Thursday, December 27, 2007

P.S. on the Mac & Cheese

The Christmas Eve mac and cheese was way too rich, even for a special holiday. Make at your own risk!

The True Spirit of St. Louis

I have always felt a bit like an anthropologist in St. Louis, observing what is unique to the city. Being a Midwesterner, I thought moving to St. Louis was going to be a snap, but I think what I learned was that I had changed having lived in other places, and also, not all Midwestern towns are the same. Living in Huntsville, a somewhat transient place where it’s hard to find anyone who was born and raised there, it was commonplace to find groups of friends coming together for holidays in lieu of extended families. This was a place where I felt comfortable. Here in St. Louis, extended family is where it is at. I will never forget the first year I was here I was getting my hair cut a few days before the 4th of July and asked the hairdresser what she and her newlywed husband were doing for 4th of July. I imagined the answer would be getting together with friends for a barbecue. Instead she explained in a bit of a condescending tone that she was going to her parents with her brothers and their families and some cousins as well. Knowing her now for four years, I know that every holiday and usually every Sunday is family time. Having been in the airport around holiday time, I know that people come home to St. Louis for the holiday to be with their extended family. It doesn’t mean their holidays are perfect. I have talked to many a friend who complained about the family gatherings when they were over. But for many here, the point has been stressed that the family gatherings mean something.

In the four years that we have lived in St. Louis, both H and I have lost our mothers. There have been days where this has seemed harder because of the importance placed on family here in St. Louis. Instead of appreciating my little family, I’ve been resentful at times, sometimes angry at St. Louis because of it, which sounds ridiculous. Sometimes our own private “pity parties” take strange shapes. While I have been out and about amongst the holiday revellers this season, I have been grateful for my small family and in a way, have made peace with my surroundings.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

So Good To Be Home

Christmas Eve was a nice and relaxing day. This year is not at all about presents. In fact, we went to Best Buy and picked up a computer game and then Borders to let A pick up a book and called it Christmas and she was just fine with it. It just doesn’t make sense to buy things that we will then have to ship. Instead we just focused on being together for a change.

We made a really nice Christmas Eve meal. H cooked a beautiful beef tenderloin and A and I made this mac and cheese recipe, the winner from and episode of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown that airs on Food Network. We were laughing about it being $30 mac and cheese because of the different cheeses and it being heart attack on a plate but it is Christmas. I have had a craving for mac and cheese for a few months now and wanted something that would not disappoint for the calories. It didn’t. The funny thing is that because we have no table and chairs, we stood at the bar in the kitchen and ate and didn’t linger. I laughed because it was probably the fastest Christmas dinner we have ever had. But you know what they say, what you eat standing up doesn’t count.

Monday, December 24, 2007

December 23rd

I haven’t travelled on this day since 1996, and now I remember why. The airports were absolutely insane, with fog in London and other delays in Chicago that added four additional hours to my journey. I wish I could have taken pictures of some of my fellow travellers but with security being what it is, I just thought it was better to catalog their looks in my mind. I was pretty calm at the start of my journey, just glad to go home. When I was in the Heathrow Airport in London, I saw a man with a toddler in a backpack on his back fighting with the probably one year old he held in his arms. I thought to myself, no matter what happens today, I am quite sure that my flight will be more peaceful than his! Wouldn’t grandma and grandpa be just as happy seeing those kiddies over the webcam instead of braving air travel?

I noticed a big difference in attire between the travellers in London versus those in the Chicago. Most folks in the U.S. flying yesterday had their sweats or their pajamas on. We were already ready for relaxation time!

As I was walking back through security in Chicago after going through customs, there was a guy in front of me wearing the biggest, most ostentatious Green Bay Packers parka. When he walked through security in front of me, all three of the security cards started ribbing him very loudly about the fact that the Bears had beaten them 35 to 7 Sunday. While I’m not a football fan, here’s a rivalry I at least understand.

I don’t think I have ever been so happy to be in the St. Louis airport. Merry Christmas to all! I hope you have a restful holiday.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wizard of Oz at the Elgiva

The Wizard of Oz pantomime was better than I expected. I am told that it is not the typical play that is done as pantomime, but they stuck pretty closely to the script and added quite a bit of audience participation, especially at the end. The kids, including Mr. B loved it. I forget what it is like being around a small child. On our walk to the theatre, Mr. B asked questions as varied as did I think the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz were scary to how long I think it would take to walk around the world. It was a real treat.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Saturday Before My Flight Home

I forgot how a six year old’s mind works. Yesterday I asked L if I could take Mr. B to the local panto if I was able to get tickets. The performance is 5:30pm this evening, but at 9:00 this morning there was a knock on my door and Mr. B asking what time the panto started. I told him it would have to get dark before we went. I am interested to see this show. Over breakfast the others were telling me that the signs may say we are going to see The Wizard of Oz, but that’s just a jumping off point for the usual pantomime characters.

After the show we are having a dinner since we are all going our separate ways for the holidays. My housemate N will be moving back to New Zealand after eighteen years in the UK. We are all so excited for him. In honor of his homeland, he is cooking lamb for dinner. I’m responsible for the “pudding”. He’s requested Apple Brown Betty, which is what I made for my Thanksgiving dinner and his lady friend is making a homemade custard to go with it. So I will be peeling apples until my hand is a claw this afternoon. I fly out in the morning and cannot wait.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Honorary Brit

I got this lovely box of tea from one of my work colleagues since I am now, as he put it, "an honorary Brit". It was doubly nice because it is tea and it is from Marks & Spencer which is the major go-to place in England.

Visited by Carollers

I went downstairs at the B&B to eat dinner last night and the doorbell rang. I was shocked to see actual carollers so I asked if I could take their picture, which made them laugh. L thought it was funny that I had never seen carollers before. I answered, "only in the movies". I was telling my cousin N that we had carollers and she said that in the States if someone comes to your door singing, our natural reaction might be to answer it armed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Barbie's Car

I walked past this most adorable car on my way to work the other day and had to take a pic.

Panto and Pudding

Since I was coming in on the train to London, I took the afternoon off yesterday to do some Christmas shopping and found myself walking around not able to make a decision. Instead I was thinking about what a terrible gift giver I am. As I headed home on the tube, it was obvious why I had felt so fatalistic earlier, a migraine was setting in.

Two things that fascinate me about Christmas in England is this dessert they call Christmas Pudding, which of course to us Americans, is no pudding at all. Our friends at Wikipedia have an interesting entry I'll attach here. I think next year, when I have a kitchen of my own I'll give this a go. Right now it just sounds disgusting.

The other thing is panto or pantomime. Everyone here assumes that this is a universal tradition, and I am here to say that it certainly is not. I had been planning to see one before going home for Christmas but I am running out of time. This may have to wait until next year as well.

Stranger in a Strange Land

While in Wales I went to a customer dinner and we actually didn’t talk about work. Instead we talked about cricket, snooker, football, Welsh and English geography and the Ryder Cup which will be held at the hotel we were staying at in 2010. I had nothing to offer!


Like visiting Quebec, all signage in Wales is bilingual. I wasn’t expecting that. Here is an example of the language on some tea bags that were in my room. On the way to the train station my work colleague was asking the taxi driver if he spoke Welsh. He didn’t, however, he was an Irishman who has lived in Wales for thirty-seven years. This question started him on a rant about the two schools in Newport where children were taught Welsh. His opinion was that if a child was going to learn a language, they should be learning a language that would help them travel abroad, not preserve one used only locally.

Interesting Things Out the Window of the Taxi

We took a scenic drive (accidentally) in a taxi. We saw more sheep than people in Wales.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Travelling to Wales

Tomorrow I am going by train with a few colleagues to Wales to visit a customer. It will be my first visit there. Whenever I think of Wales, I inevitably think of Tom Jones, my mother’s favourite singer.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Shopping in Watford

L took me Christmas shopping with her today in Watford. After many hours and many stores we dashed into McDonalds for a quick bite, my first time in McDonalds here. There are actually several different things on the menu. Instead of apple pie, for the holiday season they have a mince and custard pie. Right after we walked out of McDonalds, which was as uneventful as it ever is, we realized there was a French Market in Watford this weekend with a lot of food stalls. It smelled wonderful, and as you can see looked great too. As I was taking a picture of the sausage and peppers, a policeman said something to me in English, but I didn’t understand a word he said. L just smiled at him and said “American tourist”.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Do

Last night we had our Christmas Party in London. We all shared taxis in, which is the first time that I have travelled to central London by car. It was further justification for always taking the train since the traffic is just horrible. We had a few guests from the States at our party and one of them was sitting next to me at dinner. A partner of one of the UK employees leaned over and asked him what the Christmas do in the States was like and the response was a very puzzled look. I told the partner that “do” is a verb to us, we don’t use it in exchange of a word like party or gathering. When I looked up “do” on today at the end of a very long list of entries was the following: Chiefly British. a festive social gathering; party.

The event was really beautiful, and it was black tie so everyone looked great. At one moment during the evening I was thinking to myself that if someone would have told me that in 2007 I would be sitting in a hotel in London celebrating Christmas I don’t think I would have believed them. I had said to one of my friends at the beginning of 2007 that it was going to be a good year, a year of change. I hadn’t anticipated how much though.

Since our taxi was late picking us up, I had that fatal one more glass of wine, the one that takes you past the merry mood to feeling very bad the next day. Therefore, I will be enjoying another British experience, the duvet day.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Counting Down the Days

After tomorrow, I will have only one more week until I go home to visit the family. Tomorrow night we have our Christmas party in London. It should be a grand affair!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Frozen, Literally

I took these pictures as I walked to work. The ducks and swans are all congregated on the one area of the pond that is not frozen.

A Southern Moment

It is freezing here! Literally. After I walked to work this morning, I checked the temperature and it was zero. I can't explain it, I don't know if I was thinking about my plans tonight but when I walked into work, I said to one of my co-workers in a Southern accent, "God ya'll, it's cold out there!" It just came out that way.

I braved the cold alone to go to Wembley Arena to see one of my favorite bands from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Kings of Leon. It was a great show and it made me happy to see them gain the level of success here that has eluded them in their home country. I'm attaching a clip of one of their videos in case you are interested.

As I left the Arena and headed to the tube station (pictured above), I couldn't help but overhear the conversations around me. For some here there is a fascination with the American South.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Politically Correct

The holiday season was on my mind as I left work tonight to meet some friends for dinner. In the work environment everyone in the States has moved to Happy Holidays to be all-inclusive. I recently witnessed an email exchange where a customer had to point out that Happy Holidays was not inclusive enough for the agnostics and atheists. Seriously. What does God have to do with the holidays? Please know I mean no offence by that. I really have no opinion except to say that you just can’t win sometimes.

As I got to my friends’ house, who works at a state (public in America) school, she was telling me about the nativity play that they are working on producing this time of year. I asked her if that has ever been in jeopardy because the school is multi-cultural and a government funded institution but she said no, they celebrate all the holidays. Every once in awhile a parent will say something but it has never caused them to have to get rid of the nativity play. She told me that one of the teachers as they were preparing for the nativity play started asking the children questions to see if they understood the importance of the story. She asked the kids why Mary and Joseph were staying in the stable and the kids said it was because it was Christmas, a busy time of the year when a lot of people travel.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Appetizer Season

I was invited to dinner at a friend's house tomorrow night so I stopped at the grocery store on the way home to get a bottle of wine as a gift. I walked past a refrigerated section that had appetizers. Two boxes of appetizers caught my eye. One was labeled an "American Collection", so I had to look. It contained mini crab cakes and potato wedges. The other was called "Devils on Horseback". I had never heard of this before, but found a link to a recipe.

Something's Missing

You know how sometimes you get involved in something at work and you are in the middle of it and think you might die before it draws to a conclusion? That’s me these days. I left the office at 1:30pm, desperate for a break and found myself wandering aimlessly down the High Street. I’d picked up a sandwich, perused the charity shops’ bookshelves and realized a book wasn’t what I wanted. I thought no, I just want a little diversion to read as I eat my sandwich. Newspaper? No thanks, since it usually makes me so depressed that I can’t stand it. What is missing??? I finally realized what it was. People Magazine is my guilty pleasure. I love People Magazine. People has the perfect mix of the human interest and celebrity stuff. It’s not all trash, but contains a healthy dose of it. I can’t get it here at the newsstands. I have looked over the magazine selections, and frankly I don’t have time to invest in getting to know the trashy celebrities here. I’ve got too much invested in the American celebs.

StatCounter - A Blogger's Best Friend

Having worked in information management for fifteen years now, sometimes I think the internet is a mess and sometimes I think it is the most fabulous thing in the world, especially when it directs people to my blog! I recently installed StatCounter which counts the number of hits that the blog gets and also tells me what countries/states/cities the hits are coming from, and it’s free. It’s my new obsession!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

False Advertising

Commercials before movies are even worse here than they are in the States. As I waited for American Gangster to begin, the theatre ran a Jack Daniels commercial where Christmas Lights were being hung at the distillery and all of it was covered with a thick blanket of snow. Can we say fiction? I remember the first time I was in that area of the country for Christmas. My neighbors hung their Christmas lights and then sat outside in their lawn chairs with a beer to admire them. While there may be an occasional ice storm, I doubt Lynchburg, Tennessee has ever been the winter wonderland portrayed in that commercial.

An Afternoon with Denzel

Saturday was a disgusting day here, it was cold and rainy, the worst combination. I had to go into London to do a restaurant review and I should have done some shopping for our Christmas party next Friday but all I wanted to do was seek shelter. So I decided to go see American Gangster, and loved it. It left me wanting to know more about the two men portrayed in the movie. Even though we see Frank Lucas kill people and not have any problems with the morality surrounding his shipment of drugs into the U.S. in the coffins of dead soldiers, is he the American Dream? I couldn’t get it out of my head the rest of the day.

Sausage and Mash

When I walked past this restaurant, folks were eating big plates of sausages and mashed potatoes. I don't get it. I prefer some good old Southern comfort food like mac & cheese, turnip greens, and some squash casserole.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Museo Nacional Reina Sofia

I did go to the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia, as recommended by my colleague, which is a contemporary Spanish art museum. Spanish art is so interesting and strange. When I look at most of Salvador Dali’s work, it really looks like a dream to me, little pieces of things here and there that don’t really make sense separately or sometimes even together. I had not read anything about this museum before going so I didn’t know what works of art I needed to see, but when I walked into the room where Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is exhibited, I knew that this was something special. It has a presence that can only be felt, partly because of its size, when you see it up close. I immediately wanted to know more. And what a history it has had!

Spain - Observations

Everyone could understand me, but they were all very hesitant to speak English, which meant that my Spanish work colleague was exhausted from translating all day. Lunch is much later there, 2:30 or 3:00, and much more relaxing. As they were speaking Spanish I was enjoying the food. We had several appetisers before the meal and then we had a main course, a dessert and then cafĂ© con leche, which is divine! From my limited experience, fish is very popular on the menu and my favourite appetiser was a soft scrambled egg with smoked salmon and other fish. I would never have picked that off of a menu but it was really tasty. One of the customers said to me after they took a break in the conversation, “This is a very Spanish thing to do, we are talking about food while we are eating”. What could be wrong with that?

It’s funny, because of the cost of cigarettes and the ban on smoking inside of restaurants and pubs in the UK, you just don’t come in contact with smokers as much as one used to. In Spain, it’s the Europe of old where people are always smoking, even in the workplace! My work colleague said that because they had a dictator in place for so long that Spain is behind other European countries.

At the end of the day it was recommended that I visit the Plaza Mayor because of the Christmas lights as well as the booths selling Christmas goods. When I got there, a lot of the booths were selling punk rock wigs and what we would call Halloween masks of clowns, Bart Simpson, and the like. I asked the next day what that was all about and the response was, “At Christmas time, we just get crazy”.

Beautiful Place for a Meeting

We had a meeting in this beautiful 16th century building when I was in Spain.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

More Pics of Madrid

Angel of Death?

Maybe it was the sun setting, maybe it was my nerves about my Monday meeting, but the angel on the top of this art deco building in Madrid looked ominous!

Tourist Pics of Spain

I took as many pictures as I could of Madrid on Sunday.

So Close, Yet So Far

To my delight, my hotel was right across the street from The Prado Museum. Sunday, I walked over and the line to get in stretched almost the length of the building so I didn't attempt it. The museum is closed on Monday and so tonight was my last shot. I walked up to the doors as they were locked at 8:00pm. Maybe next time.

I'm Not From Here

I made my first trip to Spain for business on Sunday. After I checked into my hotel in Madrid, I made my way to my room and tried to turn on the lights. My room looked like this.

There were several light switches but nothing would come on. It took me longer than I like to admit to find this.

Once entering my key in the slot, my room suddenly looked like this!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Other Chelsea Pics

This brick building was the site of the birth of the miniskirt. The bottom picture was the site of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop, and the start of the punk movement. The picture in the middle is just a beautiful house on a quiet side street in Chelsea.

The Pheasantry

I recently read Eric Clapton's autobiography where he describes living in a place called The Pheasantry, which he had to move from after finding out he was being targeted for a drug raid by the local police. This is that building. It is now the home of a pizza chain and some other shops.

The Chelsea Registry Office

From the petals on the steps, there must have been a wedding here today. It was the site of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's wedding back in the day.

Kings Road - Chelsea

This morning was so beautifully sunny that I couldn’t wait to take the trip to London and do some sightseeing. I took another Soundmap walking tour, this time to Chelsea’s Kings Road, the site of swinging London and the birthplace of punk. One of the stops on the tour was this building, Chelsea Manor Studios where the famous cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was shot. The audio tour has a sound byte from Peter Blake, who created the collage of cardboard cut-outs of famous people that all had to be assembled in this studio for The Beatles to pose in front of. Since we live in the age of PhotoShop, it is hard to imagine the work that was put in to make this album cover.