Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cold Weather Woes already?

We had hoped for a mild winter when we agreed to move to England. We knew we would live in a perpetual state of fall (with a fair bit of constant spring rain) but coming from the Windy City, we were just thrilled at the idea of escaping the winter we experienced last year with the dumping of snow on the city for months on end. 
So, imagine the surprise yesterday when I looked out the window to see HUGE flakes of snow falling outside! 
Here is what I saw outside of our kitchen:

As the afternoon went on, the snow actually got heavier....the view out of our front window: 
About an hour later, the view out of our kitchen in the back "yard" was a bit whiter.... 

The snow caused some chaos on the roads here since the English are not used to ice and snow. In fact it was the first time it has snowed in this area since the 1930's so it is not a regular occurrence. The weather was also cold yesterday. Temperatures were below 0 degrees (Celsius) and with our luck, our heat and hot water went out in our house last night! 
We bundled up with socks, sweatshirts and extra blankets to go to bed last night and hoped that we would wake up this morning to find hot water working again. Scott & I laughed about it because just about a year ago we faced the same situation in Chicago. We had just returned from our honeymoon and that very night, we lost all heat in our house.....after an expensive visit from the local heating & cooling company the next day, our situation was fixed. Luckily, this time around, we do not own the house so it is not our cost incurred. :) 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our First Anniversary

Scenes from an anniversary....
A silly banner hanging in the hallway for the special day....
Flowers for the MRS....
A cookie cake in lieu of our wedding cake top (we had to pitch it from our freezer due to the move). 
An attempt at a self portrait photo of the two of us.....
Making an anniversary wish on the #1 candle....still not succeeding with the self portrait snap shot....
Hopefully yesterday was the first of MANY anniversaries still to come! 

Monday, October 27, 2008

One year ago today....

One year ago today, Scott and I were married in Chicago. The year has brought change for us, but every day has been better because we get to go through it together - as husband and wife.

I am so lucky to have found my best partner for life.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Autumn in England

The foliage here in England this fall has been spectacular! Driving around the countryside we have marveled at the sight of roads with bright fall colored leaves hanging down across them. I took a walk into our little town the other afternoon and snaped a few shots to share.....

Looking at the post office and the old bath houses from the park near town centre.
The park area in the center of town. 
A view of the river from the bridge on the main street of town. 
A view of the river from inside the gardens.
The duck pond in the gardens. 
A view of the main street in town from the gardens. 
Last weekend I had seen an "Apple Day" advertised around the area for a little festival in the Hillclose Gardens in Warwick. I had hopes that we would be able to pick a few apples and buy some good local apples. Unfortunately, the "festival" did not even hold a candle to our experiences at Apple Holler, but we had a nice (short) stroll through the gardens, and we did learn about the history of some local apples. 

Ha! Even the names of their apples made us laugh....

Scott standing at a random door in the middle of the garden maze. 
A view of the gardens. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

The falling pound....

The news headlines today are again about the economic woes and worries that the British are facing. I know it's a similar story in America as we have watched our stock and retirement accounts dwindle down in such a short time, and today, it seems it was a significant day for the GBP (Great British Pound).

From the London Times online today: 
"The pound tumbled below $1.60 for the first time in five years today as the British economy prepared to shift towards its first recession since 1992. Sterling slumped to $1.5676 after new figures showed that the UK economy shrank by 0.5 per cent between July and September, signalling the first time quarterly GDP has fallen in more than 16 years."

Such news is not good news here in the UK, but the silver lining is that it is cheaper for anyone in America to come visit us right now......We have guests lined up for December and will have open room and board for any others who wish to visit while a dollar and a half buys you at least one pound, instead of the previous two dollars for one pound. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Take Away Dinner

One of the things we were really spoiled with while living in Chicago was the numerous options for take out for meals. As unhealthy as it may be, we probably ordered Lou Malnati's pizza at least once a week....and of course we enjoyed it every time. :)
 Here in our little area of England, the choices are not as plentiful. If we want to order take away (not called take-out here), our choices include: Dominos, Pizza Hut (and actually both Domino's and Pizza Hut taste pretty much the same as they do in America which is nice), Indian, Chinese, or Fish N'Chips.
Since I have time on my hands, I have been making nice meals every night but sometimes it is nice to get a break from cooking. A few nights ago we decided to try one of the Fish N' Chip stands for dinner. You cannot eat inside these places as they only offer take away, otherwise you would need to go to a pub to sit down and eat such a meal in an establishment. 
So for 7.50 pounds, here is the meal we purchased for the two of us: 
The HUGE fried fish fillets soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in paper. By the time we got home from picking up dinner (only about a 4 minute drive), the fish had soaked through the paper! Everything is wrapped in paper - no containers, etc.  Although it is difficult to tell from this photo, each fish fillet had to be at least 12 inches in length....quite large! 
And then here was the mound of chips (fries) also soaked in malt vinegar and doused in salt. YUM. 
The meal was quite tasty but of course we both could have used a roll of TUMS after eating all of that fried food. Fish N' Chips take away is a nice treat but it will not be a weekly meal in our house.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

No More Crusty Clothes!!!

This morning I took a step at eliminating the crusty clothes and the crusty towels that we have been wearing and using in our household for the past two months.....I purchased a condenser tumble dryer. The delivery time on Saturday morning cannot come soon enough! 
I am quite tired of using our kitchen entryway as the hanging ground for all of our wet clothes. It is a bit challenging to do laundry any time before we want to have guests in the house, since the only place the clothes line seems to fit, is in this doorway of the kitchen. It has also been slightly embarrassing when service people have come into our house and our underwear is hanging all over our kitchen, and the person has to duck underneath the laundry line of clothing items, in order to enter our kitchen. 
I have tried to speed up the drying process by stationing a fan on the kitchen side of the laundry line, and then I position a fan in the hallway of the front part of the house, on the other side of the line. Even with these efforts, it still takes at least a full day for our clothes to dry, due to the dampness of such an old house in which we live.
A load of whites drying in our kitchen. The towels provide a nice curtain to separate our kitchen from the front hallway in our house....
And then there's a dark load.....
Most people in this country hang their laundry outside to dry. I would not even dare attempt such a thought because of a few reasons:
- SPIDERS. They are EVERYWHERE on our back patio/yard area. Cob webs galore. I would be beside myself if I found spiders crawling inside our clothes. The spiders I am still finding in the corners of the house are enough. 
- We have no laundry lines or systems set up in the backyard. Many houses have these elaborate drying racks in their back yards. It is something we could purchase, but again, due to the infestation of SPIDERS out there, I would not even consider it. 

Come Saturday, I cannot wait to actually wash a load of towels, and then put them in our new DRYER so that we hopefully can return to using nice, fluffy bath towels.....

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Two Months

Today marks an official two months since we arrived to live in the UK. Today we also took our second trip to Costco and it seemed to go much smoother than our first visit there, about 1 1/2 months ago. I reflected on the happening and it is pretty well on par with how things are going after two months here. We are adjusting. Scott, of course, was able to jump right into work and hit the ground running while I have been more focused on all of the little things that help make living someplace easier and actually feasible. 

On our first trip to Costco, we were just excited to see a big store. Everything here in England is smaller. The houses, the appliances, the cars, the grocery stores, and more importantly the size of the products sold in the grocery (again, note the size of our fridge). It makes sense that everything is made to scale, since houses are smaller, space is at a premium, etc. However, in a household of just two people, I am at the grocery store every or every other day just to replenish the basics - milk, orange juice, and other such staples. I cannot imagine what other households with large families must do.  So when we walked into Costco on our first trip there, it felt like America. Although most products were UK based goods, in larger quantities, we did encounter a few American products and we felt like we could have been just roaming through the Lincoln Park Coscto in Chicago. Even though we did not buy many items in bulk that day (again due to space constraints), it did feel "normal" to us to be in such an environment, even for just a short while. 

Unfortunately, our first UK trip to Costco was not all smooth sailing. We were quickly reminded at the checkout station that we did not quite belong here yet. Another former expat (back living in Chicago now) told me before we arrived, that I may feel a bit like a polish immigrant upon arrival in the UK. I listened to her comment, but figured we had Scott's company behind us, good heads on our shoulders, and people actually spoke (a form of) English in the UK, so I wasn't quite sure we would encounter such situations. After this incident, I understood what she meant. 

At the checkout counter, I presented my Costco membership card and the cashier took it and then began scanning our items. After scanning our items, Scott went to pay for our goods with his American Express card (one of the few forms of payment Costco in the US accepts). In slightly difficult-to-understand English accent, the cashier said we could not use our AMEX as Costco did not accept any credit cards. He said we could use a debit mastercard or cash. Ok, so we decided to pay with our US based debit card. As we were waiting for the cash register to process the card, a supervisor was called over to our till, and then ultimately also a manager of the store. We were then told, no, sorry, the US debit card will not work because there was no chip in the card. We could only pay with a UK mastercard debit card (which has this "chip" in it) or cash. We tried to explain we also had a debit mastercard, but the store would not allow it. Of course during this drawn out meeting of the managers and our cashier, a long line had formed behind our till and we had annoyed customers wishing they had chosen another line. 

As someone who takes great pride in maintaining fiscal responsibility and good credit, I was now embarrassed and I am sure the people in line behind us were thinking to themselves "These stupid Americans." How were we going to pay for our items after we had called a forum over to this specific till? We only had 25 pounds in cash, and our total due was nearly double that amount. Luckily, the manager directed Scott to an ATM outside of the area and allowed him to leave the line in order to take pounds out of our US account so we could ultimately pay cash for the items. We ended up leaving Costco with our goods after the long debacle but clearly felt like outsiders who did not know the rules of how things work here. 

Now, two months later, we do have a UK bank account and so we were armed with our UK debit mastercard for this visit to Costco. Our visit was much smoother this time around and we purchased our goods with no issues or managers called to our attention. Other things are starting settle as well. We are (slowly) learning the local lingo and are learning how to respond to greetings such as "You'r all right?" (translation in American English: "HI, How are you?") and today, took a big step in committing to our new life here by joining a golf and health club. Other things, such as my constant apprehension of being a front seat passenger in the car while Scott drives around the narrow, winding country roads near by, will probably take a few more months to still adjust.....

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Upholstery Class Progress

I missed a few of my upholstery classes due to my travels with my sister, but I have been back in class now for another two weeks. I really thought this chair would be fairly easy to reupholster. Clearly, I did not know what all went in to such an endeavor.

I have successfully spent hours hammering a tool into this chair to remove all of the staples that held the fabric, batting, foam, and support strips into this frame. Here is the progression of my work....
The metal lining that was attached with staples, I had to tear (carefully) off of the chair. 
The fabric, then the batting layer, comes off of the chair....leaving the old (slightly gross) foam layer.
After hammering more staples out of the chair, the foam layer gets removed, leaving only the support strips attached to the chair. 
After I removed the foam and fabric layers, I brought the chair home and attempted to strip the stain off of the bottom of the chair. I will eventually re-stain the wood. 
Once the support strips were removed, it was just a frame of a chair! 
I then made a paste of saw dust and glue to fill in all of the holes from the old staples on the chair. Doesn't this mixture slightly resemble canned tuna fish? Thankfully, it didn't smell like tuna....

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fall Cooking

I love to cook and many times I have been known to photograph my creations....
I have had a good amount of time to prepare full meals lately, and last night we enjoyed a nice fall meal. I thought it was worthy of a post because it was delicious and I thought it looked like a colorful fall meal.... 
Caramel Apple Pork Chops, Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Balsamic Vinegar, and green beans.
I have heard that it is surprisingly warm in Chicago right now, so fall baking is not in order just yet. We, however, have already received our first gas bill and clearly the cost reflects the fact that we have been running our heat almost since the first day we moved in here...there is just a constant chill in the air (spitting rain does not help the matter).
And if you'd like to join us for dinner, guests are always welcome! :)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Election Coverage here in the UK

I wish I were able to have two tvs going at once - one with UK coverage of the US presidential election, and one with the UK coverage of it because I am sure we are not seeing the same coverage in the UK as Americans are watching in the US. 
While living in Chicago, I felt like there was a lot of Obama coverage on the news, mainly because it is his hometown, he is a senator in the state, etc. and when we first arrived here in the UK, the media did cover Obama regularly. However, here, the coverage seems to have taken a turn to focus on Sarah Palin. After McCain made his selection, one of the newspapers here called her the next Margaret Thatcher. It is fascinating to see how the media covers both candidates here and so I am curious to know how they are both being covered by the television outlets in their home country (I am able to read the main papers online so at least I can see that part of things which is good). 

It does not seem to just be the media who is fascinated with her either. Last week, upon meeting three British people (all in non-related circumstances - a pilates class attendee, a gas service man at the house, and a coffee barista) and as soon as they realized I was American, each then asked me "So, what do you think of Sarah Palin?"  Not knowing how people feel about her or any other running presidential candidate in the US, I prefer not to discuss it, so I have casually just made a comment of "it is an interesting election" or something along those lines in order to deflect a possibly messy discussion. Are people here really that interested in what an American thinks of her??

The fascination with Obama and Sarah Palin (note: I find it so intriguing that it is not Obama vs. McCain) is being highlighted tonight on the BBC. The show is called: OBAMA and THE PITBULL: AN AMERICAN TALE. 

Description from the BBC site as follows:
"Inexperienced Senator Barack Obama has risen from nowhere to the very threshold of the White House. Panorama visits his political home in South Chicago, as well as the crucial battleground state of Ohio, to find out how has achieved this. 
But with new - and just as unlikely - challenger Sarah Palin slowing him in his tracks, could the current financial crisis engulfing the Republican party put Obama on the home straight? Matt Frei investigates." 

Needless to say, the constant promotion of this special program to air this evening has indeed peaked my interest and I will be tuning in to watch it at 8pm.....

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Grocery Store

A few people have asked me about what the grocery stores here are like....and this very question was a central concern of mine before we moved here. I go to the grocery store basically every day (note the size of our fridge in a previous post) and frankly some may say I am a bit strange because I love grocery shopping. I felt my findings at these stores were worthy of a blog posting.
When we came to England on our home finding trip, I insisted on checking out the grocery stores in the area, and probably spent a few hours in total just wandering the aisles, reviewing the product selection, and observing prices of goods. Since I am an avid cook, the grocery store is important to me.

Here in our area, we have a number of UK grocery store chains close by. There are two "superstores" (aka American suburban-type grocery store) within about 2 miles of our house. One is a chain called Sainsburys, and the other is called Tesco. Sainsburys seems to be a small step up in my opinion from Tesco, so I tend to shop there the most. We also have two "metro" shops in our town that are within walking distance - a Metro Tesco, and a small Marks & Spencer. M&S is a higher end, own brand type store that sells a lot of pre-made foods, small selection of everything else which is all part of their own brand - similar to a Trader Joe's in the states (but no where near as inexpensive as TJ's). I will frequently walk to these stores for a quick something if I need something fairly soon, however, the selection at both stores is more limited.
Finally, a few towns over, we have a new superstore - Waitrose. Waitrose is so nice, clean and really quite pretty. It is owned by the UK department store chain, John Lewis, and it is often a bit more expensive than Sainsburys or Tesco. Indeed some things are more expensive there, but as with all grocery stores, one just must know the prices of goods. I have enjoyed exploring all stores because they are all new to me.

It is a strange feeling to be in a new place and not to know many brands of goods. The first week we were in our house, I went to the store to buy laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, etc. and I just stood in the aisle looking at each item, wondering which one to choose. I did not recognize a single brand on the shelf. Thankfully, at least we are in an English-speaking country, so i can at least read the packaging.... The cleaning products seem to be fine and the laundry detergent I chose (Ariel liquid) seems to be the best laundry detergent I have encountered thus far. The white socks, towels, and more that I wash with this liquid are the cleanest I have ever seen them. The detergent smells pretty good too! 
The cost of groceries here, for the most part, is about double the cost of groceries in America. On a whole, I have found things to be equally priced in pounds and dollars, but then given the exchange rate, they are easily twice as expensive here in the UK. So, for example, chicken tends to be about 3.99 pounds per pound and in America, it was about $3.99 per pound - in essence, similar in price, but since the dollar is so weak, the cost is nearly double. That said, there are a few things that are actually cheaper here despite the dismal exchange rate. The bread selection is much more vast here and I pay 62 pence (about $1) for a loaf of freshly baked crusty sliced bread. The quality is much better than I ever found at a chain grocery in the US and the price cannot be beat. That said, the cracker and digestive (aka cookie) selection here is very large compared to that in the US. Carbohydrates are loved here!

Wine is also much more reasonable, in part due to the fact that we are closer to the European countries making the wine, I would think. Good Italian or French wine can be purchased for about 4-5 pounds per bottle. American wine, ironically, retails for more along the lines of 10-12 pounds per bottle.

While there are a number of positive things about the grocery stores here, 
there are quite a few things I miss. 
My list of items I cannot find here includes:
- Marshmallow Cream or Fluff
- Canned Pumpkin (note: Whole Foods in London does carry Libby's canned pumpkin - 
so I stocked up the last time I was there)
- Ranch Salad Dressing
- Caramel Sauce (such as Smucker's, etc. for ice cream or I use it for baking) - everything is TOFFEE flavored here
- Good marshmallows
- Dark corn syrup
- Cheez-ITs, Fritos, Cheetos, most american type crackers/chips, although Pringles are here
- PAM spray/Baker's Joy Spray/any type of baking spray
- Boxed Mac n' cheese (note: I do not eat this stuff but I know many americans
 complain about not being able to buy it here)
- A big bag of chocolate chips (see photo and note below). I used to buy my TJ's bags of chocolate chips for $1.89 for a 12 ounce (or 2 cup) bag of chocolate chips
- Frank's Hot Sauce 
- Normal Taco Seasoning (the Old El Paso version they sell here tastes like curry - very strange)
- Ziploc Bags or twist ties for your bags
- Pork Tenderloin or Flank Steak (note: these items can be found, but I have learned I have to order them "specially" from a butcher shop in town - they are not sold at the main grocery store)
The UK version of chocolate chips - sold in 100 gram containers (translates to about 1/2 cup of chocolate chips) for 64 pence, which equals about $1. In order to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies, it would cost almost $4 for the chocolate chips alone!!!
A few american products are available, but they come in different forms or by different makers. For example, Honey Nut Cheerios are at the store here, but they are made by Nestle here, not General Mills. Also, I can buy Ritz crackers, but they are not sold in the sleeves of crackers - they come in a box with a bag inside of it, such as a box of Wheat Thins. 

Overall, I cannot complain about the grocery stores here. Luckily, since I enjoy cooking and have the time to do so, we have been eating pretty well. The food out at the restaurants is another story..... 
I do, however, have my list of goods to stock up on, when I am home in the US, so I can still make some of our favorite "American" dishes.  

Friday, October 3, 2008

C&C in Dublin

A view of Dublin and the River Liffey in the evening from a pedestrian bridge. 
The last of our trips, that Carrie & I took together, was a trip to Dublin, Ireland. We spent a few days in the city centre, touring the sites and of course visiting the Guimness factory and drinking some of their product too. Unfortunately, we were drenched with rain on a daily basis during this trip. The weather was not too stellar for our stay in this Irish city. 
The first morning we toured around the city, we encountered this site - a truck loading up all of the empty Guinness barrels from the first pub we passed. We sure saw a LOT of people drinking in Dublin!
Our first church to see on our rainy walking tour of Dublin was Christ Church Cathedral. The earliest manuscript dates this church to its present location around 1030. It is the elder of the city's two midevil churches. 
The second church we encountered on our walking tour was the more famous one - St. Patrick's Cathedral. 
St. Patrick's Cathedral which was founded in 1191 and is the largest church in Ireland.
While it was good to see the famous sights of the city, by the time we reached St. Patrick's, we were drenched from the on-going rain of the day.
Our feet are freezing because our shoes are drenched through from the rain....
Even though we are cold and sticky from the rain, we are still having a good time.
After a bit of city sightseeing, we were ready to spend more time indoors, so we made our way to the Guinness Factory to take a tour of the beer-making facility.
Carrie in front of the Guinness sign at the entrance gate. The founder of Guinness, Arthur Guinness, signed a 9,000 year lease for the 4 acre site on which the factory still resides. The current cost of the lease is 45 pounds per year. Arthur was quite a negotiator! 
Inside the storehouse looking up at the eight stories of a tour we were about to start. The steel beams in this building were built in the "Chicago School" style of architecture (coined after the rise the new style of architecture in Chicago following the rebuild of the city following the great fire in 1871) and this building was completed in 1904. It was the first major, steel-framed, multi-storey building in the British Isles.
Carrie in front of the water display on the brewery tour. Guinness has 4 ingredients - barley, hops, water and yeast. Each ingredient had its own physical display on the tour. This water and the water used in Guinness comes from Seven Springs, St. Jame's Well near Kildare.
The barrels on display in the storehouse. Each barrel is still made by hand and they are used to store the beer. 
After 8 floors of a brewery tour, we finally made it to the very top of the storehouse, to the Gravity Bar. Not only was this stop the sampling part of the tour, but it also provided the most amazing views of Dublin from its 360 degree, all glass window wall around the bar. 
The views of Dublin from the Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse. 
Sampling the Guinness product at the Gravity Bar. 
Carrie enjoys her pint of Guinness at the Gravity Bar too.
Of course our trip to a new city would not have been complete without finding a good bakery or pastry shop. Luckily, we stumbled upon this adorable cafe and bakery, The Queen of Tarts, located near the Dublin Castle. 
The Queen of Tarts. What a cute store front! The inside of the cafe had a lot of very neat antiques too. 
We went to the Queen of Tarts twice during our short visit. The second time we had some tea and sweets. Here you can see the chocolate chip scone plate and a piece of carrot cake. Both were pretty tasty.
Near the Queen of Tarts is Dublin Castle. We made a quick visit there to see the place.
Dublin Castle. The castle is mainly used for governmental purposes now. It is used for hosting formal state visits and more informal foreign affairs engagements and state banquets. It is also the place of the inauguration of the president of Ireland. 
While visiting Dublin, we also did a fair bit of shopping and browsing. 
A view of Grafton Street - the main shopping destination in Dublin. It was packed on a daily basis with many people out shopping and dining in the area.
Another popular area of Dublin is the Temple Bar area. As its name indicates, it is filled with a large number of bars and also restaurants. We dined here a few nights and also visited a pub or two.
Carrie with her pint of Guinness in a bar in the Temple Bar area. We were waiting for a table at the Elephant & Castle Restaurant. It was our best meal in Ireland or England....we had buffalo chicken wings! (A VERY rare menu item in this area of the world). 
Sadly, the day after we returned from Ireland was Carrie's last day here visiting us. I drove her back down to Heathrow yesterday morning so she could fly to Chicago for the weekend to meet my parents there. It was the nicest treat to have her here visiting for almost a month and I hope she returns very soon.