Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Taking a break ...

Time to get out into the real world and meet real people and do real things instead of just bitching about it all virtually. The occasional essay, photo, or recipe will go up, but not much else. It's been ... very.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dancing the night away

It being a Belgian-Cuban wedding, there was of course lots of dancing.

The first dance:

The father of the bride:

Salsa conmigo!

Burn baby burn!

I, unfortunately, was largely relagated to the sidelines by my dodgy toe. Had I been dancing, I would have put them all to shame, of course. In fact, by not dancing I was merely making sure I didn't overshadow the bride. After all, it's all about her, isn't it? And yes, my toe does still hurt, and I'm now pretty sure I've broken it, thanks for asking. Although, after shutting my arm in the car door last night, that large, swollen, painful bruise is something of a distraction. Thankfully.

Antwerp rocks

Seriously. I always have the best time whenever I go there. Obviously, it's the people. Caroline and Liesbet, their friends and family, are warm, lovely people who remember who you are, and are chatty, hospitable, entertaining. I had one of the (many) aunts approach me at the wedding after-party and say "So, still single, eh?" -- I'd attended Caroline's sister's wedding unaccompanied (in fact, as Caroline's "date") seven years earlier and she'd both recognized me and remembered me. And, as befits an international jet-setter with her own private plane, several people I'd never met before knew who I was when I mentioned my name. "Oh, Caroline's flatmate from Salamanca! You built the Arch of Love!"* So Caroline's friends and family think that I''m a crazy spinster with too much time on her hands. Great! (It's only half-true).

I kid, I kid. I had a great evening out with Liesbet, Nathalie, and Anke on Friday -- just having some tapas at a Spanish bar, trying to work out why they were all single (conclusion: men are idiots). Saturday was wedding central, complete with mojitos, salsa, and lots of cake. Sunday involved a restorative 4-hour sojourn on a terrace before heading to the airport for my (slightly delayed and overcrowded) flight home. I spoke Spanish, I spoke Dutch -- in fact, more Dutch than I'd spoken in my six years in the Netherlands and my Belgian hosts even pretended to understand me! Now that's generous and welcoming! I've received invitations to visit from such nice people, and have delighted in being able to reciprocate. And while it's strange to feel so at home in a place you've only visited 5 times, I know I could be very happy there.

* The Arch of Love: a visual representation of the relationship of the King of Spain's younger daughter and her Olympic handball player husband. It's ... impressive. And mildly disturbing. And at my parent's house, safely stuck in a scrapbook.

Just call me "Posh Dumpling"

Apologies for the lack of posts, but life has been so hectic! It's tough being a member of the international jet set, flying here and there to glamorous society events, but somebody has to do it. And thank goodness for private planes! Just check out my flight to Brussels on Friday.

Yep, that's right. Just one passenger -- little old me. Delightful service from the lovely Kelly, a personal preflight debrief from the pilot, rather than the usual crackling PA system announcement, and then it was time to relax in any one of the seats that I wanted, and be waited on hand and foot. Well, I got a drink and some biscuits -- far more than you get on Easyjet or BMI.

I could get used to this. In fact, I positively resented my six fellow passengers on the return leg yesterday. How dare they invade my space!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A little night music

OK, so I can't actually replicate on this blog the captivating twilight bird song that was floating across the night air as I got the washing in (did I mention that we don't have a tumble dryer?). Just enchanting -- lots of different birds tweating away, with the distant hum of the M3 providing a rich bass note. I can't remember the last time I heard birds that weren't pigeons; rather magical, it was.

However, I can capture our twinkly solar lights, glowing their little eco-friendly hearts out.

And aren't those patio tiles clean!

It's all go round here

Typical! Six years in the Netherlands and all the weddings I was invited to were in the UK -- North Yorkshire, Sussex, London (x 2), the New Forest, and not forgetting the wonderful one in Norfolk. One month after I return to the UK and where's my next wedding? Antwerp. A great city, just three hours from Amsterdam on the train. Instead, I have to fly to Brussels -- but, luckily, from Southampton Airport, a mere 7 minutes by train from Winchester Station. The terminal is only 99 steps from the railway platform, which is just as well as I'm still hobbling -- which has also ruled out wearing heels for the wedding. I guess it will have to be slippers. The second leg of this particular wedding will be held in Cuba next year -- a very tempting prospect. And my toe might have healed by then.

PJ is on his first non-UK business trip since we returned, and is currently judging a lego contest somewhere in the Arctic Circle. Seriously! Well, maybe not judging the lego contest but lego is involved. He's hoping that the organizers will slip him some Imperial Star Destroyer lego to play with on the long, multi-leg journey home -- 2 1/2 hour flight to Oslo, overnight in Oslo, flight to Heathrow, and then the 55-mile drive home. If he can find the car in the long-stay car park at Heathrow. Laser-blue Golf? I bet there won't be many of those there.

Expect pictures on Sunday evening.

Hunting houses

Off for a quick bike ride this evening -- 10 minutes in any direction means you hit either major (i.e., fast and dangerous) roads or a hill, neither of which is particularly pleasant. However, you certainly get to see far more of Winchester. Tuesday evening, I headed over to yoga, discovered that it was cancelled, and so pottered around Hyde, finding both streets of lovely houses and -- heaven! -- cycle paths through and around the football and rugby pitches. Tonight, less luck on the cycle path front, but there were some rather fab properties in the St Cross and Stanmore neighbourhoods.

Let's see. How about this one? Situated at the end of a quiet lane, it has great views across the water meadows to St Cross Hospital and St Catherine's Hill. Perfect for cats.

Not convinced? OK, here's something slightly grander. Not sure what it's The Master's Lodge for -- again, possibly, the hospital, but perhaps the boys' school? Either way, buckets of old-school charm and just round the corner from a pub and a fish n chip shop. Ideal for PJ.

Something more contemporary, then. I rather liked this, perched among the trees and next to some tennis courts. Perfect for me!

Unfortunately, I'm certain that these are all well out of our price range. Shouldn't complain though, as we're in a considerably more fortunate position than most and should be able to buy something, somewhere, at some point, without massively overextending ourselves. The Observer had a thoroughly depressing article about the housing market, talking about the division between "landed" and "non-landed" and the misfortune of being born too late to get on the property ladder. It's largely the fault of 1) speculative buy-to-let investors and 2) people relying on property to provide a pension. I blame Thatcher, of course. Let's hope Gordon does something to rectify the situation -- including turning over one of these little beauties to ME!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Curiouser and curiouser

I have a pair of knee-high boots. They used to fit. In fact, they used to be a little large around the calf.

Not any more.

I tried them on when it first started raining -- a week after we got here -- and they were tight. Not tourniquet tight, but tight enough that I didn't want to wear them and started running on a regular basis (until the wine bottle incident). I tried them on again today, and bingo. They fit again. Still a little snug, but definitely better.

Either they shrunk in the removal van and subsequent hot weather or I'm miraculously able to gain weight in very localized areas. Such as the mid-calf. Or, I'm gaining weight all over, the result of my reduced exercise regime, and I just don't want to admit it.

Ignorance is bliss.

We have a new car ...

... and our first car-related drama. We leave the dealership, proudly driving away our new (and soon to be beloved) laser blue Golf. And then notice that the tank is on empty. And we have no clue where the nearest petrol station is. And our salesman isn't answering his phone. After pootling around for several miles, we're aware that we are really running low on fuel, we're on the interminable Basingstoke ring road, and there's not a petrol station in sight -- bloody environmental campaigners have probably had them all closed down! Tempers fray, we head in the direction of the Leisure Park, and suddenly! There, ahead of us, hoving into blessed view! A Shell Station!!!

We were very relieved. And then gobsmacked at just how expensive it is to fill a tank completely. Ouch.

And then we had to find our way back to the M3 South, on the wretched ring road that only had helpful labels like "Ring road East" or "Ring road West". 20 minutes of driving and I am already cursing Britain's town planners.

We are petrolheads now. Oh yes we are!

Monday, May 14, 2007

A culinary weekend

The injury to the big toe on my right foot did not prevent me from making the most of a rainy weekend. And the contents of the vegebox.

First up: orange and chocolate chip cookies

Sunday brunch: saj borek with spinach and feta. So good, you get two pictures:

In prep:

Cooked, with fried egg:

Sunday dinner: butternut squash with spinach and couscous, recipe courtesy of Riverford. We're having the remains of the stuffing tonight as burgers.

Given that I'm away this weekend and PJ's away Thursday/Friday and Monday/Tuesday next week, I've changed our order from the large vegebox to the fruit 'n veg box. We were beginning to feel overwhelmed by the amount of root veg we had -- and our digestive tracts were bearing the brunt. And we have a guest -- our first overnight guest! -- next week, so we want to be ... fragrant for her, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A public service announcement

Dropping a wine bottle on your big toe while getting it out of the shopping bag is really, really painful. As I discovered last night. I don't think it's broken, but it is extremely bruised and is making walking somewhat tiresome. Time for a bath and the Guardian magazine.

Job done

We had three things on our shopping list today: The Guardian, a car, and a pint of milk. Two out of three ain't bad, I suppose -- the shop we were going to get the milk from on the way back from the station was shut.

Only kidding! PJ's just gone out to get the milk from Kingsgate Provisions -- our upmarket local tuck shop. So, three out of three -- and some fantastic fish n chips at Olivers in Old Basing. Nice one.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Desirable from Doncaster

A fun article in The Times this weekend. As one half of a couple that have striven to overcome their cultural differences -- I'm from glorious Norfolk, he's from the grim North -- it made entertaining reading. For once, I am in vogue.

The Grazia is always greener

A fresh copy of Grazia lasts me exactly one hour: from the time I get onto the train at Waterloo until we arrive at Winchester Station. A letter on this week Grazia letter's page declared that the reader had found enough in Grazia to last her two days of commuting, at 4 hours per day. I can only assume she reads v e r y s l o w l y, but I can't imagine why she'd want to proclaim that to the world.

After four weeks of being able to buy Grazia whenever I want to, it's starting to pale. Yes, it's considerably classier than Heat, better value for money than the monthlies, and doesn't stain your fingers like National Enquirer, but it's fairly limited in scope. Take some tenuous gossip about Jen/Posh/Angelina/Kate, add in "information" about the latest cosmetic surgery treatments, fill a couple of pages with a story about babies -- why I want them/can't have them/gave them away/am infertile/have them but work/have them but don't work/don't work and don't want them/killed them/got them from a foreign country -- and then devote pages and pages to clothes. Perhaps that's the problem. I have no wardrobe space, no credit card, no need for more clothes -- no need, dare I say it, for Grazia.

Back to The Economist, I guess

All potatoes all the time

Another Thursday, another vegebox. We have lots of potatoes, two cauliflowers, and many, many carrots. I am whipping up some more fantastic carrot/potato mash and will freeze it in our tiny icebox. I have also planned our meals for the week and have written out a shopping list of the handful of ingredients needed. I have become Martha Stewart (minus the billionaire boyfriend and prison record). Yay me.

Booze cruise

After last week's debacle on the trains, I set off for the station yesterday in a somewhat fearful mood. And it was justified. A 20-minute delay, which meant I didn't get into London until 10.30. On the bright side, I had a seat, I was able to get a good 70 minutes of work done, and the Tube was empty -- I was in the office just 15 minutes after stepping off the train at Waterloo. In London commuting terms, this is known as a result.

The journey back was on time and just an hour. We'd lubricated ourselves for the inevitable commuter hell by stopping off at Ping Pong for some dim sum and booze. I had the best passion fruit and apple martini I've ever had. The fact that it's the only passion fruit and apple martini I've ever had should not detract from it's greatness. Smooth, full of flavor, and without that burning alcohol sensation that you often get from less-well-made short cocktails. It even made the incredibly loud, perky, chatty blonde on the train home bearable. OK, it didn't really, but with the help of a copy of Grazia, I was able to enter a fugue state on which she didn't impinge too greatly. PJ plugged in the headphones and watched an episode of Lost. The chap beside me shuffled through some rather nice charcoal sketches and muttered "Yes please" when Perky Blonde loudly asked her companion if he just wanted her to be quiet -- and somehow failed to ignore his response.

We then stopped off at The Old Vine for a final nightcap and to feel smug about having chosen such a lovely place to live. Hurrah for us!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The more things change

The one constant: If I'm cycling, I need my waterproof trousers.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dumpling's gotta brand-new ... bike

Yeah, I'm back on two wheels -- and it feels ... faintly terrifying, actually. Sharing the road with cars, having gears and TWO brakes, and riding on something light and nippy and that doesn't require significant heft to get it to move. I found myself speeding down the North Walls, around Eastgate, legs pedalling away furiously at my normal rate, desperately trying to figure out what gear I should be in so that I could get the (heavy) resistance that I was used to on my Dutch bike, and then realized that that's simply not going to happen. I have to adapt, which could be difficult, given that I'm almost 36 and thus set in my ways.

I am also having to be more assertive, taking my place on the road as if it's my due, rather than cycling along apologetically. And to be fair, the cars I encountered this evening seemed to respect that -- slowing down to pull out round me, giving me plenty of room. Still, it was a relief to get off-road and cycle alongside the river and back along to College Walk. Now, if I could just get some decent street lamps installed ...

Monday, May 07, 2007

(I got those) Bank Holiday Monday Blues

Rain on Culver Road is not quite as impressive as rain on the Keizersgracht. Oh well, at least I managed to get through half of Suite Francaise (excellent) and make some caramelized onion "jam" with my many organic onions. Back to work tomorrow.

Sheffield Wednesday 3: Norwich 2

Thank goodness that's over. Sixteenth -- pretty much where we were all season. Let's hope the boys can rest, regroup, and come back slightly stronger next season. I'd settle for 12th.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

'ello John, got a new motor?

Is pretty much what we were saying all day yesterday. We've been to three car dealerships (and one bike shop) and all the sales staff were called John. Is that the law? Is there some kind of entry restriction for the Institute of Dealers that requires them to be called John? Or is it just short for (ahem) Honest John? It has made it much easier to remember them: John Peugeot, John Ford, and John Renault. All of them (other than in the bike shop) approach my father first, obviously figuring that PJ and I are far too scruffy to be able to afford anything -- just the way we like it. I'd be quite happy to hand over our budget and send my father off to buy us something; he tells us all sorts of useful information about the number-plate system, insurance groups, getting a discount -- I feel rather more comfortable at a dealership when he's around.

It's also been fun sitting in cars and trying to make them fit my 5'1" frame and PJ's 6'4" -- it's ruled out the Ford Ka (which I liked). We have also discovered that we each have some preferences, hitherto undiscovered. To whit:

I like frog-esque headlamps; PJ hates them.
PJ likes go-faster stripes; I refuse to be seen in a car with them.
I hate the new Detroit-style heavy front grilles; PJ tolerates them.
I like the Ford Focus and Peugeot 207; PJ hates them.

It looks like we'll "compromise" on a VW Golf of some variety -- not the Group 15 insurance GTi, but something with a 1.6 engine and no go-faster stripes or froggy headlamps (boo). Maybe next weekend.

Crushed by the wheels of (local) industry

The 'rents are down for the weekend -- our first visitors -- so we've taken advantage of their good nature and car to head out and about in Hampshire. This is a very pretty county. Yesterday, we zoomed over to Alresford to check out the village (very nice), the Watercress Line (very cute), and the shopping (pretty damn fine). We are trying to support local stores and businesses, so we ended up with: 5 salmon steaks from a fishmonger, a lavender plant, a rosemary plant, some eco-friendly washing-up liquid and brushes from the Long Barn (lovely store), as well as a buckwheat-filled doorstop. We did balk at the highly expensive cushions made from Hungarian grain sacks from 1910-1930, appealing though they were; we're not quite that middle class (yet). Then it was off to our local provision store to buy ice cream to go with the home-made organic carrot cake -- and in the choice between Ben & Jerry's and Jude's, the local option won. And very good it was, too. This morning, we headed up the hill to buy bikes from Hargroves Cycles, the local alternative to Halfords. It's all getting quite expensive, but I'm sure is well worth it. Well, feeling smug is, at least.

Friday, May 04, 2007

How could I forget the puppy!?

This gorgeous monster sits by the bookshop at Kings Gate, just round the corner from our house. He does tend to rather hog the pavement; we saw a mother with a baby buggy having to ask the shop owner to physically move the dog out of the way as he refused to move. But he/she -- it's hard to tell on a big shaggy dog -- seems very placid and content to bask in the sun.

I still haven't seen many cats yet, but I'm sure they're out there. Time to start hanging little scraps of salmon around the garden gate.

Wandering around Winchester

Well, I wasn't wandering so much as dashing out to the shops at lunchtime, but I wanted to get a shot of the lilac in the Cathedral close before it fades and/or the weather turns. Which should be this weekend, just in time for Bank Holiday Monday. Of course.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Flame wars

The weeds are back. I'm outraged. Given that I'm buying organic, I don't feel I can have at them with some noxious chemicals, but I am tempted by Riverford's method of weed control, as outlined in today's leaflet with the vegebox. "Faced with a potentially horrendous weeding task, we took the decision to flame weed. This involves a quick blast from a tractor-mounted flame weeder, which bursts the cells of the weeds, causing them to die within a few hours."

I think PJ would be up for operating a tractor-mounted flame weeder; it sounds like the sort of thing he gets to use in his many Japanese role-playing/berry-collecting games. The problem might be finding one small enough to fit into our tiny patio area. Perhaps we could MacGyver up a miniature one using a cigarette lighter and a piece of string instead. Either way, the weeds must go.

Let the train take the strain

Last week's silky dream of a commute into London was clearly that -- a dream. This week, I walked PJ up to the station (he's still not so good on navigation) to catch the 7.48, strolled home, went back to sleep for 30 minutes, and was woken up by PJ ringing the doorbell at 8.30. The 7.40 had broken down at Shawford, delaying all the subsequent trains, leaving crowds eight-deep at Winchester Station and no prospect of getting into London. Ho hum. He did make it in later on in the day and back again without any problem, though -- and got a full refund on his ticket and was able to get a cheaper fare later on, so it wasn't all bad. And walking uphill to the station twice in a morning was damn good exercise.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Evidence that we are middle-aged

1. We just ordered some furniture that isn't flat-pack, will take 10 weeks to arrive, and doesn't need an allan key to assemble it.
2. I spent more time last night looking through the Land's End catalogue for a previous occupant than studying the fashion pages in Grazia.

When crocs start to look comfy, kill me.