30 December 2008

On Holiday in the Lake District

Away until Sunday, 4 January 2009.

Happy New Year!

Holiday report

We're off "up North" later this morning. Celebrating New Year's in Cumbria with "the rellies."
Been up since half 6, working on a letter of recommendation for a former student -- some things never change! 

I have 10, 000 things to do to finish off our preparations, but actually I'd love to just sit here and write. So many things to catch up on and tell. Need to fill in how the D.E.B. and I spent Christmas Day and "Boxing Day" (Boxing Day, such a civilised and sensible idea. Something that surely should have spread to the colonies). The Queen's speech (I love the Queen!), the Times recently declaring this "The Year of the Wife" (interesting...)

And then, the New Year. Gosh, so much more to think and write about: change, uncertainty, hope for the future, new beginnings, the forthcoming Obama presidency (I love Michelle Obama, she shops at J. Crew!). How far things have come, and how far we have to go. Knowledge gained, lessons still to be learned. New challenges, and the same old doubts.

But briefly, for now: happy, happy, joy, joy. Blessings all round.

p.s. My tiara finally arrived (from California) late yesterday.  Just in time for some New Year's sparkle. 

Any takers?

Here's the skinny on "the Dress". It didn't sale in my first go on eBay. By the way, may I just say, eBay is much easier than it looks? I assumed, closet technophobe that I am, that it would be immensely difficult. 

There's a woman here in Barford who is an eBay Titan, absolute mogul! She's running a huge empire out of her wee, little cottage up the street. (I'm more than a little jealous, I have to say.) But, I digress. The dress didn't sale, but I have relisted it so please feel free to take a look: "The Dress"

I've decided since I have started down this road, i.e. selling the dress, I'm going to see it through. I know that this will mean having to fork out for another one, but I think I might be ready for the ultimate "thrift challenge"...

29 December 2008

Words, words, words...

I take back everything I said about being okay with being “The Girlfriend.” I lied. I was never okay with it. Well, maybe never is too strong, but you get what I mean. I got used to it, but always wore that word reluctantly. 

The terms we use for relationships are important: girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, lover, husband, partner, significant other, fiancee, companion, friend, &etc. Each of these words express a commitment and love, and I have on more than one occasion reckoned, as Shakespeare does in Romeo & Juliet: "What's in a name, that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." 

However, all I can say is this: There is a HUGE difference between “Girlfriend” and “Fiancée”. Reason and rational thought aside. It just feels different. I feel different.

The Art of Letting go...

Two years ago—in the midst of my ‘Single Girl’ life before the D.E.B.—I bought a wedding dress. I had no beau, no chap, and not a single wedding prospect on the horizon.  After putting in an Emergency Call in to St. Jude (the Saint of Hopeless Causes), I decided to follow the rather zany advice of my friend, "Bible-Belt Debutante":
Honnnnneey,” she drawled down the phone, “You gotta show God you believe!”
By buying a wedding dress? – I said in disbelief. “Yeeees!!” she shouted down the phone (and I could sense that a “Hallelujah” was forthcoming shortly thereafter.) “You have to step out in faith! Like Lazarus! As the Lord once said, ‘Build it, and they will come’! So, buy the dress and the man will follow!”  
Nonsense? Perhaps. An excuse to go shopping? Why not.
So buy ‘the dress’ I did. In fact, I got so into this “Jesus said ‘build it and he will come’ idea” that I went ahead bought four (4) bridesmaids dress as well! (Anthropologie on Fifth Ave had a huge sale.)
Well, the D.E.B. did arrive. And so began a waiting game. A game of patience. It does make you wonder, doesn’t it, how our system is set up: Woman waits patiently (or not so patiently) until Man decides to ‘seal the deal,’ and pop the question. (I suppose there is always “Leap Year” for those gals who prefer to take matters into their own hands. )
As I’ve mentioned before (see posting: “Always Something There to Remind Me”) I have had varying degrees of success in my skills of waiting and patience, and thankfully I have been able to vent most of my angst here.  
Of course, friends were always ready and full of advice, also of varying degrees: “He’s got until February! That’s what I say!” – Banshee Friend wailed. “If he hasn’t done it by then, pack your stuff and get back to NYC!” (I have learned that doing the opposite of what Banshee Friend has to say is often the best way forward for me.)   
The best advice I had came from a sage and highly intuitive friend who advised several months ago that the best way to “gain what I want” is by “letting it go.” I could tell by the tone in her voice that another “act of faith” would be required on my part.
“Stop waiting for ‘The Proposal’,” she demanded. “You don’t need it. Just live your life. Let it go. Make peace with the situation you are in now.” And, just before she hung up/rang off: “Get rid of the dress.”
It took me a few weeks, but I finally got up enough courage to do it. To let the “faith dress” go, and ultimately to let go of what that wedding dress symbolized and represents. To relinquish control, and, as my Psychic Friend would say, “To trust the Universe.” So, I channeled my inner Angelina Jolie, and listed the “faith dress” on eBay.
The D.E.B. proposed 5 days later. 

More on Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve was a flurry of activity. The jam-making factory was in full-swing, and by the time the D.E.B. made it home from work, I had most of my wares packaged and ready for delivery around the village. 

The D.E.B. surprised me by coming home early with a beautiful arrangement of red and white tulips. After a kiss and a cuddle, we sat and did a round of last minute Christmas cards – I cannot believe I STILL have more to do before New Year! 

One of the D.E.B.’s friends stopped by for a cup of tea, and then off we went around Barford delivering cards and decorated jars of "Grapefruit, Lemon & Lime" chunky marmalade. I even plucked up enough courage to give one to our Barford W.I. Lady President. 

After trekking around the village, the D.E.B & I came home and watched “Harry Potter” – we’ve decided to catch up on them all over Christmas.

After the movie, the D.E.B. was a flurry of activity. I should have noticed something was afoot... He dashed about looking for the CD I gave him last Christmas: “A Ceremony of Carols” performed by the Choir of (my much-beloved old parish) the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, NYC. 

The old, familiar, St. Luke's sound filled me instantly with longing. “I have a present I’d like to give to you now.” said The D.E.B. “Oh, that’s sweet, but let’s just wait until after Church,” I said sleepily, hoping to get a nap in before Midnight Mass. But he insisted, “I want to give you this present now.”

He told me to close my eyes. What was I expecting? Chanel No. 5? I don’t know. When I opened my eyes and saw a ring box in his hands, I was quite honestly stunned and surprised. When he knelt down before me, in front of our twinkling Christmas tree, I thought I was going pass out. I started to hyperventilate. When he placed the glistening, platinum solitaire on my finger, all I could do was cry. 

The poor Boy was so worried that I hadn’t said: “Yes.” I explained that of course the answer was yes, how could he think otherwise? “Darling English Boy," I said, "I was just waiting until I could breathe again.” The D.E.B. explained, of course he’s wanted to ask me to marry him, how could I think otherwise? “Darling Girl," he said, "I was just waiting until I could found the perfect, romantic moment.”

25 December 2008

Christmas Eve

An hour before Midnight Mass. In front of the Christmas tree. The D.E.B. got down on one knee and proposed. I said, yes.
Happy Christmas!

24 December 2008

Comfort and Joy: Christmas in Barford

Christmas is a time of nostalgia and tradition. At is a time that we let go and give our “inner child” free reign, as we relish and embrace the familiar: age-old hymns and carols that we never tire of hearing or singing year after year; reuniting with families and friends; houses with trees trimmed in tinsel and light, filled with the warm smell of familiar comforting food; Christmas plays in church halls with bathrobe shepherds; and so on. Many of us were brought up with these facets of Christmas, and have dutifully and routinely replicated them throughout our lives.

As we age, we create our own traditions for ourselves apart from our families and communities of origin. As a sassy, single gal in NYC, I had a whole host of holiday traditions with my friends and church community in the West Village. That all feels very far away from me now. And although, Christmas is in many ways the “great uniting” holiday, in that it is celebrated the world over, by Christians and non-Christians alike, there are subtle differences that serve as a reminder that, I, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, am “not in Kansas anymore.”

Christmas in England has been a whirlwind experience. Choral concerts, The Nutcracker, Handel’s Messiah, dinners, parties, get-togethers, carol services, shopping and preparations! I have never been so rushed off my feet during a holiday season. Even when I was living in New York! And the Brits do enjoy “having a laugh,” so, I have also laughed more in the past few weeks that I have in my entire life! I think that is what I love most of all about Christmas in England, the incredibly healthy balance folks here seem to strike between Christmas being a time of frivolity and fun, and Christmas being a time of faith and reflection.

For example, the evening after the rather raucous W.I. Christmas Dinner was the St. Peter’s Church Christmas Dinner. (Note: all I seem to do these days is eat and drink. Lots. And lots.)

This was like no Church Christmas Dinner this girl, raised by Southern Baptist Puritans, has ever seen. The scrumptious dinner, lovingly prepared by W.I. and Church warden members, was, surprise! Not turkey! (Thank goodness.) We had yummy, yummy Cottage Pie, lots of veggies and Trifle for pudding/dessert. (I have fallen in love with Trifle, and would give my right arm for a good one.) And of course, there were Christmas crackers and funny hats that had to be worn.

And of course, there is always the requisite “After Dinner Entertainment.” Mind you, since this was a church gathering, I did assume that my zinger of a joke might be more than a bit out of place. So, no jokes here, but some wonderfully funny original Christmas poetry from a local poetess, such as one called “Spare a thought for the Turkeys.” Her act was followed by the local Magician. Yes, we have a local magician. And he’s very good. I’ve always been quite skeptical of these sorts of things, but I was very impressed by him.

The highlight of the evening was “the Pantomime”. This is a British Christmas tradition if ever there was one. It does surprise me that the whole “Christmas Panto” thing has never caught on in the States. It’s so zany and silly, you’d have thought we Americans would take to it like wildfire. The D.E.B. has promised to take me to a professional pantomime after the holidays. That dreamy Glasgow-born, Brit-American boy, John Barrowman (a.k.a., sexy Captain Jack Harkness from “Torchwood”) will be starring in a panto version of “Robin Hood” in Birmingham in next month.

I will confess—theatre snob that I am—that I hold rather low expectations of amateur dramatics, pantomimes, Christmas pageants and the like. But, let me tell you, the panto at the St. Peter’s Christmas Dinner was a riot! I laughed until I cried. It was a panto version of “Snow White.” What I loved about it was that it was very different from what I was expecting. It was not hammy, or over-acted, i.e., no one winking at the audience for a cheap laugh. The script was actually quite witty and smart, and not at all silly. The best part of the incredible humo(u)r was just knowing the actors themselves. ‘Mrs. Vicar,’ the Vicar’s wife, a strong, sharp, solid woman played a girlie, lispy Snow White, with a giant bow in her hair. The Vicar himself played “The Mirror,” earning huge belly laughs with his dead-pan delivery of such lines as: “I’m shattered.” Mrs. Godfrey was hilarious as the Fairy Godmother, trapped in the wrong play and looking for Cinderella. Mrs. Macbeth took top honors playing the Evil Queen...

No shepherds, no angels, and one could argue not really anything at all to do with Christmas per se, but gosh it was fun! Following the panto, we sang dozens and dozens of carols and hymns. The night ended with a raffle – it’s not a church dinner without a raffle, right?

Between then and now there have been countless carol services, mulled wine and mince pies. Following my grand turn at the W.I. dinner, the D.E.B. and I have had a flurry of Christmas cards and party invitations through our door. We are becoming quite the “couple to know,” as it were. Perhaps it would be more apt to say the “couple to welcome” because that is what I really feel here.

I have never been made to feel so welcome in a place. The other night, at the St. Peter’s carol service, Pam, one of my W.I. chums said: “Now that you’re here, we’re not letting you go!” It is hard to believe that I have only been here four very short months. This feels very much like home to me now. Like it has been always. Its quirky and sometimes more than a little zany, but it is also so very comfortable and cosy.

I am utterly exhausted from baking (a platter of chocolate chip cookies/biscuits) for the D.E.B. to treat his chums at work, and jam-making (the marmalade factory is in full-force now). Despite poll results, I am opting for “Sirloin Steaks with Stilton” for our Christmas Dinner tomorrow. I gotta keep it simple at this point. Organic steaks, of course. Home-grown and hand delivered by our local Lady Farmer, Di Trevis from Middle Watchbury Farm up the road. Tonight – midnight mass at St. Peter’s followed by a bit of bubbly! That’s a tradition I started with my friends in New York.

It's Christmas Eve and The D.E.B. is at work (along with Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim, no doubt) hoping to get away a bit early this afternoon. Goodness knows in this climate it is a blessing that he has a job to go to! Two of his mates were recently made redundant, and right before Christmas!

Here’s a funny thing: yesterday, I went and did a volunteer stint helping to decorate the Church for tonight’s Midnight Mass. I was assigned to decorating the church Christmas tree with a small squad of children as assistants. I was handed a thin ladder with which to climb and place ornaments atop the tree. I am not afraid of heights, but I am deathly afraid of falling. Note to self and lesson learned: Never ever ask children ‘Where do you think this ornament should go?’ It was all I could do to talk myself through it: “Just breathe. Don’t look down. Don’t hyperventilate in front of the children.”


So. Here it is. Christmas 2008. Much more and better than I could have ever imagined. 

The downsides: I miss my friends. I miss St. Luke’s. I miss my Mom. 

The one and only testy little thing: The Christmas carols are not the same! i.e., “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Same titles, same words, but entirely different tunes and timing. Humph!

And a secret: I got the D.E.B. a very special gift. I mentioned previously (see previous post: “Northern Soul”)  that the D.E.B. had a collection of works by the Lake District landscape painter W. Heaton Cooper, the painter his parents collected. Long story short, the D.E.B’s “Ex” didn’t like the paintings, so the D.E.B. gave them away. 

He really regretted it after the fact. Bless him. Love can make you do some very foolish things. Anyway, I am proud to say that this year, the D.E.B.’s lovely family tradition has been revived. Carefully wrapped, lying securely beneath our sweet fir tree is a Heaton Cooper print of “Tarns Hows” just for D.E.B.  

Our little next door neighbour, Charlotte, with our Lucy, the Christmas Elf-Dog

18 December 2008

Success and failure (in the "Jam Factory")

Ambition has always been my tragic flaw. I am, and have very often been, a victim of my own success. This past weekend, amid a myriad of merry-making activities, I attempted (and actually) succeeded in making a batch of “Chunky Grapefruit, Lemon & Lime Marmalade”. (Thank you, Easy British Cooking!)

It turned out sooooo beautifully, and was in fact quite dee-lish! But, could I rest on my laurels and merely enjoy my sweet success? Oh no. In the afterglow and sugar high, I decided and announced that my preserve-making efforts would become the epicenter of my holiday efforts, and that my resulting output would be packaged beautifully and given as gifts to our family and friends. Famous last words.

My fourth day in, and I’m ready to struggle myself with the strings of my cook’s apron!

Last night, as the D.E.B. was in the living room setting up our stout Nordmann Fir tree (from Thelsford Farm, Charlecote), I fretted in the kitchen over “Chunky Marmalade - Round 2”. I was spurred on by the glowing success of finally, finally (yes, finally!) championing the testy and quintessential “Lemon Curd”. Yes, I did it!! Blood, sweat, tears and two lemons yielded two tiny, jam jars of sunshine. Such great effort for such small output. “I need to maximize my output.” I coached myself in a business-like manner.

So, INSTEAD of tackling the next round of the grapefruit, lime and lemon concoction as directed in the cookbook, I decided to attempt some elaborate math(s), and tackle enough for three batches in one go. Of course, as the evening and my energy waned, I got distracted.

After festive glass of wine or two, looking at our lovely, luscious tree in the living room, I decided that I HAD to make a hand-made, keepsake ornament to be the first ornament on our English Christmas tree. I whizzed round, grabbed my scissors, needles and a bit of calico fabric, and made a sweet, little, red heart with a navy blue satin ribbon hang tie. “You always have my heart.” I said to the D.E.B. as I handed him the ornament. A kiss and a cuddle later, and…Grapefruit? What Grapefruit?

By the time I got back to “the Marmalade project,” I had forgotten just how many bits of grapefruit, lime and lemon I’d used. (Zoinks!) This is important because of the “Fruit to Sugar” ratio. Basically, I didn’t know how much sugar I needed to add. So, I overcompensated… Now, I find myself sitting with sticky fingers, sticky hair, a sticky kitchen, and a giant pot of marmalade the color of Marmite, but with the cloying taste of treacle/syrup. Why, why, why didn’t I just relish my lemon curd success, and take my time and work slowly and patiently, working on one batch of marmalade at a time?

I have tried everything to rescue this project, and to spare our family and friends the need for excessive dental work in 2009! We shall see. If ambition is my downfall, tenacity and creativity are my saving graces.

I have learned much from this great preserve-making adventure. I have learned that I have support and resources that I didn’t even imagine. I’ve learned to take good advice, and to trust my own instincts, at least in the case of the notorious and elusive Lemon Curd. Perhaps the lesson from “The Great Grapefruit Marmalade Saga” is that age-old lesson I refuse to learn: patience is a virtue; and it helps to slow down, and take things one step at a time. 

17 December 2008

Not your Granny's W.I.

Joining the Barford W.I. was one the best decisions I’ve ever made.  When I joined in September, I had an image in my head that most people—particularly Americans—probably have of the Women’s Institute: Endearing and enduring, old, English matrons who represent and uphold—with very stiff upper lips, of course—all that is “middle England.” Oh, and of course, Calendar Girls. Lovely. And in many ways that is what it is, and is true. But, I also see that there is more to W.I. than just “jam & Jerusalem”.

First of all, these ladies know how to have a laugh.  Last night’s W.I. Christmas “do” at The Glebe Hotel was fantastic! Our gathering started around 7:30 PM (half 7, as we say here) in The Glebe’s lovely, art deco bar.  There, we were greeted by our Lady President for “welcoming drinks”. Social hour was followed by a full, festive Christmas dinner with all the trimmings: turkey, with stuffing and sausage, roast potatoes, veggies, gravy, and cranberry sauce. We were escorted to our seats by restaurant staff in formal attire. Each of the tables was named after an English Christmas Pantomime favo(u)rite: “Dick Whittington,” “Puss in Boots,” and etc.

I had chosen a place at the “Cinderella” table with my friend Diane. Diane and I decided that the Cinderella table was the “bad girl” table. Mind you, I think every table at this event was a “bad girl” table! Although many of the “Cinderellas” were being decidedly “cheeky” in their refusal to don the festive hats that had been placed at each of our places, along with a Christmas cracker. Being fond as I am of wearing character hats for no particular reason, I happily joined in the fun, and donned my pirates’ hat with pride.

I’ve always been utterly fascinated by the concept of the British “Christmas cracker” and do wonder how (and why) we come have to have lost this “old country” tradition in America. For me, the Christmas cracker epitomizes the British sense of Christmas as a time of magic, merriment and fun.

During our luscious meal, the Restaurant Manager went from table-to-table performing magic tricks for a highly skeptical and increasingly inebriated female audience. He didn’t stand a chance. But, he actually did quite well. After dessert, that was of course, Christmas pudding, it was our turn to perform. Time for toasts and jokes. I have to say that the zinger Auntie Dorothy had given me went down a treat. I got a rousing round of applause and laughter, and had several requests for email copies of the joke.

I got four-stars for my “performance” of the joke – which means a lot to me, as I was nervous as heck, and longed to overcome my well deserved reputation as a “duff” joke-teller. As my friends will concur, when telling a joke, I inevitably amuse myself, laugh uncontrollably, and end up hashing the joke altogether. So, just making it through with a straight face was a coup for me, and let me tell ya, the Barford W.I.  can be a tough crowd.

An example. At our December meeting, last week, the Guest Speaker was a London Music Hall historian, and his presentation went up like a lead balloon. Bless him. I thought he was super. He shared details of the careers of a number of notable stage sensations from 1920s London. Periodically, throughout his lecture, he would burst into song, suddenly performing one of the legendary tunes of time. Apparently, the tunes were not legendary enough. He belted out the old classic: “When’re ya takin’ me up th’ altar, Walter,” and when he reached the chorus, he stretched out his arms towards the assembled women, paused dramatically, and waited for us to join the rousing refrain. No one did. He was a trooper, and in true stage form, the show went on. And on.  The W.I. member sitting next to me, who’s at least 70, if she’s a day, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “How old does he think we all are? He needs an audience that’s at least 15 years older.”

After trying unsuccessfully to win the group over with old show tunes, he tried some old, classic, music hall jokes:

“A man takes his girlfriend out for a picnic in a park. They reach a quiet spot, and the man sits on the ground. He pats the ground next to him and says, ‘Some dew.’ His girlfriend exclaims: ‘Well, some don’t!’”

(I snickered softly in the back row, as the sound of tumbleweed drifting through the room could be heard.)

“A man takes his wife out for dinner at a posh hotel. As they walk through the double doors, a gorgeous blonde sashays past them. She flicked her hair, wiggled her hips and winked at the man as she went by. ‘Who was that woman?’ exclaimed the wife. ‘Oh, don’t you start,’ said the husband, ‘I’m going to have a tough enough time explaining who you are to her in the morning.’”

(I snorted loudly in the deadly silent room.)

 “Two men in a pub. One says: ‘What are you getting your wife for Christmas?’ The other says: ‘A violin.’ ‘Oh, really,’ asks the first man, ‘is she musical?’ ‘No,’ the man responds, ‘but she needs a chin rest.’”

(I howled with laughter, amid the sound of crickets in the distance.)

These gals were not cutting this poor guy any slack whatsoever, and THAT made it all the more funny! But, needless to so, after seeing this poor guy lose his shirt, I was more than a little concerned about my own “performance” at the W.I. Christmas “do”. But, it went down really well, and there is a bit of mercy and grace in being a newbie. I’m just glad I had the guts to do to it all. It’s made me a bit of celeb around Barford. I have people coming up to me in the local shop saying, “Oh, I hear you told a cracking joke the other night at the W.I. dinner.” There are worst ways to be known, for sure.

In addition to my “zinger” I think the other top joke at the dinner was this one, told by my jam & preserve making hero, Hilary:

 “A couple goes along to the doctor’s. The doctor says he has some serious news for them, and wants to speak to the wife privately. The wife goes into the doctor’s office, and the doctor says: ‘I’m afraid your husband is in a truly bad way, very grave condition. But with your cooperation he could make it through this. Here is what we need you to do. Restructure his diet. Dutifully prepare for him three, solid, wholesome meals a day. The same time every day. All his favorite foods. Keep him comfortable. Let him have a drink when he wants to. No chores or extra tasks after work. Don’t make any demands, don’t complain, argue or badger him. And make love whenever he wants, as often as he wants. Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, Doctor.’ The wife says. The wife then leaves the doctor’s office. As the couple leave the surgery, the husband turns to the wife as says, ‘What did he say?’ The wife responds: ‘I’m sorry, dear. You’re going to die.’”


But, the W.I. isn’t just about jokes and lemon curd. At the W.I. dinner, I also heard about one of the Federation of Women’s Institute resolutions for 2009: a campaign to legalize prostitution in Britain. I was more than a little surprised. This seemed a rather a strong proposition for a jam-friendly organization that has “For Home & Country” as one if its mottoes. But, then, as this was discussed over “welcoming drinks,” it became clear to me that this stance isn’t at all discordant with W.I. values, but rather well within them.

My wise friend, Diane, explained: “The W.I. stands for women.  And is committed to the welfare and safety of all women. All women. Every woman is someone’s daughter, regardless to where life may find her. That street walker is someone’s daughter, and she deserves to be safe.” 

This resolution grew out of the concern expressed by a local W.I. (in Bedford, I believe) following the murder of five prostitutes in their city. But, the concern is also one that the W.I. believes registers much closer to home, a concern for “the countless, good British wives who are walking around with no idea that they have been infected with an STD/STI.” The thinking runs thus: prostitution has and will always exist, so by creating some sort of regulatory standard in legalizing prostitution will ensure the health and safety of the sex workers, the clientele, and their (the clientele’s) families. This ain’t your Granny’s W.I., sister. I mean no offense to my countrywomen, but I can’t even imagine a member of the “Junior League” or “Daughters of the American Revolution” even using the terms “prostitution” or “STI/STD” in a sentence, let alone as the basis for a resolution or nationwide campaign! (Please forgive me, if my perceptions of these two revered institutions of American womanhood are not as staid as I assume.)

Such progressive and forward thinking is at the heart of the modern British W.I. We’ve gone way passed the now-infamous calendar, girls. The modern W.I. is tackling all sorts of issues of importance to the modern woman. Chins dropped recently when the Times reported on a recent W.I. development: sex guides for the over-60s. Of course, snickering could be heard from one end of the country to the other, but, I have to say, yet, again, I am impressed and inspired by the sheer chutzpah of the women of W.I. The guides are cover a range of topics, such as age and mobility issues; martial aids/devices; intimacy and libido; masturbation; and STDs/STIs. The videos are presented by Mrs. Janice Langley, a 66 year-old, West Sussex W.I. member, who is also a registered Nurse and sex therapist.  Janice’s presentation is frank, friendly, and straightforward.

Tastefully done, and filmed in Janice’s home, you feel as if you’ve just stopped ‘round to hers for a cup of tea, and a quiet chat. Janice’s tone is warm, conversational and friendly. However, this stuff is far from laughable, though the press mill has had a field day making fun of it.  Janice’s presentation is frank and candid. And there were even a few points that made a closet conservative gal like me blush a little.

I think the media’s reaction to this series of W.I. sex guides says a great deal about our present-day attitudes about older people, especially older women, and sex: ‘It’s all well and good, as long as the old dears stick to baking cakes, making jam and knitting.’ Indeed. I would wager that these naysayers will feel quite differently about it when they are over 60.

I think these videos are a testament to a contemporary “Old Age” renaissance. A renaissance that is long overdue. A movement against the tide, defiantly declaring: How old is old? To me, these videos and the women behind them are beacons of hope. There are possibilities for life, pleasure and fulfillment after 60, after heart attacks, or a stroke. And it is never too late to for love.

And, that is no laughing matter.

p.s. Three clips of the Women’s Institute Sex Guides are available on YouTube.

11 December 2008

Holiday pressure

Last night, "The Nutcracker" at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. 

Why can’t we all be “The Sugar Plum Fairy”?

Tonight: Rushing out at this very moment to the Barford W.I. Christmas Dinner & Party at The Glebe Hotel. Should be great fun! Members have been asked to make merry this evening by performing a song, reciting a poem/story and/or telling a joke. Could I possibly feel more expectation and pressure being a “newbie” in the group? The D.E.B.’s sweet and sassy Auntie Dorothy has come to my rescue by providing with a “crowd-pleasing joke.” I’ll share it here, but a warning, it’s a bit rude…

“A young man called Ron wanted to buy a Christmas present for his new girlfriend.  They hadn’t been seeing each other for very long and she lived a considerable distance away. He consulted with his sister and decided after careful consideration, that a pair of good quality gloves would strike the right note, not too romantic and not too personal.

Off he went with his sister to Harrods ladies dept. and they selected a dainty pair of fur lined quality leather gloves.  His sister bought a pair of knickers for herself at the same time. Harrods had a free gift wrap offer but the assistant mixed up the two items, the sister got the gloves and Ron got the knickers. Good old Ron sent off his gift wrapped present in a parcel with the following letter.

My dear Charlotte,

I chose these because I’ve noticed that you are not wearing any when we go out in the evenings.  If it had not been for my sister I would have chosen the long ones with buttons but she wears shorter ones (which are easier to remove).

These are a very delicate shade but the lady I bought them from showed me the pair she had been wearing for the past three weeks and they were hardly soiled at all.

I had her try yours on for me and she looked really smart in them even though they were a little bit tight on her.  She also said that they rub against her ring which helps keep it clean.  In fact she hasn’t needed to wash it since she began wearing them.

I wish I was there to put them on for you the first time, as no doubt many other hands will touch them before I have a chance to see you again.

When you take them off remember to blow into them a little bit because they will be naturally a little damp from wearing.

Just imagine how many times my lips will kiss them during the coming year. I hope you will wear them for me on our next date.

All my love, Ron

P.S. Mummy tells me that the latest style is to wear them folded down with a little bit of fur showing.”



08 December 2008

Curds & ways

Being a “Domestic Goddess” isn’t easy.

I have spent the past week neck-deep in cranberries, oranges and lemons. High from my Thanksgiving successes, I volunteered to make some cranberry relishes and lemon curd for the St. Peter’s Church Christmas Fayre.

“Lemon curd? You’re brave.” said Hilary, the Barford W.I.’s reigning “jam & preserve making” Queen. Hilary is my hero. She can do more things with rhubarb than I can even imagine!

I’d gone round to Hilary’s to collect some spare “jam jars”. In America, we’d call them “canning jars”. Regardless to what you call them, they are virtually impossible to find. (Not even at Sainsbury’s! I was shocked.) Hilary graciously gave me a dozen jam jars to play with. As I ‘clinked’ my way back home, faithful hound in tow, through the Barford allotment gardens, and up passed the playing field, I found myself thinking about the very thin line between bravery and foolishness, and the fact I was undoubtedly about to cross it…

My new favorite cookbook calls ‘Lemon Curd’ the “quintessentially British preserve.” However, that is only part of the reason why I’m utterly smitten with it. Lemon Curd is sunshine in a jar.  It is tart, yet sweet and buttery all at once. It has a texture like velvet. Used as a sweet spread for morning toast, or freshly made scones, it tastes of fresh, English summer days. And, it is also a major feat of British culinary engineering. If I could replicate this divine substance, what could I not do?

Here’s the recipe:

Lemon curd


2 large unwaxed lemons

125 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes

180 g caster sugar

3 eggs, beaten

Finely grate the zest from the lemons into a heatproof bowl. Squeeze the juice and add that to the bowl with the butter and sugar.

(Now the tricky part) Place the bowl over a pan of just-simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl. Stir until the butter melts, add the eggs and, using a wooden spoon, stir for 10-15 minutes until the mixture thickens noticeably and takes on a translucent look.

Well, try I did, and fail, I did.

Thankfully, I had much more success with my Cranberry relishes. I made a sweet one – and got creative and used tangerine juice, instead of regular orange juice, and added orange zest to finish. I also did a traditional, British, savoury cranberry relish, made with cider vinegar.

The poor D.E.B. suffered patiently through countless taste testing as my official taster. Given time, I’m sure he will have the strength to face a cranberry again. I had to make a second batch of my savoury variety, after the D.E.B. said gently (and with watering eyes): “You might want to tone down the vinegar in this one, sweetie.”  Well, I’ve never been good with math(s), and Metric is hard.

I did finally get the balance right, I think. Then, I boiled my jam jars dutifully, cut and pasted cute, little labels, and then, on Thursday night, before W.I. meeting, I delivered my wares to the Christmas Fayre drop off point. “No Lemon Curd?” organizer Alan smiled at me. I admitted my defeat reluctantly, and Alan kindly cooed over my beautifully packaged cranberry relishes to make me feel better.

The D.E.B. was and still is quite proud of my “Christmas Fayre project” and my little cranberry relishes. He was as excited as I to see them on display at the Christmas Fayre on Saturday afternoon.  I was also more than a little nervous that my wares would not sale at all, and that they would be left, poor darlings, to languish unwanted, unsold on the “Jams & Preserves” stall. Hoping to avoid this potential personal horror, I’d urged the D.E.B. that we get there early and not stay long.  (Basically, see them and run.)

Our plans were thwarted by a surprise visit from our wonderful friends, A&D. Another fantastic couple that enrich our lives immensely. To say that A&D are “foodies” would be an understatement. I think that I shall dub them “King & Queen of Cuisine.”  K&Q offered solid advice and encouragement on the Lemon Curd saga.

Then - on to the Christmas Fayre! I donned my Fool/Jester’s hat (yes, I have one, and yes, it does have bells) and feigned a holly-jolly aspect. As we left the house, I turned to the D.E.B. and said, “I’m not embarrassing you, am I?” He just smiled and said, “Never.”

When we arrived, the School Hall was a hive of activity and holiday cheer. I tried to appear calm and casual -- well as relaxed as one can be wearing a fool’s hat -- as I scanned the room for my tiny bits of treasure on the various stalls. “There she is,” the familiar, smiling voice of the Barford W.I. president called out to me from behind the W.I. stall.

I shyly inquired about my relishes, and asked if I could take a picture of them on display. “No, can’t do that.” Madam President chirped and smiled broad. I felt myself blush suddenly and redder than the silly fool’s hat I was wearing. “They are long gone!” she beamed. Another W.I. member working the stall added: “They went straightaway, they did.” I was stunned and relieved. And then very disappointed that I hadn’t thought to take a picture of them beforehand.

My W.I., and soon-to-be-formed Barford Writers’ Group chum, Diane, had heard about my Lemon Curd attempt, (news travels fast in these parts), and caught me at the mince pie stall, eager to offer me a bit of encouragement: “Never you mind, it’s a very tricky thing,” she soothed in her rolling, Scottish accent. 

I haven’t given up, and I shall have “another go.” I’m just glad I tried. Just by making the attempt, I allowed myself to be part of something new. To contribute something to this wonderful community.

After a few more mince pies, some delicious mulled wine, and a visit to Father Christmas/Santa (and yes, I did sit on his knee!), the D.E.B. and I wandered home in the crisp, late afternoon air.

When we opened our door, we found a small parcel waiting for me.  It was a copy of Mary Norwalk’s book: Jams, Marmalades and Sweet Preserves (1973). Page 99, “Curds & Honeys,” was bookmarked with a tiny note card. The note card said: “You Can Do It! A mistake may slow you – but don’t let it stop you!”

07 December 2008

A very British statistic?

Sunday Morning reflective mood has me thinking about “the dress” I've planned to wear for New Year's Eve, and how I hope it will still fit by the time the holidays roll around. I tried it on the other day, and phew! I was in. But this got me thinking...

When I lived in NYC, running was routine feature of my life. I didn’t go fast and I didn’t go far, but at least I went. I lived less than 5 minutes from Washington Square Park, and each day, come rain or shine, began with a daily gallop.

The distance around Washington Square Park is .53 mile. At my best, I was doing 3-4 miles before breakfast at least 3 days a week. I loved that gallop, though I hated dodging traffic, inhaling limitless exhaust fumes, and the general lack of spatial awareness amongst NYC pedestrians.

I cannot describe the feeling of sheer exhilaration each time I whizzed (or wheezed) past the Washington Arch. It always felt like I was seeing it for the very first time. I miss that Arch.

“Superstar Writer Friend” (author of Professors' Wives' Club) is working on a new book called Crossing Washington Square. Seeing the Arch on her webpage nearly made me weep. I miss that Park, it inspired me and challenged me.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to get motivated to run here. I live in one of the most idyllic spots on God’s green earth, and yet I just can’t be bothered. A recent survey in the UK showed that twenty-one (21%) percent of British women who do not take any form of exercise during the week; and yet fifty (50%) percent of British women are either “very happy” or “fairly happy” with their bodies. I’m in danger of becoming a very British statistic.

06 December 2008

Christmas is coming, and I need a tiara!

I’ve decided Britons are in unknowing and desperate need of another holiday. To be sure, Thanksgiving has merits on its own, but I do like the way this November holiday serves as a sort of buffer between Halloween and Christmas. Even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, isn’t nice to know there is something that will delay somewhat the run-up to and commercial onslaught of Christmas?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. What I don’t like is the flurry of Christmas lights and decorations in late October. By the time December actually rolls around, you are just sick and tired of it all.

Christmas has come to Barford in a very sweet, restrained and utterly Barfordian way. No lights or excessive decorations just yet. We are easing into Christmas here in Barford. The holiday season ‘kicked off’ last night with an amateur choral concert at St. Peter’s Church given by the Wellesbourne Choral Society called “Swing into Christmas.”

The singers did a beautiful job, and it was a lovely evening, though hearing those familiar American tunes (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” & etc.) left me pining (as always) for St. Luke’s. In fact, I sat there quite tearfully, missing the magnificent, choral magic of St. Luke’s professional choir. What a treat they were every Sunday. I’m sure, as much as I loved it, I took it all very much for granted. My thoughts drifted to the wonderful Christmas Eve service I will miss this year, and walking home after in the crisp, cold New York night with my BFF, “Boy Genius Playwright”.  Tears welled up in my eyes as I considered how I have yet to feel “liturgically” at home here. Though the complimentary wine at the interval/intermission did go some way to ease the pain, as did the company.

The D.E.B. and I are becoming known and recognized in the village. (I should add, a couple we met recently remarked, “Oh, we’re new here, too.” They’ve been here for two years.) Anyway, it’s nice to go places and have people recognize and remember you by name, like Mr. and Mrs. MacBeth, whom we sat behind at the concert last night. And yes, they are related to the Macbeth Macbeth.

It was splendid start to the season, and I do feel very Christmasy at last. And it’s all go from here! Today was the Barford/St. Peter’s “Christmas Fayre”. Father Christmas, tombola (a sort of non-raffle raffle), lots & lots of mulled wine, mince pies, hot chocolate…and the D.E.B. bought me a lovely antique brooch. Which I am planning to wear next week when we go to…

“The Nutcracker”! I am a “Nutcracker” addict! I love it. At one time, I had the goal of landing myself in the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Person who has seen The Nutcracker more times than Anyone Else.” I first saw it as a child at Ballet Arkansas. I was transfixed. Since then, it has become a sort of Christmas tradition for me, and one that the D.E.B. thankfully supports.  We saw it together last year by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, and this year we are seeing it at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Our good friends, Fiona and Gavin are joining us, and the four of us are making a night of it. Fiona’s like me - any excuse to dress up is a good one!

Speaking of dressing up, I have decided that I need a tiara. Shocking, I know, that I don’t already own one, but I don’t. And why should brides, ballerinas and beauty queens have all the fun?

So, being the “outlandish, yet practical” girl that I am, I decided that if I wanted a tiara, I needed some place to wear it. Thus began the quest for a gala event that would be tiara-appropriate. Yes, I know that scores and scores of people wear tiaras as an everyday accessory, but I’m in it for the overall glamourous ambiance.  And nothing says “tiara appropriate” more than a New Year’s Eve Ball.

This is another reason why I think Brits need another holiday before Christmas. Bookings for the most splendid formal New Year’s galas go very quickly in these parts. The original plan had been to go out as a “gang” of three couples. But, by the first week of November, it was “every couple for themselves” and the best I could do was to get the D.E.B. and myself on countless ‘wait lists’ throughout the county!

To my mind, the best affair in Warwickshire will be the white tie, “Black & White Masquerade Ball” at Coombe Abbey. Can you hear the sound of me weeping into my champagne glass? When I phoned Coombe Abbey in the first week of November, and they had one, yes, one place left. For a split second I did think, “Well, I could sit on the D.E.B.’s lap…”

Here’s the thing. I bought this dress in the West Village, on the edge of Soho. A designer sample sale.  An Italian designer sample sale.

I was heading home from St. Luke’s along Bleecker Street, one bright, sunny, summer, Sunday afternoon. “Bella, bella!” A voice called out to me. A tiny Italian man, with a measuring type around his neck, “Please come in, and try.” How could I resist?

Rita Hayworth. That is who sprung to my mind when I saw “the dress”. It was the color of wood smoke, or fog in autumn. Classic, 1940s lines, floaty silk chiffon, with a satin panel rippling down the front from the plunge neckline. I put it on, and immediately felt tall, thin and screen-siren gorgeous. I stepped out from the makeshift dressing room, and everyone gasped: “Molto bella.” I had to agree, and I had to have this dress. How’s this for frugal: a $2,000 dress for $100.00? Only in New York City.

This dress is now in my closet in Warwickshire crying out to be worn, and it deserves a tiara! And a tiara it shall have. And an event worth of such an ensemble.

The D.E.B. looks stunning in a dinner jacket. I think men—British men, at least—secretly enjoy getting dressed to the nines as much as women do. It gives them a chance to live out those “Bond, James Bond” fantasies.

So, without much convincing the D.E.B. has agreed that a formal event is a “must do” for New Year’s Eve. And our plans are to go North to Cumbria. Formal attire, dinner and dancing, bagpipes at midnight, fireworks across the bay, bacon butties (sandwiches) at 3 a.m., and warming whiskey nightcaps at bedtime. Sound perfect to me. Now, I just need to find that tiara.

And the winner is...!

I’m thrilled to announce that Sean Connery was the winner of our recent “Best Bond” poll. Daniel Craig came in a very, very close second. He was behind by just one, single vote! This is a very interesting result.

Any thoughts on what these results might suggest? Clearly, we like our Bond shaken, Scottish and not stirred.

02 December 2008

Making Martha Stewart Proud!

This past Saturday, The D.E.B. and I celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends,“The Songstress” and “The Music Man.” They are an amazing couple. The Songstress is a little dynamo, a bundle of energy, who embodies little pieces of 'home' for me. The D.E.B. reckons she reminds him of Angie Dickinson, who played Pepper Johnson on the American, 1970's TV show, Policewoman. (How does he even know about such things?) I think she's Nancy Sinatra. Anyway, she’s fab. A singer and photographer, who moved to Warwickshire 4 years ago. Still here, still happy and still in love with her man and her new country. They are an awesome couple.

And they were to be our first “Dinner Party Guests” here in Barford. My first dinner party! I shocked myself with how well organized I was. No fretting, no swooning and no tantrums! Shakespeare suggests, “The readiness is all,” I’d say: “The planning is all.” Not to mention Sainsbury’s, and the importance of having a helping hand.

The D.E.B. was an extraordinary help as sous chef and general, all-around dogsbody, and that made a huge difference. We cooked all day. The D.E.B. brought tea to me in bed at 8:00 AM, and we were cutting, dicing and dancing around our little country kitchen by 10:00 AM. Our 8lb turkey went into the cooker at precisely 11:30AM. It was clockwork, and loads of fun. Even that lovely Jamie Crick at Classic FM did his part. He kept us going with beautiful music, and played a bit of Aaron Copeland by request, with a dedication from me to my D.E.B. for being such a stellar American Thanksgiving sous chef! (That made the D.E.B. blush.)

Dinner wasn't until 6:30-7:00PM-ish so we had plenty of time. Even had time to take the Princess Pup for big walk around Barford in the afternoon, even though we had planned a huge meal, pulling out all the stops, and doing almost everything from scratch. Traditional Thanksgiving spread: Turkey, dressing/stuffing, gravy, roasted veggies (carrots, potatoes and parsnips), candied sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cornbread, mulled wine…

I made Cranberry Relish for the first time! Used my trusty Easy British Classics cookbook and BBC Good Food Guide. I made myself proud. Realized that much of cooking is down to instinct. AND!!! I finally, finally, finally licked the infamous Yorkshire pudding! (Bite that, Nigella Lawson!) Yes, Yorkshire puddings for Thanksgiving, a gesture of thanks and concession to my new homeland. (Besides, I have no doubt that the folks who celebrated that first Thanksgiving back on Plymouth Rock still thought of themselves as English, and England as their homeland, so why not?) I was so pleased with myself, I could hardly eat! My greatest discovery in all of this was: la truffe graisse d'oie (goose fat). I’m not kidding. How did I ever cook, or live without it?

The Songstress and The Music Man were the absolute best dinner guests a hostess could hope for! They arrived on time and bearing gifts of chocolate profiteroles and pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie is my absolute favorite. It is not Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas without Pumpkin Pie. And The Songstress made a pumpkin pie that tasted like home, and made me want to cry. We gathered round the table and Songstress gave me a nod. I lifted my glass and declared a toast. That wasn’t what she meant, and I knew it. I don’t know why, but I do get shy about praying in front of other people. Partly because I find words sometimes lack the ability to express my depth of feeling.

And, as an Episcopalian, I’m utterly unless on the spot without my Book of Common Prayer.  I challenge anyone to find a more eloquent expression of thanks than the BCP’s beautiful “Litany of Thanksgiving”. Unfortunately, as much as I love that Litany, I have yet to learn it by heart. So here I was, speaking to God on the fly. Over turkey, stuffing and homemade cranberry relish, we lowered our heads, closed our eyes, and I spoke. In that moment, a discovery more profound than goose grease. From the heart. That is all that matters. In cooking, writing, praying, and living. Start from your heart. 

I was thankful for each person that was sat around our table, and thankful to finally make use of my pink Wedgwood china! Probably no surprise that the pattern I own is called “Old Britain Castles”

The meal was declared 100% “Yumsch!” by the D.E.B. After pudding/dessert there was more mulled wine and music.  I’d had my iPod playing ‘American tunes’ over dinner, and at one point, as we were tidying up, there was a magical moment when the four of us paired off and slow-danced around the tiny kitchen to the Dixie Chicks’ “Landslide”. Very appropriate. (I should have put a warning at the start that this posting is not advisable for the hard-of-heart or under-romantic.)

The Songstress and I sat in front of the little fire in the front room.  We sipped whiskey, and chatted while the D.E.B. and The Music Man took out their guitars and played. The Songstress and The Music Man treated us with an amazing duet, a song he wrote for her voice. We had a little folk music sing-along to the wee hours of the morning, until we were too tired to sing anymore. A beautiful way to end an unforgettable English-American Thanksgiving.