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Day 67 – Sunshine and schooling

(Full September photo set here)

It’s another beautiful day in London, and I’m alone in the house! (well, I was when I started the post.  It’s now 16:40 and I should be thinking about dinner) The kids are at their second day of school.  The school they were assigned to looks promising (decent school dinners!  A garden and bee hive on site, which provides much of the food for said dinners!  A programme seeks to try to apply their knowledge as much as possible!)  Plus, they look so cute in their uniforms!

It was a busy week!  Zebula and I went on a birthday shopping excursion on Sunday (we started at Harrod’s, just to say we went.  We ended at the bookstore, of course!) , and then we met some friends visiting from Seattle at Hyde Park later in the afternoon.  They have the best playgrounds in London.  This was at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park.  The biggest feature at this one is a giant wooden climbable pirate ship (because nothing says Lady Di like a pirate ship!)

The kids are in there somewhere…

The kids had their first London piano lessons on Monday.  The teacher lives about 5 walking minutes away, which is nice.  Drama (for Zebula) and Hip Hop (for Vorlon) is continuing.  I had an audition for a choir on Tuesday evening (I am 94% sure I will not be asked to join).  Wednesday, the kids and I headed to the V&A Museum of Childhood as a Last Day Before School field trip.

The Museum of Childhood is kind of neat – it’s a subset of the collection of the Victoria and Albert museum.  It’s basically a collection of toys, clothing and baby items from prehistory until now (Ok, I might be exaggerating with the prehistory, but there was one doll from something like a 1000 years BCE).  It’s not flashy, there’s not that much interaction with the collection, but the kids really liked it, and it was very interesting to see how play has evolved over time.

And yesterday, they started school.  What a relief!  Homeschooling was both better and worse than I expected, but I’m much happier sending them off to school.   Even Vorlon was psyched.  Apparently, they were both super-popular yesterday – Vorlon said it was a little overwhelming.  I told him not to worry and that by next week, he’d be old news. Zebula is just happy to be hanging out with people other than her brother.

Last Saturday was the Great London Yarn Crawl.  Organized by two expats (one from Toronto and one from Boston) and modeled after the TTC Yarn Crawl in Toronto, it’s an event designed to combine yarn shopping with the use of public transit.  There were 5 routes – you pick your route ahead of time, meet with your group at the first destination.  A travel ticket for the day for Transport for London is included, and you go from place to place on the bus or tube.  It was a nice way both to meet some people and find out where some good yarn shops are.  I tried to limit myself to buying things of British or European origin.

That’s some BFL fiber in the bag on the left, above it is some merino top, both from Handweaver’s Studio. The one on the upper right is some silk/merino Laceweight by Fyberspates, from Nest. The one on the bottom right is hand-dyed romney from Prick Your Finger.

We hit four yarn shops (Nest, The Handweaver’s Studio, Prick Your Finger and Loop).  All had a different focus.  Nest aims to sell mostly natural fibres. The Handweaver’s Studio is mostly yarn and supplies for weaving, but has a lot of fibre for spinning.  Prick Your Finger features a lot of their own hand-dyed yarn, and Loop is mostly imported luxury yarns.  I liked them all, though I didn’t get anything at Loop – their stuff was lovely, but mostly North-American, and I can just wait a year and get the same stuff for much less when I get back.

There was a party at a pub after, where the 100 or so of us crammed into a room and had beer and the lucky ones received door prizes (I wasn’t one of them).  I met some lovely people, and hopefully I’ll get to see some of them again!  There are knit nights throughout the city at regular intervals – I’ll see if I can make it to one of them.

I went on a bit of a spinning spree afterwards. I spun while making dinner, while helping the kids with their lessons, while listening to podcasts, and I made it through about 100 g of the beautiful undyed BFL I got at The Handweaver’s Studio (from a sheep named Hobnob).  It was beautifully prepared and basically drafted itself.

That’s 10 p (which is about the size of a Canadian quarter) for scale.

I’m going to make a concerted effort to use this before I leave.  It’s soft, but a little dense – I spun it worsted, and it’s a 3-ply.  I’d say it’s a fingering or light sport weight, and there are 230 m of it.  If you can suggest any pattern that would work with this, let me know!  I’m thinking a cowl or a little shawl, definitely something lacy.

Oh, and I met Deb Perelman yesterday.   She of the smittenkitchen.com website.  I’m a huge fan of hers, ever since having discovered her, I think, when my friend Ruth made her homemade oreo recipe.  I made a few of her recipes, and then I was hooked – hers is the website I go to when I’m stuck for what to make for dinner.  I like her food aesthetic.  Plus she’s adorable.  She was signing copies of her cookbook, which recently became available in the UK.  My copy is still in Canada, so I brought a printout of the first thing of hers I ever made and had her sign that.  I felt kind of ridiculous, but she was very nice about it.

I had lunch with Dr. Thingo at Ottolenghi today (the Islington one).  So delicious.  It was one of my London eating goals.  Have I peaked early?  We’ve still got 10 months to go!  Maybe I should just go again, to one of the other ones, just to be sure my experience today wasn’t a fluke.  That would be best.

Spread at Ottolenghi, which I stared at and salivated while waiting for a seat.

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Cautiously optimistic – Day 61

I can’t believe it’s Friday already!  The week seemed quiet, but in retrospect, there was quite a bit more activity.  And I’ve taken shamefully few pictures (I kept forgetting to put my camera in my purse).  The kids still didn’t have school to go to, so we did the homeschool thing in the morning, and ran errands or hung out in the afternoon.  We decided Wednesday was field trip day, so we went to the Museum of Natural History (paying particular attention to vertebrates and their eating habits so it would count as ‘school’).  I enrolled Zebula in a drama class, which started on Tuesday, and Vorlon in a dance class, which started on yesterday.  Yesterday was also Zebula’s birthday (11!), and I met with a neighbourhood singing group in the evening.  So the schedule is slowly filling up!

The big news, though, is that the Borough called late yesterday afternoon to tell me that the school offer letters were in the mail.  Finally!  They couldn’t tell me which school (I tell you, the rules here are weird), but only that it was one of the six (out of 64) that we said we’d prefer.  So I’m cautiously optimistic – I’ll feel better once I have the offer letter in my hands, which won’t be until tomorrow at the earliest.  I think the tipping point was a tweet Dr. Thingo made early in the week stating that he was frustrated with the Borough’s slowness in assigning us a school.  Somebody at the Borough saw it and tweeted back.  They said they’d check, then they said they’d ‘escalate our case’.  Sure enough, the next day, we got a call.  And a tweet.  And an email.  I guess they want us to stop bugging them.  I’m surprised Twitter got us a school, but at this point I’m not going to ask questions.

I’ll post more about singing, and schools, and a brief foray into millinery.  For now, I give you foxes snoozing in my back garden.

 

ps.  Full photo set for September is here, if you are interested


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On Food – Day 54

(Flickr is broken today, so I haven’t updated my photo set, and I’m uploading the photos directly into the post, which messes the formatting.  Also, I’m very wordy.  My apologies)

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Quiet week over here.  But it could have been quieter.  The Borough of Royal Greenwich has not, as of this writing, seen fit to assign a school to my children.  So I’ve actually resorted to downloading some home-schooling materials and getting the kids to do some exercises to get their brains back in gear, to give us some kind of daily routine, and, in case everything falls through and we somehow don’t get an assignment at all, so they’ll have kept up with the folks at home when we get back.  We’re still pestering the council on a daily basis (side note:  Dr. Thingo decided to call a school directly, to find out if there was anything they would suggest.  The receptionist was very helpful and basically told him to stay on top of the council and continue to apply pressure.  So we will.)

I’ve been blue and annoyed (and, consequently, annoying – sorry, Other Family Members!) all week, so I’m going to talk about a subject dear to my heart: food!  The lovely (and far more assiduous at blogging) Tricia had a very similar post this week.  We must both be hungry.  Go check out her blog – she and her family are in England on sabbatical too.  I’m jealous because her kids get to go to school, but she had her own saga, believe you me!  Her blog is worth a read to get a different perspective, plus she’s far less grumpy than I am.

If you know me at all, you will know that I love to cook, and eat.  One of my favourite thing to do when I’m traveling is to see how the residents of that particular place shop for food, and I’ll go visit food shops and farmers’ markets to see what’s on offer and how it is purchased (and generally regret the fact that I have no storage wherever I’m staying, so I can’t buy a whole lot of stuff).  I’ve been doing a lot of that here too:  there are 6 non-related large food store chains that I have identified here, and a dozen more  smaller, convenience store type shops (to add to confusion, these convenience stores are generally called ‘supermarkets’ and the larger stores, which I would call supermarkets at home, are referred to as ‘superstores’).

Not surprisingly, since Canada has very strong British roots, the food is largely similar.  Plus, London being a very multicultural city, there are a lot of offerings from different food cultures, especially India.  There are some differences, though!  I’ll talk about some of them here.

Weights and measures

Britain is largely metric, which is great.  Two of the holdovers include distances and body weight.  The posted speed limits are still in miles per hour, distance markers are in miles, and body weight is often, but not always, measured in stone (never pluralised).  1 stone = 14 lb.  The bathroom scale in our house is in stone and kilograms.

Anyway, what this means is that food products are sold in kilograms or litres, which is a nice change from Canada, where many things are really still sold in pounds and liquid ounces, but with the metric measurements tacked on to the label as an afterthought.  One of my favourite stores in Waterloo actually displays the price of their meat in pounds, but the scale and the machine that prints out the price tag  work in kilos.  When I pointed out that this was kind of silly, they said most people wanted to see the prices in pounds.  Progress is a long, slow road.

Most recipes here are in metric, and more than that, they prefer the use of scales to measuring cups, providing the weights of dry ingredients rather than their volumes.  I like this method a lot – no measuring cups to worry about.  Just put your bowl on the scale, tare it, add the required amount of stuff, tare the scale again, and continue for the rest of the ingredients.  More precise than volume, and fewer dirty dishes at the end.

Liquid products like milk and drinks are sold in millilitres.  However (another holdover from the Imperial system), dairy items (and beer!) use pints as a divider.  British pints (598 ml) are larger than American pints (an American pint is 2 cups, which is just about 475 ml).  Cream comes in a quarter- or half-pint (150 or 300 ml).  Milk is sold by the pint – the largest jug I’ve found is 6 pints (3600 ml), so over 3 litres.  Most other drinks are sold by the litre or half-litre.

So this explains why pints of beer, even in Canada, always seemed larger than just 2 cups – in bars, a ‘pint’ is a British one.  Now you know.

Sizes

Since most Europeans do not live in large homes, they have less storage space, including pantry space.  Consequently, package sizes tend to be fairly small, and compact.  The aforementioned 6-pint milk jug easily fits in the door of my fridge (the shelf in the door is maybe 15 cm wide).  Yoghurt containers are tall and narrow.  All are designed to fit in the much smaller fridges.

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I have not been able to locate a bag of flour of more than 1 kg.  Also, it’s not sifted at all, which means it’s fairly compacted.  Peanut butter (admittedly not a popular food item here) comes in adorably tiny containers.  Most baking supplies also come in tiny packages.  I have not been able to find chocolate chips in bags larger than 100 g.  I actually laughed when I saw the bag the first time (I usually buy my chocolate chips 1 kg at a time.  Oh, giant PC semisweet chocolate chip bag, I miss you).  However, the quality of the chocolate inside is far superior to any of the ones I’ve had in Canada, so I’ll just keep buying tiny bags and not grumble.

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With hand for scale.  It's so cute!

With hand for scale. It’s so cute!

The exceptions to this, I have found, are tea (which you can get at the supermarket in giant boxes) and sugar (which one presumably would put in one’s tea) which I found in 5 kg bags.  Given that I generally walk or take the bus to and from the store, the smaller sizes are kind of nice – less weight to carry.

Cream and Milk

So much dairy goodness!

So much dairy goodness!

Cream here is GOOD.  Really good.  First off, by default (ie, you don’t have to go organic for this to be true), all cream is just that.  Cream.  No stabilizers, gums, thickeners or anything (read the label on non-organic cream cartons in Canada sometime – it’s depressing).  And it’s delicious.  I’ve taken to putting cream in my coffee, not because the coffee’s bad (though it took a while to find coffee I liked), but because the cream is so delicious.   It generally comes in three varieties:  single cream (18%) double cream (48%.  What kind of math is this??) and whipping cream (35%).

See that crust at the top?  Pure butterfat, baby!

See that crust at the top? Pure butterfat, baby!

And clotted cream.  Oh, the clotted cream.  So, so wonderful.  Also, it’s 55% fat, which might have a lot to do with it.  But it makes my weekend scones so magically delicious.   Why can’t we get this stuff in Canada??  A schmear of that on the scone, topped with a small blob of jam is heaven.  I should probably start running more.

Dairy is also fairly inexpensive.  I think milk subsidies must be higher here, but I haven’t looked it up.

Eggs

Eggs are mostly free-range, and sold unrefrigerated.  And you can easily get duck and quail eggs, which are delicious.

Cheese

Cheese here is also good. The selection of cheddar in most stores is staggering.  It is, however, hard to find aged mozzarella in bricks – you can get it grated, and you can get fresh mozzarella packed in water.  That’s fine – there are plenty of other British cheeses to choose from.  Red Leicester is a the kids’ favourite.  I like the stinky ones.

Produce

Produce, in supermarkets, is not cheap.  Also, with very few exceptions, it all comes pre-packaged.  Even tomatoes.  I was already annoyed at the fact that it was becoming increasingly impossible to buy snow peas or bean sprouts loose in Canada.  Here, everything is in clamshells and bags.

Complete with expiration date.

Complete with expiration date.

This is all unless one goes to the greengrocer.  There’s one in my neighbourhood, but it’s got a fairly limited selection, and it’s not any fresher or more locally sourced than the supermarket (most supermarkets here pride themselves on getting produce from Britain as much as possible).  You can get everything loose there.  And at the farmers’ market, which is, no surprise, the best, least pricey option.  But those only happen on the weekends in my neighbourhood.  It’s my own fault for not planning ahead – if I can be more organized, I can buy all my produce on Sundays at the farmers’ market, and just get the rest of my groceries day-to-day during the rest of the week.

The one prepackaged thing I’ve discovered that I really like is vacuum-packed cooked beets (sorry, ‘beetroot’).  One of my favourite cookbooks from home mentions these, and I’d seen them in French stores.  They’re great – better than canned beets, and make a lot of recipes go a lot faster.  They sell raw beets too, but these cooked ones can be pretty handy.

Beer

I’ve tried half a dozen small-scale British beers so far, all of them good.  Of course, I can’t remember any of them.  I have the same problem with wine.  I try new ones, but never write down the ones I like, so I can never remember when I get back to the store.  Wine, beer and hard liquor are all available in the supermarket.  Someday, Canada (with the exception of Quebec) will be less puritanical about selling alcohol).  I hope.

I have tried a few hard ciders.  I just don’t like hard cider.  They’re either too sweet, or taste resiny.  I’ll stick to beer.  And gin.

Fish

This will surprise no one, since I live on an island, but the fish here is excellent.  I love the easy availability of fresh mackerel, which is one of my favourites.

Pies and mash

I’ve managed, in the month or so that we’ve been here, to have four or five different meat pies from different sources.  All good.  I love a good meat pie.  Even the one in a can I got from the supermarket, out of nostalgia – I remember my dad buying these in Ottawa (and my mother thinking they were gross, which shows you how long ago that was: my parents split up when I was 9).  You take off the top of the can and bake it in the oven.  The surprisingly good pastry magically puffs up.   This was passable, but the least good option.

I’ve had ham and leek, steak and kidney, boar, chicken, handmade from various purveyors.  They’re good.  Often served with mash and gravy.  It’s not exactly light, but it’s delicious.  Did I mention I should be running more?

And no consumption of any kind of meat pie is complete without singing songs from Sweeny Todd (with all due respect to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, whom I usually love.  But, please.)

Mushy Peas

I do not like mushy peas.  But I very much like the fish and chips they generally come with.

Restaurants

I was told by more than a few people that the restaurant scene in the UK was pretty dismal.  This has not proven to be true.  I’ve been to a pub, lots of street vendors, a Vietnamese, a Nepalese, an Indian, a Mexican, and a just food (it was called Hand Made Food, and it was amazing – all kinds of good stuff) restaurant and they were all delicious.  I really want to go to one of the Ottolenghi restaurants (the Jerusalem cookbook is one of my favourites), and St. John Restaurant at some point.  For the latter, I’ll have to wait for my dad to come visit and go with him since my household are all weird about organ meats.

Coffee is the exception to the great restaurant scene.  But it was to be expected since I’m in the land of tea.  I just make it at home.

Marmite

No post about British food can be complete without mentioning Marmite.  People keep comparing it to peanut butter.  I think the comparison can really only go as far as ‘something one puts on toast’, and, I guess, that they’re both brown, because they couldn’t be more different.  Marmite is salty, punch-you-in-the-face flavour (It’s yeast extract.  So, basically, it’s spreadable MSG.  (yes, I know there are differences)).  I haven’t decided if I love it or hate it.  It’s definitely worth trying again.

I’ve seen it on sandwiches at the Starbucks here (cheddar and Marmite panini.  I need to reproduce it at home to see what it’s like).  I’ve seen it as offering in cafes (toast and Marmite).  Though it’s clearly not universally loved, as this ad campaign will demonstrate.

I have decided it will be a hazing ritual for everybody who comes to visit.  You have been warned.

There’s lots more to say (Chips everywhere!  Weird crisp flavours!  Black pudding!  Bacon!  Curry Take-Away!), but I’ll save it for later.  Dinner tonight is fish curry, and I have to go get some ingredients.


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Still waiting – Day 47

(Full photo set for September can be found here)

Yep, we’re still waiting for school placements.  We should be hearing today.  If not, as I told Mom-of-Dr.-Thingo, I will show up at the council office every day starting Monday, with the kids, and I’ll let them run around the cubicles and bicker with each other as incentive to process our applications quickly.

Treason, or perceived treason, never ends well.

We had a good week.  Dr. Thingo’s parents were visiting London, after a cruise to St. Petersburg. We had them, and the friends with whom they’re traveling, over for dinner on Saturday night, and it was good to hang out with people who are not Dr. Thingo or the kids.  Not that I don’t like Dr. Thingo and the kids.  It’s just that we’ve been together, traveling and getting settled in London, for six weeks, and while it’s been great to have so much family time, one needs a little contact with other people.  Plus I got to cook for a crowd, which is always good.

The White Tower, built in 1080 or so. It has housed kings, queens, and prisoners (some of which were also kings or queens).

The Thingos were here until Wednesday, so we did tonnes of sight-seeing.  We spent a morning at the Tower of London, we did a Thames boat tour, we went to the Victoria and Albert, the Science Museum and the Museum of Natural History.  The latter three were free – it’s so weird to me that one can just walk into a museum and look around.  But all the National Museums here are free (donations appreciated).  Same for the British Museum, which we visited last week.  The museums are also well-curated and well-designed.  We quickly looked at all of them; we’ll have to go spend some more focused time later.  I liked the V&A especially, though it wasn’t the kids’ favourite.  If they ever get into school, I’ll venture into the city and go visit, a little bit at a time.

Chihuly, at the V&A

 

The Prospect of Whitby, seen from the Thames. Dickens used to hang out here.

 

The Museum of Natural History. There are plants and flowers painted on the ceilings, and animals carved into the pillars and stair rails.

I like exploring the city.  First off, it’s huge.  Second, it’s surprisingly green.  There aren’t that many skyscrapers, so it doesn’t feel too closed in (unless you go to Canary Wharf, where it’s all skyscrapers).  There are big, sprawling parks everywhere.  And lots and lots of people.  It’s a beautiful city.  Administrative nonsense notwithstanding, I’m very glad to have the opportunity to be here as more than just a tourist for the week.

This was in the South Kensington tube station. It’s a map of the underground, circa 1927, rendered in Lego. The next day, when we went, it was gone!

Token knitting content:  I finished the socks for Vorlon:

Yarn: Wendy Roam Fusion. Pattern: memorized no-frills basic sock.

And I’ve started a pair for Zebula:

Yarn: Wendy Roam Fusion. Pattern: Sock Stripe, by General Hogbuffer

This pattern is interesting – you knit the cuff, as usual, but then you knit the rest in strips, starting from the cuff, and working down to the heel, and then picking up stitches back to the cuff, and continuing.  Then the heel.  Then the sole, and the front.  You never break the yarn.  It’s clever, and interesting.  This is the second pattern I’ve done by this designer, and they’ve both been very interesting to knit up. I’ll have to keep an eye on him.

I also started my Parisian Souvenir Scarf:

Pattern: Echarpe Volvic. Yarn: a strand each of mohair and sparkly stuff, from La droguerie.

The above is from the kit I bought from La droguerie in Paris.  It is a four-row lace pattern, memorized easily, and not terribly interesting to knit, but it’s fluffy and sparkly and I think it will be much appreciated when everything is grey and drizzly and chilly in a couple of months.

Think successful and prompt school-placement thoughts for me!