31.12.07

A Year in Reflection

New Years Eve not only is a time of celebration but a chance to reflect on the last year. Last year this time I made a huge list of New Years Resolutions and where I wanted to be. Well, looking back I can say that not a single item on my list was completed. The year was probably the most difficult and dowright painful I've ever had since moving to London. However, instead of listing my failures and struggles these last several months, the only thing that I can do is move forward. This year is gone and there's nothing I can do to change the things I have had to deal with. I feel that life is made up of opportunities to learn from the challenges and I definitely feel like I've grown this year and learned a lot about myself. I hope that the New Year will be somewhat easier than this last one, but if not that I will be able to cope with whatever comes my way.

Instead of a long list of resolutions this time round, my one goal this new year is to have more compassion. Compassion towards myself, compassion towards James, compassion towards others and compassion towards my environment/world. I really think this one thing will make so many other things that are insignificant in comparison fall in place. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone changed their perspective/focus to things like compassion & gratitude? It makes you think and personally I can't wait to see the potential for change it will bring to my own life.

So watch this space and hopefully this next time next year I will have a much different report to give! In the mean time, Happy New Year to all of you as well and I hope that the new year will bring blessings to you and your family.

The Kite Runner


What an incredibly beautiful film. I found it refreshing to hear a story from this area of the world (Afghanistan) that wasn't demonizing. Although I haven't read the book "The Kite Runner", I understand that it has been an international best-seller and I can see why with its universal themes of family, friendship and forgiveness . I have read Khaled Hosseini's other book, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" about women in Afghanistan and found it very inspiring as well. I love stories like this where I feel like I'm being educated and learning about the lives of others. If the film is not for you (although its PG-13 /12A in UK there's some strong subject matter) I would definitely recommend reading the book instead as its such a wonderful, beautiful story that everyone should hear. I'm very glad I got to see the film, particularly on the last day of the year!

28.12.07

Christmas in the Country

Again this year we spent Christmas and Boxing Day in the West Midlands (the Shire) with James' family. It was a great break and nice to get away from the hectic worries of London. It was nice to go running along the lanes in the countryside and was even better to catch up with friends and relatives. I feel there's something really great about being in the fresh air around horses, chickens and other 'live' animals. It can do anyone the world of good. Anyway, here are some pictures from our trip:


James' niece and nephew
Views of the Countryside

18.12.07

The Best Christmas Movie of all Time




It's a wonderful life is my most favorite Christmas movie (and one of my favorite ever). I've seen it over and over and the ending never ceases to choke me up every time. To me this is what Christmas is about: love, compassion, friendship and family.

This in mind, may you all have a Merry Christmas and nothing but blessings come to you in the New Year.

Lots of Love,

Christine & James

17.12.07

Drinking in England

Being the holiday season, the never-ending problem of drinking in England becomes even more apparent than it does the rest of the year. The last two to three weeks in December, most people in this country are either drunk or in the process of nursing hang-overs. Its got to the point that James and I won't even go out on New Years because there's just too many drunk people around who are annoying and cause trouble.

Binge drinking is officially a problem in England. Many government initiatives have been started, with little positive results to squash and regulate this. I'm not surprised though because pub life is a huge part of the culture. When you think of pub's you think of seedy little bars with flashing neon lights, the smell of smoke and weird creepy men eyeing you up. Well, its not like that (for the most part) here. Pub's are a place you take the family for Sunday lunches out and is where friends and work colleagues meet. The government banned smoking inside pubs and most are old Victorian style, with beautiful interiors. The entire social networking is centered around visits to pubs and even if you don't drink alcohol, you still go to the pub and have a huge choice of alternate beverages open to you. In a way, pubs are very similar to cafe's, but a lot more 'homey'. So, based on all of this you can see why its so incredibly difficult to not grace through the doors of a pub in this country. If you don't you can pretty much kiss any chance of friends goodbye.

Being fond of 'the drink', the English have learned the art of making alcohol. Besides tea (that's a completely different subject) the amount of beer that this little island makes is astonishing. Alcohol in Europe has more alcohol content than the U.S. and your lucky to find anything for beer below 5%. (Beer in America is around 1 1/2-2%) and wine is ludicrous at 12.5%. The term 'alco-pops' is a big thing as well. There's a huge choice of sugar-laden alcohol related drinks that you literally cannot tell they are alcoholic as they taste of soda-pop. Its unfortunately become a problem for young teens obtaining these 'alco-pops' before the legal age requirement of being 18 years old. Its very common seeing teens standing around drinking because they have little else to do with their time.

The country caters to this 'abuse' and then is surprised when they have more problems with anti-social behaviors and other problems. Too many use alcohol as a coping mechanism, which only covers the real source of the problem in my opinion. I don't think a downright ban is necessary but more education should exist about the effects as well as alternate coping skills in dealing with stress. Alcohol should be approached with a very very mature attitude or completely avoided if not possible to drink in moderation. This has been my approach to it since I've lived here and James tries to do the same. On a positive note though, a lot of people it seems are starting to become more health conscious and binge drinking is getting better. I don't think that this problem will ever go away entirely but I think that there is hope for the future.

15.12.07

Training: Ten Mile Marker

Well since my last post, I've managed to break over that 6 mile hump finally. Slowly but surely, I have been adding the miles and today for the first time in my life I ran for over 2 hours, non-stop making the grand total 10 miles. I was having serious doubts I could ever get to this point and funny enough today I enjoyed every bit of the way. Blackheath and Greenwich (near where I live) are beautiful before 8 o'clock in the morning, bloody freezing this time of year but make absolutely beautiful running routes. We've seen a family of swans in a nearby lake and a couple of times we have even seen fox's! Anyway--the next hump is 15 miles and getting the ol' speed up. Hopefully it will be early in the new year when I can write again about how this who process is going.

In the mean time, I would like to mention that my partner James and I are required to raise sponsorship money for charity in order to run the London Marathon. Although there is plenty of time to think about this (its not until April), we would both be grateful for any assistance in reaching our goal. Please see the button in my side-bar for 'JustGiving' for more information should the mood take you!

The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army


One of the best reasons for living in London is the incredible once in a life-time exhibitions that come here. Today was one of those great experiences as I had the privilege to see at the British Museum , the largest exhibition to date outside of China of the famed 'Terracotta Army".

The exhibition was housed in the Museum's library, famous in its own right for having reader's grace through its doors such as Karl Marx and Arthur Conan Doyle. It has a dome ceiling which adds to the grandness of what you are seeing. You walk up a set of stairs and immediately its overwhelming, so much to see, read and absorb.
The first part of the exhibition was learning about the man behind the Army: China's very first emperor, Quin (pronounced 'Chin' which is where the name China comes from). He came from a family of horse breeders, I believe he was poor and after uprising he pronounced himself leader. The 120 artifacts included in this section were normal every day items of the time--things of significance like bells, clay roof tiles, money (including what they used for money before a form of currency) and items used during rituals. One thing I found interesting was the fact the emperor wanted to consider himself ruler of not only China, but the universe (heaven & earth). He actually planned the spots for his temples based on the stars. His idea's of death & being ruler of the spirit world led to him making the artifacts (including the Terracotta Army) that surround his tomb.
A farmer found the Terracotta Army in 1974 accidentally, not realizing that it would become one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th Century and be considered now the 8th wonder of the world covering an area about 56k/36 miles. Apparently only 1/3 has been excavated so far and to date they have managed to put back together approximately 7,000 (they were broken obviously) of the Warriors, have found 40,000 arrowheads, found about 87 pieces of armour (each has about 500 pieces, they have put back together two), found horses, chariots, acrobats, Strongmen, musicians and animals and man made rivers of mercury. The actual tomb these items surround, has not been touched. Some say the emperor created an entire replica of China inside the massive mound. There is no plans on opening the tomb just yet and they are focusing on the pits surrounding it first. Who knows whether this will be opened in our lifetime.
In the last part of the exhibition I was able to see 20 of these warriors, including some of the horses, one of two in existence of the pieces of armour, some acrobats, archers, strongmen, as well as some of the birds and musicians. Obviously only a tiny, tiny fraction of what exists but a good sampling of the items anyway. It was great because although the actual warriors were surrounded by a heavily alarmed motion sensory bar, we were able to get incredibly incredibly close. Each warrior if you would believe is made unique, with different hairstyles as well as facial and physical features. The detail is exquisite and they look so life-like. Apparently 700,000 people worked (including convicts) over 38 years in making this mausoleum for the Emperor. Many obviously died unfortunately in the process.

Although I hope to go to China one day and see these again in the country of orgin, I doubt I would ever be able to get up as close as I did today. If you can't tell by this post it was an amazing experience to see them and one that I will honestly never forget the rest of my life.

10.12.07

Christmas across London

I love the Christmas decorations this year in the city. In years past it seems like they haven't put much thought into them, but this year its different. This year its been fantastic and it really sets the mood for the whole holiday season. Here are a few shots from the city:


Trafalgar Square

If you click on the picture to enlarge you can see the details and the twinkly lights of the tree better. The tree in Trafalgar Square is a gift given by Norway every year as a thank you for England's help in WWII. The views are great here at night when the fountains are lit up and you can see Big Ben in the background.



Setting up in Greenwich Market

I live about 10 minutes away from this market and although this picture doesn't do it justice, the decorations are beautiful this year. Greenwich Market is fabulous for buying artisan goods of everything you can imagine- particularly beautiful hand made bags. The stall directly to the right is selling mulled wine and apple cider, traditional English drinks for the holiday season.


Covent Garden
Covent Garden is absolutely beautiful this year. All the lights are decorated with icicles and it looks like a winter wonderland. Covent Garden dates back to the 1600's and was generally a place where people sold things. It became famous for its flower sellers and was the inspiration for Eliza Doolittle in My fair Lady. It is also well known for the street puppetry of 'Punch and Judy'. Today it is full of musicians who perform, great shops, open stalls, great food and street performers of all sorts. Two of my favorite places of the market include a vintage toy shop called Pollock's and of course the Royal Opera House which is right in the main square. You can never go wrong with a day at Covent Garden and I personally find it a lot more manageable shopping here than some of the busier places like Oxford Street or Bond Street.

7.12.07

Pumpkin Spice Cake

This cake is truly a divine inspiration. Its a Martha Stewart recipe and I made it for Thanksgiving this year. Loved it SO MUCH that I think I'll be making it again for the Christmas season. P.S. --If you're worried about your waist-line, please see my healthy subsitutes at the end of the recipe.




Be sure to use canned pumpkin puree -- not pumpkin pie filling or fresh pumpkin puree.

Note: You can also use a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan: Increase baking time by 25 to 30 minutes (tent loaf with foil if it browns too quickly).

Prep: 25 minutes Total: 2 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

Serves 9

FOR THE CAKE

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice (or 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon, 3/4 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/8 teaspoon each allspice and cloves)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin puree

FOR THE HONEY FROSTING

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
1 bar (8 ounces) regular (or reduced-fat) cream cheese, very soft
1/4 cup honey

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt, and pumpkin-pie spice. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, butter, and pumpkin puree until combined. Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mixture, and mix gently until smooth.

  3. Turn batter into prepared pan, and smooth top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake 10 minutes in pan, then turn out of pan, and cool completely, right side up, on a rack.

  4. Make Honey Frosting: In a medium bowl, whisk butter, cream cheese, and honey until smooth.
    Spread top of cooled cake with honey frosting. Cut cake into squares to serve.
MY SUGGESTIONS TO MAKE IT HEALTHIER:
  • I used 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour and only 1 cup all purpose flour.
  • I cut the salt by half and only used a pinch. If you use sea-salt as its better for you and stronger, you'll need even less.
  • The cream cheese I used was reduced fat and had added benecol. Benecol is good for the heart.
  • I reduced the amount of sugar by half a cup to only 1 cup. It depends on your tastes obviously.
  • I used one full egg and the other egg I used only egg whites.

Note on Frosting: When I made the frosting, I turned out a bit runny. I put it in the fridge for a couple of hours to harden up and it was a lot better. When it hardens on the cake, you won't notice a difference either.

2.12.07

Seasonal Treats in England

As I sit here scoffing down a mince pie it dawned on me that not many know of the seasonal treats you have in England. As an American I can see how some have managed to make it across the pond (like fruitcake & mince pies). However, a few have taken a long time for me to get used to and I've just come to the conclusion they are acquired tastes.



Yule Logs: These are not the most favorite around or traditional, but you see them every year in the shops. I rather like them (best home made) because of the sheer amounts of chocolate.



Christmas cake (Fruitcake): Everyone usually makes this each year and usually people have it the evening of Christmas Day or Boxing Day (day after Christmas). Apparently the tradition of this cake goes back to Victorian times. Putting some sort of figurines on top is a must too.



Christmas pudding: Now when you think of Charles Dicken's christmas carol you think of this. Technically its fruitcake aged (apparently the traditional way is to put it under a bed in a container for 6-10 months to ferment). You then pour brandy over it and I kid you not light it on fire. The flame turns a lovely blue color and goes out once all the alcohol has burned out. You then serve it w/brandy butter (VERY FATTENING, alcohol also burned out of it). It tastes like burnt cake (no surprise there) but is a must and staple at every christmas table and like everything in England has deep roots in tradition. This isn't my favorite seasonal treat but I usually manage to have a spoonful every year anyway.



Mince Pies: These are divine and like the mince pies you get for Thanksgiving just smaller and no 'real' meat. They are sprinkled w/powdered sugar and you can have them w/brandy butter. I adore these and you can't just have one. They are consumed throughout the holiday season and go great w/ a warm cup of apple cider or hot chocolate.

Each of these are fabulous in their own right but of course fattening. All I can say is thank goodness I'm doing so much exercise at the moment!