Friday, May 30, 2008

A Fine (and Odd) Day

I'm not sure what made me feel more drunk--8 hours at the Cambridge Beer Festival or watching the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, I do--it was the song contest (the source of the image above).

Last Saturday was the occasion of both those events. 8 hours? you might ask. Well, my wife had already visited the festival three times to my once so I was anxious to catch up. And it wasn't like I didn't prepare. I woke up early and went for a lovely 2 hour bike ride to burn the calories I would soon consume. When I got back, KT was about to do her own bike ride but I was too impatient for the relaxation to begin. I packed up 4 weekend newspapers,2 books, sunglasses, a foldable chair and table and dashed out, telling her to meet me later. Hey, it's not like I was there when the festival opened at 11am--I didn't get there til 11:30am.

And it was glorious. The crowd was still thin so I grabbed a real picnic table, two half-pints of tasty dark beers, and spread out the papers. Other than to get more beer, the occasional cheese platter we've already discussed, the odd meat and bread combination and freshly made donuts, I barely moved til around 8pm. Three other groups showed up the same time and I outlasted them all although two gals made it til 7pm before getting so loopy they were asked to leave--the only incident we saw all day. For the record, I never got tipsy as I was nursing half-pints and sharing with the wife. In fact, the non-drunk atmosphere is part of what makes the Cambridge Beer Festival so special--it's just folks hanging out with friends, and on that Saturday, with their kids. It was "family day" at the beer festival, with face-painting, balloon animal makers and other distractions for kids dragged there by their parents.

KT joined me around 2pm and we sampled many fine beers, although as the last day crowd got denser and denser, beers began to run out. By the time we left 3 of the 5 bars had closed and the masses around the few remaining beers were patiently waiting in long queues. It was in one of those queues I heard the following comment "Yea, I need a few beers--Eurovision is tonite".

And that brings me to the Eurovision Song Contest 2008. If you want all the gory details, here's the detailed wikipedia entry on the annual competition. But basically think American Idol meets the Olympics, with Broadway production values and the added touch of old-style Soviet Union vote rigging. Essentially, all the nations in Europe enter a song, chosen by various methods in each nation, and after a Europe-wide telecast of the entries, everyone quickly votes by telephone and the winner is announced that same night. It's a HUGE deal, even if it's a joke to most (at least in the UK).

Many people host Eurovision parties and I read that about 50% of the TVs being watched Saturday night in England were tuned to the show. And that's even with the knowledge that the UK's entry had no chance, despite being far from the worst song. Each country gives points to its favorites--1, 2, 3...8, 10, 12 (the max). One of the interesting things about the contest is that political bloc voting usually determines the winner. People in each country can vote for other countries, but not themselves, and the Balkans tend to stick together as do the Scandinavian countries. Many predicted Russia would win and it did, as the Ukraine and other former Soviet Union countries gave Russia top points. There aren't enough Brits in the rest of Europe to influence the vote and the UK, since siding with the US on Iraq, isn't the most popular country around. Indeed, the UK finished last, much to the annoyance of BBC commentator Terry Wogan, whose sarcastic voice-overs were hilarious. He has covered the contest for 30 years but may quit doing the show given that England appears to have no chance to win future contests.

The U.S. occasionally notices Eurovision. Here's a Washington Post story and a NPR story.
But I know you really want to see what the fuss is about so here are the videos!

Azerbaijan's bizarre entry--angel vs devil? (source of picture at top of the blog)

Finland appears to love its heavy metal

France's odd entry involved women with beards, a golf cart and a singer sucking helium. It was also sung in English, angering some French.

Ukraine had a fetching Beyonce clone

The Winner--Russia (sung in English with Olympic skater Evgeny Plushchenko dancing around!)

One of my favorites was Israel's entry.

Well, I must say it was one fun Saturday. As for Eurovision, I think we should do the same thing with states competing!--jt

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Holland: First Impressions

It's been a long time since I've been compelled to whip out a notepad (or in this case, a computer) to write, but Holland has done just that. Oh my goodness, how lovely. I haven't actually gotten off the train yet, but I've decided we must come back here and spend some time cycling and travelling through the countryside and exploring its cities and villages. That might require us to learn at least a few words of Dutch; as of now, I know exactly no Dutch. I know Dutch people, but that doesn't help much.

Anyway, the miles I've seen between Amsterdam and Maastricht are green and lush and not entirely unlike Britain. But it's just ... different. There's an order and a cleanliness to things that gives peace to the part of me that finds anxiety in clutter. I even passed a huge compost center whose humongous piles were neatly divided among the various stages of composting. They are completely obsessed with planning trees in rows, which I somehow find peaceful and endearing.

The newish buildings are very modular and angular, but they still have a lot of style and are interesting to look at. Somehow the old buildings are better kept than those in Britain, or maybe there's just fewer of them. (Remember, I haven't gotten off the train yet.)

As my train moves though the towns, there are more cyclists at railroad crossings than cars. (Mental note: shop for Dutch bike accessories while here.) I just passed a whole family, out for an evening ride on their tall, sturdy Dutch bikes.

Dutch people are interesting to look at, too. I hate sweeping generalizations, which is of course what you say before you're about to make one. My sweeping generalization about English people is this: They tend to be short, with thinning hair and very pale skin, and, well, squishy. (I'd love to hear the generalizations about us; we often get pegged as American before we even open our mouths. JT recently went to buy some shirts that were offered in S, M, L, XL, and American size.)

But the Dutch are tall, lean, angular, and stylish. Their shoes are smart and fashionable to the Brits' (and my) tendency for the practical. The casual dress is infinitely more chic than the Brits or Americans. I find myself insecure here about my messy hair, which I shoved back in with a barrette for the plane ride. I wish I was wearing one of my business outfits, instead of my usual travel outfit of a t-shirt, jeans, and hoodie.

Even the cattle are lean and seem to strike a pose as they lean over to graze. (Reference the pointless yet somehow obligatory photo of cattle as seen from a moving train.)

Post-train update: It was 9:30 pm by the time I started walking from the Maastricht train station to my hotel, and I realized it would be approaching 10 by the time I got there and turned around to find some dinner. So, I decided to stop in at a place that had a nice vibe and outdoor seating. It was when I looked at the menu that I realized, yet again, that I do not know a single word of Dutch. Even though my language rules state that you should always know hello, goodbye, please, thank you, sorry, and two beers please, I don't know any of those. But, in case you had doubts about my travel savvy, despite having no language skills, I managed to get myself a Dutch beer, a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and tomato soup:

Am I good or what?

I'm looking forward to my days, albeit busy ones, in Maastricht. I also fully anticipate to have a different attitude about Holland come Saturday night, when I return to Amsterdam for 24 hours. I say that because of JT's experience there a few months ago, and also because, as I learned from half the passengers on my flight to Amsterdam, there's a tattoo convention there this weekend. Bet you can't wait for that post.

Friday, May 23, 2008

40 Bucks a Night

We're feeling pretty impressed with ourselves. A major reason we got this house, besides its central location, is its size. I work at home, so it's nice to have an extra room that serves as my office. It's also nice to have a guest room and extra bathroom -- which we didn't have in DC. We've got a total of four bedrooms, and we had people stuffed in all of them. I was worried about how our quirky extra shower would deal with multiple people. No one complained and everyone seemed generally clean, so I guess it was OK. Or else they were all running over to the neighbor's house or something.

Earlier in the week, JT sent out an email to the office asking if anyone had an air mattress we could borrow. Of course everyone has an air mattress, because what they don't have is extra rooms. So, a single air mattress on the floor of our smallest bedroom made things cozy for Sea Girl (with us above, having a picnic by the river). She's a trooper for putting up with that room -- I've seen far bigger walk-in closets.

Since she had the fun of staying in her new boss's house, LC, the new intern, got the guest room. (shown at right with Sea Girl, on our way to London.)

And Gonzo Scientist and his girlfriend got the futon in my office. He impressed us all by arranging to interview someone at the Cambridge Beer Festival. In a pirate hat.

At first I was nervous about how I was going to entertain all these people, but they're all highly self-entertaining. Most have been places far more exotic. Sea Girl hit the streets on a bike and remarked that it's impossible to get lost in Cambridge. She even ran into new-found friends multiple times in our wee village. Gonzo lived here briefly years ago, and had meetings lined up nearly the entire time he was here. And it's LC's first time in England, so it was fun to walk around town and see her excitement at things like the red phone boxes and double-decker buses that we already take for granted.

The weeks were filled with a couple of trips to London (one for the football game, of course), a picnic or two, and of course good times at the Cambridge Beer Festival. We didn't even have time to take anyone to some of our favorite haunts outside of Cambridge. I'm just fine with that, actually: This week I've purchased plane tickets to three different countries. All of those trips will happen within 4 weeks of each other. So, with the houseguests all gone and my suitcase about to be permanently packed for the month of June, I wandered down to the beer festival for some quality time that didn't involve coordinating with anyone else's schedule. Here's what it did involve:I'm well on the road to regeneration. Holland, Lithuania, and Portugal: Here I come.

*The title is for the benefit of the family. No, we don't charge you 40 bucks a night.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

We're NOT Going up with Jimmy and Willy

So, the annoying/amusing song that my wife and many others in the city have been singing/chanting is "We're going up... with Jimmy and Willy", a reference to Cambridge United's head and assistant coaches and the team playing for promotion to the League.

Well, United lost Sunday 1-0. Time to change the lyrics. Maybe "We're going year with Jimmy" (Willy is a scout turned assistant coach so no big loss to the song!)

Here's a quick photoalbum of the big game (the videos only seem to work on some computers) and I'll post more when the house guests are gone--jt

Sad but still United proud

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Are you ready for some (English) football?

Today's the day. The rain of the past few days is gone and the sky is a brilliant blue. A nice contrast for the Amber Army about to invade London--a few pubs open at 11am so some folks will be heading down on the 10am train even though kickoff is at 4pm. The British version of tail-gating, I guess. I've enjoyed watching Cambridge this week gear up for the big game. It's been the front page story on the Cambridge Evening News twice and the paper put out a 12 page special section on Thursday. When I went to pick up my tickets that day, there was a TV crew interviewing people standing in line. And everyone there was buying United t-shirts, flags, banners, etc. --I had to buy a few things as well, of course. The online fan forums are going crazy as people urge everyone to out-sing, out-chant and out-cheer the Exeter fans. It's a interesting mix of NFL football fanaticism and college football enthusiasm--the Aggies out there might be interested to hear all the discussion of the crowd being the 12th Man today. I watched the FA cup on TV yesterday and those fans must have had about 5,000 flags. It will be fun to 20,000 people bouncing--I learned this week that the Bounce Bounce chant is not an old English tradition--it may even be unique to the U's here in the UK. The chap who pounds the drums for United recently went to South America and saw that at soccer matches there, people started counting down--10,9, 8....and then started bouncing. He decided that would be a family-friendly cheer for United--many of the English football songs/cheers are laced with profanity--and so adapted it to "Bounce Bounce Amber Army Bounce Bounce". The first Bounce Bounce was only at a September game. KT and I will be wearing our Bounce Bounce shirts today--The U's are Going Up!--JT

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bottled Up

The house is getting quite full. Our friend and freelance writer Christy, who just spent a month in Berlin, dropped in last weekend on her way back to the U.S. and leaves next week. Today, the new magazine intern arrived and is staying with us as she seeks an apartment. Monday, John B, our Vienna correspondent, and his girlfriend arrive for few days. We think we have enough pillows, towels, and beds for all!

In any case, over the past two weeks, it has been gorgeous here in Cambridge. So we walked around the city with Christy over the weekend. One stop Saturday was at an art gallery called Kettle's Yard, which is hosting an exhibition called Beyond Measure on art and science. We went to hear a talk by Alan Bennett, a veteran glassblower. Bennett started making scientific instruments but soon grew curious about Klein bottles, a three-dimensional version of a Moebius strip--the bottle has one continuous surface with no edges. With good humor, Bennett explained how he made more and more complicated Klein bottles and other objects. At the right is one of his more spectacular examples-three Klein bottles, one inside another. Here's a very nice article on the math and background of Klein bottles. Among mathematicians Bennett has become a bit of a celebrity--his work even was written up in Scientific American. While it was a beautiful sunny day, the hour spent in the stuffy gallery room was well worth it--it's always inspiring to hear someone who follows their passion and curiosity.--JT

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Trip Report: The Lake District (Part 2)

Back in March, we left you in the middle our week-long Lake District trip--If you need a recap, here's part one and here's the photoalbum.

So, where were we....Tuesday we headed to Bowness-on-Windermere to catch the ferry across the lake. The lake is only 11 miles long so it's not that big of a deal to drive around it. By why do that when you can pay 3 quid to take a ferry? Once on the west side of the lake, we headed to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's Lake District home from 1905. The famous author of The Tales of Peter Rabbit wrote many of her subsequent books in the house (right) and so fell in love with the area that she bought up plots to protect against development. (Rene Zellewegger played the author in the recent movie Miss Potter and the house's gift shop had the movie on its TV) This is where we learned about the restrictions on building in the national park; the village looks much the same as it did when Potter lived there.

After that it was on to Grizedale Forest, for a 4-mile jaunt--what we would call "hike," what most others call "walk,--through a gorgeous forest. Throughout the trail we followed were many large sculptures (top picture)--this site indicates we didn't come close to seeing them all. We enjoyed our walk and left fairly exhausted. We headed north to the small village of Hawkshead, which we fell in love with. A quick walk (doesn't take but 15 minutes to walk around, and that includes stopping in 3 shops), and a quick half pint at the Kings Arms, and we were on our way to our next destination: The Drunken Duck Inn. Gorgeous venue, lovely bar, beautiful restaurant, OK food. Remember, we're tough customers when it comes to fine dining. I'll take sausage and mash, fish and chips, or a cheeseburger in a pub any day of the week and be beyond content, but starch my napkin and the food better be other-worldly. They definitely make the effort and the food was beautiful to look at, but it was at the expense of taste. Still, though, it was gorgeous.

Wednesday was the day I was sure I'd get to do nothing but read, but instead we went and did a few things. We drove to Staveley to and had lunch at the Eagle and Child (OK, this is the one pub lunch we probably didn't earn, but it was so tasty -- Cumberland sausage for JT and chicken and mushroom pie for me -- mmm.) We bought a bike rack at the fancy bike store. From there we went on to Grasmere, another picturesque village. This one has two claims to fame--William Wordsworth (his home, grave are there--and a museum now, of course) and its celebrated gingerbread . We visited the grave and enjoyed the gingerbread (kind of like homemade graham crackers but sweet) A trip back through Kendal so I could buy a book I had been looking for.

So, failing at doing nothing on Wednesday, I thought Thursday's forecast of constant rain would keep us in for the day. Apparently, though, you don't ever have to be right about the weather to be a meteorologist around here. After a couple hours of early-morning rain, the clouds gave way to gorgeous sunshine. So, we set out on what was supposed to be a quick walk up the big hill behind our cottage. Once we got to the top, we were energized by the walk and the weather and thought we'd keep going and make a big loop. Somewhere a long the way, though, we lost the path and ended up wandering for a total of two and a half hours. We had a good time, though, and met some funny sheep.

After lunch, we headed to Sizergh Castle, where the Strickland family has lived for about 750 years--and several family members continue to reside there. Dinner was a long-planned return to the Watermill Inn, and once again it did not disappoint. We came home and when we got out of the car, looked up and saw an infinite number of stars in the relative darkness of this remote area. It was a nice way to bring our little trip to a close. We're already thinking about a return trip, and how it could easily be a weekend jaunt, particularly if we don't get caught in a 20-mile backup on the M6 like we did this time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Off to Wembley!

The U's did it! Tuesday night was the home match of the 2 game semi-finals and after getting lucky enough to tie Burton at their home, Cambridge United just needed a win at our home to move on to the brand new Wembley Stadium for a match to determine if the team is promoted to exalted "League" status. All the tickets available to Cambridge fans sold out and Burton brought about 700 away fans so almost 7500 people packed Abbey stadium and were already singing when I arrived about 20 minutes before kick-off. KT was running a bit late--in fact, she missed the first goal. United scored within 30 seconds to send the fans into a frenzy. Burton soon tied the match, however, and dominated the first half--only our excellent goalkeeper kept the score 1-1. The second half was a different story as United played much better and finally went ahead on a fluke goal--a winger kicked what he admitted was intended to be a pass and it kept floating right over their goalie's arms. Bedlam. As the minutes ticked down, the crowd noise grew until everyone let out a sigh of relief when the whistle blew. And then the celebration started, including an impressive "pitch invasion" that saw fans stream onto the field and dance with players (Ok, so we eventually worked our way down to the field just to enjoy the moment--KT went first, not me).

Here's a Youtube link to highlights of the game for the few who care besides me!

Perhaps more amusing is this video of fans celebrating on the field. It includes the famous "Bounce Bounce Amber Army chant" that rocked the stadium throughout the match.

Now to buy tickets for the Sunday May 18 Wembley match--Cambridge sold nearly 10,000 tickets yesterday in the first 8 hours. Go U's! --jt

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Beyond Reach

Click here for full photo album of the ride to Reach and Ely
I rode 50 miles and I didn't even win the wheelbarrow of booze? Oh well, it was a great bank holiday nonetheless.

As previous posts will attest, KT and I are enjoying cycling. And this past weekend, on the Monday bank holiday, we went on our longest rides yet, and our first group ride. For the past few years, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign has organized a 20 mile roundtrip ride to the small village of Reach, which has been holding its annual fair in May for the past 808 (!) years. The ride was scheduled to leave at 10am and arrive in Reach by noon, just in time for the opening ceremonies--the Mayor of Cambridge and other VIPs and official dress in traditional garb, sing God Save the Queen and throw newly minted pennies to the masses (to represent the rich giving money to the poor). Most on the ride would spend 2 hours at the fair and then head back to Cambridge, but a few hardy souls would cut their fair visit short to continue onto Ely--where some could train home and others could ride back for a 50 mile overall round trip. KT was happy to go the Reach (she even bought a new bike!) but I seriously wanted to do that long ride, though I had never gone such a distance.
The day was glorious and 80-100 riders gathered at the starting point--including young kids and grandparents. KT and I looked at each other, slightly embarrassed at being nervous about the "long" ride. We chatted a bit with one couple who had a kid along with them and the husband said his motivation was to get to Reach and win the "wheelbarrow of booze". Hmm, this is what England considers a family-friendly fair?

Ride to Reach from dceditors on Vimeo.
(Hmm, until I can get the video embedded click on the Ride to Reach link above this line)

The ride to Reach turned out to be nice and easy. Even at leisurely pace, we were there well before noon--and most of the ride was on traffic-free bike paths. In Reach, the crowds were already streaming in and the beer tents were open! We soon saw the infamous wheelbarrow, with bottles of vodka, gin, the local pub's beer, and KT quickly bought 5 tickets (to support the school's swimming pool, of course!)--none were the winner sadly.

The crowd sang God save the Queen, pennies were tossed, kids danced around a traditional May pole, tents and stalls sold baked goods and fair food, and children in fairy tales costumes skipped around--all in all it was simply delightful. KT and I were amused because everyone was so stunned by the nice weather--it tends to rain on bank holidays and the Reach fair had been rained on the past 5 years

All too soon 1pm neared and I had to decide whether to press on to Ely. There will always be more fairs so why not. About 25 of us set off and biked another hour before a rest stop in the Wicken Fen, a protected nature site. Then it was another hour to Ely, much of it along the banks of the River Ouse--Ely's magnificent cathedral lured us on, even from many miles away. KT and I have visited Ely several times but we had never made it down to the pretty riverfront where we all parked our bikes and dispersed for tea, a pint, or ice cream--or all 3. A few people headed to the train station for the 15 minute ride home but nearly 20 of us started back to Cambridge around 4:30pm. We reached Reach once again around 6pm and stopped for another pint of beer (I see the appeal of English cycling now!) as we watched the fair being taken down--it had closed about 30 minutes before we returned. Then, with legs burning and back stiffening, we made the final dash for food home. Amazingly, the leader of the trip rode in flip-flops, carried a huge flag on his old rusty bike, and had a mammoth basket of food and other supplies weighing him down. And he never broke a sweat. Still, I was very proud I did the whole trip. Next year, however, I'm winning the darn wheelbarrow. --JT

Sunday, May 4, 2008

On Going Home

If "home" is defined as "where my bunnies are" (anyone who knew me when I was 4 will get that), then Home is Cambridge. But where my parents are and where my grandparents are come pretty close, too. I've made two business trips to the U.S. in the last two months, one that included a trip to my parents' house in Texas and the other a trip to the family homestead in Wisconsin. Either of these trips could have been hard, like my trip last year, but I did what I could to simply enjoy every moment of each trip and savor the time with family.

But before I get all mooky and introspective, let's talk about what I found strange.

U.S. money is strange to me. Once upon a time I worked the register in a grocery store; I could do a till count as fast as the next person. But British money is all different sizes and hefts, so after being away from the U.S. dollars for a while, they feel strange in my hands.

People in the U.S. do not have washing machines in their kitchens! What a concept! As a corollary, I did two loads of laundry at my parents' house before 10 a.m. one day. That would take me six hours in England. (Although it's more fun doing laundry at Grandma's: Put it down the chute and it comes back up clean. Magic!)

People in the U.S. drive on the wrong side of the road. That statement will not give comfort to the people whose cars I drove on both trips. I have learned how to switch back and forth, but my default is going to be whatever I experienced last. I never did look to the left when crossing a street in Chicago. Fortunately, I escaped disaster.

And then there are the food things -- Chicago pizza, a good hot dog, Mexican food, barbeque, cheese curds, etc. I also didn't realize how much I missed a proper dill pickle. There's nothing more embarrassing than being at Big Important Meeting You Flew 4,000 Miles to Attend, biting into a cold, crisp dill spear during said meeting, uttering an audible, foodgasmic "Mmmm," and having your boss, who, naturally, is sitting right next to you, raise his eyebrows at you and ask, "Good pickle?"

As for the family visits, they were just great. In February, I savored time with my mom and dad as we went for a long drive or roamed about town. I listened to stories from Auntie M. and Grandpa R. about our family lineage. I got to see Maid of Honor's classroom and spend time with her gorgeous daughter. Last week, I dropped in on a family gathering to see cousins I haven't seen in 7 years, and my Grandma E., who I haven't seen since our wedding. I marveled at how grown up Cousin J. is, and went shopping with Auntie G. I went to coffee with Grandpa R. and sat next to one of my dad's high school teachers who told me I looked just like my dad. Grandma G. and I talked books, she showed me her photo albums from her England trips, and she ironed a shirt for my benefit so I could watch and learn how an expert does it.

I smiled at the flat farmland of Walworth County, Wisconsin, realizing it's not so different from England -- and that's probably why I feel so at home in Cambridge. It's hard to leave, but it's also really great to visit, whether it's Texas, Wisconsin, or anywhere. It's been nearly 5 years since I've visited Wisconsin and 20 years since I moved away from it, but no matter how old I get, Wisconsin will always be where I'm from.

The oldest of the Cousins Without Sisters.