Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Indian Summer

I don't know if it's really appropriate to call our current warm weather an Indian Summer because I always thought it was a phrase unique to the United States.  There were no Native Americans here in the UK, but there are a lot of folks from the country of India.  *shrug*  Our little warm snap is newsworthy here locally - see the link below the picture for details.

Indian Summer

It started out cool this morning, so I shuffled off to an 11:00 am committee meeting in a 3/4 sleeve cardigan and jeans.  By the time I was ready to head back to the school at 3:15 to work in the concession stand for the volleyball games, I had shed the sweater and rolled up my jeans to wear them as capris.  With our cooler than average August and most of September, I had already put away most of my warmer weather items of clothing.  Cooking up some hot dogs and grilling some sandwiches on the hot press had me just a perspirin'.  Dontcha hate the feel of sweat trickling down your back?  Up to this point I believe the only place in the UK where I've had this sort of sweaty experience was during my workouts at the gym.

Once the serious cold weather arrives, we will have the hatches battened down so I'm enjoying getting some fresh air into the house this week.  I don't mind keeping the windows open during the day, but I hate keeping them open at night.  We have moths over here, which seem pretty benign.  However, those little nuisances have a nasty habit of invading closets and nibbling away at your fine woolen garments.  For the first time in my life, I bought some sort of hanging thingy with moth repellant in it to place in the coat storage closet.  Based on the fact that any and all insects assume we have an open door policy, I figured it was just a matter of time before they set up housekeeping in my favorite London Fog overcoat.

Aren't the changing leaves just beautiful?  We have two trees, one in the front yard and one in the back garden, that are a fiery shade of red.  The other day, I was sitting in the family room and noticed a couple squirrels playing chase around the base of a big tree.  I figured it was all a ruse so they could scope out my new "squirrel proof" feeder that will keep our fine feathered friends fed over the winter months.  As I stood in the bay window and watched the squirrel antics for a few minutes, I couldn't help but notice the leaves slowly fluttering to the ground from several of the trees.  

Fall officially arrived on Sept. 23 this year and it appears that our local flora knows it.  However, someone needs to give the climate a heads-up.  You know you're having some abnormally warm weather when our lows in the UK are the same lows they're having back in Texas.  I'm not so sure I believe a story published in a UK newspaper recently that said we could expect an early winter, with the chance of snow in October.  To be honest, I'd rather unpack my sandals than root through the closet for my winter boots.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast - July 2011

This is it - my last blogpost for our Western Mediterranean cruise over the summer.  I figured I better finish documenting the experience since we have an Eastern Mediterranean cruise in less than a month.  

Our final port of call in Italy was Naples.  Our shore excursion involved a couple different things.  We kicked off the day by bus, driving to a cameo factory and then heading over to Pompeii for the first half of our day.  The cameo factory was really interesting because they explained the process and we got to see one of the cameo artists carefully carving away the layers of the seashell to create a work of art.  

During World War II, my grandfather was with the US army in Italy.  While there, he traded a local jeweler some items from his daily rations for a set of cameos.  My grandmother had the largest one set into a pendant that I wore on the day I got married.  My mother had two of the smaller cameos set into rings, one each for me and my sister.  I intend to get the 3 remaining medium-sized cameos set into smaller pendants, one for each of the great-granddaughters as a high school graduation gift.  I couldn't help but wonder if my grandfather traveled through this very same town in Italy back in the 1940s that I was touring with my daughter in 2011.  

We spent the bulk of the morning on a tour of Pompeii, and I must say it was truly impressive.  It's just mind boggling to me that I was strolling along a street created back around 450 BC.  

Look at the columns!  And to think everything was created by hand.

The pictures above were taken as we peered into a large, three-sided shed with bars across the front so that we could view the contents.  The shed contains items discovered as they excavated the site.  The second and third picture contain molds of the volcano victims, a man and dog.  As archaeologists uncovered Pompeii, they began to find voids in the ash.  They soon realized these were where humans (and pets) has fallen and their bodies had decomposed over time to leave a sort of empty space.  It was decided to fill in these voids with plaster and that is how the above casts were made.  Obviously the poor dog suffered a painful death, writhing as it was suffocated and then buried.

I could post a lot more pictures of Pompeii because it was one of the most fascinating places I've ever had the opportunity to visit.  The large marble basin pictured above was located in the baths.  The folks of the Roman Empire sure did enjoy a good bath.  It was explained to us that this basin would contain fresh, cool water for the bathers as they emerged from the warm, steam-filled rooms.

And check out what remains of the painted walls inside a well-to-do Pompeiian family's dining room.  The colors were still beautiful even though they were painted well over 2,100 years ago.

Above is a picture of the culprit - Mt. Vesuvius - that I clicked when we were walking through Pompeii.  Below is a smiley pic of Annie and Claire in Pompeii's ancient theatre.  

For lunch, our group dined at the Hotel Vittoria right outside the ancient city.  Mmmmm, pasta!  We enjoyed visiting with a sweet older couple from Houston.  Small world - one of their kids lives in the Texas hill country, too, just a bit further up I-10 from the town we called home.

After lunch, we drove to the port at Salerno where we boarded a boat for a ride up the Amalfi Coast.  It was a beautiful, albeit a bit wet, ride that afforded the following scenery.

Below is the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Amalfi, circa 1200.  A couple had just gotten married and were taking pics at the base of the steps - what a memorable backdrop!

We had to take a picture of Annie and Claire in front of this interesting fountain in the Amalfi square.  Yes... there are two spigots on the woman's breasts and water is flowing out of them.

The surrounding countryside was just beautiful.  This area is famous for growing football-sized lemons set into terraced gardens along the hillside.  We enjoyed yet another helping of gelato made from limoncello produced locally.

Crazy Italian driver story:  The bus driver was taking us back to the dock to board the cruise ship.  However, there was a really long line of commercial trucks backed up for about a half mile because the port had been temporarily closed for some sort of ceremony put on by their equivalent of the navy or coast guard.  Sooooo, the driver just backed up ON THE INTERSTATE to an exit we had already passed - yikes!  Obviously I'm glad we made it back in time, but it was quite a sight going in reverse down the far right lane, not even the shoulder, as cars whizzed by us going in the correct direction.  

Our last day on the ship was spent cruising back across the Mediterranean to Barcelona.  I was so tired from all the touring that I took an almost 3-hour nap that afternoon.  We all hobbled home with a blister or two, but I believe we agreed that it was a small price to pay for the amazing places we visited. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Single Sheet Shopping... trying saying that really fast 3 times

Every once in a while I still run across a word or phrase that is uniquely British.  Yesterday I went to get some new sheets for the two twin beds in our guest room since we're hosting two volleyball players from St. John's International School in Belgium this weekend for a tournament.  I hope the two seniors we've been assigned are well-behaved and respectful since I'm planning to treat them to an American breakfast Saturday morning featuring pancakes, Aunt Jemima syrup, bacon and fresh fruit.  If either one dares to sneak out of the house or hit the liquor, then they'll be getting a bowl of cold cereal instead.  And if you think I'm jesting, let me tell you... I've heard a couple of nightmarish stories about a few kids the other team parents have hosted in the past from other international schools that would curl your hair.  No one is getting arrested for public intoxication or pregnant on my watch.  All it takes is a couple juvenile delinquents to have you nailing windows closed and locking them into their rooms at the 11 pm curfew.  

I already knew that twin sheets are called singles over here.  What I was unprepared for were the pillowcases.  First off, I didn't see one sheet set in the whole bedding department of the major department store where I was shopping.  What's up with that?  Everything was packaged individually, which made it pretty pricey.  And some of the cheaper sheets I was considering had such a low thread count that they might as well have been burlap.  Plus the less expensive sheets were labeled "easy iron".  Nuh-uh... I aint ironing any sheets for someone to sleep on, rewrinkle in a couple minutes and undo all my hard work.  

So back to the pillows.  The plain old garden variety pillowcases that come in a sheet set are called housewife pillows over here.  Isn't that quaint?  What we call shams in the US are called Oxford pillowcases, the ones with a 2-3 inch border around the perimeter.  Then I ran into a Risbury pillowsham, which is like an Oxford pillowcase but it's made of a thicker material.  

I ended up with some 600 thread count cream colored sheets and Risbury pillowshams that came to a grand total of £185.  I refuse to do the conversion to dollars because then I'll be really ill about what I spent.  I tossed my purchases into the boot of the car - Brit speak for the trunk - and drove home contemplating some throw pillows as the next step in my guest room beautification plan.  I just discovered Pottery Barn will ship to the UK.  Isn't that convenient?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An F is for fabulous, right?

I was all psyched up for my UK driving test on Friday.  I've been doing a lot of practicing on the roads and the lessons with my driving instructor have gone really well.  Other American expats have shared their own personal driving stories, about how it's all just a formality.  I was in the zone, looking around at all the teenage drivers testing at the same time and feeling confident that my years of experience would carry me through.  I have the necessary skills and kept reiterating to myself it was no big deal.  I was more than a bit shocked when the ancient civil servant who looked like he had snuck out of the local nursing home to administer my test told me I had failed!  What?  Me?

Oh sure, I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous.  I had worked myself into a fine state of sweaty hands and pounding heart, but I stayed focused the entire time.  My overall driving was fine, with only 3 minor faults for a score of 97.  However, it was the major fault that sunk me.

There are four reversing maneuvers all drivers must be prepared for on the test.  It figures that the most difficult maneuver is the one I was asked to perform.  Below is a diagram of the reversing around a corner move that I was told to do about halfway through the driving test.

There are several rules you have to follow or you will receive an automatic fail.  The first one is that you can't hit the curb.  The second one is that the front of your car can't swing out into the other lane of traffic, even if no traffic is approaching.  The third one is that you must come to a stop as soon as you see cars coming from any of the three directions.  You have to just sit there like a boulder in the road and wait for them to go around you.  Makes perfect sense, right?  It's at this point that you're thinking, no wonder this move is probably illegal in the states since it's really quite dangerous.

So yeah, it was the third rule that got me.  The test administrator told me I did not stop soon enough when a car was approaching from behind me, even though I stopped as soon as I noticed it.  At no time was I in danger of running into the car or the car hitting me.  No matter - the old dude told me it was too close, in his opinion, and thus I failed.  Seriously?  I thought I was gonna get motion sickness from constantly swiveling my head from my blind spot on the right, to my rearview mirror to check for traffic coming up behind me, and then over to my left side mirror to make sure I didn't tap the curb and get an automatic fail.  Of course, he let me take the rest of the test before he gave me the bad news.  Wasn't that thoughtful of him, though I figure he probably has the old timer's disease and just forgot that I failed while making me drive around another 20 minutes to enjoy the scenery.

I went online yesterday (had to spend the rest of Friday pouting about failing the stupid driving test) and have paid another £62 to take the test again on Oct. 10.  I can hardly wait for a bit more fun in the hot seat.  My driving instructor told me that the test administrator can't dictate how long it takes me to complete the above maneuver, so I'm gonna take advantage of that little rule.  I'll roll a couple feet using my side mirror to watch the curb, then stop and check my rearview and blind spot. (insert evil cackle here)  I figure I'll be able to suck up at least 8-10 minutes on this one maneuver of the 40 I'm required to drive as part of the testing process.  

OK, I admit it - I am a bitter woman about this whole situation.  I just hope I don't get Mr. Subjective test administrator on the next go-round.  Maybe the nursing home orderlies will be able to keep better track of him so that he doesn't escape yet again.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Circle of Life

On Saturday we could have hosted our own National Geographic show in the back garden.  Or maybe a horror movie featuring the local critters in starring roles.

It has become our habit to make use of old bread instead of just tossing the last few pieces at the end of each loaf into the garbage.  Back in the winter when we moved here, we decided it would be nice to give our backyard birds a treat by tearing up the old bread into bits and tossing it out in the garden where we could watch them eat it from the huge bay window in the family room.  Sure, it attracted the squirrels that wanted to add a bit of extra carbs to their diets, too, but they always seemed to mingle happily with the birds.  

As usual, I put out the old bread Saturday afternoon and it didn't take long for the neighborhood ravens, magpies and doves to take notice.  The bird buffet had just about ended when the youngest daughter came to tell me that there was a dead bird in the backyard.  I had noticed a couple random feathers out in the backyard and told her that must be what she was seeing.  She told me she was pretty sure there was a dead bird and insisted that I come take a look.  This is what I saw.

It was some sort of English falcon or maybe hawk that had downed one of the fat doves that hang out in our yard on a regular basis.  

It was a bit mesmerizing, in a twisted sort of way, to watch him tuck into his meal.  The youngest daughter was ready to locate a gun so we could shoot it because she said it's cannibalism, the raptor eating a fellow bird... and that's just sick.  She was quite irate about the whole thing and served as the house crier to let her sister know of the carnage taking place in our yard.

The teen rolled out of bed to view the scene.  Granted, it was in the late afternoon, but she had gotten up during the day and was just in there simultaneously resting her eyes and facebooking.  That's her story and she's sticking to it.  

As soon as she saw the little raptor chowing down, she got all teary-eyed and starting playing a gruesome what-if game.  What if the dove was still alive?  What if the dove was feeling all this?  What if the raptor pulled off every feather?  What if we shoot the raptor for killing the dove?  How about what if you shut up and quit planting all these terrible thoughts into our heads?  This is my child that would get all upset when she saw roadkill back in Texas.

It was a bit creepy when the raptor stared at us with its intelligent eyes.  If it could talk, I imagine it would have admonished us to mind our own business.  The youngest daughter went outside to scare it off so we could give the dove a proper burial, but that didn't fly (ha-ha-ha).  Granted, she didn't get too close for fear she would end up on her back with the bird sitting on her chest.  The raptor merely gazed at her and went back to its tasty meal, nom-nom.  We opened up the window to get some pics and, once again, it was unfazed by all the attention.  

I've got several old stale rolls that could be tossed out for the birds today, but I'm afraid they may just have to be disposed of in the food recycling bin.  We don't want to become known as the killing fields around here.  

And now on a lighter and completely separate note, it seems my little foxes are quite the garbage disposals.  I had tried a new recipe for chicken and rice in my crockpot cookbook, Fix It and Forget It.  We discovered it needs to be not just forgotten but completely erased from our collective memory because it was a total fail - gummy rice!  I was curious if the foxes would eat it, so I ladled up a plastic bowl full of the leftovers no one wanted and put it out for them last night.  This morning it was gone... even the bowl.  It appears they're not picky eaters, so maybe I'll serve them up a bit of raptor.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rome - July 2011

So much history, so little time.  We were in Rome for the day, so it was a fast and furious tour of our second Italian port city.  

We kicked off our blister-inducing dash through the eternal city with a visit to the Vatican museums.  We had purchased our tickets online, thank heavens, because the line was wrapped around the block.  It was amazing, room after room of paintings, sculptures, and tapestries.  We followed the signs that led us up, down and around the place, very reminiscent of the Louvre minus the added fun of getting lost trying to find the exit.  

Above is a picture of Vatican Square.  We just THOUGHT we had arrived at the museum, but nope... that would require us to hoof about four more blocks to the museum entrance.  

We got to the Sistine Chapel where the Vatican guards were constantly shushing tourists even though the signs said no talking in at least six different languages.  I thought one burly Italian bouncer was gonna smash this little Asian guy's camera when he dared to take a picture, which was strictly forbidden.  There was a lot of gesturing and I imagine some colorful Italian language since Grouchy Guido was practically foaming at the mouth.  IF I had been able to take a picture of the chapel, this is what I would be sharing with you on the blog.

After the Vatican, we boarded the hop on/hop off bus for a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it tour of Rome.  I have no idea what these buildings were, with the exception of the Colosseum, but they looked old and important to me.

The thing about these ancient cities is that modern day buses can't fit down such narrow streets.

Therefore, we needed to hop off the bus to really see the sights.  Unfortunately, we were pressed for time and just got a bit of an overview, enough to know that we need to go back for another visit.

No trip to Rome would be complete without gelato...

...and a trip to the Trevi Fountain where you toss in a coin to make sure you'll return again one day.  In our case, it took more than one toss since the first couple coins hit these folks you see behind Annie standing directly in front of the fountain.  Oops!

On a final note... I had to include a pic of the umbrella pine trees we kept seeing in these areas bordering the Mediterranean.  They are the source of pignoli, or pine nuts.  

Miscellaneous Info:  Dana added another blister to her growing collection while I earned my first one on the ball of my right foot, quite the painful location since you can't avoid using that part of your foot when you walk.  Annoyance factor on the tour bus was pretty high since 1) it was quite warm without any real breeze, 2) the stops on the route weren't marked so we had no idea where we were at any given time and 3) there were these British guys on the bus with us wolf whistling at the pretty Italian girls and standing up the entire time so that it was hard to see things and get a good shot with the camera.  After several withering glances from me with my practiced teacher evil eye daring them to continue the offensive behavior, they finally got the message and sat down.  I wasn't appreciating the little sailors on shore leave after six months at sea routine in front of our teenage daughters.  I'm glad I was saved from opening a can of momma whoop-ass on them.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Topography 101

Here is a recent conversation I overheard taking place in the back seat of the car.

Kid: We're reading a story about tornadoes.
Teen:  (silence)
Kid:  The boy who sits next to me in homeroom lived in Oklahoma, so he knows all about tornadoes.
Teen:  Oh yeah, isn't Oklahoma part of Tornado Valley?
Kid:  It's called Tornado ALLEY!

Maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein need to change those lyrics - "Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain valley."  Check out the link below featuring Hugh Jackman in the lead role of the musical.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Florence - July 2011

Que bella!  Italy was truly magnificent, full of beautiful things that were hundreds of years old.  In the case of Pompeii, we have to revise that to thousands.  Our itinerary included three Italian ports and we began with Florence.

We were herded off the ship like cattle that morning as usual.  We followed the Royal Caribbean "lollipop" with our tour's number on it.  Every day it was a different number, so I was glad they slapped the circular sticky tag on me.  I may feel like 32 on the inside, but the lines on my face are screaming middle-aged, maybe menopausal and definitely forgetful.  The issue with Florence, and really all three of our Italy stops, was the sheer number of people.  There were no less than five big cruise ships in each of the ports, plus the folks who had arrived by other means - planes, cars and trains.  It was apopular acountry.  (I noticed some Italians had a tendency to add the short a sound at the beginning of certain words - so acute to ahear!)

So off we went, following the RC lollipop with the number 17 on it through a sea of shorts and sun visor wearing tourists loitering in the public squares of Florence.  

This is the front entrance of Santa Maria del Fiore, the great cathedral, located in Piazza del Duomo.  The facade of the basilica is covered in white, red and green marble.  Below you'll see that I took pics from several different vantage points.  I kept getting stopped by the criss-crossing paths of tour guides with all of the other gawking tourists in tow.  And the folks with babies in strollers or toddlers on leashes - I'm sure the little ones enjoyed their intro to the Italian Renaissance.  It seems lots of folks shared my same brilliant idea to take a Mediterranean cruise in July. 

Above is a picture of the Baptistry, directly across from the cathedral.  It's an octagon shaped structure where baptisms (duh) have been performed since the 11th century.  Below is a shot I took to show some of the detail on the facade.

Here are Annie and her friend Claire pictured in front of the church, when we had a rare break in the constant stream of fellow tourists.  It's obvious somebody got a little too much sun the day before.

Ahh, Italy - exposed breasts and penises as far as the eye could see.  I could have supported myself as a model for all the local artists since they favored fluffy girls back in the day.  

We continued to fight our way through the crowds to get a glimpse of the Uffizi Gallery

and the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone arch bridge that spans the Arno River.

We were finally turned loose here 

I had homemade tagliatelle in a mushroom cream sauce and washed it down with this beverage of choice (check out the Italian on the can - in Europe they call it Coke Light instead of Diet Coke) while perched under a big umbrella with a view of the piazza.  The Franciscan Santa Croce cathedral was just over my right shoulder.  It was constructed over 500 years ago and houses the remains of famous folks like Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.  

We ended a frenzied day of touring with a lovely meal in the ship's dining room right after the summer sun was extinguished when it sank into the Mediterranean.