Holiday in England

20120209-194440.jpgAlready our holiday in England seems like ages ago. Back in the throes of work and activities, I’m alarmed at the pace of life. Shouldn’t we still be hibernating? At the very least, let’s reminisce back to our holiday!

We saw great sights, had brilliant company and feasted on goregous food. One of the best things about the trip was eating the most delectable meals and not cooking a single one of them! Plus, with everyone chipping in, the clean-up for our lavish banquets was an ease. To be honest, I don’t mind cooking, it’s the dishes and clean-up afterwords I can’t stand!

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We spent Christmas with Dan’s phenomenal Granny, who’s 97 and still does a fitness regime every morning and mostly looks after herself! As Granny recovered from the full Christmas meal (very much like an American’s Thanksgiving sans pumpkin pie), we enjoyed a shot of sunlight while walking in the Clent Hills.

Christmas PuddingI have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of British Christmas desserts – they all seem like a variation on the same. Christmas Cake is like fruit cake with super-sweet frosting (though, I’ll happily eat the thin layer of marzipan!); Christmas Pudding is fruitcake dosed in Brandy (though I do like when they light it on fire!); and Mincepies are more dried fruits and booze, but baked into little tarts. However, I adore Brandy cream and Brandy Butter – which are a delightful addition to any dessert and may have even appeared on my toast at breakfast.

D&P’s house is always a place of supreme serenity. Pietro coaxes flowers into bloom even in the winter and the lighting is always cozy and perfect for snuggling. Dee made Bana Caldo, an immensely creamy anchovy fondu we greedily dipped an assortment of root vegetables into.

After dashing about the sales in Oxford, we regained our equilibrium with lobster bisque and samphire, a delicate green that grows on the British coasts. We’ve discovered that men’s clothing that is small enough to fit Dan does not exist in the US, so we made the most of the Top Man sales while in England. My dad, upon hearing of a store that sold Dan-sized clothing, mixed up the name, calling it “Little Man”!

We met up with friends in Aylesbury and London – our mini-reunions with Dan’s school friends are always great! Next, we were off to Nat & Umbi’s beautiful flat in Canterbury.

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In addition to it’s fame from Chaucer’s tale, Canterbury has many charms. The old walled city has a large pedestrian-only area with an eclectic mix of cafes and shops that entice you inside. We went for a walk in the seaside town of Whitstable, and took shelter in a small yet picturesque castle when it began to rain. Plus, we discovered a lovely path along the river that allowed us to run on trails, without the customary ankle-deep British mud.

On New Year’s Eve (remembering to wear our red underwear for good luck!) we all headed to London to Matt & Pete’s flat. They have the top floor of a terraced house, complete with clawfoot tub, gas fireplace and tiny garden too! Matt had fixed us a feast for lunch and Pete had made a scrumptious stollen, which I will have to ask for the recipe for.

After lunch, we participated in our annual book exchange, a tradition Dee began, in which we all bring books we have enjoyed to swap with others. We do this in lieu of presents and agree it’s a great way to give something meaningful, without falling into the holiday consumerism trap. This year I gave, Our America, a powerful yet disturbing book based on a project in which 2 young teens were given microphones and cassette recorders to interview people from their Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. If only more of our news was not just about the poor, but from their perspective, what changes there would be!

The book I received is God of the Small Things by Indian author Arundhati Roy. I haven’t read it yet, but it won a Booker Prize and many Pizzo’s recommended it!

That evening, after a curry supper, we headed up the hill to Ally Pally with mulled wine in hand. The park overlooks practically the whole of London and so eyes darted back and forth, watching fireworks light up the silhouettes of St. Pauls, Big Ben and the London eye against a velvet sky. In front of us, revelers set of small fireworks and sparklers, while in the distance larger displays sparkled on and off spastically. It was dizzying trying to watch all the colourful sparks.

At that was it, good-bye 2011, hello 2012!

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Of engelond to caunterbury they wende

Canterbury Cathedral

12/18  It was off to snowy Canterbury to visit Nat & Umberto.  It’s an picturesque small city with a large pedestrian-only area.  Their flat is just minutes from the train station and an amazing farmers market/delicatessen called The Goods Shed. Sunday we went to the seaside and then evensong at the cathedral.  My high school English teacher would be dismayed because I couldn’t recall any of the Canterbury Tale’s Prologue which we’d had to memorize.

Our time there was far too short, for soon we were off to York. It was strange in some ways being back in the city where we’d lived for a year.  Many of our old friends were already away for the holidays but we did get to catch up with our old housemates Dave & Nichole.  And, of course, we had a great time with Matt & Pete.  Then it was off once more, this time to a cozy cottage in Sherwood Forest where the 8 of us (Pizzos + partners) spent Christmas.

12/22 This was the true holiday portion of our holiday…. lazy days of reading, eating fabulous food, running in the snowy woods, spending quality time with Pizzos and screaming as we went down waterslides at the huge indoor tropical pool area.  Christmas day I made the legendary Moll Cinnamon Bread for breakfast and then we enjoyed a time of sharing. In lieu of presents we did a book exchange where we each brought a book we’d enjoyed and swapped it with someone else.  (Great idea, Dee!) For Christmas dinner we had pizza made from scratch by Nat & Umberto along with Christmas Cake, Pan d’Oro, Panettone and mince pies – YUM!

I even saw Robin Hood…. well, I saw a beautiful red fox that looked very similar to this one:

Only the fox I saw wasn’t wearing any clothes.  But still!

Our time in England flew by… two more days in ‘Nam with friends and family and then we were back at Heathrow… it seemed like only yesterday we’d arrived.

The Magic Pig and more

Our holiday in England continued with a few days in London where we met up with old friends, ran around (literally) Hyde Park, explored the Natural History Museum, Piccadilly and Soho, and ate steamed buns in Chinatown.

Unfortunately I came down with a horrid bout of the flu upon our return to Haddenham. I had a fever but felt ice cold. We got a beautiful dusting of snow in time for Dan & P’s long walk in the Chiltern Hills.  D & I went to see the a play of Rapunzel or the Magic Pig at the enchanting mirror tent.  We brought mulled wine and lemon polenta cake to enjoy as we watched the delightful tale.

in between

snowy-stowYesterday, Dan’s Birthday, we went on a walk in the snow. Throughout the UK it has snowed like they haven’t seen in 18 years. Despite getting a little lost we enjoyed a walk around the enchanting Stow School and gardens. Other than that it’s been packing, packing and more prep for our flight to the US of A tomorrow!

To prepare myself for the return, I’ve a new mantra about the USA:

“Everything’s bigger (but that doesn’t mean better)

Everything’s newer (but that doesn’t mean nicer)”

I’m returning to a land where hot and cold water don’t have separate taps, where sledging is sledding, where they drive on the right side of the road and don’t have roundabouts, where “old” equals 1960, not 1360. I’m excited, I’m scared. We’ve been living in England for almost a year and a half. I can’t wait to see family and friends (and the gear we ordered for the PCT!) but what if they’ve changed? What if I’ve changed? What if we’re not able to dehydrate our own food for our epic hike? What if living with my family again makes me revert back to a 13 year old brat? And what about the precious people we’re leaving behind?

Well, at least I can look forward to 7 hours of free films on the flight! And besides, with all the “British jobs for British workers”  strikes in the UK right now, I think it’s probably the right time for an Italian and American to leave!

Proud to be an American

barackounicornWow, ever since last Tuesday I’ve felt so proud to be an American (not something I usually experience much of, especially when in Europe). Yes, it’s terribly disappointing we weren’t in DC for the inauguration itself, but we enjoyed watching live coverage on the BBC.  And in just a few weeks we’ll be back in our ol’ stomping grounds of Washington, DC with our new President Obama!

PS. Get the t-shirt here

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Wow….. New Years Eve already!

Crazy to think our DTS ended over a month ago. Since then Dan & I have had a house to ourselves! We’ve had lovely evenings in watching “The Wire,” Rummikub matches with friends, and beautiful sunrise runs. (Yes, it’s true, Anna is now “running” each morning). We’ve also endured retail jobs at Christmas, biking to work in the freezing cold, and a house with no heating during the day.

This Christmas Dan’s whole family came to York. Matt, Dan’s bro, is already in York, working at the mental hospital. Beforehand, I got into major “Martha Stewart” mode (craft-making, not stock-stealing) to make the house look nice and Christmas-y. The Pizzos’ arrival was akin to that of Father Christmas. They brought bottles of wine, cava, Baileys, Buck’s Fizz and more. Dozens of mince pies, chocolate, Pannettone, goat cheese and carmelized onion tarts, Thai salmon parsels and a few pressies too. But of course, we were most excited about seeing them!

minsterChristmas Eve I got off work at 3pm, leaving behind frenzied last-minute shoppers and endless queues to join over 4,000 others at a Lessons and Carols Service at York Minster. Even though granny, D&P, and Nat and I arrived almost 30 mins early there was no room in the inn church. But thanks to granny (who’s 94 but in brilliant health), we were given a bench to sit on right in front of the main alter. The voices of the choir were angelic. And we also got to hear the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu speak. He is amazing, but I have to admit his Ugandan accent kept making me think of this Fone Jacker video.

dna-xmasChristmas Day we carried on a Stalcup tradition by having home-made Cinnamon Bread French Toast. It was delish. Then the Pizzo kidz prepared Christmas lunch (turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, brussel spouts with hazelnuts, and roasted potatoes, carrots and parsnips) and Uncle Dave arrived. This year we did a Secret Santa system of presents, ‘cuz really, shouldn’t the birthday boy JC be getting the presents?

xmas-dinner

After stuffing ourselves silly, we burnt off a few calories with a walk around Bishopthorpe Palace, our friend Johnny’s house (the Archbishop of York). Boxing Day it was back to work for both Dan & I, and Sunday we sadly said our goodbyes to our gracious guests. Back to selling Wiis and Xbox for me. And Dan’s scoping out the latest and greatest in backpacking gear at his job at Blacks.

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Wow, it’s December, our DTS has finished, Dan’s working at an outdoors store & I’m working at a video game store (ha!) and yesterday we collected red berries and evergreen branches to decorate the house for Christmas….. but I’m still blogging about CHINA. I need to get a move on!

LIJIANG

sleeper-busA bunch of us took a mini 2 day holiday to Lijiang, a tourist-hot spot where part of the city is a maze of traditional Chinese houses. To get there we took an overnight bus. It’s basically a bus crammed catastrophically with bunk beds. We were at the very back next to some Sketchy McSketchser Chinese men. And Dan was vomiting the whole next day from car sicknesses. Brilliant.

Nevertheless, we had fun exploring this charming city where the Naxi people live. They have a the only pictographic language, Dongba, still in use. Every word is a little stick figure or drawing. dongba
It’s a matriarchal society, and in their language when a feminine word is a superlative, and a masculine word is diminutive. For example a “female stone” is a bolder and a “male stone” is a pebble.

babiesWe did have some trouble finding a restaurants, though. Of course, being in a big group, no one had a preference until we came across a restaurant, at which point at least 1 person would find a reason it wasn’t good enough. Finally, after more than half hour of looking we decided on a colourful cafe. We went in and got seated and then someone complained about something so we decided to leave (with our stomachs rumbling and our tails between our legs.) Then we saw the restaurant had a rooftop courtyard so we decided to go back in and ask if we could sit there. We got seated (again) and got menus (again) and then waited and waited and waited, wondering what was taking the cafe staff so long since we were the only people in the whole restaurants. Finally someone went to investigate and found the waiter at a computer using a on-line translation service to type out in English, “WE ARE NOT COOKS. GO COOK FOR YOURSELF!”  Thankfully at that point we came to our senses and remembered that our Mama, the dear Naxi woman who ran our guest house, cooked up a feast for a pittance. The food was delicious.

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The next day we hired bikes and explored some little villages at the foot of Jade Snow Mountain, whose majesty  played hide and seek with the clouds. We also visited a rundown Buddhist monastery that had been the largest in the region prior to the Cultural Revolution. The dear old monk was so sweet and eager to show off the English he had learned. “Cup of tea? Cup of tea?” The old part of Lijiang was lucky to escape the Cultural Revolution, but became quite run down until 1996 when the old houses survived an earthquake much better than the new ones. Relief funds helped fix up the run down areas, tourism exploded and now even the newer parts of town are built in the traditional way – quite unusual in China.

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Yippe Yi

A little Yi girl in traditional dressAfter our time at the leprosy village, we travelled to another remote hillside village. The Yi ethnic minority live in this village and they had never had foreign visitors before. The Yi are one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, who speak a language very similar to Burmese. But to explain why it was such an exciting visit for us, we have to go back to February in York.

Basically, one February day our leader Jennifer said we were going to ask God to speak to us about a people group we could pray for. Now, I believe God still speaks today (maybe more so through thoughts, nature or events, than in a booming James Earl Jones voice), but I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. I mean, there are 100s of countries in the world, and probably 1000s of people groups! But after some silence, we all shared what had come to our minds. A few people got the word “China” or images of Asians. Others got pictures of terraced fields or random words. After some research, everything people had heard came together with the Yi people group! So, for almost 8 months we’d be learning and praying for these people halfway across the world. And now we were going to actually meet some!

Some of the villagers invited us into their traditional courtyard house for lunch. They’d cooked enough to feed the entire village and then some! There was pig feet, fermented tofu, fermented beans (definitively an acquired taste!), exotic vegetables, chicken feet, something like french fries, enormous buckets of rice and much, much more. Then, after the meal, a beautiful older Yi woman kept giving us handful upon handful of sunflower seeds. When we began to refuse her she switched tactics and began trying to covertly fill our pockets.

covertAfter lunch we waddled over to the village church. Even though the majority of Yi are animist, many of these villagers follow Christ. We had planned a little service, including a scripture reading, a drama and then a talk by Dave. Angharad read the scripture in English, then our translator read it in Chinese, and then we realized most of the villagers didn’t even speak Chinese! So the pastor invited an elderly man to come up and read the passage from the Yi Bible. This dear old man, bless him, seem to have only become literate in his 70s and read at a painfully slow pace. The Yi are beautiful people but I have to say their language sounded like a wounded cow. At every pause we would think, “At last, he’s done!” but then he would start up again. I don’t think he stopped reading until he reached the book of Obadiah!  Nevertheless, it was a memorable visit and our prayers for the Yi are easier now that we’ve met some!

Touching the “unclean”

Dan chatting with a ladySoon after our arrival in Kunming our team joined up with some other volunteers, including a Chinese nurse who serves the rural poor, to travel to villages deep into the countryside. The bus wound its way up the hills, passing peasants working burnt-red soil on terraced fields, to arrive at an ancient walled village. For a thousand years these crumbling mud walls have kept lepers isolated from the outside world. Even today, when leprosy in China is rare, lepers are ostracized here. And even after the disease has been treated, permanent damage can remain – like missing fingers, disfigured limbs or blindness.

The village once held 400 lepers, but today it is a community of about 40, plus one doctor who looks after them. We arrived soon after the harvest, so many of the lepers’ one-room-houses were plied high with corn. I joined one woman on her mud floor and began to help her shuck corn. She was blind and missing a hand, but she sure knew how to shuck corn! Periodically another leper would come in and take the corn outside to hang it up to dry. The houses in the Yunnan countryside in October are covered in golden chains of corn and vibrant red chilies.

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One in every six people on the planet is a Chinese peasant farmer, so it was a surreal experience to join these crippled and elderly farmers in their back-breaking labors. It’s easy to idealize the simple life of farmers in straw hats when you see them from a train window, but when you’re hoeing beside them the harsh reality beings to set in. Especially because they depend on these crops for their livelihood, since the meager amount they receive from the government is not enough to live on. (Yet another way that China didn’t seem very Communist to me).

Walk a mile in my shoes

In one sense we didn’t “do” much while we were there. Most of us weren’t able to offer them medical care, we didn’t see any miraculous healings, and for the most part we couldn’t even communicate with them because we didn’t have enough translators… but I felt just being there had an impact. On them, yes, but especially on ourselves. We hummed “Amazing Grace” along with them as they sang it in Chinese in a little concrete building they call church. When Dan went to hug a man, he clung to for 5, 10 minutes. How long had it been since he’d last been touched? Some of our teammates gave a beautiful lady in an old Mao-style cap a haircut. A little Chinese boy helped sweep some of their houses clean.  I’m pretty sure in some way these small acts expanded the kingdom of heaven.

beautiful leper

China 101

maoOk, enough about my democratic homeland, let’s return to a country that has never been a democracy: the People’s Republic of China!

1. Gender Equality

You have to give credit to the Communists for the gender equality in China. Especially when you look at China’s tradition of treating women as good for producing sons and not much else. These days girls are generally valued as much as boys (at least in urban areas). But one of the most striking aspects of this equality is how many women do manual labor. Chinese women are hard core! They work in construction, they do backbreaking work in the fields, I even came across women-only chain gang carrying ridiculously heavy stones up several flights of stairs.


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2. Traffic

I would describe traffic in China as “ordered chaos.” In Kunming they had big wide straight boulevards with bus lanes, car lanes and even motorcycle and bike lanes. But having designated lanes doesn’t mean the appropriate vehicles are in the appropriate lanes. Motorcycles seem to consider themselves both cars and pedestrians, depending on whatever is most advantageous at the moment. And most of the motorcycles are electric so there’s no sound to warn you when they nearly run you over as your walking on the sidewalk. But what empresses me most was the bicycles. Many have a cart attached and the amount of things they haul is unreal, especially the one who carry styrofoam.

squatty potty3. The Squatty Potty

The squatty potty is the toilet of China. All squatty potties consist of a hole in the floor which you squat over to do your business. Some varieties have porcelain and flush, others are more like a concrete trough. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of these WCs…. No, it’s not the squatting I have a problem with – I squat over all public toilets, even those with seats. The problem arises because the waste is kept in a huge cesspool under the open hole, and so, as you can imagine it gives off a less than pleasant aroma. In addition, many public toilets have no stall doors and even when they do have doors, many Chinese don’t bother locking them which can create some embarrassment when searching for a free toilet. Which brings us to our next topic…

cute-bum

4. Potty Training

No need to worry about changing dirty nappies here! The Chinese are the ingenious designers of crotchless trousers so that whenever little Li needs to poo or wee, he just pops a squat and goes for it. (Yes toddlers will do this out on the street.)

5. Squatting

To the Chinese, to floor is dirty so they would never think of sitting on it, even inside. So if they are waiting around and there’s no chairs, they squat. Even little kids squat. I actually find it quite comfy but it takes a bit of getting used to.

6. Spitting

You already learned in my earlier entry that Chinese spit in the street regularly but the good news is they make a hideously loud throat-clearing noise before they shoot which warns anyone nearby of the approaching projectile.

800px-flag_of_the_peoples_republic_of_chinasvg7. Privacy & Personal Space

There isn’t even a word in the Chinese language for “privacy.” Living in a country of 1.3 billion doesn’t usually grant you that luxury. Dan and I were once looking at the photos on our camera on the bus when the elderly man sitting next to us eagerly started looking over our shoulder for a good look. So we just decided to tilt the camera his way so he could also enjoy the slideshow. I was once on a bus where a woman was holding a complete stranger’s child on here lap and then the elderly woman sitting next to them started picking through the little boys hair. If a stranger said they’d hold your child on their lap in the West, there’d probably be a lawsuit.

8. Umbrellas

There are your constant companion in China – come rain or shine. In rain they keep you dry, in the sun they keep you cool.

9. V for Victory

A must for any Chinese when photographed. Even this little girl is learning how to properly pose with a little help.

victory

10. English Names

Many Chinese take on an English name as well. Some of the best: Banana, Foggy, Orange Juice and Lovey.