Monday, December 31, 2012

Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park

For the last and final of our Christmas escapes in London, Paul and I made a trip to Hyde Park. While we have been here several times before with the pup on weekends, they transform it for Christmas into the Winter Wonderland. I had seen it advertised, but flying over it one night, it was lit up and beautiful in comparison to the darkness around it. That was the moment I decided to go.

I had thought it was going to be a lot like the Christmas markets last year in Germany but with more. I should have known from the website it wasn't though. The website touted a ferris wheel, carnival activities, an ice skating rink, a frozen (magical) ice kingdom in addition to the usual stalls with foods and other Christmas-y goods.

We decided to walk there from our place, about 45 minutes, strolling, enjoying the brisk evening and I went as far as to sing Christmas carols along the way, once we were off the busy streets. Within 15 minutes walk of the park, you could already see the lights. Like a beacon, calling you to them!

Winter Wonderland ended up being less than I expected from the Christmas markets, but more in other ways. While it was lacking the expanse of shops and delicious goods (while there were some food stands, there was a really odd assortment and not nearly as much good food as I would hope), it made up for as a carnival. There were rides and games galore. Paul ruled out most of the easy ride (aka the carousel and "reindeer" ride I suggested as a joke), and I ruled out the rides where you could possibly injure yourself, which left us with mostly carnival games. Paul tried his luck to win me a life size bear, but alas, the darts circled and missed their target, and I am bear-less.

After our losing streak in the games, we found the Bavarian Village and staked out a table. Basically, its a large area where you can, you guessed it, drink beer. They sell some food as well, but we had already stuffed ourselves on bratwursts, potato pancakes and candied cashews, so we stuck with a litre (for Paul) and a pint (for me). There were some lively bands going to keep us entertained until our show time at 8:30.

Bavarian beer

View of the Bavarian village from our perch

Most of the things within Winter Wonderland are free; however, there are a few things where tickets and/or reservations are required. One of these is the Magical Ice Kingdom. I decided it was worth the couple of quid to give it a try, so I had booked us in for this as well. Reservations are needed not just because you need a ticket, but also because it is a frozen little village. They want to regulate the number of people coming through to make sure it doesn't get too warm to melt the sculptures inside.

While it is small, some of the sculptures are pretty amazing. We got to "ride" in a carriage pulled by a unicorn and sit a top a frozen throne, although we did restrain ourselves from joining the 5-8 year old kids in sliding down the ice slide. After the freezing temperatures there, we were quite content to head back home and warm up by the fireplace!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Merry Christmas from the Tarts!

Christmastime is over in London, as I was harshly reminded of this morning by the men sawing up our office's Christmas tree in the lobby.

As I had previously mentioned, this was Paul and I's first expat Christmas where we stayed overseas. Which meant, we had Christmas all to ourselves for the first time in our married lives.

It was a great chance for us to wind down and catch up, away from the usual hustle and bustle of Christmas. So, what was our agenda for the big day?

Eating. And everything else that revolves around eating.

We woke up and popped into the oven the ham, which I had cooked and prepped glaze for the day before, the egg casserole, fruit salad, and re-heated and iced the sweet cardamom bread I had prepared the day before.

My first ham - success!

We opened gifts with Christmas music playing and a fire on in the background. My favorite gift? An antique Belleek tea set from the 1930's in a sea design (think coral and sea shells!).

Even Belle was able to "open" gifts, which she immediately christened
by running around in mad circles and squeaking, much to Paul's delight.

We watched Love, Actually. I think Paul only agreed because he didn't know exactly what it was, but this is one of my favorite movies for Christmas.

We cooked some more! The evening course included left over ham, mashed potatoes with bacon & chives, corn bread stuffing, sweet potato casserole and some delicious rolls. We were so full, we decided to not even attempt the dessert.

Okay, lots of carbs. Note to self - veggies next time!

This meal was also followed by movie watching - this time, White Christmas, as neither Paul or I had seen it.

Finally, we wrapped up the day by Skyping with family and friends. Perfect end to a relaxing day.

Merry Christmas from the Tarts!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Visions of Sugar Plum Fairies

This Christmas, we will be spending our Christmas in our new home in London, which means for the first time we will be away from our native home and families back in Texas on Christmas. At first, I was sad to miss it - all the time with family and friends, the food, the traditions.

Then, I realised the opportunity we had to create our own traditions and do whatever we wanted on Christmas. We were skipping out on the hassle of flying back during the busiest time of the year and simply relaxing at home, kicking up our feet by the fire and doing what we like best.

Coming up with your own traditions can be daunting though. To compensate, I think I have tried to fit in every possible Christmas celebration I can in London from ice skating, to orchestra concerts, and now, seeing the Nutcracker at the London ballet.

Me and the Nutcracker go way back. My grandmother used to take us often to see the ballet in Fort Worth, dressing up especially for the occasion. Oddly enough though, my most distinct memory of the Nutcracker is from my elementary school, where each Christmas, the 5th graders put on a show of the Nutcracker. 

Now, don't get too impressed yet - this was no performing arts school. Our version was not something people had to pay to see (at least I don't think so!).

It was more along the lines of this. 

Okay, it was almost exactly like this, lyrics, dancing and all. I will say, our costumes had something on these baggy t-shirts. I remember painstakingly wrapping red around my white tights. And for some odd reason, this performance has stuck with me all those years - my first and last "ballet" performance.

Back to present day, seeing the Nutcracker here in London was the first time in probably 10 years that I had been to the ballet. There's some things I had forgotten, such as how unlike my elementary school production, there is no speaking, and it was nice to reacquaint myself after all these years.

You couldn't ask for a better place to see it - the theatre itself even gave off an air of Christmas with the red, plush velvet seating and ornate stones decorating the stage. Add to that walking out of the theatre to Trafalgar Square and standing to admire the Christmas tree puts you in the Christmas spirit.

This weekend, we buckle down for our final Christmas preparations - wrapping last minute gifts (and buying them), shopping for our Christmas feast and hoping for a little bit of Christmas snow.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Royal Albert Hall

First of all, I apologise for going rogue again this last couple of weeks. But, I have been back in the good old US of A and have been in a food coma from gorging myself on TexMex and other delicious Americana food. That and I was too busy eating to bother to take ANY pictures. Okay, and I might as well blame jet lag too for the additional week it took me once I got back to London.

Before we left for Texas though, we got in one more Christmas celebration to put us in the holiday spirit before our week of weather in the 70's (lower 20s for you Celsius folks) made us forget about the upcoming winter holiday.

We had seen a few concerts online at Royal Albert Hall, which looked amazing. So, I browsed out their website and they had all kinds of Christmas festivities, from formal concerts, to sing alongs to dancing. We decided to check out the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which included festive carols & sing alongs, as well as more traditional orchestral music like Handel.

It is a beautiful venue, and with the snowflake patterns lighting up the stage, it had that magical Christmas feeling. That may have been the champagne, but either way, it was so fun! Carols have always been my favorite part of Christmas. They had some of my old favorites and some new ones I hadn't heard before. They also had someone do a rendition of Deck the Halls in Welsh, which was pretty interesting.

After caroling our hearts out, we went back to a friends for a little gingerbread man decorating. Now, bring on Christmas and perhaps a bit of snow!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ice Skating at Somerset House

During the Christmas holidays, which in London seem to range from October to December, you see ads for ice skating everywhere. Postered all over the tube, in the daily papers, online.

I decided to surprise Paul with a trip to go ice skating on his birthday, because we would be in London and it was the first time we would be by ourselves, without family to help celebrate it.

I was excited about my little secret. I went online, purchased the tickets, got the email confirmation and felt proud of my plans for his special day. Then, next day, I re-read my confirmation email and realise I bought the tickets for the wrong month. Doh. What was I thinking?!

Luck was on my side though. Despite Ticketmasters refusal to change the tickets, my travel plans got cancelled and I was able to take the afternoon off to enjoy our skating. Despite losing the element of surprise, Paul has enjoyed the gift of mocking my lack of details in this birthday planning.

So which of the venues did we decide to try out for London's imfamous ice skating? Westfield? The History Museum? Tower of London?

None of the above. We tried out the Somerset House. I had seen an ad in London's Time Out magazine and a co-worker told me it was the IT place to be for ice skating. I'm sold! To add to that, it's on the Thames and is a stately 17th century building that was once remodeled by Christopher Wren, the same one who you may remember designed St Paul's Cathedral.

Beautiful Christmas tree
So, we decked ourselves out in sweaters, coats, hats and gloves and hit the rink. It was awkward at first. I started out holding the rail. Made it a couple of laps around. What?! It's only been 5 minutes?!

Doning my "babushka" aka rabbit hat for the first time.
Figured it was the perfect opportunity for its debut!

Then, I was able to hit my skating "groove" if you will. This consists of not constantly teetering and avoiding most of the hand rails.

30 minutes later, I was done. Man, skating is tough! My legs will be sore tomorrow.

Overall, it was a fun experience. It was a beautiful, picturesque setting. For those who enjoy skating, its a must. For those who don't enjoy skating, give it a spin, but then cut your time short and hit up the rink's bar for mulled wine or hot chocolate and Bailey's. I may not ever go back for a second round of skating, but I'm glad we were able to take time together to go for our first Christmas in London. Now, what's up next in our countdown to Christmas in London?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Teatime + Happy Hour in London

Brits love their tea. Turks love their tea too, but it's different in London.

In Turkey, it was a casual, post meal, welcome to my home, relaxed kind of tea. Here it's almost an art. There's high tea, with scones and pastries, and lots of fancy types of tea, from breakfast tea, Earl grey and my favorite, peppermint.

Last weekend, I tried a new type of tea. We went to the Dorchester for a last hoorah for my colleagues and to have a few cocktails.

Pinkies up!

The famous cocktail to try? Her Majesty's Cup. And besides being a cocktail, it of course includes tea in the drink.

It's made up of gin, Earl Grey, champagne, and fruits like raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb (Side note: yes, I had to google rhubarb. Am I crazy? I definitely thought those things were apples in my drink). Oh yes, plus it's poured out of a tea pot into tea cups with a nice stem added for easier cocktail sipping. Despite the gin, which I have always said I detest, it was delightful. One tea pot includes two tea cups worth of drinks, so grab a friend, or keep it all to yourself!

Cocktail tea cups
Drink and snack in one

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Santa Clause is Coming to Town

Without Thanksgiving to sandwich in between Halloween and Christmas, Christmas gets an early start in London.

I've seen lights and small decorations up at various places throughout the month of November, but as of this weekend things were getting into full Christmas swing in London.

Oxford Street - best shopping and Christmas lights

Oxford Street again

Stores are beginning to sell Christmas wares, grocery stores touting their hams and turkeys for festive meals, neighborhood trees being raised and lit, and tons and tons of street decorations.

Our neighborhood kicked off
Christmas with a tree lighting,
free hot chocolate and a
kettle drum.

So, despite Thanksgiving looming over this week, we decided to get into the Christmas spirit early this year. Heck, since we are celebrating Christmas in London, I figured an early start is required to be like the locals!

So, with peppermint tea in hand and Christmas carols playing in the background, we trimmed our tree, lights, ornaments and all except the tree topper. I think I may need some pintrest inspiration to make the perfect topper.

Our beautiful little tree!
We are missing a lot of our
favorite ornaments but have
still managed to pick up some
new favorites along the way

 Up next to celebrate Christmas? Infamous London ice skating, carols and maybe even some snow!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Brussels in a Day

Part of my job involves travelling - lots of travelling. I remember times in Dallas where I was gone at least once a week off to Houston, Port Arthur, California, Chicago and who knows where else.

One of the best things about travelling in Europe is that you no longer have to take day trips to Houston. Sure, I have to take day trips for work still, but now I take day trips to France. Sounds so sophisticated doesn't it?

Yes, apart from waking up at 7, flying twice in one day, taking taxis around unknown cities and returning past dinner time it is so sophisticated. Okay, even if it isn't quite sophisticated, it definitely beats Houston.

When I travel, outside of the meetings and working from the hotel room, I try to make the best of trips. I'm there, in a new city, let's see something! Even if its nothing much, I have something to say about the trip.

This week, I found myself with some time in Belgium. So, what did I do with myself and my day in Brussels?

1. Walk to the square - it was cool. I wish I would have thought ahead and brought my camera, because it had to be one of the most picturesque squares I have been in.

My terrible Blackberry photos do not do
the square justice. When will my
phone upgrade happen?!

2. See the fountain - yes, THE fountain with the little guy peeing. It was tiny and unspectacular. But, hey, I've seen it now. (In proper circles, it is called Manneken Pis - translating to Little Man Pee in the local dialect).

All the replicas throughout the city are larger
than the statue itself. Oh, and they dress him in costumes.

3. Ate a waffle - Sound familiar? I at least got Belgian chocolate on it to make it authentic. And mmmm, it was delicious.

That's it. One day and a couple of hours. I've gotten just enough of a taste to bring me back for more!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Days Workout at St Paul's Cathedral

It is the changing of the guards here in London. My friends and colleagues who I came to London to take over for are finally leaving. It's bittersweet - I am so happy for them to go home and be reunited with their loved ones and move on with their new lives. Selfishly, for myself, I am so sad to see them go. They have been great guides to the city, and friends showing me the way here in my new town.

In honor of their last weekend, we had a day filled with last minute bucket list items. We hit up Portobello Road and shared with them the buzz and a bit of hippy flavor of our neighborhood. Being the tour guides for once was fun, since they have showed us so much of London! Plus, I always leave Portobello Road a happy camper, having munched my way through all the food vendors possible.

Next - we tried something new, for both my friend, Paul and I. While I have passed by St. Paul outside several times, I had never made it inside.

Of course you would expect a theme park
right outside of historic church

As soon as you walk into the cathedral, your eyes are drawn upward. High ceilings, tall columns and at the peak of it all, beautiful mosaiced domes. In Turkey, we marvelled at Aya Sophia and Chora Church's mosaics; however, St. Paul's gives you a pristine example of what those churches probably looked like back in their prime. Despite being built in the 1700's, it looks just as it must have upon the day it was completed in 1711. Awe-inspiring, beautiful and still gold glistening in the light.

View looking down from the center of the church

Mosaics up close and personal
After taking in the whole of the cathedral, including the giant, ornate organ, came the hard part of the day. We wanted to check out the galleries in the dome of the cathedral which includes steps - lots and lots of steps. Luckily for us, they were broken up into a couple of different parts.

First was the Whispering Gallery - this is a famous gallery where legend has it you can whisper from one side of the dome and be heard on the other. I say legend because we weren't able to to experience it. With us, and about the 25 other tourists up there, it was impossible to witness the 'miracle' in action!

Next up, 115 steps or so later was the Stone Gallery - in addition to the 360 degree views of the city in this outdoor dome, there are some nice benches providing a respite from the climb.

The final 150 steps bring you to the very top of the dome to the Golden Gallery. While you have to fight (slightly scary) spiral staircases, tourist crowds slowing down your ascent, and a little bit of claustraphobic spaces in some places, the views are worth it. So breathtaking. All you can do is walk around the narrow circle and then head back down to allow others to soak in the view.

Panorama - the Thames, London Eye and more

View from the top

The Shard

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Happy Overseas Anniversary!

This weekend was a big weekend for anniversaries for me.

It marked 2 months in London - how time flies! With Paul, the dog, and all our stuff finally here, it is finally starting to feel like home. We're finding our way around town, discovering new restaurants and making some friends.

Even bigger, it marks my one year anniversary overseas. It's hard to believe that one year ago I left our empty house and stuffed 8x10 storage unit to start our new life overseas. And what an amazing experience it has been. I wouldn't change any of it and am looking forward to what the next few years have in store.

So, how did we celebrate?

Some Mexican food at the best Mexican place I have yet to find in London - after an extensive search.

Guess you can't take the Texas out of a Texan!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Belle's Weekends in London

In Turkey, life wasn't very dog friendly. Our apartment manager didn't like dogs, often the people at the neighborhood park didn't like dogs, and even more often, people would jump out of the way when we would walk with her (on a leash!) in the streets.

Of course Belle knew no better, but I'm sure she missed the days of dog parks in Texas, running free of the leash and playing happily with other pups.

This is one of the reasons I am so happy to be in London. Having a pet isn't unusual. People walk their pets everywhere, and even on a day like today when it's 40 degrees out, I saw plenty of people sitting outside, if only for the reason that they could dine at a restaurant with their pup. In fact, Paul and I were those people!

I'm pretty sure Belle is loving life here. She still has someone at home with her all day and she gets lots of walks and outdoor time.

What did this Saturday have in store for Belle?

6:30 am - Wake us up excitedly  - let's get the day started people!

8:00 am - we actually get up and get her feed - yay food!

She knows the park already - better be prepared for some running
when you show up with Belle
 11:00 am - take a 20 minute stroll to Kensington Gardens

Kensington Palace Gardens - Belle's new backyard

 11:30 am  - run around like a mad dog, chase squirrels, birds and run wild with other dogs. Plus, if she's really lucky, roll around in some mud. Oh yeah, and check out some of the sights

While Belle loves the Swan Pond at Kensington, she is not
to be trusted here! No getting in the water and no attacking
the Queen's swans

We trotted by Prince Albert's memorial
1:15 pm - hit up the local pub for some food, or at least food for us and Belle hoping for some table scraps

2:00 pm - take a stroll back and make a detour to Portobello - again, just hoping for the last bite of a Brautwurst

Oh, is that food I see down there?
 3:30 pm - whew, this day calls for a nap!

She loves all the green spaces here, and so do we. It's so refreshing to have a place where dogs can run around, enjoy themselves and get rid of some of that pent up energy that comes along with living in a very urban city. Not to mention for us, it's a great place to sit, relax, read a book, or maybe even picnic. Now, we just need more sunny days and warm weather to enjoy the outdoors!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Many Faces of the Mad Hatter

This weekend was Halloween celebrations here in London. Back in the States, we would have been sitting at home, waiting for trick or treaters all night, and I more than likely would have been complaining about the trashiness of costumes, or lack of costumes.

Here in London, there isn't really much trick or treating. Without stand alone houses or porch lights to turn on and off to alert kids, it is a lost cause.

But that doesn't mean they can't party! We had decided to attend a party thrown by the Texas Exes UK Chapter - since both Paul and I went to UT, we thought it would be a great way to meet other Texans in London.

But, before we could make it to the party, we had to decide on a costume. 2 other girls from work were going too and we decided to do a group ensemble. It's nice because on one hand we're all in it together, on the other hand, ensembles can be tough. Throw in the fact that Halloween is my least favorite holiday (it and Valentine's Day run a close last) and I don't like dressing up and it could have been a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, the rest of the troops rallied around the occasion, picked us out a theme and got me out to the costume shop. And, all in all, I was pleased with our results. It may have been the fact that I was the last costumed of the bunch, or the punch they concocted that reminded me quite a bit of trash can punch from my college days......

Now, for those who haven't already deduced, we went as Alice in Londonland (aka Wonderland). We had myself as Alice, which often confused people when I introduced myself as Alyson which sounds like Alice-son, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts. Yes, we are so clever.

The BEST part of the ensemble by far was Paul with his mad hat. Which we made from scratch. Neither of us are crafty at all, but I wasn't pleased with the cheap top hats found at costume stores and they just weren't mad enough. So we got some poster board, fabric, spray paint and wire and voila! The mad hatter.

This hat was the hit of the party, photographed on many a head that night. So, who wore it best?

a) The hat makers
b) the zombie man
c) the lover of beer

d) the Queen of Hearts

e) Belle

I know my vote - what's yours?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bond is here!

In Turkey, we were always habitually behind on movies. Most things didn't even come out on time in Turkey, much less before the United States. Sometimes you might have to wait a couple months for a movie if it wasn't a major blockbuster like Twilight, Hunger Games, or the Avengers.

So imagine my surprise when I hear that not only does Skyfall (aka the newest James Bond flick) open two weeks before the US in London, but we also get a premiere!

Daniel Craig upclose and personal - at least for whoever
is interviewing him or standing closer to the screen

So, while I was traipsing around Wales for work, I sent Paul off to the Skyfall premiere. It was at the Royal Albert Hall and not only included all the stars, but other A - C list celebrities, such as the X Factor judges and contestants.

The red carpet itself

And while they couldn't get a close up of Daniel Craig who was supposedly veeeerrrry tan, it's still such a fun experience. All the fans, all the paparazzi, all the actors and the huge spectacle of it.

This must have been someone important

After the premiere, which we were so unfortunately not invited too (I'm sure it was just lost in the mail!), we had to wait a few more days until Friday to see the film.

While I do love movies and James Bond, lately action films have all been a bit too actiony for me - yes, I get it, explosions and gun fights are exciting..... but I say to a point. So for me, the whole attraction of this film was that part of it was filmed in Istanbul. Remember, Paul even caught them filming!

It made me so nostalgic to watch Istanbul on the big screen - the crowded streets, the mosques framing the skyline, the call to prayers and the hustle and bustle of it all. Things that perhaps even seemed annoying at the time, now seem charming and make me think fondly of the place I called home for the last year.