Saturday, October 31, 2009

Exploring Athens



I’m not sure I have ever visited a city that has so many different sides to its personality. For while there is no doubt that parts of Athens are very grotty (I’m sorry, but there is simply no other word for some of the run down, graffiti spattered areas we have been through) - others are awe-inspiringly historic and stunningly beautiful. Sometimes it is as simple as turning a corner to go from one type of area to the next. I’ve gone from “oh dear” moments to “oh how incredible”moments in less than a heartbeat in this city of so many contrasts.

For example our hotel is in a residential district that has some gorgeous apartments on the higher floors, but everything at street level is very run down. As soon as you walk into the hotel though it is like being in a different world. The lobby and restaurants are beautiful and on entering the lift simply holding our room key next to the floor buttons whisks us straight to the executive floor to our beautiful rooms with a lovely view over Lycabettus Hill.

The metro (underground) is superb, and very easy to negotiate. It’s also very inexpensive at only 3 Euro for a day pass or 10 Euro for a seven day pass. The stations are beautifully designed with marble floors and displays of antiquities found whilst they were being built. The only trouble is that people here have yet to discover the two most important rules of underground travel. They don’t move down inside the cars, resulting in everyone being squished near the doors whilst there are spaces further down - and they don’t let people off the train first before they start pushing their way on. The whole system would move so much more smoothly if they just followed those two little rules! As a passenger, it is beyond frustrating.

We’ve explored the flea market of Monastiraki, the amazing history at Akropoli including the ancient Agora with the Temple of Hephaestus and the Stoa of Attalas. We’ve marvelled at the Acropolis (having climbed up there twice) and also the incredible New Acropolis Museum. We have climbed to the top of Lycabettus Hill to the tiny yet exquisite church of St George, where I lit a candle. We’ve stood on a hill where St Paul preached the gospel, converting the first Greeks to Christianity, and got a serious case of the giggles at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It has been quite an adventure, and it isn’t over yet.



It rained today for the first time, but that did not stop our explorations of this fascinating city of contrasts. There is so much about Greece I don’t understand - the pushing in without letting people out (not just in the underground, but also at the entrance/exit to just about anything), the putting of toilet paper in a bin instead of the toilets because the plumbing isn’t up to much (not in major modern hotels where the plumbing is fine thank goodness!!) and some of the foods which I’m really not sure about. However there is also a lot to admire - the way they build around their artifacts and manage to preserve their history whilst still moving forwards, both architecturally and in terms of technology, their hospitality and their incredibly inventive use of spices and herbs in the unique fusion of cooking traditions from so many different cultures that has become twenty-first century Greek cuisine. I’m learning so much this visit, and am grateful to have the opportunity to see so many wonderful pieces of history so lovingly preserved in the amazing city of contrasts that is Athens.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

After All These Years




Today I stood in the shadow of the Acropolis in awe. I have dreamed of standing here for so long (seriously, I actually dreamed it nights from the time I was about ten!) and today I climbed the (very big) hill and stood in the footsteps of history. Wow. God is amazing - he does make dreams come true; you just have to have a little patience.

Actually, it was a lot better than I dreamed. I didn’t know I’d be standing there with a wonderful husband and a fantastic son, nor that the light would be so incredible, nor that (as the icing on the cake), there would be a Canadian flag flying at the foot of the columns of the Parthenon when I reached the top. It’s in celebration of the 2010 Winter Olympics which will take place in Vancouver. Four days ago, at Olympia, the Olympic flame began its journey to Canada. I’ve never experienced anything like seeing the gorgeous maple leaf flying proud at the foot of all that history. It was incredible. Okay, where I come from in Ontario is a long way from Vancouver, but I’m still proud anyway. Well done Vancouver - I’m sure it will be an amazing winter Olympics! On most of the street corners on the way down from the Acropolis there are Greek and Canadian flags flying side by side. Real heart-stirring stuff!

I’ve only been in Athens for a few hours, but I have to say I’m really loving it. It is such a beautiful city. We had a quick visit to the new Acropolis museum and I cannot wait to go back tomorrow. There are glass panels over the excavations - and you can walk over top of them. It is like nothing I could ever have imagined. I can’t wait to explore more of this amazing place.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not Quite According To Plan

My husband was a lot later getting home last night than he had planned to be. Not that I was expecting him home early; that rarely happens before we head off anywhere, whether he is on business or holiday - but he had hoped to be earlier so we could go out for a bite to eat and start our journey relatively stress free. It was also so we could get to bed early as the alarm was scheduled to go off at 4.15am.

Neither of those things were on the cards. Not for the dinner, nor the early night, nor for anything else for that matter.

I had a cauliflower left over in the fridge, along with some cheese and milk, so I decided to make one of our favourite pasta dishes. I invented it many years ago, a fusion of macaroni cheese and cauliflower cheese, but I always play around with it depending on what I have on hand. It turned out really well, so well that I intend to include this incarnation in my food blog Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen. However that was about the last thing that went right last night.

You see, after dinner as I was clearing up I smelled gas. When I asked my husband to come and check, he smelled it too. This perplexed us as we have an electric hob (stove top) and cooker (stove). There was gas installed when we moved in, but we had it capped off. Yes, we have a gas fire in the living room and we heat with gas, but the heating was not on, nor was the fire, and the gas smell was definitely coming from somewhere in the kitchen.

Now we have always had problems closing a couple of the drawers in our kitchen. I have those really large pull out drawers you can put not only cutlery, but pots, pans and all sorts of other things in. We could never figure out what was stopping the drawers closing, despite a lot of looking, but that was where we could smell the gas. On removing the drawers we discovered something we had not noticed before. The runners for the drawers had been installed so that every time we closed one or two of the drawer we hit the capped off gas pipe. The tap had opened into the “on” position and a bit had fallen off it. My husband moved the gas tap to the “off” position but it was apparent something was still not right. A frantic call to the builders (we are still in our two year warranty phase with our house for the next six weeks) resulted in a chap being sent out. He made the pipe safe, checked for leaks (there were none) and arranged to come back to fix the situation properly. The drawers were left on the dining room floor so as not to put anymore pressure on the pipe. Problem solved - albeit temporarily.

Now by this time it was quite late, and after doing a bit of last minute packing, I went up to bed. My husband still had work to do so he stayed up. I didn’t hear him come to bed. I did, however, hear the alarm go off at the un-Godly hour of 4.15am. I was so excited about going to Athens it did not bother me at all.

We all rushed around getting ready. My son needed a pair of jeans ironed and did attempt to do it himself but with little success. I went down to the kitchen to help him. I could hear water running. It sounded a bit like our water softener running but much, much louder. My husband was in the shower, but I had been in the kitchen when he was in the en-suite shower before, and it had never sounded like this. I went up to speak to him about the water noises as he got out, and he was not in a good mood. We had not turned the hot water on in time (it was scheduled to come on at 6am) and our son and I had used all the hot water. Grumpy does not begin to describe him - although I admit my mood would have been less than perfect if I showered in freezing cold water.

He came downstairs and realised at once something was definitely not right - especially when he turned all the water off at the mains and we could still hear it running. I hate water - we’ve had so many leaks over the years, and it terrifies me how far it can go in a very short period of time. Thankfully we knew that the leak must have started sometime after midnight and it was only 4.30am, so hopefully not too much water had escaped - although the noise was so loud it seemed whatever was leaking was doing so at a pace. In the end, all we could do was turn the water off to our property actually in the street, and the noise duly stopped. My husband took the number of the builder’s plumbers so he could call them after we got to Athens and arrange for them to come and fix the leak.

Now I am the sort of person who checks and double checks everything before I leave the house. I won’t even leave the toaster plugged in when I go out - everything that can be off has to be off. So leaving the house with a gas tap made “safe” and the water turned off because something was really seriously leaking did not make me feel very happy at all - even if our (very understanding!) friends were staying there and help was on the way. In fact, none of us were very happy, but if we wanted to get our plane, we had to go.

And so we left our house in the capable hands of friends (albeit friends with no water and part of the kitchen in the dining room!) and headed off. I’ve never had such a stressful departure from home - not ever. I can’t help but worry about what will happen and how this will all get sorted out.

I’m flying over the Alps now about half way to Athens and I’m trying to concentrate on relaxing and enjoying myself, but my mind is definitely not here - it’s back with our friends, the gas tap and the leaky pipe.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

And the Winner Is...

There were 502 entries to the Vintage Christmas giveaway, and the winner chosen by a random number generator was number 416 - Pamela Logan of Braintree, Massachusetts, USA.

Congratulations Pamela - your Vintage Christmas cards will be winging their way to you shortly!

Thank you to everyone who entered, especially to all of you who made such lovely comments about the site in your emails. There will be another giveaway in the New Year, so watch this space!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another Week Begins


Just a reminder that the Vintage Christmas Giveaway closes today at midnight UK time. If you would like to be in with a chance to win the vintage design Christmas postcards from Fortnum and Mason, just send me an email to april@21stcenturyhousewife.com with the words “Vintage Christmas” in the subject line before midnight tonight. There have been a large number of entries already, but there is always room for a few more! Each entry has been assigned a number as it arrives and I will use a random number generator to choose the winner. (There are far too many entries to just pull one out of a hat this time!)

It’s a busy start to the week with personal training and yoga today. Plus, we are off to Athens on Wednesday. I’ve got family coming to stay in our home while we are away so I’ve been rushing round getting everything ready for visitors as well as washing, ironing and packing. We always have friends or family come to stay when we go away. We are close enough to London that it is a nice break for them, and we know our home is never empty so that is nice for us!

I’m very excited about Athens as it is a place I have wanted to go ever since I first learned about it back in primary school. I’ve dreamed of seeing the Acropolis, the Roman Forum, the temples and all the other historic ruins I learned about as a child. In fact,up until I was about twelve and found out it involved a lot of camping, dust and far more bones than I was comfortable with, I really wanted to be an archaeologist. I guess that is where our son gets his interest in Ancient History from! I should have lots of interesting things to blog about from Athens - provided the internet connection in the hotel works well!

Actually, I have never been to Greece at all before, so I am looking forward to learning more about Greek food and traditions, and going to some nice restaurants, which I will blog about here and also on Recipes from the 21st Century Housewife’s© Kitchen.

Tomorrow my son and I are off to visit an old friend back where we used to live near Burton-on-Trent. We have not seen her since June, so it has been far too long! We are going to one of our favourite garden centres for lunch. It might sound odd, but they have a fantastic restaurant. Often garden centres in England do. This one also always has spectacular Christmas decorations all throughout their very large shop. I’m looking forward to spending some time with our friend, and also getting some inspiration for our Christmas decorating! Also, I always enjoy long drives with my son as it is a chance for us to really talk away from all the distractions of day to day life. I’m really looking forward to that as well.

Our clocks “fell” back an hour Sunday night here in England so as I sit here typing at 5pm it is pitch dark outside. I’m quite looking forward to seeing some sunshine in Greece! It really is a busy time here as we will only be back from Athens for three days before we are heading off to Paris for a long weekend. I do love travelling and am definitely at my happiest when we are doing lots of it - so I am very happy (and so very grateful!) at the moment.


 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

From This Day Forward



My cousin Jamie married his fianc√© Laura yesterday and what a beautiful wedding it was. Although the morning dawned rainy, by the time the bride arrived, the sky had brightened and cleared, much to everyone’s great relief. Laura looked gorgeous in her wedding gown and the bridesmaids were beautiful as well.



t was a beautiful service, simple and evocative, and the minister was really lovely. Everyone in the congregation was a bit teary during the vows, although at one point near the end the happy couple got the giggles which was really sweet. During his sermon the minister presented Laura and Jamie with a pair of salt and pepper shakers shaped like little people. If you put them together they fitted into an embrace. He spoke about how important it was to communicate within a relationship and how talking over a simple meal can be one of the most relaxing atmospheres to do that in. He suggested placing the salt and pepper shakers on the table to remind themselves that although they are two separate people they need to remember they are also one. What a great sermon! It was one of the nicest weddings I have ever been to.

I have not posted too many photos here as we want Jamie and Laura to be able to see them first, but I couldn’t resist just one or two - okay, three counting the one above :-)




Don't they make a lovely couple!!

Over to Me

The gardeners pretty much finished yesterday afternoon. They are coming back on Monday to do a bit more tidying up but basically they everything on their brief is done. The change in the garden is tremendous and I am really, really pleased, but of course this now means that it is “over to me” in terms of getting the planting done.

I love how the kitchen garden with its raised beds has turned out:-




The gardeners have suggested putting a trellis across the garden to “hide” the raised beds. I could grow a climbing plants up it. They would then merge the side bed into a bed in front of the trellis. I’m considering it, although I do intend to make the kitchen garden a pretty one so I’m not sure if I want to hide it or not!

I’m pleased with the other flower beds as well. The existing bed is much wider now, and although the beds along the fences might look narrow in the photograph, they are actually quite deep. It is going to be a challenge to fill them all up with plants.




We’ve even got a base for a shed tucked in behind the garage at the side of the garden. It’s great to see that area all cleared out - it was full of overgrown plants.



So now, it is very much over to me in terms of buying some plants and getting them in. (And over to my husband in terms of the shed!) Sadly I’m too late for much of an autumn kitchen garden, but the raised beds will sit happily till the spring and I can plant them up then. I may even have a go at raising some plants from seed. The flower beds definitely need work though. All I have at the moment for them are some bulbs and lots of ideas. We have a couple of busy weeks coming up with trips to Athens and Paris so I’ll start on the planting when I get back. Watch this space!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nearly There




As you can see, the raised beds for the “kitchen garden” have been installed and are just waiting to have their lining finished and the topsoil put in. There will be gravel all around them when they are finished as well. The beds along the sides of the garden are also coming along beautifully. It looks like we may be on track for completion tomorrow afternoon as planned!

Meanwhile, my lovely friend Sylvia came to visit yesterday. She is amazing at gardening. Her own garden is gorgeous and she designed and did a lot of the work on our garden in the house we owned before this one. As it was a few years ago, Sylvia and I did all the work on that one ourselves, with a bit of help from my husband and son. As I’m a bit older and perhaps a tad wiser, this time I decided to bring in some nice gardeners to do the heavy work. I’m just saving the fun stuff - like planting - for me! Sylvia and I spent hours yesterday talking about what sort of plants I wanted, colour schemes and even garden sculptures (although I think I’m going for the sculptural tree she suggested as opposed to anything made of stone or iron). We’ve worked right through the seasons so there will be colour all the time. I can’t wait to get started!

Aside from all that it was just lovely to see Sylvia. As we live 150 miles apart, we last got together before Christmas and that was just waaay too long ago. We had a great time going through loads of gardening books, weighing up lots of planting options, going out for a great Chinese meal with my son and drinking a few glasses of red wine. Wonderful! Sylvia headed off home this morning, leaving me with tons of inspiration and ideas.

My husband gets back from Paris tonight and not only can I not wait to see him, I can’t wait for him to see the garden. We may have to wait until morning though as it will be dark by the time he gets home....

As for me, my son and I are off this evening to help my cousin and cousin-to-be decorate the village hall where they are holding their wedding reception tomorrow. I’m so excited about their wedding! Not only have I not been to a wedding in ages, but they are such lovely people it makes it extra special.

Have a lovely weekend everyone :-)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Garden's Evolution







The top four photographs are taken from the same angles as the ones yesterday. The bottom left and bottom right photographs are of the corners of the “side” of the L-shape that is our garden which I did not do “before” photographs of. As you can see the chaps from the Creative Landscape Company have begun to remove the grass for the kitchen garden outside the utility room door and behind the side of the garage. (See yesterday's blog entry for more specific details). They have also widened the flower bed along that side, as well as starting to dig the borders all round the rest of the garden. It’s beginning to come together!

The raised beds in the kitchen garden are going to be made with weathered pressure treated wood, and yesterday I had the choice of either black or a shade of pale green. I chose the green so it will match in with the fence panels we already have. I was going to get one of Rocket Gardens’ winter vegetable gardens to plant in one of the raised beds, but I had an email from them earlier this week and they have sold out. I first saw Rocket Gardens at the Good Food Show at Olympia last year. They sell complete gardens in miniature - baby plants of organic vegetables and herbs that sent out ready to plant for a virtually instant garden. Oh well, perhaps I will try one of their spring vegetable gardens next year.

I’m getting excited about planting. It’s so lovely to have an almost blank canvas to work with. Once my friend S arrives later today I’ll be able to start formulating a real plan.

I was hoping all the groundwork would all be finished by Friday, however, I’m beginning to wonder if that is possible now. There is still quite a lot of work to be done. We’ll have to see. For the moment, I am just incredibly grateful the rain is holding off!!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Garden Project (Finally!) Begins






It has taken us nearly two years to get round to this but today the Creative Landscape Company started work on our garden. The pictures above are the “before” photos. To be fair I did not even get in touch with the nice folks at Creative Landscape Company until this summer, so it isn’t all their fault it took two years. In fact, it’s pretty much entirely mine. We were however scheduled to do this in September but they had too much work on so I’m really glad it is getting started now.

Actually considering we bought this house in quite a rush, we did very well in the garden stakes. It is the biggest garden on our estate/subdivision. I realised the back garden was pretty good, but I can remember being surprised at how much garden we had round the side of the house when the fence went up mid-build. The garden is L-shaped and really substantial. The top photo is of what I refer to as the bottom of the L. (The small building at the back of the photograph is the side of the double garage, the side of our house is to the right. That’s the utility room door you can see on the right hand side.) The next photo is the bottom of the L from the other direction. (My back is to the garage; you can just see part of the side of our house on the left.) The photo third from the top is of the side of the L (our house is on the left) looking down the garden towards the road. (Our house does not face the street; we are tucked away behind a wall and some gates.) The photo on the bottom is of the side of the L taken from the patio area (I had my back to the house, but you can see a corner of the back extension peeking out there on the right). I’m grateful we’ve got such a lot of garden to work with.

As you can see from the photo on the left and in the middle, there is one long straight flower bed along the bottom of the L, put in by the builders. Their planting was kind of haphazard, with lots of plants that grow really big and gangly at the front and short ones at the back. I’ve had a bit of a go at sorting their planting out, getting rid of some of the plants and moving others, but there is still a lot more to do. I’ve put some new planting in there, comprised of some of the plants brought from our previous garden, gifts and some plants which I bought. However that bed is still very much a work in progress.

The plan is to put in a sculpted border all along the edges, from beside the patio right along the side of the L, which then joins into the flower bed along the bottom of the L that is already there (and also softens its edges). Then, outside the utility room door in the bottom of the L, there is to be a “kitchen garden” for vegetables and herbs. There are to be two raised beds about 4 meters square each, surrounded by some gravel to keep things nice and neat. The area to the left of the side of the garage (as you face the side) is to be cleared and levelled so a concrete base can also be laid for a shed. (We have yet to find and choose a shed, but at least there will be a base there when we do!)

The gardeners will not be doing any planting; I’ll be doing it. I like planting and planning gardens, I just don’t like digging, so this is the perfect solution. My dear friend S will be arriving tomorrow for a visit and to advise me on planting. She helped me design and put in the garden in our previous house a few years ago - even doing the actual landscaping. - while her husband was deployed in Iraq. She has an amazing talent for gardens, and her own is beautiful. I was really sad to leave the one she designed for me behind when we moved, but she came round and dug out loads of the plants so I could take them with me so many of them are here thanks to her!

I’m not sure I will get all the planting done straight away, but at least I will have a plan. I do have some bulbs I bought at the Chelsea Flower Show to put in - tulips and hyacinths - and some bulbs I had in pots from last year (again tulips from the Chelsea Flower Show the year before). I hope they bloom again as they were just beautiful.

As I sit here writing, the sounds of garden machinery fill the air and piles of dirt and grass are beginning to form as the gardeners get to work. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Balance

Balance is something that I think pretty much every 21st century family struggles with, some of us more than others. Certainly, most housewives perform a tricky juggling act just about every day. We juggle our needs, wants, commitments and responsibilities in an attempt to make our homes and lives comfortable, but when we have a lack of balance in our lives it can cause stress and make us forget what is truly important.

Lack of balance causes frayed nerves, short tempers and fatigue. It’s what makes you bite your husband’s head off when he asks a simple question or causes him to snap at you when you ask him to take the garbage out. It makes us impatient with ourselves and our children, and it creates tiny fractures that, left unchecked, can cause serious damage to the fabric of our lives.

By the middle of last week, we were all beginning to suffer from a lack of balance. My husband’s work commitments were huge and my son had several deadlines for college. I had too much to do but not enough time to do it in. Added to this were family commitments that we were struggling to fit into an already overloaded schedule. None of us had been to bed before midnight in days and the alarm was always set for 6am. The television had not been switched on even once, and frankly we were struggling to even manage to eat together.

And then, the unthinkable. My husband’s Aunt, his father’s sister, passed away. She was an amazing lady, so wise and full of life. Now she has gone, and she will be missed. Her death reminded us all of the fleeting nature of life, and all the chaos really did not seem anywhere near as important as it had before.

We all have busy seasons in our lives. Getting through them together as a family with grace and humour is what it is all about. However, even more important is remembering - even as you juggle all the balls that make up your family’s existence - what is truly important, and more than anything else, what a precious gift this life is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm A Flea Marketeer Party

The folks over at Flea Market Style, are hosting a blog party. Their blog is really beautiful and has lots of great decorating ideas to help make your house a home. It's definitely worth a visit. They've asked everyone to post their favourite flea market find at the party. This is mine.

We don't have flea markets in England, but we do have "antiques" fairs. They are about as close as I remember to the flea markets I used to visit in Canada and the US when I was growing up, so I hope this counts! I found this lovely vase at one of them, in a tiny village in West Berkshire.



I was visiting the antiques fair with my cousins, four of whom were over from Canada. The jug caught my eye from all the way across the room and I just had to have it. I'm a huge fan of anything blue and this was such a gorgeous shade of my favorite color - everytime you looked at it from a different angle it changed. It was priced at £25 (around $40) which I thought was pretty good, but it must have been my lucky day because as soon as the stall holder saw me looking at it, she said "You can have it for £10 if you like". I had not even said a word! I snapped it up straight away and brought it home.

It is stamped Grimwades Byzanta Ware which was made in Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands of England. From the research I have done it probably dates from the 1930's. Every time I look at it I smile remembering a really fun day out with family, and my terrific luck in getting something I loved so much for such a great price!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gratitude


I've edited this post to appear on Finer Thing Friday on The Finer Things in Life blog. I'm new to Finer Things Friday but I'm planning to visit regularly in future!! This post originally appeared last week, on October 14th, just after Canadian Thanksgiving.

Monday night’s Thanksgiving dinner was one of those moments when I was overwhelmed with gratitude - one of those “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world” moments. Except that while for us, the “God is in His heaven” bit was absolutely true, I knew that it was far from true that “all is right with the world”. But I was grateful anyway.

I felt grateful that we are all healthy, that we could be together uninterrupted and that we had such an abundance of food to put on the table. I was also grateful that my son had taken the trouble to make me smile by putting on every piece of clothing bearing maple leaves that he had ever owned (despite the fact many were from rather a long time ago and were hardly comfortable). And I was grateful that although two of the people I would have loved to have had at our table are no longer with us, our table was full of happy memories, both visible and invisible. From the heart shaped dish that my Mom used to put cranberry sauce in, the shell shaped spoon she used with it and her duck egg blue Royal Doulton gravy boat to the memories of times when we did all sit at the table together, the room echoed with the murmurs of Thanksgivings past as we all enjoyed Thanksgiving present. It was perfect.




Five minutes before we sat down, chaos reined supreme. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England, so my husband had just got in from work and was still dealing with calls and business issues. My son was battling looming deadlines for college coursework. We are in a season of too much to do in too little time, when balance is sadly lacking in our lives. Worries plagued the back of our minds, particularly about my husband’s Aunt who is critically ill in hospital and who we are likely to lose. But for that hour, it was just us, around the table, sharing food, wine and conversation - creating memories for Thanksgiving future.

It did not matter that as we finished our pumpkin pie the phone began to ring again, and life - both the joys and sorrows of it - came flooding back into the room. For that short time, it was just us, commemorating a celebration dating back hundreds of years, taking the time to be still, and grateful - just as my ancestors did for so many years before we were even thought of. It was a visible, tangible illustration of the awesome cyclical nature of life, and a moment I will always be grateful to remember.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thanksgiving, Cultural Identity and Me

It’s Thanksgiving Monday in Canada today, and nearly everyone will be celebrating with a big turkey dinner. When I was a kid growing up in Canada, I loved Thanksgiving. I have many fond memories of Thanksgiving with my family, and they are especially poignant for me now as my parents passed away less than two years ago.

I’ve always tried to keep Thanksgiving in England, although I must admit it is challenging. First of all, whole fresh turkeys are non-existent here in October. Even my wonderful butcher can’t get one for me. He did say he could get me a sort of turkey roll thing, made up of the best bits of more than one turkey, but I really didn’t fancy that at all. Apparently the turkeys are not very good at the moment as they are all being fed up for Christmas. If you get them too early they are kind of stringy. Good news for the turkeys I suppose, but not for me. Of course, that was after he suggested I might be mixed up, as wasn’t Thanksgiving in November?

That happens a lot over here. Many of people seem to think that Canada and the US are pretty much the same country and have exactly the same holidays – something that upsets both Canadians and Americans alike. Don’t get us wrong, we like each other well enough, but it would be kind of like suggesting to an Englishman that he was Scottish or Irish. It’s not true and it kinds of winds us up.

So after explaining that Canadians and Americans do actually celebrate Thanksgiving during different months, I did what I do every year and ordered the biggest chicken they could get for me. I will refer to this chicken as the “turkey” and for just this one day my family will indulge my delusion. After all, it will taste fairly similar to a turkey, and be served with the usual Thanksgiving fodder – mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing and vegetables. I’ve even found some canned pumpkin to make some pumpkin pie. You can get it in the odd supermarket over here, usually ones in areas that have a high population of ex-pats.

Most British people don’t understand pumpkin pie, and I admit, it is an acquired taste. I also, possibly controversially, firmly believe that pumpkin pie is best made from canned pumpkin and not by hollowing out a fresh pumpkin. I remember one British friend who went to an awful lot of trouble to get pumpkin pie one year when we were going to his house for dinner in October. I was incredibly touched by the gesture and very grateful. The only thing was, the bakery that had made the pie had used a fresh pumpkin to make it. For some reason, pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin just does not taste like pumpkin pie to me. You see, we had some amazing cooks in our family, and all of them - to a woman - agreed that canned pumpkin was the only way to go. So pumpkin pie made with fresh pumpkin tastes very strange to me. Certainly it is probably the more evolved culinary choice, but I remember I struggled to eat the pie my friend had bought. It seemed so savoury to me, and was spiced very strangely. However, I will always be touched by his thoughtfulness, and of course I never said a word.

In my family, pumpkin pie was always served with whipped cream – and we kids thought it was the best treat if we were allowed to squirt the cream from an aerosol container. One year, the person who cooked the family Thanksgiving dinner whipped actual whipping cream as a special treat. We kids were heathen enough to be disappointed! Thankfully I can get aerosol cream here, and I will use it today in memory of our childish lack of any culinary pretension whatsoever – although I must confess that I would never serve it to guests, and my own tastes have evolved so much as to make me admit (although the kid in me is loathe to) that freshly whipped cream does taste better and have a better texture. I know some people do prefer Cool Whip non-dairy whipped topping with their pumpkin pie, but I definitely cannot get that here and a whipping cream versus aerosol cream versus Cool Whip debate is not something I want to be responsible for starting. That could be very dangerous indeed.

I must admit, it is easier to celebrate Thanksgiving now than it was when I first arrived in England twenty years ago. Although they are not widely available you can get most of the familiar North American brands if you look hard enough. There’s Stove Top stuffing (admittedly at an extortionate price, but hey, it’s only once a year), Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce, and as I said before, canned pumpkin. Heck, I even found Pillsbury Crescent Rolls in the supermarket chiller cabinet the other day – not that they are anything to do with Thanksgiving, but I’m pleased that more and more of my favourites are starting to cross the pond.

Of course, now that I have lived pretty much half my life in England, most of my cultural identity is British. I was naturalised nearly fifteen years ago, and I no longer even possess a Canadian passport, although I am entitled to one if I ask nicely. My husband and son are British (although my son does officially have dual nationality) and it was easier, and indeed something I desired, to allow myself to be assimilated. Dual nationality isn’t something I think about much, and for convenience I prefer to refer to myself as British. However I have never forgotten where I come from. It is a place I am proud to say I grew up in - and on this one Monday in October – well, my name is April, and I’m a Canadian.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Making the Most of What You Have


My weekly organic vegetable box was delivered to my doorstep Friday morning, and as I put away the beautiful treasures contained therein, I suddenly realised I still had some of the vegetables from last week’s box. We’ve been eating out a lot this week and I just didn’t get them used up. Most of them were still okay, but they were beginning to look a little wilted and sad. As we are out again Friday evening, I was at a bit of a loss about what to do with them, but I did not want to waste them. Then I had it – soup!

Soup is delicious, filling, economical and comforting - a great dish for these trying economic times. All you really need are the vegetables lurking on the bottom of your fridge plus some stock and a bit of milk or cream.

You really can use just about any vegetables in this soup, depending on what you have. I do like to include an onion (even if the soup involves leeks) as I think a good onion flavour is an asset to just about any soup. Purists might deride me , but I use stock concentrate, stock cubes or ready-made containers of stock, whatever I have to hand. Like most other people, I just do not have time to make stock from scratch these days. If you are making a vegetable soup for vegetarians obviously you need to use vegetable stock, but if not, I recommend chicken stock as it gives any soup just that little bit more flavour.

Seasonings are entirely up to you. Ready made stocks can be high in salt, so do check before you add any more. Pepper is a nice addition to any soup; just add it to taste. I often use oregano and thyme as it makes the vegetable flavours more intense. You could also use spice blends – like an Italian seasoning blend or herbes de Provence. It does not matter whether the herbs are fresh or dried, however you may find you need less if you use fresh, as their flavour is more intense. A bay leaf could be added if wanted to imbue your soup with a deeper flavour -. just remember to take it out before you puree!

If I am using carrots I like to grate them in because it helps them to cook more quickly. Potato can also be grated, but I tend to add it in small slices as it is quicker for me. I do like to include a potato, just to give the soup some extra body, but it is not vital. Other vegetables should be as finely chopped as possible, or use a food processor if that is easier for you. I don’t mind a bit of light chopping if I have the time, but if you do not feel as I do or you are rushed, then a food processor is definitely the best option.

This is the soup as I made it on Friday. The vegetables are literally what I had to hand. Feel free to be creative – with homemade soup just about anything goes!

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Easy Vegetable Soup

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
3 leeks, washed and finely sliced
4 – 6 stalks of celery, washed and finely sliced
1 potato, peeled, halved and sliced in thin slices
4 -5 carrots, washed, peeled and grated
1 to 1-1/2 litres of stock
salt and pepper to taste
spices to taste (I like to use about a teaspoon each of oregano and thyme)
water, milk or cream (roughly 100 to 200 ml)

Heat the butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook for two or three minutes, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften. Add the remaining vegetables, and stir so they get coated with the buttery oil. Cook with a lid on over low heat for about twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the stock, cover the pot and cook for another half hour over low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the seasonings and herbs, tasting as you go. (Be careful, the soup will be very hot.)

Remove from heat and take off the lid. Allow the soup to cool a bit so that it does not damage your liquidiser/blender. Puree the soup in batches to your desired thickness. I like to leave it a little bit chunky so it has some texture, but if you prefer your soup very smooth, puree it just that little bit more. It is entirely up to you.

If you are going to serve the soup immediately, put the batches of pureed soup directly into a clean saucepan. Add more water, milk or cream to get the soup to your desired thickness and re-heat over medium heat until it is piping hot.

If you are making the soup ahead, put the batches of pureed soup in a container. Cool completely, refrigerating as soon as possible. The soup will keep (without added milk or cream) in the fridge for up to three days. You can then reheat the soup all at once, or a bit at a time as you need it, adding water, milk or cream to get it to your desired thickness. Be sure to heat the soup until it is piping hot.

This soup is lovely served with Maple Syrup, Pecan and Apple Loaf (made without the cinnamon sugar topping), recipe on my food blog which you can see by clicking here. Served spread with butter alongside a steaming hot bowl of this comforting soup, it makes for a gorgeous Autumn lunch.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Blog of the Month

Huge thanks to everyone who wrote in with suggestions for October’s blog of the month :-)

My “Blog of the Month” for October is written by a lady named Erin who lives in Indiana. It’s called Rare and Beautiful Treasures.

Erin writes about the beautiful things in life and her style of writing is really lovely. The photographs on the site are wonderful as well. As well as decorating inspiration, Erin celebrates the “rare and beautiful treasures” of every day.

You can visit Erin’s blog by clicking here or on the link in the first paragraph.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Busy Week, A New Page, A New Recipe and the Giveaway

Where is the week going? Talk about flying by at lightening speed! We have been out every night except Tuesday so far, and we are out tonight and tomorrow as well.

Last night we were in London at a talk by Richard Bandler, the co-founder of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). It was a fascinating seminar and I learned an awful lot. There were 350 people there!
Of course, you never agree with everything any speaker says, but it was very interesting indeed. I am using some of the techniques he discussed today and they are very effective!

I had met my husband earlier in the evening in a very rainy Regent Street so that we could head over to the West Brompton hotel where the seminar was being held together. I’m fascinated by London in the rain - and how busy London streets turn into a sea of umbrellas. Coming up the stairs from the tube station, there is a huge human traffic jam as people stop on the top step to open theirs. It’s a challenging task as the street in front of them is full of people trudging by with their own brollies, and you have to find a tiny space in which to open yours, hopefully without impaling anyone or poking them in the eye. This generally involves having to stand on tiptoe and attempting to open your brolly as high above the heads travelling past you as you can. It’s a dangerous thing, as if the brolly gets caught you will be dragged along with the crowd, who are generally (through some weird twist of fate) all heading in the opposite direction from that in which you want to go. Finding a space big enough to hold both you and your umbrella, which allows you to join the crowd and move along your desired path can take some time. All the while you are being jostled by the crowd behind, who quite rightly want to get up to street level as well! Once you are out in the sea of people, navigating along the pavement is a seriously challenging task as people dart here and there clutching their umbrellas, never seeming to follow a straight path. Just as you have gotten used to this strange dynamic, you will see an umbrella approaching that is twice the size of the person holding it - usually a golf umbrella - heading dangerously towards you at what seems like great speed. It’s like a weird game of dodge ‘ems or bumper cars played by people holding umbrellas of all sizes and shapes on some of the busiest streets in the world. Ah, London....

Tonight and tomorrow night see us at The Reading Comedy Festival, which has been held annually for the last six years. This year there are over sixty performances during a two week period, from big names like Alistair McGowan and Jimmy Carr to young performers looking for their first big break. There are also comedy workshops and even plays, like Victoria Wood’s “Dinner Ladies”. It’s a wonderful festival, and well worth a visit if you live anywhere nearby.

By the way, lots of you have emailed me to ask about tips for surviving (and hopefully thriving!) during the recession so now there is a new page on 21stcenturyhousewife.com to check out - Recession Busting. If you have any tips you think I have missed, do be sure to email me on the usual address - april@21stcenturyhousewife.com

And don’t forget to enter this month’s Giveaway. I’ve had lots of entries already, so be sure to get yours in before the closing date - Monday 26th October. Remember you don’t have to live in the UK to enter - the last giveaway winner was from Portugal.

Oh, and check out a really yummy new recipe I developed this week - Maple Pecan and Apple Loaf. It’s a delicious, not too sweet Autumn loaf that is somewhere between a “bread” and a “cake” - plus its low sugar content and the addition of whole wheat flour mean it is good for you too! It’s on my Food Blog - to see it, click here.

Got to go now - see you later in the week!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thanks for the Memories




My husband’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party was a wonderful occasion, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded us of the importance of family, both immediate and extended, and it was an evening we will always remember.

Part of the festivities was a slide show of photographs from years gone by. It was lovely to see them all. It reminded me of the boxes upon boxes of photographs my husband and I have, both our own, and those I inherited from my parents. I thought about how nice it would be to get the photographs and mementos in order, to start to preserve them for future generations. I resolved to start the task as soon as I could, and when we got home on Sunday afternoon I got started straight away.

Now there are a lot of boxes (I have located at least five full ones so far), but with all the technology today this is a much less daunting task than it would have been ten years ago. Photographs can be easily scanned, and made into albums that can be printed up professionally as proper books - even in multiple copies.. Damaged photographs are easily scanned and repaired with the iPhoto package on my MacBook.

I found photos of me as a baby, of my Dad’s father when he was a young soldier in World War One, of my parents and lots of other family and friends. I also found letters from my Grandpa to my Grandma written before my Mom was even born, and a letter to Santa written by my Mom in 1934. I even found some of the photos I sent to my parents during my early years in England - including some really cute ones of my son. It is so wonderful to hold these pieces of the past in my hand! We all need a history, and to feel part of a family. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to create so many happy memories, and I’m also very grateful to be able to look back on them so fondly!

The only thing I wish is that I had gone through more of them with my parents years ago. There never seemed to be time when we visited, and then when there was time, it was too late as my Mom’s memory was slipping away. Inevitably there are photographs of people I do not recognise, who have faded away into the mists of time. They were obviously a part of my family’s life, and yet I do not even know their names. I find that rather sad. If you are lucky enough to have the older members of your family still with you, I encourage you to spend some time with them going through old photographs and making notes. It’s also nice to keep a video record of some of their memories if you can, as our voices are such a precious part of who we are.

Thankfully, I was a good listener when I was a child, and I do remember many of the faces and names from the past. I’m taking care to write down who is who in the photographs where I can, and guess-timate dates. Of course, I have barely scratched the surface and this is a task that will take months, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. I keep finding really interesting things - old newspaper clippings, business cards and notes. I even found my old report cards from primary school! All these things are like pieces of a puzzle, clues to the secrets of the past - of everyday life in all its glory, and of events that shaped not just my family, but also helped to make me who I am today.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Golden Wedding

It’s an important weekend for our family. My husband’s parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on Saturday. The celebrations are particularly special as my mother-in-law has battled back from a serious illness to be there.

It’s a different world today than it was that October day back in 1959. We had not yet been to the moon and computers were just beginning to take shape with early prototypes filling entire rooms. Most men were pretty much guaranteed a “job for life” and a woman’s place was still very much in the kitchen, whether she wanted to be there or not. I find it hard to imagine that world, and even harder to imagine what fifty years is like. After all, it’s longer than I have been alive. I know it requires a lot of love, hard work and commitment to keep a marriage strong for that long.

My parents made it to their 50th wedding anniversary, but sadly they were both too ill by then to really celebrate. We had a small celebration a few days before, just the five of us, but that was all they could manage. Their love for each other was everything to them both. One of the last things my Dad said to me was to look after my Mom, and the day my Dad died my Mom lost the will to live, dying only six weeks later. Their love for each other was utterly unwavering. Neither could imagine a world without the other.

There are not many people close to us who have been married 50 years actually. There’s my Aunt and Uncle in Canada, but other than my in-laws, that is about it. in fact, come to think of it I have only even been to two 25th wedding anniversary celebrations in my whole life - and one of them was my parents. Sadly, many of our friends are divorced. It’s a sad testament to these times that marriages seem to fall apart so often.

So it is a great pleasure to be able to celebrate an enduring love like that of my in-laws and to celebrate the institution of marriage itself. A long and successful marriage doesn’t come easy, and requires hard work from both partners to make it work. But when it does, it is a wonderful thing indeed.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

It's Arrived!


I was disproportionately pleased when this new store opened in Reading. Lakeland is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave for anyone who likes to cook. It is chock full of all sorts of amazing things - from everything you need to lots of things you didn’t know you needed till you saw them! Up until now, the nearest Lakeland store to me was over an hour’s drive away - now there is one downtown. I am ecstatic.

Lakeland’s reputation precedes them and everyone I know locally who likes to cook is very happy about the new store. Their prices are reasonable, the quality of their products is excellent and their service is wonderful. What’s not to like? I’ve been a customer for almost ten years, although up till now I have had to shop almost exclusively on the internet.

I went along to the new store on Tuesday and snapped up some great bargains. All of their “My Kitchen” range of baking tins were on 3 for 2. Two of my nine inch round cake tins have virtually worn out (I have had them for almost twenty years - that is a lot of cakes!), so I needed new ones, and I also managed to get a fantastic deep American style pie dish, unlike any I had seen here in England before.



I also bought another nifty shelf organiser (I have several already). It has three tiers so you can see the jars and bottles at the back of the cupboard as well as the front. I found some super aluminium foil tins for when I am making meals for the freezer. They came in all shapes and sizes. also bought another one of their nifty shelf organisers. I have several already and they work really well. It has three tiers so you can see the jars and bottles at the back of the cupboard as well as the front. I found some super aluminium foil tins for when I am making meals for the freezer. They came in all shapes and sizes.

I even found this special cushion for the vegetable drawer in my fridge. It was recommended to me by a friend who says it really stops her vegetables bruising and helps them to keep longer.



There was so much to look at over the two floors. I found a few more bargains and then headed home to try out my new cake pans, along with some very nifty pre-cut pan liners. Lakeland also stock some lovely hampers and foodie gifts, along with some very naughty but nice treats. I’m not quite sure how these got in my bag



but I'm very glad they did!

Lakeland have 43 stores throughout the United Kingdom, including their newest in the Oracle Shopping Centre in Reading. Or for their website, click here.