K & M go to the UKPosted: January 16, 2013
Yes, I am finally back! Two weeks in the UK, 1 bout of norovirus (M, not me), 3 days at a beach house, 1 rehearsal, 1 day putting my homelife back together (5 load of laundry), 1 full day of work and here I am again. It really was only three and a half weeks, but it feels like much more than that. Mostly, I feel like I need a vacation after my vacation. We packed all sorts of traveling into those two weeks, even though I don’t think I ever truly adjusted to the timechange. And though the virus knocked M out for two days, we were up and running again on the third. Thanks to the solid 18/24 hours of sleep I got on those sickdays, I do not really feel so tired…just rather scattered. A little unsteady.
Even though I am nearing the two-year anniversary of my college graduation, I still expect my life to move in semesters. Its a nice little trio: Spring, Summer, Fall. However, that means I still get stuck in my rut of “waiting-until-next-semester”. Things get insane with work and family during the holiday season? I don’t fix things or try to make it better for myself right then. My mindset is immediately: “well, I’ll just get through this and change things in the spring”. The pro: I am currently in the process of “sorting out my life” and “making changes” not because of the new year, but because it is “Spring”. Good for me changes, like setting a time to stop working, taking actual days off (when you work primarily on the weekends, its easy to lose track of those), making time to do extracurriculars that I want to do. The con: At least three times a year, if my life is hectic, stressful, or something is wrong, my instinct is not to make things better for myself in that moment, but instead to wait for some imagined Reset point in the calendar year. Also, I still apply terms like “extracurricular” to my life. Of course, I suppose my life does vaguely follow this semester/seasonal structure…when you work with kids, its hard not to follow the same structure that frames their life. And I keep telling myself “This is real life. It isn’t going to change unless I make it change.” Well. I’m working on it!
Anyways, our two-week-turned-three-week vacation was the perfect imaginary “Reset button”. Jumping continents works well, in that sense. As I mentioned, we went over to England for M’s sister’s wedding, which was sandwiched in between Christmas and New Years. On top of the celebrations, we had a growing (wunder)list of things to do in the UK: visit M’s hometown, go into London and see any of the 4 friends we have studying abroad in the city, go to Cardiff for the Doctor Who Exhibit, go to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, find the magical, mythical pub somewhere in London that offered gluten-free fish and chips on Wednesdays… We did almost all of that, and more (the fish and chips was traded for a panto and a visit to the festival). With the wedding preparations and holiday obligations taking up much of the first week, most of this was jam-packed into our second week there. Needless to say, we needed rest when we finally came home.
M and I flew overnight, to land on the bright morning of Christmas Eve. M caught up with his sister, her fiancee, her soon-to-be mother-in-law and his mum, who had flown out four days before us. I took a 5 hour nap that was the bane of my holiday existence. I still reckon that it was because of that nap that I never truly adjusted to the time change. M stayed up the whole day, crashed at night and was as right as rain for our trip. When I finally woke up, there was just enough time for a mini-tour of all the gluten-free products awaiting us in the kitchen (more on that later), a quick curry for dinner and then some more sleep. Christmas morning brought a pile of presents, far more than I would have imagined. M and I had done Christmas with my family much earlier, since the only time we could get all the siblings home was over a week before Christmas. Between the two days I have an exciting pile of new cookbooks (The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook, The Official Game of Thrones Cookbook, The Gluten-free Gourmet Bakes Bread–the same author from where I adapted my french bread recipe, and Gordan Ramsey, Three Star Chef which is a fascinating blend of stunning photographs, restaurant stories, and recipes). I also have a pile of new kitchen supplies, most notably a Brotform rising basket and a Brod & Taylor Bread Proofer. I am so excited! Expect a plethora of rustic dishes, free-form bread loaves, and perhaps some magical treats drifting through this blog in the near future!
Christmas continued with a traditional English Christmas dinner which was absolutely phenomenal. M’s sister is an amazing cook. And, the only portion of the dinner that needed to be made purposefully gluten-free was the stuffing. Turkey, ham, sausage-and-chestnut stuffing, little rolled pigs in blankets (which are tiny, savoury sausages wrapped in bacon–no bread at all), gravy, carrots, parsnips, green beans, and the stand-out of the meal: potatoes roasted in goose fat. They were absolutely incredible. Golden, crispy shells with the softest, fluffiest inside that I’ve tasted in roast potatoes. We even convinced her to make them once more in the trip, even though, as a rule, she only uses it at Christmas. I admire her restraint. We had Christmas crackers and a slightly ridiculous time trying to play Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious on the plastic whistles inside. Difficult in its own right, and made worse when we only had one copy of the note progression, not too mention 6 people attempting to play 8 whistles. We got some good laughs out of it, at least.
By boxing day, M was going a little stir crazy. Unfortunately, as a holiday, there still weren’t many trains running. The next day, we headed down the road for our first pub lunch of the trip. I was reminded again of just how much I love pubs. There is a certain atmosphere of cozy comfort and casual-ness that isn’t really attained in any American restuarant. Yes, you can come in for a drink from 11:30am-onwards, and the table next to you will be a mother bringing her children out for lunch. The English aren’t fussy in the way Americans are. Bringing a child into a bar in the States would (a) take some research to find one that allowed it, (b) would have to be within the time restraints of youth dining, and (c) would earn the parent some very judgmental looks. A drink with lunch is practically expected in British culture, and going out for a pint doesn’t necessitate excluding yourself to the rest of society. I am certainly not condoning exposing children to a party of smashed individuals, but I did realize that the Brits have achieved the combination of bar+family-appropriate restaurant in the majority of their pubs. Americans would be too appalled to even try to mimic that environment.
But, far more importantly is the pub food. The stereotype of English food being bland and unseasoned could not be farther from the truth. M and I ate well and heartily at every meal in the UK. All pub menus seemed to offer variations of roasts, ribs, burgers, sandwiches, jacket (stuffed & baked) potatoes, fish, perhaps a pasta dish, an all-day breakfast plate, and one or two asian or indian inspired dishes, on top of a variety of appetizers and desserts (which always offered a cheese plate). It was unpretentious, well-made food. Wonderful food. The local pub, the Rose and Crown, soon became our favorite (and not just because it was a quick 15-20 minute walk). M and I, of course, were also spoiled by the variety of ciders available on tap and in bottle at every restaurant we visited. So much so, that we didn’t bother to ask about gluten-free beers (though, given the breadth of other gluten-free products available, I bet many places would have some GF beer). It was wonderful and almost easy to navigate eating out, gluten-free.
Two days before the wedding, trains were finally running on a more normal schedule and we ventured out into the city. We had lunch at Gordan’s Wine Bar, a dark, twisting space in the basement, with half of the dining area in a sloping, tunnel-like excavation. We bought a bottle of wine, and a plate of the simple meals offered: beef stew for M and his mum, mustard pork chops for me, and new potatoes all around. The salad (pickles, coleslaw, and other dressed slaw-type mixes) was free with any food purchase. Only because of the lack of GF bread did we pass on the cheese plate (pick three out of a mouth-watering array of cheese, add some charcuterie if you preferred). We choose to sit outside, with a little more breathing room, under the heater in the top of the umbrella. Again, the food was simple, but flavorful, perfect for the damp day. After some shopping, we, quite literally stumbled onto the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, which is the largest traveling festival in Europe. We rode on the massive ferris wheel, sampled the mulled wine (another reason I love England–it is everywhere), and walked through the whole thing, people-watching and food-sampling. I had roasted chestnuts for the first time, which was and entirely unexpected food experience. They remind me of sweet potatoes, the last connection I expected to make when tasting a nut.
The day before the wedding, we made our first trip down to Petersfield, the small town where M grew up, mostly to get ourselves out from underfoot of the last wedding preparations. We met up in the pub with some old friends of M’s mum and whiled away a couple of hours. M walked me all around town, to one of his old houses, to the square where his mother ran everything from farmer’s market to special event. It was the first really rainy day that we had been out, and I had chosen my less-forgiving boots and had blisters before long. I’m afraid I wasn’t the best tourist that afternoon. After we took the train back home, we went back to the Rose and Crown, and cobbled together an entirely random, but deliciously satisfying meal for ourselves that probably elicited some amusement (or perhaps confusion) from the wait staff and cooks. Prawn crackers off the children’s menu (served with sweet chili crackers), potato skins, pate, and a cheese plate without the bread will probably never ever be on the same table together again, but it was the perfect snack-type meal for the three of us.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. It was a beautiful, well-executed event. We were in Wentworth, which means nothing to me, but I’ve heard is a big deal if you are into golf. Of course, M, M’s mum, and myself, as member of the entertainment and events fields, were as much impressed by the space changeovers, service, and set-up as we were with his sister’s choices. It truly was absolutely stunning, with a clean, delicate winter theme and possibly the best dinner we had in our time there. I did not have the audacity to whip out my phone and take pictures (a habit M is quite used to), but I did bring back my menu to remember the dishes. M’s sister informed the venue that we were gluten-free and, again, aside from recieving our own basket of GF bread with the soup, the only change to our dishes was that the mustard crust on the beef was removed. The truffle jus was absolutely incredible, and I think I preferred it as I was served, without the mustard given a chance to overpower the jus. The soup was wonderfully fresh, and the first dish I’ve eaten that truly tasted “verdant”. As mentioned, the main course was to die for, richly satisfying without being too heavy. The buttermilk pannacotta was equally amazing, with the strawberries supporting the delicate flavor of the pannacotta, rather than vice versa. The pralines were served over dry ice, and each table received an impressive wash of fog before serving. The spectacle further supported the wintry theme, and though we were in on the surprise, it really was a lovely end to dinner.
After dinner, the room was changed over again for a ceilidh (pronounced like kaylee)–irish dancing with a caller. The best way I can describe it to those unfamiliar with it is a combination of square-dancing (in the calling sense) and the dancing in Pride and Prejudice. It was a wonderful idea. As M’s sister said, if they had a disco (modern music), very few people would dance, but the ceilidh leveled the playing field in a way. Someone would always be directing you with the next move; the dance were quick, a tad saucy, and often group-based. It was hilariously fun and even got M and I up for multiple dances (an achievement in and of itself). In the alcove by the dance floor was a bar (that certainly helped to encourage ceilidh participation), a candy bar, cheese platters, and a photobooth. It was unlimited prints, as long as each group made an extra copy to paste into a photo album for the bride and groom. It was a wonderful, well-thought wedding that truly catered as much to the guests as it did to the bride and groom.
Most of the wedding party stayed in the rooms at the Wentworth overnight and had breakfast the next morning, so the wedding truly lasted nearly a full day. It was a magnificent celebration, and, after finally meeting C and R, I know it was perfectly suited to the pair of them. I did learn something very interesting about British wedding cakes versus American cakes. Americans, as far as I know, often save and freeze a portion of their cakes to thaw and eat on their first wedding anniversary. British weddings cakes are, traditionally, made of fruitcake. I get the feeling that most modern couples choose the same route of C and R. The two bottom tiers were normal cake served at the wedding, while the top tier was fruitcake. The top tier will be saved. C will remove the frosting from it and wrap it in parchment paper, where the cake can then sit on the counter for up to a year and a half, or many years in the freezer, and the fruitcake will be served at the Christening of the couple’s first child. Of course, nowadays, some couples choose to follow the tradition of eating the cake on their anniversary, to celebrate the birth of the child, or some other special event, but I found the original tradition quite interesting. I’d never heard of it before.The day after the wedding was New Year’s Eve, and though M and I were pretty tired, we did pull ourselves together enough to go and meet our friend for celebrations. We never actually made it to a pub, but we ended up watching the fireworks from the rooftop of her building. Getting on the roof (and back down) was an ordeal in and of itself (two options: grab hold of a gutter pipe and haul yourself over the empty space two-to-three stories up, or climb the rickety wooden fire-escape ladder leaned against a ledge on the landing of the stair). I was not happy with either option, but after much cajoling, I scrambled up. We could see six different set of fireworks all at once. I’m sure I will never again have a New Year’s Eve quite like that. Unfortunately, though the New Year’s turned out well, getting home was the worst traveling fiasco I have encountered. M and I are definitely spoiled from living quite near a huge American city center, where additional public transportation is planned through the night on New Years. In England, they simply ran a Saturday schedule on a Monday night, which meant that they did run the tube, trains, and buses until about 2:00am…but only into London, without any trains going out again until 4:30-5:00am. Exhausted and rather ill (not from booze, but rather questionable Mexican food made by Turkish owners in the middle of London–how did we not see that coming?) M and I were forced to spend a good hour and a half walking slowly through the London Waterloo station, which was packed and utterly disgusting by that time of night. Even then, we could not actually get to our station by the earliest train, and had to take a taxi from the next one down. Not the best end to our New Year’s night. But we made it home, and spent the day slowly recovering.
On the second, we went to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which was absolutely astonishing. We purchased the digital guides, which I highly recommend to anyone who visits. For 4 pounds, we were given a iPod touch, loaded with discussions about each exhibit; as well as countless videos of interviews with designers, actors, and production staff; galleries of production photos, sketches, plans, and costumes. The tour itself was nearly indescribable. Sets, props, make-ups stations, miniature models, mechanical creatures, wigs, photos, portraits, costumes, moving rigs, preliminary designs and paintings were all on view in a fan’s incredible dream. While I loved it as an utter fangirl, I also could appreciate it so much more as an artist in a similar industry. The tour recommended allowing 3 hours to see both warehouses and the backlot. We took 6 hours, ran down our camera batteries and our digital guides halfway through. Luckily, they replaced our digital guides. Unfortunately, I was left with M’s iPhone to take pictures of the last half of the exhibit. I cannot actually recommend visiting the tour more highly. I hardly have words to describe the experience. Whether you like Harry Potter, or are even vaguely interested in the film industry, please find time to get yourself to Leavesden and have a visit. It is the most amazing, detailed tribute to the eight movies that brought JKR’s magnificent world to life.
Though we had barely recovered from the HP Tour, on the third, M and I hopped on the train to Wales to visit his godparents and go to Cardiff for the Doctor Who tour. That night, we went the Swansea pantomime. I’d heard about pantos, since M was in several as a boy before he moved to the States. Every town and school has one at Christmastime, though we went to a professional panto. The only requirements seem to be: a well-known title, the Dame character (think Edna Turnblatt in Hairspray), and general spectacle. We saw Cinderella, though it was unlike any Cinderella tale I’ve heard. Lewd puppets, call-and-response (think Rocky Horror, but with children yelling from the audience and the actors heckling back), audience participation, two Dames as the Stepsisters, modern music (including Lady Gaga and LMFAO), pyrotechnics, snowmachines, fog, iceskating, stripping, dancing, and singing. It was…an experience. We realized that the Prince was played by some man made famous on the British equivalent of The Voice who then went on to participate in a Celebrity Dancing on Ice competition (that explained the gratuitous stripping, ice-skating, and catch phrases). Honestly, it was a lot of fun, even if I never could have predicted the show we were about to see. The were many real moments of actors having fun with one another, which is always amusing to see, and was obviously as entertaining to the adults as it was to children.
The next morning we were on our way to the Doctor Who Experience, stopping several times through out Cardiff Bay to take photos of things important to Torchwood, which I have yet to watch. The Doctor Who Experience was a wonderful set-up that was perfectly reminiscent of the show. I think we were slightly spoiled, having so recently visited the Harry Potter tour, but it was well-done and very Whovian. A smaller budget, yes, but more importantly, a show that loves to bring back characters, props, sets, bits and pieces really set up the environment of the exhibit. Reasonably, much from the very original series was probably not well-stored, and even thrown away. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were on loan from private collectors. I also know that this exhibit started as a tour, while HP has two huge empty, permanent studios to work with. I was impressed that they already had the full display of pieces from the Christmas episode. The beginning was very good fun and more interactive than Harry Potter. It did have Weeping Angels, which are too creepy for words. As interesting as the exhibit was the people visiting. In America, its very much a cult-classic type feel. Many of my friends watch it, but we are all twenty-somethings. In England, I easily forget, it is as much a children’s show. Many children were visiting (we had several criers when the Daleks arrived). Its easy to forget just how scary the old tin trashcans actually can be. Only in this exhibit will I hear a child’s voice overlaid with the mechanical dalek tones declaring “I’m going to exterminate you, Mummy!” The Experience was a lot of fun.
We were quickly running out of days in the UK, so we ran back up to London again to see another friend, and spent the day sight-seeing. Then we went back down to Petersfield to meet up with M’s old school friends. It was really interesting to see how many of them ended up in the arts. M, with the full theater degree and audio engineering job, another friend in production design (with an interview for Game of Thrones in the next few weeks), yet another working in film as a producer, and another as a music teacher, vocal coach, and singer. As much as some of us (myself included) can take forever to decide what we “want to be”, I suppose certain people are drawn together even at a very young age. I know it was as lovely to meet them as for M to catch up.
On our last morning, M and I walked again to the Rose and Crown, and opened the pub, whiling away a couple hours with our last pub lunch and discussing just how we’d get a pub to work in the US. Then it was back out to the airport, a quick visit to duty-free (yes booze, but really, a last mad dash to gather up as much candy as we could!), and then we found out that our seats had been upgraded. British planes are nice enough as is, since they almost always are on longer flights, but now we had some breathing room, foot rests, free drinks, cushioned seats, and a dinner that shattered all stereotypes of plane food. Beef filet with bernaise sauce, squash, peas and lima beans, roast potatoes, potato salad, and orange-chocolate mousse. It was very good, and staying awake through the flight (in hopes of resetting ourselves to American time) was no trouble at all. It was another amazing trip. We can’t wait to go back.