Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy Halloween!

You're looking at the full extent of our Halloween celebration this year.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Singing and gardening

     This past few days have been quiet, as I'm resting in preparation for several busy weeks of singing. This coming weekend  my choir in performing Carmina Burana, which means a week of nightly rehearsals. Two weeks from now, we'll repeat the schedule, singing Mahler's Third Symphony. 
     Even if you are not musically inclined, Carmina Burana is super-duper famous. It's been used in movies and commercials galore, because it's filled with very powerful, percussive singing. (Here's a version of O Fortuna, the opening movement. Even better, here's an animated, less serious take on that first movement.) The Mahler symphony is more traditional, and only has four minutes of choral singing in the entire concert. I am still rather nervous about it, as we are singing with Cleveland Orchestra, which is considered one of America's finest orchestras. The Cleveland Orchestra has its winter home in Miami, and they've hired our choir to sing. Last week the Director of Choruses attended our rehearsal and we spent two hours fine-tuning our four minutes of song. It was exciting and terrifying and I am so glad that I am not a professional musician.
     And when I am stressed, I turn to ice cream. In this regard, I am well prepared. I received an ice-cream maker for a gift recently and have three flavors stockpiled in the freezer: strawberry-limoncello (pictured below), fudge-mint, and frozen yogurt. The ice-cream maker was actually part of our budget plan, because I figured out that it's cheaper to buy whipping cream then the super-duper premium ice cream that I love to eat.

     Hurricane Sandy brought us cool weather* and a bit of rain, but its effect was relatively minor.** The cooler weather was welcome on Saturday when we helped out at our congregation's gardening day. The church has five acres, most of which is gardens or wooded areas. I was once again reminded that South Florida is teeming with life (in case the most recent flea infestation hadn't been enough reminder). We hacked down invasive air potato vines and other weeds. Here, Andrew shows off one of the largest plants he took out - a 10-foot tall tree. 

*It's 60F degrees right now! I'm wearing two sweaters. 
**And my thoughts are with everyone on the East Coast right now.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

London in two days

One reason that we had chosen to stay in Oxfordshire was that it was within driving distance of London. London is one of the most expensive cities I’ve ever been in (topped only by Oslo, perhaps?) and we didn’t want to have to overnight in London. Instead, we drove down to Heathrow airport, parked in long-term parking, and took the Tube into the city.  

The red phone booths are so iconic that we actually had to wait in a line of tourists to take our photograph in the booth, even though it was one of dozens that we saw that day. Here, my father takes a trip down memory lane while using a corded telephone.

Buckingham palace was all booked up, so we decided to get our history fix at the Tower of London. I think my parents were a bit dubious about this choice, because the name "Tower" doesn't really describe it well. The true name is "Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress" and if you appended "Founded in 1066, Serving as prison, armory, treasury, royal zoo, mint, and home of the Crown Jewels during the past 1000 years", you'd get a bit more of the flavor.

The Tower of London, looking large and impressive. We took a guided tour, viewed the Crown Jewels, which are as shiny and impressive as you'd expect from a former empire. The Tower also host ravens, which are part of a myth. It is said that when the ravens leave the tower, the kingdom will fall. Nowadays, the clip the ravens' wings to prevent them from flying away. This seems a bit unsporting to me.

There's a large building in the center of the compound, called the White Tower, which was constructed in the 1070's. It's had various purposes, including a royal residence and gunpowder storage. Now it hosts a display of historical weaponry and this oddly delightful dragon.

We also did the London Eye, a giant ferris wheel. (The picture below shows how big the pods are - they hold about 20 people.) You do just one rotation, but the wheel moves very slowly so that it takes about a half an hour. There are wonderful views of the city,

A note about vegetarian food in England: it is rather easy to find veggie options, particularly in the selection of sandwiches and fake meats. I've never seen a country that does fake meats as well as England. And it's very convenient for the restaurants, because all the pub meals (meat, cooked vegetables, potatoes and maybe a Yorkshire pudding) can be made vegetarian by swapping out the real meat for a fake meat. However, I dearly love noodles, so Andrew convinced the family to have lunch in an Asian noodle shop, which made me very, very happy.

Here, I look upon my noodles and tofu with glee. 

We also spent two afternoons on the open-top bus tours. These are a bit pricey, but they're extremely useful for groups. We had 7 or 8 people each day, and keeping us all together was something of a challenge, particularly as one parent or another was always wandering off to take a picture. The tours were a good way to see large parts of the city and not have to continually check if we'd left someone behind.

Monday, October 22, 2012

England, the first few days

(Warning: Vacation slide show ahead. If you don't want to hear about every fascinating detail of my recent trip, check back in a few weeks. Otherwise, proceed with caution.) 

My parents-in-law hunted far and wide to find a house that would hold four couples- them, my husband and I, my parents, and Andrew's sister and fiance. What they found was "the Old Bakery". It was lovely: recently renovated, half-timbered, four-bedroom house with a brick-lined kitchen and beautiful gardens around it.
We didn't manage much on the first day beyond a walk around some gardens, a nap, and a family meal. We were all fighting jetlag, although my father and I have different philosophies. I wanted to struggle through with a short nap, so that I'd fall asleep on time. My father thinks you should sleep as much as you need whenever you are tired. I suspect that part of his philosophy may be based in the fact that he never gets enough sleep at home, either.

Since we were jetlagged, we didn't drink too much alcohol at the start of the week. My parent-in-law had something just as delicious - bottles of the apple juice they bottled from their own trees.
For the first few days, we mainly split along gender lines, which correspond to differences in interest. My mother and mother-in-law both love to garden, so we went to the Botanical Gardens in Oxford. My mother also had a chance to experience a full English breakfast, which involves sausage or bacon (or both), eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, and beans. As you can see, it's very protein-filled and very filling. I stuck to the vegetarian full breakfast. We also fit in an organ concert in Birmingham and a visit to a wonderful museum exhibit of the Staffordshire Hoard, a collection of gold coins, emblems, and weapons that offers an unprecedented look at English life during the Dark Ages.

Andrew accompanied the fathers to events that I was happy to miss. My father loves motorcycles, and I spent many days in my youth visiting sites like the one below, the National Motorcycle Museum. (The day before they had gone to the races - motorcycle races, that is.) I am utterly grateful that although my husband loves motorcycles, he doesn't make me go look at them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A house in the country

Usually when I go on vacation, I like to choose one place to stay. When we've gone to Europe in the past, that typically meant that we stayed in a large city where we could depend on public transportation. This was my first trip to Europe where I stayed in a house in the country. In England, my parents-in-law rented a house in Oxfordshire which was large enough for them, my parents, Andrew and I, and his sister and her fiance. This meant if we could drive all over central England, to London or Oxford or Birmingham. In Spain (the second week of our vacation), my uncle rented a hotel/villa which had plenty of room for 7 different couples. These were therefore very different vacations than whatI'm used to. On one hand, I didn't feel like I was really part of the neighborhood and didn't get to experience what it might feel like to live in that area as a local. On the other hand, I got to see a lot more parts of the country then I would normally. Sometimes I wasn't so keen to spend two or three hours in a car on my vacation, but since I was with a big group in each place, I had lots of interesting people to talk to during the drive. And it's great to stay in a house rather than a hotel because you can eat some of your meals at home and lounge around. At the house we stayed at in southern Spain in Andalusia, we spent lots of time lounging on the terrace looking out over the city. Perhaps "city" is that too large of a word for Casarabonela -  while it is technically one of the white cities of southern Spain, but is really a village  of 2500 souls tucked up into the hills.

Almost every morning we woke up at the civilized hour of 8, since the sun didn't rise over the mountains until 8:30. We'd drink coffee on the terrace, and then head out for the day's adventures. In the afternoon or evening we'd be back on the terrace for drinks. One of the group in Spain was a gin and tonic master, and I learned a few secrets from him. One is to roll the lime until it's very soft, so the oils and juice are easily released into the drink. The second is to just use a heck of a lot of gin.