Monday, January 29, 2007

England, Part II: Rain and Rock

Lots of people have been asking me about my trip to England, so I realized I should just do a few more posts and then I wouldn't have to tell the same stories over and over.

A few weeks removed, my main impressions of England and Wales are dark, dreary, and well, kind of boring. Now, before all you anglophiles get your knickers in a knot, I should qualify this with several facts: (1) I was in the country during the period that it virtually shuts down, from Christmas to New Year's. For goodness' sake, most of the coffee shops were even closed. (2) As stated, I was there from Christmas to New Year's. It got dark every night by 4:30, and since we were so jetlagged that we rarely rose before noon, this left precious little time to do anything interesting, even if it had been on offer. (3) The most memorable thing we did was visit the Welsh Slate Mining Museum.

Now that we've got all that out in the open, I should say that I had a wonderful time. The main point of our trip was for Andrew's family and me to meet, and I'm so glad that we did. His parents were ever so welcoming and did everything they could to make me feel at home, which included many cups of tea, renting a small cottage near his home so that we could all stay together, and even making me the English equivalent of Tofurkey (the call it Quorn) for Christmas dinner. At the end of my stay, his mother more or less officially gave me the seal of approval. And this even after I had loosed my biting sense of sarcasm.

The Welsh Slate Mining museum really was pretty cool. We had planned to spend the day driving around and looking at mountains; Andrew wanted to show me all the mountains he had climbed, but it was too cold and rainy for me to even consider steppping out of the car. So I read my book as we drove, and occasionally he'd point out great heaps of rock, which I would duly admire. At one point we wanted to stop and eat our packed sandwiches, and we happened upon the museum. It was free (Score! So rare outside of the Smithsonian, but it makes me more willing to try a crazy museum than if I don't have to gamble $10 in entrance fees) and turned out to have a highly interesting combination of century-old shop machinery, mining displays, as well as Victorian-aged housing used by the miners and managers. I had been reading a history of Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries during the visit, so all of the facts about mining and industrialization became a lot more understandable when I could see it all in action. And slate really is a pretty stone, especially when it's wet (thank goodness it's always wet there).

I hope I'll get to go back someday and see Wales in the summer. It's pretty enough in the rain, it must be really stunning in sunlight.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow

We bid adieu to the Physicsmobile yesterday. It just seemed kind of silly for Andrew and I to have two cars when both of us don't drive into school and for most other things drive together. My father has agreed to take custody of the Physicsmobile, with the condition that we repainted all the equations. (You might had read that last line and assumed he meant "paint over" but he wanted us to "paint more brightly." What can I say - I have a styling father.)

I have survived my month long vacation and am now (mostly) happily returned. I am itching to get back to work. I've been away from physics education long enough that it looks fun enough. The only down side to my return is the heap of suitcases, boxes, and overflowing baskets of clothes and gifts that now need to be put away.

As is my usual routine after Christmas, I plan a great purge (Goodwill always gains mightily from these events) this weekend. Andrew is trying his best to protect his things, so I forsee great debates who needs a printer without ink more - my closet or some unknown soul who enjoys thifting?

When I was a child, I read about a man who had only 200 belongings. Every time he acquired something new, he parted with something else. I thought this was the greatest thing I had ever heard of. In practice, I have never come close to only 200 things, but there was a period where I could make a home out of two large suitcases, and an even longer period where I could fit all my belongings in my car. Now, alas, those days are far behind me. On one hand, I really enjoy making a home that's comfortable and inviting: having enough dishes to feed a dozen guests, and bedding for those that spend the night. Now and then, however, I feel the weight of all those consumer goods pressing upon me, and then it's time to chuck great bags of goods into the car for the last, lonely ride to Goodwill.

Here's wishing you all a happy, less-belongings-filled New Year.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Success in Seattle

I have just returned from my first academic conference, which was in Seattle. I gave a talk there and although it was only eight minutes long, I was thirty-minutes-long nervous. I am greatly relieved to report, however, that it went smoothly. I didn't trip over any cords, I didn't forget what I was talking about, and nobody came up to me afterwards and said, "What the heck were you thinking!" I count that as a success.

Seattle was terrific, as always. I wish I could live in that city someday, but (due to career considerations) it's pretty unlikely. I love the food (in just four days I ate excellent crepes, good burritos, and pastries and Russian filled buns down by Pike Street Market), I love being in a big city, and I enjoy the water and the mountains that surround the city. I do not, however, enjoy wearing Gore-tex or fleece, so perhaps it's just as well that I ended up in Maryland.

In other news, on the plane I was given apple-flavored applesauce. Who thought that one up? Now apple sauce isn't apple-y enough?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

England, Part 1: Exotic Food

Except for a brief two week trip a decade ago, everything I know about England comes from books. And during my time in England (which comprised the first half of my trip) I had the opportunity to sample a lot of foods that until that point I had only heard about. So, for the edification of all my readers, here is a short list of quite good (and all vegetarian) English foods, along with description and the official Renee Michelle rating:

Christmas Pudding. This is a dense, fruitcake like cake which is usually boiled (but in our case was microwaved). It's usually purchased premade and served with vanilla custard sauce. It's dark brown and filled with fruits and nuts. The color unfortunately made me think it was chocolate, but once I got over that disappointment I found it quite good; it's much moister than American fruitcake. Two forks.

Pickled Onions. The name pretty much speaks for itself. Usually served in or with sandwiches. Ugh. Briny vinegar and strong onion. I guess it's a way to add flavor to boring sandwiches, but I hope I never have to eat another one. Zero forks.

Humbugs. Who knew? They're actually large candies with a mild licorice flavor. I don't appreciate licorice as much as other people, but these were refreshing, and definitely seemed nice if you had a sore throat. One fork.

Treacle Tart. It's basically a pie filled with bread crumbs that have been sweetened with treacle (known to Americans as molasses). It must have had some butter or eggs in there too, because it was sufficiently rich. Good solid English food, but not especially exciting. One fork.

Ploughman Sandwich. A sandwich whose filling is cheddar, spring onions, sweet pickle, tomato, and seasoned mayonnaise. A very common sandwich, whose main ingredients often make a ploughman salad as well. I thought the combination was great. There was a good balance of flavors and it was pretty exciting, so far as vegetarian sandwiches go. Two forks.

Bread Sauce. Basically bread crumbs mixed with broth. There must have been some onion, celery and spices in there too, because it tasted like pureed stuffing. I can't imagine who thought this one up. As if turkey dinners didn't have enough brown, starchy accompaniments, they had to make another one. Zero forks.

Trifle. A layered dessert consisting of sponges (kind of like ladyfingers) dipped in brandy, topped with canned fruit, topped with jello, topped with custard, topped with whipped cream, and crowned with flaked chocolate. Yum. It had a lot going on, so you never got bored, and it elevated a lot of rather mundane ingredients to a higher state. Three forks.

Cheese and Onion Pasty. Just cheddar cheese and onion, wrapped in puff pastry. Purchased in a pie shop, microwaved warm, and eaten on the street. An excellent example of delicious food made with everyday ingredients. This was further evidence that almost every country makes better street food than America. Three forks.

There you have it, boys and girls. More on England to follow soon.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I promise I'll be back soon

Happy New Year! I was parted from all access to computers for over two weeks, and boy am I glad to see a keyboard again. I have so much to tell you all, although I'll try to space it out over several posts so that no one has to read an essay. (Even though I'm sure that you're all dying to read 1000 words on "What I did on My Winter Vacation.")

So, since I have to leave for Seattle in ten minutes, here's a very quick taste - a few pictures from England: one of a small town where the first iron bridge was built, thus the name of the village, Ironbridge, and one from Liverpool.

More soon, I promise