Saturday, 30 June 2012

DC & New York: VI

Day two in New York began much like day one – I convinced David to make me breakfast while I looked over our itinerary for the day. Breakfast this day included some of our delicious leftover peppered cheese. It was great.

After our relaxing start to the morning, we took off for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As we’d already ‘done’ European art in DC, and can see it any time we wish, we decided to focus our time on their American art exhibits. I felt a bit like over-privileged euro-trash being able to pass up on the opportunity to see the Met’s ancient/medieval art collection, but it seemed pretty stupid to come all the way to America and not see the best of what they had. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any photos inside the galleries, but I found the scores of period rooms to be the highlight of my visit there. It’s so much more interesting to see beautiful pieces of furniture and plate in context. The Tiffany collection was also fantastic.

One of the few things we could take pictures of -- a beautiful display by Tiffany
We devoted our afternoon to more sightseeing/shopping. We headed back to the East Village (we actually spent most of our time out this way, which was totally unplanned) to look in a few more book/comic stores (like Forbidden Planet). We also went to a quaint little toyshop called Dinosaur Hill, which was part of my quest to buy the baby its first toy while we were on vacation. On our way back to the subway, David spied a Ukrainian diner so we decided to pop in for our afternoon tea. After a mere five minutes in Veselka, we discovered it was going to be the place that ensured the East Village was where we’d spend the most time. I think I could have eaten there every day if possible. Not wanting to overdo it, however, we decided to stick to coffee/hot chocolate and split a dessert. We tried kutya, a sort of sticky Ukranian pudding made with wheatberries, nuts, and various other delicious things. 

En route to the subway

We had tickets to see the opera L’elisir d’amore at the Met, and decided that since we were so full from lunch and our afternoon tea it would make the most sense to pick up food to make at the flat once the opera was finished. So we journeyed to midtown West and the kosher deli Zabars. En route David spotted a bookstore across the street, which led to me finding a Southern cookbook from a place called Lynchburg... yup. After I hauled David out of the store we went to experience the treats of Zabars, which for a kosher deli had a surprising amount of shellfish, pork products, and meat stuffed with dairy. We bought some sweet potato knishes to snack on at the opera, and then raced down to Lincoln Square so that we could get there in good time.

This was our second epic opera adventure for the year, which makes up for last year’s complete lack of opera. Our household is divided on which was better, a debate which combines both individual musical tastes and artistic sensibilities. I preferred our experience at the Royal Opera, David thus preferred the Met! I must agree with him that the set was beautiful—a wonderful dreamscape of pastels that made one happy to look at. And this opera was a comedy, so we were kept well-entertained. I was glad to have seen it, as it is a lesser known one. My main quibble with the Met is that the surtitles appear in the back of the chair in front, making them damned hard to read if you’re also trying to watch the stage. But the music, the performance, and the set were all spot on. Having now seen operas at two of the world’s big opera houses this year makes it a very good one for us, and we are both feeling quite spoiled.
After the opera, disaster! Due to engineering works (as they say in London), we couldn’t take the subway back to our neighbourhood. It seemed as if every train we found was going to bypass our station. A journey of 15 minutes soon spread into 60, and eventually we got as near as we could and just walked the rest of the way. I was really thankful that we had picked up a bunch of reheatable food at Zabar’s, since I was starving by the time we got in and wasn’t handling the whole not knowing how to get home thing that well. It felt so good to just relax with hot food, Seinfeld playing in the background, and start the great debate about which opera experience was better.

Eating through the Pantry - I

My cousin Tara is an idea person, which in this context means that I read her blog and get great ideas. Several months back, she decided to have a big clean-out of her pantry by using it as her main source of meal planning. I thought this was a great idea, since my experience of pantries seems to be that they get over-stuffed with half-filled bags of beans and packet mixes etc. Every time I move to a new city I find myself throwing out tonnes of perfectly edible dry goods, because the bags are all half-empty and there’s no one to give them to. It’s such a waste.

My problem is that I like to constantly try new recipes—otherwise I get bored. But this doesn’t tend to be particularly conducive to using up the remnants of other recipes I’ve tried, and it can also get a bit expensive. So I’ve issued myself a challenge of using up pantry leftovers for at least two meals a week, until the cupboard is looking a little clearer. As the point of this is to use up stuff, not buy more, it means finding recipes that work with what I have in there, instead of buying more of the feature ingredient to make up the amount required in the recipe. I know that this is all second nature to people like my mother, but I’ve been quite lucky in that I rarely need to worry about my grocery bill as we give ourselves quite an ample budget. As we both enjoy cooking, it means a lot of recipe trying, instead of storecupboard rooting. I think this definitely falls into the firstworldproblem/iliveinacity category of evils!

This week’s challenge ingredients: a packet of Southwestern marinade and around 250g of organic haricot beans:

Monday: southwestern marinated chicken wings, Tuscan white bean salad w/Italianvinaigrette, and garlic bread:

I only had to purchase the chicken and the vegetables/cheese for the salad (which formed part of this week’s vegetable & cheese budget—I love that we have a cheese budget!). Everything else was either made from scratch thanks to my cupboards, or was already chillin' out in the freezer.

Verdict: the chicken wings were delicious. I bought a small pack of salt & pepper ones and added the marinade on top, which meant there were really nice undertones to the flavor. The salad was pretty good although I thought the dressing was a bit heavy on the oil side and to be honest I'm not a huge fan of haricot beans (the beans I used were leftover from a bean dip I'd tried making. Usually I only like haricots in Boston baked beans...). But if you do like bean salads, it's a good one to try! Later: I had some of the bean salad, without spinach, for lunch later in the week and it was delicious! The bean mixture had soaked in the dressing for a few days and it was really tasty. I'm not going to keep the recipe in my personal folder, but it certainly improves with time and if you hate spinach then you could definitely omit it for more of a traditional bean salad.
Wednesday: southwestern marinated pork-loin chops, potatoes, and corn on the cob:

Verdict: As far as speed goes, which is what I really care about on nights when I have to make supper after work, this was great. I could marinate the meat the night before, and the marinade was already mixed from earlier in the week. Then it was just a simple matter of ensuring I made everything according to their cooking times--so potatoes first, then meat, and then the corn. It all tasted good, and what isn't pictured is the homemade seasoning salt that I used on the corn and potatoes. As for taste, since the chops were unplanned (I'd wanted steak but it was too expensive) I ended up getting them at the grocery store, rather than from our Butcher and you really can taste the difference. This is why we are happy to pay a few pence more to get happy meats when it matters. The corn also wasn't as sweet as it should be, but it's often hit and miss with produce. Anyway, it was a filling and quick mid-week supper, and that made it a win in my books.

What isn't pictured are the leftovers--I made extra potatoes, and David accidentally ate half of the bean mixture for lunch one day, so I took what was left of the beans & potatoes and turned that into a side dish to have with chicken kievs for lunch one day. It also freed up the remaining spinach from the bean salad to have for a vegetable later in the week.

As for the grocery bill verdict, we didn’t come in under-budget this week but we were bang on target. Considering I managed to sneak £10 worth of baby things onto the bill, plus extras that weren’t budgeted for (like unplanned dessert buying and my last minute splurge on chicken breasts from the butcher), I think we did really well.

Monday, 25 June 2012

DC & New York: V

The first thing I noticed in New York was the noise. All the negative reviews about our DC hotel on Trip Adviser had complained that it was so noisy, being near a railway and a highway. But we’d gone from the outskirts of DC to mid-town Manhattan, and the noise was definitely more noticeable. Fortunately we are used to living in cities, and the night-long sounds of traffic and garbage collectors were not much worse than the constant bin-collecting rumble of the Cambridge garbage men who tend to favour 7am as their time for making excessive amounts of noise on their tri-weekly collections. So, I slept like a baby and didn’t wake up until the sun was streaming into the bright apartment.

We got up later than we had been, but still at a fairly decent time for vacationers. David kindly obliged to make breakfast for me while I did some stretches to try to loosen up my pulled muscles. Then I got to feast on fried eggs and American bacon. My North American friends perhaps have no idea just how significant this is. English bacon, whether regular (ie back bacon) or streaky (ie ‘american’) tastes nothing like the bacon we get back home. This isn’t to say that it’s bad, but it’s cured differently, cut differently, and uses more salt. To be able to breakfast on thin and crispy, melt-in-your-mouth pieces of bacon (David is an expert bacon fryer), with some toasted rye bread and an egg fried just the way I like it was perfection. It was also great to have real cooked food again, after four days of hotel “everything white flour” breakfasts.

Eventually we packed up and went out. The plan for the day was to do some sightseeing, followed by meeting up with a friend of ours from the University of Toronto. I learned quickly that my time navigating the DC metro put me in an excellent position to figure out how to buy tickets for the New York subway. But the NYC Subway is a completely different beast to any mass transit system I have ever been on. I naively assumed that it would be no worse than trying to get around London via the tube, which really isn’t that bad once you identify the colour of your line. However, in New York I had to contend with colours, numbers, and letters. So it took us about an hour longer than it should have to get to Coney Island.

Near the end of our journey.
Apparently the amusement park is right behind me, but the glare from the sun was too much to get it in the photo.

The wind was working itself into a temper, so our trip to the island was a little disorienting. Our first stop was Nathan’s Famous, because it seemed like a shame to come all the way to New York without trying a hotdog, and where better to get one of those odious things from than the place that first made them. It was too windy to eat outside, so we huddled in the overcrowded food joint, eating our hotdogs and finding them palatable. I really hate hotdogs, and Nathan’s certainly didn’t win me back to the dark side (then again, if Costco’s kosher dog can’t win me back then nothing can) but they weren’t bad. If you like that sort of thing. Although I think the Orange Julius bacon & cheese dog which my parents used to buy me on Sundays is a superior dog.

We took our chips down to the beach, wandering by the ‘abandoned’ amusement park on the way and watching the wind whip up little tornadoes of dust and garbage. David kept calling for the Warriors, but none of them came. Then we just sat and enjoyed the sand, wind, and water for a bit. We don’t live that far from the coast in England, but it’s far enough away that we never get there. So it was really nice to be back at the ocean.

We strolled along the beach, looking at shells and dodging the sand storms, until the wind got too much and we had to retreat to the boardwalk. There is a large Russian community in Brighton Beach, along the boardwalk, so we went down there to see if we could score any delicious treats. David noticed that there seemed to be a lot of Russian pensioners sitting out on doorstops, watching the world go by, so we marked it down as a possible activity to keep my parents occupied in their golden years. Then we came to the crowded streets of the Brighton markets, which were a jumble of everything—groceries, Russian food, cash for gold, nail salons... We ducked into a Russian toy shop and looked at strange Russian speaking toys (I was tempted to buy one for the baby but David was a bit worried about the soviet-era materials) and then went into an Eastern European deli, where we scored some gingery honey cookies (from Israel, not Russia, alas!) for the long trip back to Manhattan.

Our afternoon was spent wandering around Greenwich Village and the East Village. Some stops were planned, and others were impromptu. The one place I was set on going to was Murray’s Cheese, where we wandered around the aisles and indulged our foodie senses. It wouldn’t have done to be overly greedy, and pregnancy has somewhat limited my gastronomic delights, so we restrained ourselves to a sizable chunk of peppered sheep’s milk cheese (so good!) and pretzel buns.

By this time it was getting quite late in the day, so if my memory serves correctly (and it may not as we kept having to make last minute changes) we began our walk to The Strand. The Strand is this amazing used and antiquarian bookstore which takes up at least four stories and is a good place to drop David off at for an afternoon. Being seasoned book collectors, we went straight to the top floor to scope out their antiquarian and rare books. By this time my body was ready for a rest and so I spent an hour or so sitting in a cozy leather chair while David slowly made his way around the shelves. David has an uncanny knack for book collecting, and as long as he knows which authors I’m interested in he always manages to find something special for me if there is something special to be found. This time it was a signed copy of one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Firebrand (she may be more familiar to some as the author of the Mists of Avalon). This was a huge find, as the author is no longer living and her more main-stream popularity never really took off until Mists of Avalon, meaning that affordable signed copies are few and far between. Once David had finished browsing the top floor we had just enough time to run through the fiction/sci-fi/fantasy sections downstairs. For the first time in my life I found myself actually facing an abundance of books by the authors I’m collecting. Difficult decisions were made, but in the end I emerged victorious with some more Zimmer Bradley and also a novel by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (I can almost never find her books in the stores). The trip to The Strand is of note for one other reason—David’s fairly certain that this is the first time that I’ve purchased more books than he has!

When we left the bookstore it was time to meet up with our Will, a good friend and fellow PIMS committee member from our U of T days. Will took us out to Astoria, where he lives, and we got to meet his roommate and hung out at his place chatting for an hour or so. It was just like old times, except there was no wine involved! I love friendships where you can meet up after three years and it’s like nothing’s changed. Then he took us to this Indian place where we had a delicious, and very spicy, curry meal. I ordered the vindaloo, which various waiters kept trying to convince me out of having. But I stuck with it. And damn, was it ever hot. I ended up just fishing the meat out of the sauce. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it—yes, about as hot as I could handle, but so worth the pain because it had a good depth of flavour behind the heat and it’s just so rare to get good spicy food in England. For starters we all had a curried butternut squash soup, and I also indulged with a mango lassi. Love curry!

All too soon, it was time to say goodnight. After many assurances that we wouldn’t likely get mugged on the subway, Will dropped us off and I navigated us back to Manhattan where we spent the last hour of the day watching Seinfeld episodes on the TV and making comments about watching shows set in New York while in New York. Not geeky at all.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

DC & New York: IV

David and I had grand plans for our last day in DC, but ended up having to scale them back. Dave needed to catch up on some rest, and I suffering from a sort of traveling muscle pain that was making walking a bit uncomfortable. As we had all our luggage to cart around that day it seemed prudent to just take it slow.

We decided to go to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is located at the Catholic University of America in the far North-East of the city (so far east that my guidebook assured us that even the criminals don’t get out that far!). So eventually we got up, ate our last hotel breakfast, settled our bill, and then sprinted across four lanes of traffic (that I managed this with a pulled muscle, my suit case, and my big ol' pregnant belly should impress everyone...that and David helped me) to the side of the road with an actual sidewalk. I was a little anxious about making it through dodgy neighbourhood that was en route to the metro stop with all our luggage. Obviously we wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t safe, but it’s certainly not an area that I would want to linger in and it made me glad that we had stayed at the place we did, safely on the side of the highway.

We got to the basilica quite early, because we did not want to have to worry about organising our bags right before Mass started. This meant we had ample time to sit in the downstairs cafeteria and get caffeinated, and I was able to go browse in the basilica shop. I was hoping to buy an icon, but they only seemed to have proper icons on sale, meaning that the prices were upwards of one hundred dollars. So I bought myself a pretty gilt picture of the Virgin, with the memorare prayer at the bottom, and ended up being quite glad I had since the picture was closer to the decoration in the basilica than an icon would have been.

Mass was what I have come to expect from large formal churches—difficult to hear with a choir that was too elaborate to follow. After Mass we wandered around the basilica looking at all the different side chapels. It is a very beautiful church and the side chapels were all very individual in their styles of decoration. Nothing seemed too out of place or modern, which was impressive as it is often difficult to find churches with good modern decoration. I suppose it depends on the grandeur of the building, as Ely Cathedral is another place that I can think of where the modern pieces work alongside the older ones.

Instead of walking from Foggy Bottom to the Capitol, as had been our original plan, we got off the metro in central DC and went for lunch at the Tram Spot (or something like) where we feasted on pulled pork and bbq burgers. Then it was off to Barnes & Noble for a comfort break and David’s run-in with security. Apparently they are so unaccustomed to people buying books in their stores that they assume browsers are there to blow up the place. Fortunately I emerged from the ladies just in time to rescue my Unidentified Male and our Abandoned Luggage from the overzealous security guard. We bought some locally made pies from the cafe before making our escape to the street and heading towards our train to New York.

David tried to befriend a squirrel, but it did not much fancy the coated peanut we fed it.
I actually managed to stay awake for our journey this time. It was neat watching the countryside fly past, and I found it quite exciting to cross a few states in three hours. We made it to New York just as the daylight faded but the area around Penn Station is quite used to traveler traffic so it was easy to find our way to a taxi, and thence to mid-town East.

David’s mum has a very kind friend who lives in New York and who let us use her downtown apartment for four days. She was even thoughtful enough to stock up the fridge with some breakfast foods and give us a couple of subway cards to get us started. After a brief visit with her, Dave and I went out to locate some cheap and quick pizza. Fortunately there was a place just around the corner, and I finally managed to cure my chicken wing cravings with a slice of buffalo wing pizza (it even had ranch dressing drizzle). Then it was back to the flat for some brief unpacking and a chance to put our feet up. 

Saturday, 23 June 2012

DC & New York: III (and a little bit of Father's Day)

Father's Day Adventures: 

The plan is to use cloth diapers for the most part, but a couple of trusted friends have said to buy some disposable ones for the first little while. I’m still hoping we won’t have to use them much, but I can definitely see the wisdom in my friends’ advice. So strong as my leaning is towards cloth diapers, (I’d say my feelings about them are almost as strong as my feelings about contraception!) I decided to get a pack of disposables. I think David and I made a delightfully befuddled pair as we stood at the [very limited] shelf of our local grocery store, trying to pick which of the options to get! I changed my mind about twenty times, finally bought a pack, and then tried to insist on returning them once I got home. Fortunately I have David around to point out “they’re only nappies, not a lifetime commitment”.

Also, apparently coffee shops are the place to take your newborn baby on father’s day. Either that, or it’s the place to go on father’s day when you’re not English. I suspect all the real English fathers were down at the pub.


On our last full day in DC we took time to visit the National Gallery of Art together. We both love art galleries and this one certainly did not disappoint. The building itself is beautiful and the staff were very friendly. We decided to spend our time looking at the collection of mostly European art, starting in the Middle Ages. This meant a trip to the top floor, and we discovered that in the main areas under the domes they have these beautiful fountain pieces, surrounded by flora and fauna:

The art collection itself was extensive and impressive. I won’t bother listing all the artists here, although pictures of our favourite pieces can be seen in our holiday album on Facebook. The gallery even has one of da Vinci’s paintings, so that should give you an idea of the caliber of artist they’ve managed to get their hands on. As David said at the time, it really does live up to the idea of being a national gallery:

Four Seasons in One Head -- Giuseppe Arcimboldo
 A Marian piece by El Greco

Young Girl Reading -- Jean Honore Fragonard
After the gallery we went our separate ways. I continued down the mall towards the Capitol, where I had reserved a time for a tour of the building. The security steps to get into the building and get onto a tour are complex, and the beautiful weather we’d been having unfortunately decided to change into a torrential downpour which even my English umbrella couldn’t help against. I was soaked to the skin by the time I’d made it through the first security line and into the building. 

Once inside, I collected my tour ticket and then killed time by looking at the various forms of statuary on the ground floor. Eventually it was time for yet another lineup, where I made friends with a lovely American couple who were visiting from Oregon. Then, finally, we could make our way into the auditorium for the first part of the tour—a video on the history of the Capitol/Washington DC. The video was well done and very informative, and really got me thinking about how impressive early American history is. You have this group of colonials who get an idea into their heads and decide to take on the British Empire. And they win. And then the British (via Canada!!) set fire to their city and burn down part of the Capitol, but instead of giving up they just rebuild it into something better than before, and use loads of marble so that it can’t be easily torched again. There is such pride and independence in that statement.

After the video our tour began. It was just a short walk and talk through the dome room and into the side room that used to be the original meeting place of the senate, but it was quite interesting and the interior is very beautiful to look at. The acoustics inside the building are strange in spots—at one point you can stand about 12ft away and whisper, but the sound is loud as if the person were next to you. When you leave that spot the noise dies down. The halls are full of statues, and we learned that each state was asked to contribute two statues of their claims to fame. I really enjoyed how throughout DC you see this sort of tribute-donation by the states. I think it’s a great way of showing their unity while at the same time their individuality. 

very American statuary in the room where the Senate used to meet
I was still quite damp by the end of my tour, so I decided to try some hot food from the Capitol’s cafeteria. It wasn’t in the budget, but I excused myself by sticking to soup and by figuring that eating lunch at the Capitol sort of counts as a tourist experience. The cafeteria was pretty neat, for a cafeteria, in that it features various types of American food—bbq, burgers, italian-american, and lucky for me, new england clam chowder. The soup was surprisingly rich and creamy, so even tho it was just a boring old cafeteria it was still a fun experience.

My original plan for the day was to head to the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, but the skies were still raining and I felt I’d be wisest to avoid an afternoon of getting soaked. I was disappointed to have to change plans, but it didn’t seem worth jeopardizing the rest of the trip partway through by risking a cold. Instead I headed towards the Smithsonian Galleries of American Art &Portraiture. En route I passed a protest outside of the Supreme Court, where a large group of Washingtonians were protesting the Obama-Care bill. It certainly called into question my earlier thoughts on America’s revolutionary spirit. In New York, David and I had a chance to discuss Obama-Care with an American friend and understand why so many people dislike it, but to someone coming from both the Canadian and British healthcare systems I confess that the mind boggles at first glimpse of anyone disliking ‘universal’ healthcare as we experience it here.

A DC Protest -- helping to make my visit as authentic as possible!
The Smithsonian galleries fell short of expectation, although not so much as the American museum of the day before. My primary interest in going was to see their folk art, but apparently our definitions of folk art are very different so they mostly had a display of hideous pop art from the 70s. Horrid, nasty stuff! The rest of the galleries were mostly unimpressive but with a few good pieces. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, but it did pale in comparison to the National Gallery and even to some of the small local galleries I’ve seen in England.

The best bit of folk art I found was in the portrait gallery: Benjamin Lay -- William Williams

Considering how ignored the story of the Native Americans is in DC, I thought this piece was particularly interesting.

This is one of my favourite pieces, from our whole trip. Up close it was very impressionist and blurry, but when photographed it became 3-dimensional: The Mirror -- Robert Reid
David was attending the conference dinner on Saturday evening so I was on my own. I was a bit nervous about dining out on my own and then getting a cab back to the hotel, but as usual in these situations I just remind myself that I managed to get halfway across the world and through Heathrow Immigration on my own and that usually bolsters enough confidence! I decided to treat myself to dinner at the zagat rated Haad Thai. My appetite, which had mostly vanished thanks to jet-lag, suddenly returned with a vengeance and I think I did justice to the menu. I had a delicious minced pork stir-fry with noodles for my main course, a sweet Thai iced-tea (I believe it had coconut milk in it) to help cut the spice, and allowed myself to be tempted with one of their signature desserts—tempura fried ice cream with chocolate sauce. The batter was light and not greasy, and the ice cream melted only the slightest bit. It was delicious and meant that I could cross “eat American novelty food” off my list. Then I dodged the rain and surprised myself by managing to hail a taxi cab right away. I really hate riding in taxis on my own, as I find most of the drivers vaguely sinister, but I got back to the hotel safely and spent the evening reading and relaxing. It was perfect.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

DC & New York: II

Our second day in DC was David’s day for speaking at the conference. I spent an anxious morning worrying about getting into town, as the one thing we’d learned on our first day in DC is that calling for a taxi pickup does not work like it does in the UK. On our first morning we called for a cab and it never arrived. After waiting for over an hour we ended up having to hail one on the side of the highway! So on Friday morning we got up early and ordered one for a specific time. It was still late, but only by 15 minutes, meaning that David got to his conference with enough time to spare for coffee.

My first stop for the day was the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The security to get in is pretty high—they even made me take a drink out of my water bottle once I cleared the xray scanning machines. I also wasn’t allowed to take any pictures inside. I began my tour with a special exhibit on the use of propaganda in Nazi Germany / WWII. It was really interesting to see how different messages were sent out via various forms of media (radio, posters, and film) in order to achieve the different goals of the various political parties and countries involved.

After that, and some serious resting on the benches, I moved to the permanent exhibit. Walking through that exhibit was one of the most mentally horrific experiences that I’ve ever had. I am no stranger to what went on during the holocaust, and I have probably read more about it than your average person, but in the exhibit there is no reprieve from the constant and growing horror that humans can inflict on each other. There are many pieces on display that were salvaged from the concentration camps, and in many places there were such graphic videos playing that I could not bear to watch them—some were films made by the Nazis of their scientific experiments, and others were films made by the Allies when they first stumbled across the camps. Thankfully the particularly graphic films were in TV sets that were encased in huge concrete barriers, meaning that you did not have to see them.

The exhibit is spread over three floors. The part which I found the most moving was near the end. A long corridor leads towards the final parts of the exhibit. The corridor appears relatively plain, but in the heat of the day it is the smell that hits as soon as you step inside. It is the smell of warm leather, and as you look around you notice that it is the scent of thousands of shoes. Both sides of the corridor are lined with heaps of shoes which were taken from the prisoners as soon as they arrived at the camps. You may be able to choose what you look at, but you cannot choose to ignore the scent which gives testimony to so many lives lost. Then, beyond this corridor and through some rooms is another passageway. At one point it is open up to the roof of the building, and the three stories are a huge collage of family photographs. Then there is a glass walkway and the glass is etched with the names of all the villages in Europe that suffered huge losses. As you move towards the end of this walkway there is another smell, this time one that I recognised. It is the warm, heady scent of beeswax. There is utter silence, and you emerge at the door of the shrine. Inside there are hundreds of candles burning, and at the farthest end is an eternal flame on an altar stone lined with the earth from the camps. Were there no shrine at the end, I think that the exhibit would be simply too much. It is only this place of prayer and remembrance that provides the necessary catharsis.

It is certainly not a happy place to visit, but I think that it is a necessary one. As President Clinton said during his speech at the museum’s dedication ceremony: I believe that this museum will touch the life of everyone who enters and leaves everyone forever changed; a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope; an ally of education against ignorance, of humility, against arrogance, an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead. If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality.

When I pulled my itinerary together I had rightly assumed that I would want to do something light and fun in the afternoon. So I decided to go see the Smithsonian Museum of American History. On my way there I passed the Washington Monument:


The Smithsonian Museum was a bitter disappointment. I had been looking forward to going there for years, but aside from a few key pieces (George Washington’s suit, first lady Inaugural Ball gowns) the exhibits were lacking in anything worthwhile. A couple of the pieces I’d really wanted to see, namely Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Julia Child’s kitchen, were not available to the public. The power-crazed security guard at the entrance to the building made me open every single zipped pocket on my backpack, which was no small feat considering it has at least 10, and I mostly spent my time being thankful that it was a free visit! All that said, it is probably the perfect place to take little children, but I’m afraid that as an adult who has been able to enjoy some of the best museums in the world it is really lacking.

By the time I left the Smithsonian I felt that I needed to just sit somewhere and rest. I decided to call an early end to my afternoon and spent the rest of my David-free time enjoying a giant iced tea in the Starbucks attached to David’s conference hotel. It was the only day of his conference where he could get out at a decent time, so we took advantage of the early end of the day to head north-west to Dupont Circle, home of DC’s best pizzeria.

The first thing that David noticed when we exited the metro was a huge used & antiquarian bookstore. So we browsed its shelves for awhile, but generally found that the bookseller was one of those horrible types who overprice everything. Thus no purchases for us, although we did get some entertainment value from watching everyone else wander around with their overpriced purchases while making comments about ‘more money than sense’. Then it was across the street to Pizzeria Paradiso, where we were told it would take at least an hour before we could get a table. Fortunately for us we both decided that the wait would be worthwhile.

All the people on the right are part of the crowd waiting for seats--it's that popular!
The manager of the pizzeria vaguely resembled Nintendo’s Mario, which I think is what sold David on the idea of waiting. When we finally got in, we began one of the best meals we had on our trip. A little dish of olives was brought to the table to take the edge off our appetites as David perused the extensive beer menu (I think he found some imports that cost nearly $16). The pizzas were delicious and the topping combinations were inventive but complimentary, instead of trendy but weird. I stayed fairly safe with a mushroom pizza, but David went towards the odder end of the offerings by ordering one with mussels. I had a bite and it was surprisingly delicious. Each piece had one mussel on it, in a shell, so that they didn’t overpower the whole dish. The pizzas were thin crust, baked in a proper pizza oven, and had base of chunky roasted tomatoes instead of sauce. They used real mozzarella as well. David’s paper had gone really well that morning, so to celebrate we treated ourselves to dessert. Dave got tiramisu, which he assured me was excellent, and also espresso which was served with a slice of lemon—we learned from our waitress that the lemon juice cuts the bitterness of the coffee, so David gave it a shot and pronounced it one of the best espressos he’s had. Meanwhile I indulged with a fantastic dessert of wine-poached pears, topped with a biscuit layer and cream. It was like a pear crumble, only ten million times more delicious. Given the somersaults in my stomach which I experienced all through the meal, I think it’s safe to say that even the baby was enjoying it.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

DC & New York: I

Much of winter, 2012, is a blur. I think I was mostly just exhausted, getting through work and ante-natal appointments just to come home and rest in bed. My energy slowly returned tho, and by early spring I was almost back to myself—just in time for our trip to America!

David was giving a paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference, which this year was held in Washington, DC. I decided to join him, as I figured it was my last chance for a vacation away before August, especially as plans to travel in late June or July would be severely hampered by the trouble of trying to get a flight to take a heavily pregnant woman. I had only thought of taking a week to do his conference and see DC, but David proposed that we instead go for 10 days and split our time between DC and New York. It was an opportunity too good to be practical over!

It was a fantastic trip. Because we live far from home, it’s been very difficult for us to get vacation time for just the two of us. Usually one or both of us is flying home to see family, or else we take time off to tour family and friends around where we’re living. All of that is great fun, but it was really nice to have time together. David’s laptop broke as we were heading for our outbound flight, which meant that he was actually forced to take a proper vacation after his conference instead of his usual working until 3am.

I was really nervous about going to DC. It’s a very expensive city and we don’t have a lot of spare money, which meant that we had to stay in an inexpensive hotel near the border of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ area. I was also worried about how safe I’d be getting around town on my own. Thankfully, with some general precautions and street smarts we ended up having a safe and fun time. Google Maps was a great help for ensuring that the hotel was in a safe-looking location (ie: not a rundown neighbourhood, but right off of a busy highway), the money we saved on our stay meant that we could take taxis to town center and back and thus didn’t have to walk around DC in the dark, and I stuck to well-populated tourist locations (obviously, as I was touristing!) and used a tiny travel wallet which could be hidden on my person if necessary.

My first day in DC was one of the highlights of this vacation. Once I’d safely left David at his conference I had the whole day to myself. The weather was summer-warm, I was armed with several maps, and I had a new city to explore. I started off at Ford’sTheater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Being Canadian I have only a general impression of American history, so it was really neat to move through the historical site (the tour package includes a museum across the street in the boarding house where President Lincoln died). I certainly gained a new respect for President Lincoln and America’s history from the tour.

Balcony where Lincoln was shot (in case you couldn't figure that out from the flag overdose)
Ford's Theater
My next step was to navigate the metro system to Foggy Bottom, home of the White House and the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters. It’s also home to the Breadline, a rather posh sandwich place where I stopped for lunch. I unfortunately couldn’t go on a tour of the White House, but I was able to spy it through the high gates. It is so beautiful—just gleaming white in a sea of well-kept green lawn. Sad to say it makes Buckingham Palace look really ugly. From there I continued on to the DAR Headquarters, which happens to be the home of an American folk museum and various period rooms. Given various hints of the DAR’s history of racism, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother visiting them, but in the end I was glad that I went. The period rooms were really cool—each state donated (ie furnished) a room for a certain function and time period in the style that would have been prominent in the state at that time (meaning there was a Californian whaling captain’s drawing room, among other things). It meant getting to see a lot of folk art in situ, and then getting to enjoy more folk art up close in the actual museum. I was a very happy camper.

Colonial Kitchen
The DAR Museum took longer than I thought, which turned out to be a happy accident as I had to rearrange my schedule. I ended up making the US Supreme Court my next stop. It’s across the street from the Capitol, so it’s in the gleaming white building part of town. As luck would have it, I arrived at the Supreme Court just in time for a lecture in the courtroom! It was really cool to be able to sit in the Supreme Courtroom, especially since no cameras of any kind are allowed in there, and listen to a talk on the building’s history and the workings of the court. This is the sort of happy accident that makes traveling quite fun.

I was getting pretty tired by the time I left the courthouse. I had overestimated the amount of walking that my pregnant body could handle, and by this point I’d been walking/on my feet for about 6hrs. So I scoped out the neighbourhood where I was to meet David and then I took off for the National Archives, as it meant I could sit on the metro for a little bit. That trip sort of took me beyond my limits, although I’m glad I went there. There was a lot of standing in long, slow-moving lines (not the best for sore feet and hips). I did manage to meet one of those lovely nice Americans who is perfectly willing to have a jolly conversation whilst waiting in line, so that made the time pass quickly. And getting to see the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights was pretty cool even if I felt like an 80 year old woman by the time I was done. I ended up sitting on a bench with all the elderly people, sipping water and trying to gear myself up for the trip back to David!

When I picked up David from his lecture at Folger’s Shakespeare Library we headed back towards the town center to find some classic American BBQ for dinner. We ended up at a chain called Ruby Tuesday where we were served by the world’s nicest waiter. David was exhausted from a long day of lectures + jetlag, although a meal of ribs & fixin’s soon put some life back into him. I felt a little guilty that my poor husband had spent a day in meeting rooms whilst I’d been out in the hot sun and fresh air, seeing all the neat tourist sites and not having a care in the world. It’s one of the perks of being an academic’s wife.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Both this blog and my personal journal are horribly behind when it comes to capturing all the big events we’ve had this year. Even so, I keep feeling that I haven’t done anything. Yet when I look back I find that I haven’t even said much, or anything, about the Christmas season. It was a big year for us but celebrations were kept to a minimum as I did not have the energy to do much. 
A little bit of decorating...
Fairy lights always brighten up the grey months.
The tree is definitely *not* moving with us, but my special foil star is!
My favourite Christmas cookies. I spent the weekend making them whilst David was at Windsor.
David had a big birthday, but with our friends and family either gone for the holidays or stuck in Canada we just had a private celebration (we’re hoping to get to Canada for a visit after he is granted his PhD and then we’ll have a big party to ring in everything). Prior to Christmas, he at least got to spend a weekend away at Windsor Castle as part of his scholarship. He stayed at Cumberland Lodge, which featured in both The Kings Speech and in the actual abdication (his room was above the room where the abdication message was broadcast). We had a very spoiled Christmas morning, especially once we started opening the big packages that came from our families. 
My husband also took his thoughtfulness to a new level, giving me a beautiful cameo of the Madonna & Child.  
David oversaw most of the Christmas dinner cooking, as I was struggling to feel up to cooking. He did a great job, following a Gordon Ramsey recipe for his goose. 
It's not burnt--that's just carmelisation from the honey sauce on it :)
Christmas Dinner--our dear friend Anne joined us
Boxing day saw our usual tradition of going out to see a movie. New Years was also very quiet—we had been planning to go up to the highlands with a few of our friends, but between saving money for the baby and my total lack of energy we decided to keep a low profile.We kept our usual tradition of the New Years Day brunch, and managed a spot of good luck in the walk home where we saw a water rat out for a morning stroll in Jesus Ditch.
It was strange to think that this would be our last Christmas in this little flat, and also our last Christmas with just the two of us. Next Christmas so much will be different, and it reminds me of how glad I am that I did not know my last Christmas with my family would be the last in that form. It is too easy to spend time mourning what has not yet passed.

The highlight of the Christmas season for me was my Christmas present to David (and myself)—two tickets to go see La Traviata at the Royal Opera in London. My boss let me rearrange my work hours so that I could get to London in the late afternoon, and the opera was on a Friday which meant that I could just relax and enjoy the evening without dreading how tired I’d be the next day. We had a great pub supper (I found food I could eat! This was an accomplishment!) and then browsed in a few antiquarian bookstores on our way to the opera house. The opera experience was marvelous. Being the Royal Opera, even the stage curtains have the Queen’s monograph on them. The sets were incredibly intricate and involved actual changes, not just rotations, between scenes. The costuming was superb. The dress worn by Violetta for the opening ball scene was incredible—snowy white and glittering with hundreds of crystals. And of course the music was good too (it’s one of my favourite operas). There was champagne at intermission, and that gave me a chance to snoop and see the extravagant amounts they were charging for sandwiches (£11 for a little tray!). I was surprised at how under-dressed most of the London crowd was, compared to my opera outings in Canada. Many people had clearly just come from work. It at least meant I did not feel under-dressed as I had worn a nicer-than-usual outfit to work that day, but certainly no ball gown.

It was the best experience I’ve ever had at the opera. I had been somewhat apprehensive beforehand, because my Toronto opera experiences were always such a disappointment. It was nice to know that I could go to an even bigger (and better) city and get the opera experience I want, not some modern artsy interpretation. Seeing David’s face when he opened his opera ticket package on Christmas morning was also priceless, as I had spent several months telling him that it was nearly impossible to get affordable seats at the Royal Opera as we had missed purchasing when the season opened so it might be one of those things on our ‘to experience’ list that we’d have to forgo.