30 July 2009

How sweet it is!

Real English Custard

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
300 ml whole milk
2 egg yolks
1-2 tablespoons of caster sugar

Serves 4

Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pod and reserve. put the milk, vanilla seeds and vanilla pod in a pan. Bring to boiling point, the turn off the heat and infuse for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla pod.

Put the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until pale. Pour over the infused milk, mix well and return to pan.  Stir with a wooden spoon over very gentle heat until the custard thicken enough to coat the back of the spoon. Do not allow to over heat or it will curdle.

Use immediately or cover the surface directly with clingfilm, leave to cool, then chill. Reheat very gently before serving.


p.s. My evening outting as "Mrs. D.E.B., Corporate Spouse" was a huge success. Hoo-rah!

Meeting me where I am

Last week, the Church of England announced that it would be offering a new religious service for those interested in being married by the Church. It is a sort of “two-for-one offer,” a combined wedding and baptism.

Basically, it is a standard wedding ceremony, with a baptism attached. Obviously, this service was created especially for couples that have had children before their marriage, and provides a blessing of those children, and incorporates them into this newly sanctified union.


I’m not quite sure what I make of this. My inner (and very conservative) Episcopal matron is utterly scandalized by the very thought of this new-fangled “buy one, get one free” approach to liturgy. However, the more moderate realist side of me can see the benefits and advantages.

One clear benefit that would appease both sides of my thinking is that fact that this new ‘add-on baptism’ might just alleviate a few of those “one off” baptisms that routinely happen during regular church services.

(Oh-oh. Here comes the cranky Episcopal matron…)

As a regular church-goer, I find it truly annoying, nay, irksome even, that I am often forced to sit through a lengthy baptism service, that has been inserted into my normal Sunday service, for the sake an anonymous child that I will never know, and his or her equally anonymous parents (and godparents) all of whom I have never seen before, nor will I ever see again!

And of course, in the midst of this service, we, the congregation are called upon to promise our care and support of this child and his/her family through their lives. Well, I for one take such promises seriously. And I cannot fulfill such a promise to individuals who disappear before the holy water has even dried...  

Baptisms, christenings, whatever one may call them, are serious business. Or should be. They should be more than just a family photo opportunity, or a chance to get your glad rags on and have a meal down the pub.

Likewise, the Church is more than just a “religious venue,” there just when you need it for a wedding or a christening.  Oh, dear, oh, dear. From the sound of this, I think I would probably make one hellishly dreadful vicar!

Mercy, grace and compassion. That is what Rowan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is suggesting. He believes that it is the Church’s mission to “meet people where they are.” If a couple, after being together and making a family together for donkey’s years, have finally decided to “make it official,” the church should meet them where they are, and provide a sacrament that also meets their circumstances. Ultimately, this can be nothing but a good thing.

I had a very interesting conversation about all of this with the Vicar’s wife recently, when she came for tea last Friday.

Mrs. Vicar and I sat in the garden, had tea and some chocolate brownies I’d made especially. I really like Mrs. Vicar. She’s one cool lady. Loving, warm and gentle, but solid, sensible and down-to-earth. She is every bit what you’d expect an English vicar’s wife to be. 

Over tea and brownies, we discussed the new development’s pros and cons. My question is how the Church can be so open on one hand, to couples with kids, and not so in other circumstances, i.e., second marriages.

I have written previously about how the Church of England has, as I see it, a rather ad hoc,  ‘each parish/vicar as it/they will’ policy toward marrying couples wherein one or more of the partners has been married before.

In other words, some vicars will perform weddings for second-timers, some won’t. It’s just luck of the draw. Which can be a double-whammy, as there are additional rules that state that you can only have your wedding celebrated in the parish in which you live, have lived, or have had some previous familial association.  

So from the get go, you are starting out with a rather limited playing field. For example, there is a lovely, lovely little 19th C. church in Wasperton, the village next to Barford. I had thought briefly of the D.E.B. and I having our wedding there, but I found out very quickly that my choices were St. Peter’s, here in Barford, or St. Peter’s, here in Barford.

So, we had the wedding at St. Peter’s, here in Barford. And I’m very glad we did. It was a perfect day and it all happened in exactly the right and perfect place. We were very lucky, in more than just the weather. Our Vicar is a gem. A real diamond. All I can say is, thank goodness he’s not a cranky, old Episcopalian battle-axe like me!

My tea-time conversation with Mrs. Vicar took an interesting turn. Before I knew it, I had confessed to some floundering faith I have been experiencing recently:

“Things have been going so well,” I found myself saying. “I’m happier than I have ever been in my life. I’m a bit worried that I may be too happy, and so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t really trust God completely.”

(At this point, my internal ‘Southern Episcopal matron’ rose from her seat, swooned and fainted from shock…)

Mrs. Vicar beamed her cheeky, cheery smile at me. “It does feel that way sometimes, doesn’t it?” she said, her eyes sparkling in the sunlight. “But you must know, you can always trust God. It doesn’t mean that we can’t question or even get angry sometimes. But always trust.”

She then shared with me a recent story of a very stormy time in her life when both she and the Vicar were seriously, seriously ill. “Even in those darkest hours, I knew God was there.” She said.

Mrs. Vicar’s words gave me such an incredible sense of peace and grace. Maybe this was just another example of the importance of faith meeting people where they are.


29 July 2009

Rain, rain go away

This rainy Wednesday (who’d imagine it’s July?) finds me in desperate need of some sunshine. The rain clouds have gathered over Barford, literally and metaphorically. Dear, dear Eva has just lost the baby she’s been carrying for just 12 weeks. It’s so difficult to know what is best to do in these situations.

News of course travels quickly, and I knew the news long before Eva told me, but it seemed to me the most respectful and loving thing to do was wait until if, and/or when, she was ready to come and talk to me about it herself. And, I’m glad that I did.

I think that may be the one drawback of living in such a tiny community, news travels so quickly, and before you know it the whole world news everything about you. But on the plus side, when tragedy does strike, there are so many anchors of support when you need them.

I received a phone call this morning from a fellow member of Barford W.I., requesting my support as an anchor for another American woman/couple who has/have just moved to the village temporarily.

We are tentatively meeting for coffee at the Machado Gallery on Friday morning. I think my advice to her, apart from joining the Barford W.I., will be along the following lines:

Give up on the weather.

Talk less, listen more.

Make an effort, put yourself out there, get involved.


Stop comparing, enjoy the uniqueness of English culture/British life.

I shall also advise her that falling in love with this place is very, very easy.

On Monday, I literally ran to look at an adorable cottage that had just been put on the market here in Barford. I arranged a viewing with the estate agent at 1:30 PM. Another set of viewers had had a look at 1:00 P.M.

I liked the look of the place, and the D.E.B. and I had planned to have a look together tonight. However, the agent phoned me this morning to say that the first couple put in an offer Monday afternoon at 4:00 P.M., and has been accepted by the property owners.

So, our hopes on the Barford house front have been dashed yet again. Oh, well. The quest continues. The one hopeful thing is that maybe such a speedy sell as this will ignite other would-be sellers in Barford to put their properties on the market, and offer them at a reasonable rate -- as opposed to the typically outrageous Barfordian prices. This place I looked out on Keytes Lane went for a song.

Right. No good sitting here brooding over dreams deferred. As the Royal Mail motto says: Carry on!

A rainy day requires something warm, and is the perfect time for a little culinary adventure! So I’m off to the kitchen to make a Blackberry Crumble.  No cheating, I’m making the crumble topping from stretch – no pre-packaged mixes, here, thank you – and I’m going to have a go at making some real English custard.

Tonight, I will be joining the D.E.B. for dinner with his colleagues from the European office in Belgium. Technically, this will be my first official duty as the “Mrs. D.E.B, Corporate Spouse”. I’m thrilled, and have of course bought a new outfit to wear! (Thank you, Oxfam Shop online).

I really want to make a good showing. The D.E.B. has countless horror stories of his very silly (my words) ex-wife, Thomasina, routinely embarrassing him on a grand scale. “Just relax, and be yourself,” I can imagine my grandmother saying to me right now.

And you know, I think I may just take that advice. Here’s hoping a little charm and Blackberry Crumble will do the trick.




20 July 2009

Culture vultures

…a marriage of true minds… - Shakepeare, Sonnet #116

It has taken quite a while, but life is slowly getting back to normal, or rather back to what passes for ‘normal’ here in Barford.  I have finally made my way back to the gym, though I have rather resolutely reduced my workout regime.

 My focus these days is on swimming and the steam room. Eva has no regrets about this shift in perspective, as a very happy accident has prompted a halt in her more stenuous athletic pursuits. My change of heart, for the time being, I am unashamed to say, is driven by pure laziness and utter self-indulgence!

The usual suspects were in force upon my return to the gym, all happy to see me, and keen to share gossip, and hear details about my nuptials, honeymoon and etc. I was flattered to find that our wedding was still “the talk” of Barford, and features heavily in the current gossip mill:

“Is it true that when you arrived at the Machado on your wedding night, the stairway, entire room and bed was covered in rose petals?”-  asked Jackie #1.

“I heard that your D.E.B. hired a professional comedian for his Best Man. Is he available for Quiz Nights and other sorts of parties? -  wondered Jackie # 2.

I could but laugh! The rose petals were true, that my new brother-in-law (a.k.a.,“The Guru”) is a professional comic is not true, though it should be! He was an amazing Best man and deserves every rumour that is flying around about him. His Best Man’s speech was written completely in verse! He’s a genius.

Entertainment does seem to be top of our list these days. The D.E.B and I seem to be dashing about like mad from one cultural engagement to the next. And we quite like it that way. My freelance gig with the Shakespeare Trust has the lovely bonus of the garnering often-hard to come by theatre tickets.

(And sometimes, one or two freebies, like tickets for last weekend’s staged-reading of Shakespeare’s poems, “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” performed by Michael Maloney and the legendary Janet Suzman!)

We have had the good fortune to see most of the current season at the RSC: Julius Caesar and The Winter’s Tale. We are holding out for Trust tickets to see the new As You Like It. Our close proximity to the epicentre of the Shakespeare universe is not something I take lightly. It is a dream come true to live so close to this theatrical mecca. 

Oh, and of course, there is always London... 

London Coliseum

The D.E.B. and I have spent the last two weekends in London, where we saw Jude Law as Hamlet – yes, I know! And, Waiting for Godot with Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart at the Haymarket Theatre.

Yes, Jude Law was GORGEOUS, but more importantly he was FABULOUS as Hamlet. I was pleased to discover that Jude, I feel I can call him that, far from being just a pretty face (!!!), and an excellent screen actor, he is a tremendously talented live performer on stage. For some, this statement may seem obvious, but trust me when I say, not every screen actor can cut it in front of live audience on stage. There are no ‘re-takes’ or ‘do-overs’ in theatre. That is what makes it so magic for those of us who live it and love it.

(I was naughty and took a picture of Jude Law during his curtain call!)

Sadly, Patrick Stewart was out sick when we saw Godot, though his poor understudy did a heroic job standing in. Talk about the worse job in the universe. 

Sir Ian and 'the Understudy'

Can you imagine? The poor guy is going on stage KNOWING that no one in the audience wants him to be there! Apart from maybe his mother…

In addition to seeing theatre, the D.E.B. and I recently found ourselves roped into doing theatre. Our beloved actress-friend, Sally, asked me to assist her in developing a one-woman show about The Countess of Warwick.

Sally is such a sweetheart, and so when she asked for my help as a writer and stage director, I could not say “No.” Even though, I would like to think that my days of “voluntary artistic endeavours” and doing art for love instead of money, are long over.  So, I did the only sensible thing a girl could do, I roped the D.E.B. into providing the music for the play. 

Sally, as "Darling Daisy"

Our show, “Darling Daisy: Reflections of the Countess of Warwick” was a labour of love all-round. There were no creature comforts, very little outside support, and we were wholly at the mercy of English weather. But, if I’m honest, it was quite enjoyable.

There is something about the theatre that is magic. When the people involved come to it with sincerity, conviction and professionalism, no matter the circumstances, the magic does happen.

Sally has acted her way around the globe, and watching her perform is always a gift. She did a reading at our wedding, and that too, was a remarkable moment that I will always cherish.

We first saw Sally performing in a charity pantomime in Leamington Spa this past Christmas. She was “The Wicked Witch,” and she was great! Her performance was the icing on the cake for me, and it was my first-ever English “panto” experience.

I loved how the actors and audience interacted with one another: hissing and booing the wicked characters, cheering and supporting the goodies; warning the goodies of the dangers befalling them, i.e., “Look out, she’s behind you!”

There was also singing and dancing, which the audience was invited to join in. It was like no other theatre I have ever seen. It is interesting to me that somehow, we Americans have lost—did we ever have?—the panto tradition.

The D.E.B. & I have also supported the work of a local, semi-professional theatre company in Leamington Spa called The Loft. We saw their recent production of Hobson’s Choice, which as it turns out was directed by an old acquaintance of mine. (The Theatre world is so small, you can’t afford to talk about anyone!)

Leamington Spa seems to have become quite a hub for us just lately. We saw the film The Reader at The Royal Spa Centre – that was an adventure. The night we went to see The Reader, we got to Leamington very early, and decided to take a stroll through the Jephson Gardens. (Leamington Spa’s answer to Central Park.)

The Jephson Gardens were so beautiful and romantic, the D.E.B. and I lost track of the time, and then…We got locked in! In the end, after failing to find an accessible escape route, we had to climb very carefully over the iron-wrought fence. We giggled all the way back to the cinema like a pair of naughty school-kids.

I have no doubt said before how much I utterly adore my D.E.B., but I just need to state it here again.  Perhaps, there is some girl out there, who (like me not so long ago) who’s on the brink of giving up, thinking she’ll never find Mr. Right-For-Her. To her, and for her, I have this to say: Don’t give up! He’s out there! And he’ll be worth the wait!

Many moons ago, in my life before I found my D.E.B., I was in a relationship with a very un-D.E.B. who once admonished me with the following advice:

“Look,” he said, “what you want doesn’t exist. You are never going to find someone who really appreciates you, understands what you do, sees things the way you do, likes the same things you like, and so on. That just doesn’t happen.” Basically, the subtext of that tirade was this: Take what you can get, this is as good as it gets. Period.

How utterly wrong he was! (And how foolish I was to have believed him for so long.)

On our wedding day, my Darling English Boy stood before our assembled family and friends and as part of his speech, recited (from memory) the following lines from As You Like It:

“No sooner had [we] met but we looked, no sooner looked but [we] loved, no sooner loved but [we] sighed, no sooner sighed but [we] asked one another the reason, no sooner the reason but [we] sought the remedy; and in these degrees have [we] made a pair of stairs to marriage, which [we] will climb.”

This, my friends, is a 'marriage of true minds.'

02 July 2009

Et tu, Brute?

Marlon Brando as Marc Antony in the film Julius Caesar (1953)

Procrastination and panic reigns supreme as I sit in my garden on this sweltering Thursday. I have been invited to give a lecture on Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Company on Monday afternoon. I am honoured beyond belief, and have had about three weeks to prepare, but due to one thing and another, I have left it until now to start panicking, I mean, prepping.

My head is still very firmly in the clouds since the wedding, and I've been attempting to catch up on all the things that fell by the wayside in the past few months. Our lovely friend Sally has requested my help on developing a one-woman performance piece based on the life and loves of Daisy, The Countess of Warwick, which she is performing near Warwick Castle next weekend. (I've even roped the D.E.B. into providing music for the piece, so it has become a family effort...) So, I have spent the day as scriptwriter-director for her when I should probably be pulling something together for my Caesar talk. Oy vey!

This weekend, our 'one month anniversary' festivities continue, as the D.E.B. and I have tickets to see Jude Law playing Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse in  London. (Be still my heart!) Jude Law could walk out on stage and read from the telephone directory and I'd give him a standing ovation! All I can say, is finally, this Shakespeare thing is starting to pay off.

Oh, well, back to Caesar...which at least offers me a chance to gander at some fab photos of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony... 

01 July 2009

English roses

Yesterday the D.E.B. & I celebrated our one month wedding anniversary! The occasion had to be marked with some romance and just a wee bit of fanfare. So, we decided to plant a rose bush in the churchyard at St. Peter's Church, where we were married last month.

I spent yesterday afternoon scouring the nurseries in the area for the 'perfect' rose. The perfect rose was to be found at the garden shop in Charlecote. They specialise in David Austin Roses -- the roses to buy. 

We had thought we would opt for a classic, David Austin, antique rose, stately character and all, but on the day a fresh, funky new English rose won out. It is a new variety of David Austin rose that has the look of a poppy rather than a classic rose, very cheeky and sassy. And very "us" I thought.  A rose with personality. 

Speaking of personality, I had promised the Vicar when I secured his permission to plant the rose, that our little "romantic gesture" would not turn into a "thing," i.e. an event. Who was I kidding? This is Barford, everything we do here turns into a "thing"! And wonderfully so.

After finding the rose, I decided to bake a huge Devil's Food, uber-chocolate cake. (What is it with me and cake?) I was due to meet our dear friend, Sally, in the afternoon to work on her upcoming performance project, and had to cancel. 

I apologised profusely, sharing with her the details of our anniversary plan: "We're planting a rose in the churchyard. And the vicar and his wife are joining us..." 

"Oh, golly! How lovely!" Sally yelped with joy, "You must allow me to read something! Is that too bold a thing for me to ask? Do say."  How could I possible say no to such a sweet request.

 As I put the phone down, I realised our little gesture had become a thing...

I phoned Sally back quickly, and pleaded: "You won't bring the choir, will you?" She just laughed. Sally is an amazing, who I must write about at some point. She's 's a professional actor, and has acted her way around the globe and has three different passports! (We feel like we have known her forever.) 

 The vicar had a meeting until around 8 PM, so the D.E.B. and I went along early to prep the ground for the rose, and to take Lucy for a walk.  As we walked back to our house, with dog, shovel and watering can, we must have looked a sight.

Our very jovial friend, Robert, stopped us near the Village Shop: "You two look up to something," he laughed. After explaining our plan, an invitation was of course extended to him and his wife, Julia, one of my Monday-Wednesday Swim Club pool-mates. 

At this point, the D.E.B. and I looked at each other, and decided promptly to rush home as quickly as possible, and to be very rude and not speak to another single soul en route!

It has been uncharacteristically hot in these parts, so our rose planting ceremony was scheduled for late evening. We met in the churchyard around half 8: us, our wonderful Vicar, David and his fabulous wife, Sue, Julia and Robert and Sally. 

As promised, Sally did a beautiful reading from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet:

Then Almitra spoke again and said, 

"And what of Marriage, master?"

And he answered saying:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow. 

The vicar said a blessing over us and our rose, whom we christened Geraldine (after Dawn French's character in the TV series "The Vicar of Dibley"). We then popped a cork, and had some bubbly and chocolate cake in the churchyard. 

It was a truly lovely evening, and I am so thankful to our friends for joining us.

The D.E.B. then treated me to my favourite meal: Fish n' chips from my favourite chippy, Kingfisher's in Ely Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. Trust me, it is worth every bit of the 7 mile drive.

We came home, had fish and chips and watched The Italian Job with Michel Caine and Noel Coward. I cannot believe I have never seen it! It is an "Understanding the English 101" essential, and positively indispensable for understanding the British male psyche!! As well as a great laugh, and highly enjoyable movie.

So, the first month of marriage has been duly marked. As I said to the vicar, I am a woman of rituals. I think rituals are vitally important, an outward sign of intangible mysteries. I think a life without rituals would be very sad indeed.

The symbolism of our little ritual yesterday had escaped me until I was in the pool this morning chatting with Jackie 1, as she plowed through her daily 150 laps: "Well, Alycia. That's it then. You see, you've quite literally put down roots here in Barford. So you two are here for good now. No two ways about it." 

I certainly hope Jackie 1 is right.