Monday, December 31, 2007

Roll out the barrels

As best as I can tell, Boxing Day in England is something like January 1 to the States--a day of rest and sports (plus Christmas sale shopping in Britain). Almost every football team plays on Boxing day and these matches usually draw large crowds despite potentially bad weather. Our Cambridge United had a home match against cross-town rival Histon and drew more than 7000, about double normal attendance. We went and enjoyed the game, especially as United won 1-0 depsite Histon playing better. More United updates later as they play Histon twice more in 2 weeks and have a big FA Cup tournament match next Saturday. But the real sporting event of the day took place a few hours before the soccer match. I jumped on my bike and road a few miles to the village of Grantchester, where the an annual tradition has been gloriously revived: Boxing Day barrel-racing.

According to the Cambridge Evening News:
The races were common in the 1960s but died out in 1974, apparently after accusations of cheating. Since its revival in 2004 the contest has raised thousands of pounds for village church funds, and proceeds from this year's event will go towards repairing the churchyard walls.Organiser Francis Burkitt said: "The whole point of the event is that it is pointless - it's a slightly mad English holiday tradition which is great fun."

It was a crisp, pretty day for racing and the course was packed. A past champion (1968-1970), Mick Dunn was the honorary starter. His son had won the past few years but wasn't competing because of a "bad back". The racers roll a barrel down a street and hand off to another person who goes back to the starting line, and two more do the same. There are 4 teams competeing at once so barrel-collisions happen with regularity. Local pubs sponsor some of the Granchester teams and after the village has its races, it competes againts nearby villages. In the last race of the day, one contestant simply lifted up the barrel and carried it--his team's win was protested and the official awarded a tie. If you read this blog by email, it's worth going to the actual web site for the blog to see a short video of one race. Happy New Year!--JT

Barrel-racing in Granchester--Boxing Day 2007 from dceditors on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas from Cambridge! Err, or Happy Boxing Day!

Merry Christmas! Or, Merry Christmas yesterday, Hapy Boxing Day today! (We started to write this on Christmas night before we slipped into a food coma.) It was a quiet, rainy day here in Cambridge. JT and I opened presents in the morning morning (KT Tunstall tickets! New headphones! New socks! The new Springsteen album! A new Dustbuster! Malteasers!) and had a lovely 3-hour Christmas lunch at a local restaurant (Rack of lamb! Beef Wellington! An enormous cheese platter and mince pies!).

It was tough not to come home for the holidays but I think we've made the most of the time here. We learned about Christmas pudding and crackers and Boxing Day (more on those in a moment) and we still have a trip to Belgium before 2008 arrives. About the only sad thing was deciding to buy an artificial Christmas tree and then finding all the stores were sold out--hence the tiny Pier 1 bauble tree on the TV!

Around this time last year, we were in overdrive planning our move to Cambridge and soaking up every minute we could with our families and close friends. I simply ran out of time to send Christmas cards, then Christmas emails, then any sort of blast notification email whatsoever. Last month, I got back in touch with a friend I went to high school and college with, but haven't seen in quite some time. It's a little awkward to catch up on years' worth of goings-on, especially when you have to lead with, "um, well, I moved to England ... "

So, even though it's just the two of us this Christmas, we will be thinking of all of you. As we flip through our address book, look through pictures, and reminisce about Christmases past, you will all be with us. We love you all and miss you all very much, and we hope you all had a very merry Christmas. And we will eventually send a Christmas letter thought it may turn out to be a Happy New Year letter.

Christmas Eve 2007 in Cambridge: The River Cam

So, here we are on Boxing Day. Boxing Day, December 26th, is so named because (according to lore, or in this case, Wikipedia) it's the day you give presents -- a BOX, perhaps -- to employees, the poor, people who work in various service industries, etc. It's really treated as a follow-up holiday, often with a another big meal, party, etc. More recently, it's also a big sale day. I'll be checking out that scene later today.

More Christmas things:

Christmas Crackers: No Christmas party table setting is complete without a Christmas cracker, a party favor of sorts. Its name comes from the fact that it's got a little bit of explosive in it (a really little bit), so when you pull it apart (our observation is that you share the opening of a cracker with the person across the table from you, yanking from either end), it pops, or cracks.

Crackers vary in quality and excitement value, but they always seem to contain a paper crown. And what's hysterical is that EVERYONE wears the paper crown. As we looked around the restaurant yesterday, people of all ages, all manner of dress had on their brightly colored paper crowns. When we left, we walked past the more upscale Bistro at the Hotel du Vin, and everyone in there was wearing a gold or silver foil crown. (They must have had posh crackers.)

Then, there's usually a joke in the cracker (typically a dumb joke) and party favor of some sort -- on Christmas day, I got a keychain and JT got a pen, but JT's favorite was at the company party, where his Christmas cracker contained a protractor.

Then, after you've made it through the dinner wearing your silly paper crown, you eat Christmas pudding. First, "pudding" is a synonym for dessert, not a specific dessert item made by Jello or Cozy Shack. You hear people use "pudding" far more often than "dessert." Christmas pudding, though, is a very specific pudding. You start making it a couple of months in advance from various candied fruits (raisins, sultanas, currants, etc.), sugar, eggs, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.), breadcrumbs, and booze (rum or brandy). Then you steam it in the oven for 6 to 8 hours. Cool, and place in your cupboard until Christmas. Douse again with more booze, steam for another couple of hours and serve with some sort of heavy, rich cream perhaps also spiked with booze.

Or you can go buy a mini one at the store for the sake of the blog.

This one is steeped in Courvoisier. It's also disgusting. It could also be because it's 10 a.m. Not breakfast food, that.

If you'd like to try one yourself, here's a few different recipes. The Wikipedia entry is also entertaining.

Finally, you finish your Christmas meal with coffee and mince pies. Once upon a time, mince pies actually contained meat, but these days they're diced fruit mincemeat, spices, and some more booze in a pastry crust. They're typically individual-sized, and an American friend here in Cambridge explained described the taste perfectly: "They taste like Christmas," she says. Indeed they do.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve at King's

We did indeed make it into the Nine Lessons and Carols service at King's College Chapel. We got there at about 8:30 am to queue, and time passed quickly as we chatted with our queue neighbors, a retired lawyer who was attending for the first time, a young American physics student staying in town for Christmas, and a boarding school teacher who was practically a characticture of himself, right down to the cap and tweed jacket.

While we were in line, we were treated to the voices of the King's College Choir -- the older boys:

King's College Choir Singing For the Queue from dceditors on Vimeo.

And we got a glimpse of the younger boys as they went between the college buildings. They were adorable in their gowns and top hats. (Clicking on the picture will bring up a larger version, as usual)

The service itself was absolutely beautiful. There were a couple of carols commissioned just for this year's service that were really pretty. We were seated right against the wall and could hear the lead glass windows rattle when the organ played the low notes. It wasn't amplified, so you actually get better sound if you listen to the radio broadcast. But it was still absolutely amazing -- and a centerpiece of an English Christmas. and I'm very glad we went.

I'm not sure if this will work, but you might be able to listen to this year's service from this link. It starts with the tail end of the news (very ironically, the news that Maxjet has declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy), but hang in there for a minute and thirty seconds to at least hear the beginning of the first hymn. Goosebumps, I tell you.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

December Walk Around Cambridge

The sun was out today, so I was itchy to get outside. After diligently working for a few hours (and even filing my taxes!), I grabbed my camera and JT and headed out on what turned out to be a gorgeous walk. It's the same walk I take, oh, three times a week, but this time, the mist and the light made it truly beautiful. There are a few more photos in our photo album.
Looking across Jesus Green.

A punt on the River Cam, as seen from St. John's College Bridge of Sighs.

The River Cam at sunset (so, 3:30 p.m.)

The mighty King's College Chapel on a moony afternoon.
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Friday, December 21, 2007

Nine Lessons and Carols, and Christmas Music

One of the many reasons Cambridge's King's College Chapel is famous is for its Christmas Eve service, Nine Lessons and Carols. It was written in 1918 and has been performed at King's since then and broadcast on BBC Radio since 1928. The main choir is made up of 30 young schoolchildren who study at the prestigious King's College School here in Cambridge. The service begins with the hymn "Once in Royal David's City," sung a capella by a single voice. Three young boys are chosen as candidates to sing it, and then, at the last minute, the choir director points to one of the boys to begin singing. Here's this year's program (pdf).

How does one get tickets for this? You don't. You stand outside in line, or queue, as they say. Since we're here this year, we thought we'd try to go. The website says that if we're in line by 9 am we'll get in. The service is at 3 pm, so we should be good and frozen by then!

If you'd like to listen on Christmas eve, here's a selection of stations that say they'll be broadcasting it live on Monday, Dec. 24:

We've taken in some other music as well. Earlier this month we went to a performance of the Wren Choir and Orchestra at Pembroke College's Chapel. The college is one of the older ones -- founded in 1347. The chapel itself (right) was designed in 1665 by Christopher Wren, slightly more famous for designing St. Paul's Cathedral.

The music was Reinhard Keiser's Dialogus von der Gerburt Christi, sung in German. The choir did a beautiful job -- although I'm not sure the oratorio will ever be a hit. We enjoyed the evening out, though, and had the traditional Madeira and mince pies afterwards, followed by a stroll around campus. Its a pretty one, full of nooks and crannies and courtyard after courtyard.

Then, last night we went to a charity carol concert at Great St. Mary's church, which is the official church of Cambridge University. Great St. Mary's has been in the city center since the 1200s, albeit in a different form, as a meeting place for the university. The carol concert was lovely! The main choir was from two of the local hospitals, and a choir of schoolkids joined them for a few songs as well. It ended with a rousing rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas and We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

Our favorites, though, came from a 5-piece brass band. They did a gorgeous version of O Holy Night, and then Vivaldi's Winter. They wrapped up with a piece called "The Saints' Hallelujah." The director explained that it was an arrangement done by a Canadian group that had the chance to play for HM The Queen. Her favorite piece was the Hallelujah Chorus, and theirs was When The Saints Go Marching In. So, the band came up with an arrangement to accommodate both:

Prime Brass at Christmas Carol Concert from dceditors on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Trip Report: Birmingham

We went to Birmingham with no expectation of it being an interesting place, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a rather neat city -- and extremely Christmasy. The event that took us there was the annual Christmas Market. It's more of a German tradition, but the fact that Birmingham's sister city is Frankfurt means that Birmingham's Christmas market is pretty good. They put up some 90 little wooden chalets in the main square of the city and down one of the main pedestrian walkways for vendors who sell everything from painted German houses to wooden toys to knit hats and scarves.

Oh, and there's food. On the left there, you've got a kebab of gouda and salami -- battered and deep fried. On the right, a giant grill of German sausages. There were also fresh baked pretzels with the bottom sliced open and stuffed with yummy things (I had one stuffed with camenbert and cranberry sauce), Berliners, hot chocolate and German beer. Mmm. I might even say we'll go back next year, but perhaps we'll actually try to go to Germany for a German Christmas market.

Birmingham itself has a long history of being an industrial center. It was an important manufacturing center during WWII, producing cars, ammunition, helmets, etc. As such, it was also a major target during the war, and some 12,000 buildings were bombed. A couple of the city's buildings were spared, though, and there was a massive effort to rebuild after the war. Now it's a major cultural center and has a great music/club scene. One of the most striking buildings is the space-agey Selfridge's building (left), which opened in 2003.

To woo JT on this trip, I got us tickets to see a Birmingham City soccer game. They're in the top league in the country, unlike our Cambridge United, which is nearly-bottom-of-the-rung farm team. The game was fun! Our long walk back from the stadium (well, only 2 miles or so, but did I mention it was 30 degrees?) was what made us feel virtuous enough to eat the deep-fried cheese.

We came home on Sunday via Warwick Castle, which has been there in one form or another for 1000 years. It's now owned by Toussauds (wax museum folks) who poured a ton of money into it and have made it a really amazing attraction. They restored a lot of the rooms to what they would have been like in 1898, and there's a cool display in the sub-ground level where the castle's working class would have been, preparing armor, building things, cooking, etc. They also have an ice rink that's an ice path -- it winds its way through one of the formal gardens. Very cool!

If you're keeping score on the various car upgrades we've gotten because there aren't many automatics, we did get upgraded to a VW Golf. A manual VW Golf. So, this meant I got plenty of practice shifting with my left hand and JT got some practice navigating. I think we both need practice on these respective tasks.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Have I Got News For You

No, no amazing news--that's just the title of one of the many comedy-quiz shows here in the U.K (4 folks and host make witty jokes about current politics and news). In any case, the show's name seemed like a good intro to a few amusing newspaper tidbits.

Fresh from the Cambridge Evening news:
This story concerned a panto production of Cinderella. We don't really know what pantos are but they seem to be a British holiday tradition involving classic tales tarted up with men in drag, bad jokes, and, apparently, projectile pieces of candy. Much to the dismay of many, safety officials have ordered the actors not to throw candy into the audience, which is part of the tradition.
This might be my favorite part of the story:
Biggins, who played the dame in the city's panto for five years in a row, joked: "I know I've hit a few people with sweets in my time in panto. Once I got a letter from the doctor of this chap about his mother. I threw a fudge bar from the stage and it flew up the old lady's skirt. It certainly gave her a lot of pleasure.
There was a followup story, which I can't find online, that warned about the dangers of flying fondant. That's one reason we have been afraid to go see the panto!

My next favorite story of the week comes courtesy of the Independent. One day this week, I saw this teaser headline in a box on the front page.

Now, I knew the Brits were wild about their spuds but c'mon., this is a family newspaper. To continue the theme from above, the column was actually prompted by a projectile potato--a story about a wife throwing a tater at her husband.

My favorite excerpt:
My husband also goes slightly boss-eyed with happiness any time I tell him that potatoes are on the menu. Boiled, roasted, mashed, deep fried, baked, turned, buttered, browned. Any which way: he'll be happy. I can be mean to him, I can tell him that I think he's not very good at dancing, and I can refuse to watch another Top Gear. I can throw out his old denim jackets and I can make him lie in the bath with me talking about our daughter's hand-to-eye co-ordination and our son's love of guinea pigs. I can do all of this and get away with it – as long as every now and then, I cook him a potato.

Have a great weekend. We'll be seeing our first Premier League game on Saturday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mind the Gap

The day after Thanksgiving, we headed into London for a mini-break, a belated birthday present for KT. The centerpiece of the trip was a visit that afternoon to the British Museum to see a sampling China's 8000 terracotta warriors, the first exhibition outside China of this unusual archaeological find. Here's a excerpt from the wikipedia description:

The Terracotta Army was buried with the Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huangdi) in 210-209 BC (his reign over Qin was from 247 BC to 221 BC and unified China from 221 BC to the end of his life in 210 BC). Their purpose was to help rule another empire with Shi Huangdi in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as "Qin's Armies". The Terracotta Army was discovered in March 1974 by local farmers drilling a water well to the east of Mount Lishan. Mount Lishan is also where the material to make the terracotta warriors originated. In addition to the warriors, an entire man-made necropolis for the emperor has been excavated.

I actually wasn't all that excited to see this show, because, hey, it's a bunch of similar looking statues. But I was wrong. First, the exhibit provided an impressive and clear history of China's first emperor, a story I shamefully knew little about. Second, the scope of the buried city he created with these statues is simply amazing. No two statues are identical, and the terracotta ranks go beyond soldiers--acrobats, horses, birds and more. Finally, I was moved that China had identified the burial mound where the First Emperor is but is refraining from digging it up. It hopes that non-invasive technologies will develop that will allow them to probe the site without disturbing it.

After the British Museum, we dashed over to South Kensington the subway as KT wanted to do some Christmas shopping at the Victoria & Albert museum shop (KT let me wait in a pub--she's the best wife in the world!). The V&A is also next to the Natural History museum where one of London's best outdoor skating rinks has been set up. We adored the South Kensington area--the subway stop has a nearby bakery, cheese shop, cookie store and more--and would love to live there if anyone wants to donate a million (pounds not dollars!) to let us buy a place.
The second goal of the weekend was to watch the Texas A&M vs Texas game at a sports bar hosting the London alumni clubs of both schools. So we sped away from the V&A, stopped in at Bodeans, the great BBQ place we found on a previous London trip, and rushed into the bar just after kickoff around 9pm. The Longhorns far outnumbered the Aggies, and Texas was expected to win easily, but A&M amazingly could not be stopped. You can spot KT in the right corner as everyone watches a key play. We rolled into our hotel room around 1am with our throats hoarse from shouting and celebrating the Aggie win.

We had a short agenda for Saturday. KT wanted to visit Borough Market, which was full of people, cheese, food, and more cheese. This market is one of London's oldest and most popular--Jude Law and other celebs often appear, and it's been used as location for many movies in need of a classic street market. Given that it's next to the Thames river, the Tate Modern museum, a wine mega-museum, and a brewpub, we would happily move here too if people gave us that million pounds.

Our final destination was the Tate Modern, one of the most popular museums in London (and the world). The Tate Modern houses an amazing modern art collection in a former power station and it's perhaps best known for the huge pieces of art installed in the central hall that used to house the station's turbines. The scary spider I recently wrote about was once on display in that hall. While we did speed through some of the collections and shopped again at the museum store, we were most taken with the new turbine hall installation, which has gotten everyone talking. Called Shibboleth and created by Doris Salcedo, it's a a crack in the floor (hence this post's title). That doesn't sound impressive but it is. The crack starts almost imperceptibly at one end of the huge hall and gradually widens and eventually splits into two fissures, creating a Y-shape. The gap's width never gets much bigger than the length of a foot but it's nonetheless dramatic visually. And people love it. They interact with, sticking hands into it, jumping across, lying down on the ground next to it. We spent a good 10 minutes watching people from above. The work has people guessing how Salcedo created it--this Guardian story with interview with construction experts is a fun read--as the interior of the crack has barbwire and other content that is obviously not from the Tate. Even the New York Times took note of the project yesterday. Mind the gap! -- JT

Monday, December 10, 2007

The thing I'll whinge about

First, whinge: "To complain in a particularly annoying manner." Chiefly British. Used in place of "whine," although it seems to be a more acceptable way to describe general complaining by anyone in particular.

I'm not going to whinge about the food, because sausage and mash, the occasional pie, bacon rolls, Scotch eggs, fish and chips -- can't argue with that. Just don't eat it all at once, don't expect fine dining at anything other than a fine dining restaurant, learn to love Indian food, and, oh yeah, don't suddenly forget how to cook.

I'm not going to whinge about the fashion, because no one is going to hold me down, iron my hair, and make me wear leggings and ballet flats, or black tights and short cut-offs, or, god forbid, legwarmers.

I am going to whinge about the day length these days. Today I caught an amazing sunset (pictured above). I didn't get the camera out and in a good place for a photo during the truly amazing colors, but you get the idea. It's not the fact that I missed a good picture that bothers me.

It's the fact that it wasn't yet 4 p.m., and the sun had set.

It set at 3:47 p.m., to be exact, and rose at 7:50 this morning. I think this might be where seasonal affective disorder was invented. Don't get me wrong, on a beautiful day, it's still beautiful. Briefly. But it's also rainy a lot these days, which makes for dark, gloomy days.

On the flip side, the early sunset does give you plenty of time to enjoy the abundant Christmas lights all over town. The official lighting was the week before Thanksgiving, and there are lights and Christmas trees everywhere. Cambridge does Christmas well, right down to the ice rink. It's been plenty cold for it, too -- "U.S. cold," one of JT's coworkers said.
Plus, it's just 11 more days until the days get longer, when we can start counting up to the longest day of the year. Yay!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Thanksgiving, UK-style

Thanksgiving has always been a big holiday in my family, in large part because we lived in Detroit. My dad and friends always had tickets to the annual Lions football game that started at 12:30pm and those who went to the game would rush home to find the house smelling of roast turkey and all the trimmings. This year, for the first time in memory, none of my family was together for turkey day--KT and are here of course and my oldest brother stayed in New York. But my other brother and his family, my sister, and my mom, who had all planned to gather with my sister-in-law's family, were for various reasons unable to pull it off much to their and my dismay.

When I learned that would happen on Thursday, I was even happier we had decided to host a mini-Thanksgiving dinner. After inviting over 3 American friends, including my intern--all twentysomethings and away from home--we bought a small turkey and then hoped it would fit in the oven. It did--barely. KT brined it for many hours like she did last year and then blasted it with high heat briefly (setting off the smoke alarm briefly!) before letting it roast normally. The pumpkin pie above was part of the adventure. Earlier in the week we had gone hunting for Libby's pumpkin in can--only one grocery store chain in the UK carries it we learned on the internet, but that store was near us fortunately. No frozen pie crusts anywhere but KT made do beautifully, as you can see. Thanks to the magic of cable TV, I was even able to watch the first half of the Lions game before dinner (I taped the rest)--with KT heckling me as she is a Packers fan and Favre was killing the Lions. Oh well, I still had an appetite and we all enjoyed a great meal--turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, carrots, and 3 desserts! And leftovers!!

And if we don't say it enough by email or phone, we both dearly miss our friends and family and we are very thankful for all of you.

The Chef in action