I don't completely puree mine as I prefer a slightly more textured soup but if you want it completely smooth then puree to your heart's content. If you don't have a food processor or blender you can do it the old fashioned way-by hand with a potato masher.

Step 4: Return the potatoes to the soup pot, reduce the heat and stir often so the bottom doesn't scorch. I usually mash it a bit with my potato masher to break up any big pieces the processor missed. Next add the cream, salt and pepper and cook an additional 15-20 minutes, stirring often. This is quite a thick soup (hence it's name-Hearty!) but if yours is too thick add some more chicken broth. I usually add about another cup at this point and it's still a very thick soup. I'd describe the consistency as being more like a chowder.

Step 5: Remove from heat and serve. This is a delicious and filling soup (there's that hearty thing again). I serve with a nice chunk of French bread. You could also add a green salad if it's dinner.

Bon Appetite! Joyce

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hearts, Flowers, and Super Dog?

My husband surprised me by coming home a little bit early on Friday evening with his arms full of these...yellow roses are my favorite.

Saturday morning I cooked a special breakfast. It was special 'cuz I made heart shaped French toast and since Christmas we've been, ahem, watching what we eat, so bread hasn't shown up too often in our menus. After breakfast we piled Dixie into the car (hey, she needs a Valentine's Day treat too) and drove to Burnham Beeches. It's only about 10 minutes from our house unless someone inadvertently tells their husband to turn 5 miles too soon and they end up on a scary, skinny, single tract road that did eventually get them there. Burnham Beeches is an area of a little over 500 acres of ancient woodland and it is a truly beautiful place to spend a few hours. Muddy, but beautiful. Pinewood Film Studios is nearby and several movies have used Burnham Beeches for location shots including First Knight, The Princess Bride, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to name just a few.

We walked thru the woods, while Dixie frolicked (there's no better word for our dog off lead in the woods) and we ended the morning with a coffee at the 'eco cafe' near the car park. I'm not 100% sure why it's called an eco cafe but I can tell you the roof is made of real live growing grass. As we were sipping our coffee something over to the side caught our eye...

I couldn't help myself...I had to ask. This is Tessa and according to her owner, Friday was Tessa's 12th birthday and they were at Burnham Beeches with some of her 'friends' having an honest to goodness birthday party. Yes, there was cake and yes, there were goody bags because, as the owner whispered to me, 'You know you can get anything on the internet nowadays.' She went on to explain that they had put Tessa in her costume on Friday and she has not wanted to take it off since. I think I've said it before but it bears repeating...dogs rule in this country.

I'm realizing now that seguing into a description of the very elegant dinner we enjoyed later that evening is a bit clumsy after what I've just written but I'll try. Yes we did have a lovely dinner Saturday night at a beautfiul restaurant called The House on the Bridge. It technically sits just beside Windsor Bridge in Eton, adjacent to the Eton College boathouses. During dinner I commented to my husband about the fact that 25 years ago on this day we were planning our wedding. And he said (God bless him) 'You look even better now than you did then.' Now, I'm completely certain that if you held my 23 year old self up next to my 48 year old self you would not agree. But this is one of the wonderful blessings of a long marraige.

As a lovestruck young adult starting out in marraige you look at your mate and you see your whole life stretching out in front of you, filled with hope and endless possibility. When looking at your spouse after 25 years of married life you see so much more. You see your shared past with all of it's joys and sorrows, you see the parent of your sweet children, you see all the years of working and playing together, you see the hurts and the forgiveness and love that you've lived. All these things that you were only able to experience because you both decided every day of your married life that you are in this together for ever and for always, come what may. And yes, you do still look towards the future, and yes, it is still stretching out in front of you filled with endless hope and possibility. Happy Valentine's Day....Joyce

Monday, February 9, 2009

He's Got the Whole World in His Hands

Young Life is a wonderful organization that is very near and dear to my heart and since I'm keeping this blog as a journal to myself I wanted to find a way to capture some of the feelings I have in regards to the group known as YL. In many ways YL setting down roots in our International School community during our second year living in the UK completely altered not only my children's experience here, but my own as well. If you aren't familiar with YL you can find out more by clicking here but put simply, YL is a non-denominational ministry that reaches out to adolescents by building meaningful relationships with them, introducing them to Jesus, and helping them grow in their faith with Him.

Young Life was supposed to start small in our school but actually it took off like a runaway roller coaster. We formed a parent committee and got us a leader. Jason was an American who'd been working in the Devon area of England with British youth for a few years. He was heading back to the US but agreed to stay in the UK for a year and get things started in our area. With him came a 19 year old British student, Mark, who worked his gap year with YL in our area that first year. I won't even mention here that that same now 23 year old Britsh student Mark, and his lovely new bride Hannah, are the current YL leaders in our area some 5 years later : )

My husband and I were part of the original parent committee and over the course of these last five years it has been our privilege to know and work beside some of the most caring people you will find in all the world. The weekly Bible Study (Campaigners for those of you who know YL lingo) was held in our home every Thursday night for 3 years. As I've mentioned before there's huge turnover in the International community every year and we feel fortunate to have known so many teenagers who are now living in all parts of the world...a verse in Acts springs to mind here : )

In the US highschoolers attend YL camps in the summer but that isn't easily available to the kids living outside the US. Instead they are invited to participate in a weeklong service project trip each year. The photos at the top of this post were taken on trips where close to 100 highschoolers from international schools around Europe participated. My own kids, through their involvement with YL here, helped dig a ditch (think moat) around a Romanian village called Lupeni that completely flooded every year, built a playground in Petrosani Romania another year, played, danced, talked, and came to love some orphans one week in a village outside of Sofia Bulgaria, and built a playground, repaired windows, painted walls and mended a fence in another Bulgarian town and orphanage. Perhaps most importantly these experiences taught them to look at themselves, at God, and at the whole big wide world in a new and very real way. You know, teenagers can ask the really tough questions (Why was I born in America and xyz was born in an impoverished mining town in the Transylvanian mountians?...just to throw out one off the top of my head). YL has been the springboard for many a meaningful conversation in our house.

I've been thinking alot about YL this week as both of my daughters spent this past weekend at a YL retreat in Windy Gap, NC. My two daughters are both at university in the US. Daughter1 is a Junior and Daughter2 is a freshman and they attend the same school which is wonderful for them (they love being on the same campus) and wonderful for us (logistics are so much easier this way). They volunteer as YL leaders at two different highschools not far from their university and this past weekend was their area retreat complete with loads of highschool kids and all the laughter, music, crazy games and terrific message YL always presents.

It feels like we've come full circle in a way. My kids who have been encouraged, prayed for, loved, and challenged by the YL leaders and volunteers in our little corner of the world are now doing the very same thing with teenagers they are walking along beside in their new little corner of the world. It is also comforting to know that although we are living 4,000 miles away (give or take a few) from our children, there are caring adults serving on a Parent Committee in a town in South Carolina who welcome our girls into their homes, provide a home cooked meal now and then, who pray for our children and offer a listening ear when its needed.

Six years ago when my husband asked, 'How would you feel about moving to England?' I couldn't have even begun to imagine where this road would lead. I'm thankful every day that Young Life was part of our journey. Cheers...Joyce