Adventures Across the Pond — Piles of Rocks

castles and henges and baths… oh my! a couple of days after arriving in london, we took a side trip to the english countryside where we saw piles of rocks arranged in all manner of configurations.

first stop was windsor castle, 30 miles west of london and the oldest and largest castle in the world as well as the weekend home of the queen. she was not there at the time, preferring to stay at her beloved balmoral castle in scotland. windsor was the castle that had the fire in 1992, which did a significant amount of damage to the property and antiquities inside as well as open up the era of riff raff being allowed inside buckingham palace. the damage to windsor was extensive and the first estimates to restore the landmark were between £40 million and £60 million. here’s the rub: windsor castle, though being the home of the royal family for 900 years, is owned by the british public (the castle, but not the art, furniture and antiquities inside). not surprisingly, helping out an aristocratic family with enormous land holdings, art, jewels etc. and who did not pay any income tax did not much appeal to your average working class citizen of the uk. so, a deal was struck whereby the queen would open up buckingham palace to visitors for a few months of the year whereby a portion of the cost could be recouped by charging visitors £9.75 or $15.55 to peek inside. but hey, it includes a free audio tour. windsor was already open to the public, but an admission fee was instituted. another free audio tour!

not having castles and such here in the states, it was cool to saunter around a real castle. as you would expect, windsor castle is up on a hill, behind high walls and a self-contained village. the building itself is smaller than you would think but the art and craftsmanship contained inside are quite a sight to see. just the china room alone would set your head spinning. since we were on a guided bus tour we were a bit rushed and didn’t get a chance to explore the picturesque town of windsor, but we did see some of the changing of the guard, a once daily event.

next stop: stonehenge. it was the afternoon of the autumnal equinox, a special day at stonehenge. there was a sunrise service, organized by druids and pagans with a smattering of wiccon (i’m not joking) to mark the day when there is an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. here’s a link to some video.

we missed the sunrise service and as far as i’m concerned we could have missed stonehenge altogether. smithsonian magazine published a cover story on new scientific findings at stonehenge, which i read before we left so i was looking forward to the guide talking about the new findings. alas, stonehenge tourist central didn’t seem to either know or care anything about it. in conclusion, stonehenge looks just like the pictures and i would have been satisfied with just driving by it and taking pictures out the window.

not surprisingly in a town called bath there are roman baths which date back to about 70ad. i have to admit that i was the least excited about bath, for no particular reason other than i figured it would not be more interesting than windsor castle. wrong! if you are planning a trip to england, bath is one of the places you should put on your itinerary and maybe even plan to stay for a couple of nights. it’s quite amazing to walk on 2000 year old stones and into structures where steaming waters from the king’s spring still stream into the pools and to learn about the important role the baths played in both roman and english society. you can even drink some of the water, which reportedly has healing powers. not so sure about that, but c and i both drank a cup.

again, we were on a tour so our time was limited and we were only able to see the roman baths themselves and just a bit of the beautiful town of bath, and exterior of the bath abbey, an example of some of the finest fan vaulting in the world and site of christian worship for over 1200 years. we did drive by jane austen’s house and past some of the other homes in town, examples of georgian architecture, but my literary friends will be disappointed to find out that we did not have the time to download and take the free audio tour of bath as jane austen knew it.

we had just a moment to duck into a pub for a drink and enjoyed a lovely conversation with the barkeep who filled us in on a few bits of local news.

as if there weren’t enough to recommend about bath, the visitor’s site lists top dog walking routes around the town and who’s to argue with a town that on its visitor site lists top dog walking routes?

look for adventures across the pond – part III

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Adventures Across the Pond – Part One

c and i finally made it across the pond (for those of you who are uninitiated that means we visited england and scotland). this is just one of the many trips we’ve been planning for decades, so in a way it’s hard to believe it’s already come and gone.

this was not my first trip overseas – i traveled around europe and england one summer back in 1977 – but it was c’s first trip. with the exception of the obvious landmarks, london has changed tremendously since i was last there. maybe that’s true of most world cities, and certainly it’s true here in the u.s., but i was pretty surprised at the difference in london. of course, 37 years is a long time…

i’m sure that many people would be disappointed to know that a stereotypical “british” experience may not necessarily be had in london any longer. oh sure, there are still pubs a plenty, penhaligan’s is still around, harrods (though owned by qatar holdings) stands grand but covent garden is now just like any us shopping mall and carnaby street is still there but without the famous funky vibe of the 60s. many of the workers and shop and pub owners are russian, ukranian or other eastern europeans and while there is still a strong indian presence there is also an added middle eastern population clustered into obvious ethnic enclaves.

perhaps because of the chunnel or maybe just because of the expanding nature of our world, london is not just pints, tea, biscuits and crisps, there are plenty of coffee shops, patisseries and all manner of similar take-out food joints that dot our own us towns and cities. while you might have guessed that the major fast food player is mcdonald’s, what we saw more often were kfcs, starbucks and subways – and they were always busy. certainly there are many distinctly british retailers, but just about every retailer you see in a major us city is also in london. same for high-end, name brand boutiques. even the styles were just about the same.

we did see a couple of what we called “london girls” – 20-something women with updated throwback styles from the 60s london – ratted hair, hip styles, thick accents, lots of eyeliner and fake lashes carrying lots of bags with treasures from their london shopping trip.

interestingly, american big band and swing music from the 40’s seemed to be the music of choice in hotel lobbies, elevators, restaurants and pubs.

the world is a much, much easier place to navigate, especially where money is concerned. in 1977 there was no euro, so i had to change money upon arriving at each country, and without electronic cash machines, i had to carry traveler’s checks and hunt out a bank or exchange office each time i crossed a border. c and i were only in england and scotland, so we were able to use the pound the entire time, but using a debit and credit card or get a cash withdrawal was just simple. most establishments took our debit or credit card and then asked whether we would like to pay in pounds, euros or dollars.

one wonderful change is that, like the us, england and scotland do not allow smoking on trains or in restaurants, so we were hardly bothered by smokers. okay, so back in 1977 i was one of those annoying smokers…

we quickly got used to the language difference, much to our amusement. no exit signs, just “way out”; chips are crisps, french fries are chips, cookies are biscuits, oatmeal is porridge, elevators are lifts, “th” is pronounced like an “f”, the word “then” is used at the end of most sentences, speaking inflection goes up at the end of a sentence to make every one into a question and the subway is called the tube where you mind the gap. oh, and so here we just order coffee, but there you would ask for an americano, espresso, latte or cappuccino. forget trying to get a brewed decaf ‘cuz it’s all instant.

we referred to ourselves as being from “the states” since our friends to the north and south in north america don’t appreciate the arrogance of calling ourselves americans, but we were always referred to as americans anyway.

probably the hardest thing to get used to was looking the correct way before crossing a street. this is such a problem for visitors in london that “look right” and “look left” with big arrows are painted on the street at many intersections. what i found most startling was to instinctively look at the left side of the front of a car only to find it empty or someone doing something other than paying attention to the road and realize all over again that the driver was on the right. they all looked like phantom cars to me. i’m not sure i ever got used to that.

look for Adventures Across the Pond – Part Two very soon.

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I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks, so in the meantime, please rummage through old posts and see if there’s anything you missed!

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Pesto, pesto, pesto

From an episode of Seinfeld
[Setting: A restaurant]
(Jerry, George, and Elaine are all eating at an Italian restaurant. George hasn’t eaten anything)
ELAINE: Do you want some of mine?
JERRY: Take some of mine.
GEORGE: Why do I get pesto? Why do I think I’ll like it? I keep trying to like it, like I have to like it.
JERRY: Who said you have to like it?
GEORGE: Everybody likes pesto. You walk into a restaurant, that’s all you hear – pesto, pesto, pesto.
JERRY: I don’t like pesto.
GEORGE: Where was pesto 10 years ago?
JERRY: Elaine is having a “houseguest.” She’s picking him up at the airport tonight.
GEORGE: A guy?
ELAINE: (Slightly embarrassed) Yes, a guy.
JERRY: He’s from a.. Yakima, right?
ELAINE: Seattle.
JERRY: Everybody’s moving to Seattle.
GEORGE: It’s the pesto of cities.

i don’t care what anyone says, i love pesto. this year i’ve been experimenting with making lots of different pestos, mainly because i have had bumper crops of herbs in the garden. i made the classic basil pesto but with walnuts because, although they add a wonderful creaminess, the price of pine nuts is ridiculous.

a few years ago i planted one little tarragon plant that has now become the monster that took over my garden. i’ve been cutting, digging and giving it away as well as using it to flavor roasted chicken and in pickling vegetables but the damn thing never seems to get any smaller. finally, i cut about two feet off the top of the plant, which is now about five feet high, and that resulted in about 5 packed cups of tarragon. so, into a pesto it went along with some parsley, basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, walnuts, olive oil and juice from a half of a lemon. when i tasted my creation soon after making it, i was a little worried because the walnut taste was quite pronounced and there seemed to be a distinct flavor of grass. but after letting it sit for about an hour the flavors came together and it was simply delicious.

c and i do not eat a lot of pasta so we are enjoying pesto on grilled chicken or fish, as a spread on bread or as a dip for various vegetables, and as a substitute for mayo on a sandwich. because of that, i use less olive oil than would normally be called for which allows the pesto to emulsify better. if i want to use this same pesto on pasta, i just add more olive oil. i also discovered that mixing one part pesto with one part softened cream cheese makes a wonderfully delicious spread. you can also mix pesto into hummus or soups or any other spread you can imagine.

since we are up on the tail end of the gardening season, i used up all the basil in the garden to make one last basil pesto. this time i used pistachios, which made for a softer flavor and a texture close to a pesto made with pine nuts. and once again, the flavor was much better after sitting for some time.

the classic way of making pesto is with a mortar and pestle, of which i have many being married to a pharmacist and all… but not the right kind for making pesto. like most people, i use the food processor. so one day, i was all geared up to make one pesto and my food processor quit working. out came my trusty blender and i discovered that a blender pesto is much smoother and creamier than food processor pesto, but you have to be careful that you don’t overblend.

i don’t use recipes for pesto, just ratios and if you memorize the ratio, you can be completely creative in making pestos out of anything that sounds appealing.
2 – 3 parts herb to 1/2 part oil, 1/4 part cheese, ¼ part nuts, 2 cloves of garlic, juice of ½ a lemon (if using herbs other than all basil) and salt.
And you can easily make pesto vegan by just leaving out the cheese (although you have to add more salt to compensate)

regardless of which device i use, here’s my process for making pesto:
roughly chop the nuts in the processor first and set aside. chop the garlic by hand. grate the cheese. process the herbs in the processor with the olive oil until halfway to the final texture. add the nuts, garlic and cheese and continue to process. add more oil if necessary to achieve the texture you want. tightly cover the mixture and set aside for an hour.

the combinations are endless.

and after the summer is long gone you can still evoke the memory of lazy summer nights and the perfumed air of a thriving garden.

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School Daze

for the first time since 1989 c and i have no children going back to school. well, not as students at least, we do have one teacher and one high school color guard instructor.

it’s an odd feeling to be so disassociated with a large part of the population and i have to admit to feeling a bit melancholy. of course i’m nostalgic remembering the days of first day of school outfits and the smell of new backpacks and crayons, crisp notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils and brown bag lunches lined up on the kitchen counter. i’m conveniently forgetting about dragging kids out of bed, hounding them to do their homework or praying that for once they would practice their instrument without having to be nagged.

in spite of having them around 24/7 in the summer, it was a much less stressful time than during the school year. not caring what they wore, not caring as much about what they ate, not caring what time they got up, not completely monitoring their tv watching and only caring about what time they went to bed because it meant time for c and i to spend together. there were fewer free hours in the day, but summer didn’t have all the details and deadlines.

i was sometimes a full-time working mom and sometimes a stay-at-home mom during all those years and i can tell you that either way, starting up with school again is a stressful endeavor. just getting past the excruciatingly detailed supply lists and attempting to get three kids with very distinct personalities to do something as simple as choosing a backpack (let alone a pair of shoes) was a job in and of itself. to no one’s surprise a new study just came out which showed that women felt less stress at work than at home.

the years we had one child in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school were hectic beyond description. each school had a different start and end time and only the elementary school had transportation. c drove the first one when he left for work, i drove the second one and the third one got dragged along for the ride because he was too little to be left home alone. after that, the third one got walked to the bus stop or to school. i had a giant whiteboard calendar that showed all the various school requirements and activities for three kids in three schools and every inch of it was filled with notes.

just taking a stab at attending all three back-to-school nights was a challenge. one year a school board member spoke at the middle school back-to-school night and kind of lectured parents about being involved with their kid’s education and getting to know the kid’s teachers and assignments, etc. sounds like a reasonable thing to say and i daresay that c and i were appropriately involved in our kid’s schooling (meaning: we were not helicopter parents).

either that school board member only had one child or never had the experience of three kids in three separate district schools, but either way, i wanted to let him know how daunting the task could be. i wrote him an email and politely let him know that i agreed with him in principle, but asked how we were supposed to get to know about all of kid’s classes and teachers when there were about 20 classes 28 teachers. yep, three kids had a total of 28 different teachers. add in coaches and instrumental teachers and your head might just explode.

so why am i nostalgic about all that? because in spite of it all, raising kids was still one of the best parts of my life and there are times when i miss it.

happy back-to-school kids and parents! hope you have a wonderful year.

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Stop it! Just stop it!

i’m not a first adopter and i’m not a trend setter. or perhaps i should say that neither of those are a goal of mine but sometimes i accidentally become the first at something.

but these days everything goes viral and every other day there’s another new meme to keep up with and/or add to and it’s even difficult to be on the cutting edge if you’re trying. (well, except maybe if you’re a kardashian…)

here’s the thing about memes: most often lunacy takes over and someone has to declare that it has to stop (not you ann counter).

so now i’m declaring that some things have to stop.

can we just talk about the grilled salad? okay, so maybe this concept would work if we were talking about grilling vegetables that make sense to grill like peppers, onions, eggplant or even corn. i might even be able to get on board with grilled tomatoes (although i’m not sure why a glorious, fresh august tomato needs to be embellished.) i subscribe to a couple of cooking magazines and a couple of other magazines that routinely include recipes and this idea of a grilled salad has been making the rounds.

so let me get this straight: i’m supposed to take a perfectly wonderful item like romaine lettuce — which by the way i eat because it’s crunchy and usually cold– and burn it on the grill. and i’m not even sure why. i have had this burned lettuce and i don’t get the appeal. is it just because it completely flies in the face of logic?

grilling salad either began and an act of clumsiness or a drunken meme and now it’s evolved into a party trick. i guess that we have just plain run out of ideas. that must be it. there are just so many cooking shows and cooking segments and cooking magazines that we have to make up insane things just to fill air time or pages. but when you run out ideas stupidity prevails. like grilling lettuce.

and speaking of grilling, can we just talk about grilling summer fruit and/or perfectly good pound cake? i’m especially baffled by the proliferation of recipes calling for grilled watermelon. i’ve had grilled fruits (peaches, nectarines and pineapple) and they’re good enough, but grilled watermelon is ridiculous. it does not make it taste any better, in fact one thing watermelon is not enhanced by is being eaten at anything other than icy cold temperature. isn’t the reason we eat watermelon to be refreshed on a hot summer day. how is a wilted, burned, limp slab of watermelon refreshing?

btw, if you notice almost all of these grilled fruit recipes call for ice cream or whipped cream to complete the flavor profile, which leads me to believe that the real flavor everyone is raving about is sweet ice cream or liquor flavored whipped cream.

we need to cease with the compulsion to “do” anything more to some of the glorious bounty this time of year than just enjoy it. we also need to stifle the impulse to follow along with every harebrained idea that gets printed in a magazine or posted on-line.

chris rock said it best: “just because you can doesn’t mean it’s to be done.”


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Freedom and Simple Pleasures

i did something this weekend that i haven’t done since i was a kid: i walked around in a bathing suit when i wasn’t on the beach. okay so it was just to a little deli to get lunch takeout and walk back to the motel pool to sit and eat, but it was kind of huge for me.

some of you probably think, “what’s the big deal?” and others are thinking about how much you want people without beach bodies to cover up already. let me clarify that my bathing suit is a tankini with a skirted bottom so i’m not talking about a tiny bathing suit here. even though i’ve worked hard to wear a size or two smaller than the “average” american woman, i’m still a big person. and i’ve always been self-conscious, especially about my heavy arms (my mother used to say that we are descended from good, peasant stock).

but i had a revelation.

near us on the beach was a muslim family enjoying the perfect beach day and i found myself staring at them, or trying hard not to stare at them. the father wore knee length bathing trunks and no shirt, but the two women with him where wearing long pants, a long tunic and black head covers. they were happily walking on the shoreline with their children while the water soaked the bottoms of their long pants and i thought how uncomfortable that wet fabric must feel against their skin. later, the women were swimming and playing in the ocean, up to their necks in the water, still completely covered. they could only feel the cool ocean water directly on the uncovered skin of their faces, hands and feet.

a few things occurred to me: 1. how glad i was that they were not restricted from enjoying the ocean and 2. how sad i felt that they would never feel the cool water or the ocean breeze or even the hot sun directly on their skin and 3. here i was with the freedom to enjoy all of those sensations and had spent years choosing not to.

whatever self-consciousness those women may have felt at being on the beach and in the water fully clothed did not seem to matter to them. they frolicked, tossed around a football, giggled with their children and generally enjoyed a refreshing and fun day at the beach.

last year i decided that too many years had passed since my self-consciousness deprived me of a swim in the ocean and waded in. okay, so i was slammed into the sand moments later because i have no wave skills, still i headed out toward c and the two of us had a nice time. this year, i was prepared to enjoy the ocean again but made sure i had a cover-up for when we walked to and from the motel.

seeing those women made me think.

i can tell you that it’s a lot cooler to be out in the hot sun in a wet bathing suit and no cover up, but i can also tell you that i got very sunburned. i can also tell you that later that evening as c and i were leaving for dinner, we took a selfie in which i was wearing a strapless dress without my usual cover-up and someone posted a snotty and hurtful remark – a person who often complains about other’s insensitivity.

my first instinct was to change my dress after that remark. my second instinct was to put on the cover-up even though it was a little too warm to wear it.

in the end, i didn’t change my dress. i took the wrap with me and i only put it on because i was cold.

freedom sometimes takes a bit of time.

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