Monday, December 26, 2011

My 27th

Another year, another country, another apartment. Last year I celebrated my birthday in Toronto while working for Darlene Richards-Loghrin at her real estate law office. We were less than eight weeks away from moving to London. This year I am office manager by day, aspiring worship consultant/musicologist by night, proud master's student spouse-helper, and happy to be settling in to London apartment no. 2. My parents came up from Geneva for a few days to help me celebrate my 27th birthday.

When you've lived in six different homes since getting married four years ago, you learn to improvise. Note the suspiciously similar shape of my veggie pot pie, above, and the lovely birthday cake David secretly made for me (a mere 12 hours off the plane from Venice, where he had been attending the Biennale!)

I was working part of the time my parents were here (including on my birthday), so it was a relatively low-key visit. David cooked a nice dinner for all of us and we enjoyed birthday cake in our flat.

Make a wish!
 The next day I went with my parents to the South Kensington area of London, to do some touring around and catch up. We had coffee in a really nice little cafe just outside of the South Ken tube station.

So glad to be together!
 We walked along Cromwell Road toward Harrods, where I wanted to go. We passed the beautiful Victoria and Albert museum and poked around in a rare books and maps shop. Then we entered the domain of ritzy, overpriced retail. We deposited Dad in a Starbucks and got lost in Harrods for a while. What an amazing place. We only took a few steps into the "Christmas Village" area before retreating in fear and trepidation - it's a pretty intense retail, um, experience. Lights, glitz, baubles and noise.

I was very taken by the food hall area of Harrods - all kinds of everything, all looking delicious. Cupcakes, beef wellington, satay skewers, sushi, wine, lager, antipasti, mustards, preserves, and on and on. Also an entire hall devoted to tea, coffee and chocolate. I scooped up a Christmas present for Susan, a cute Harrods tea towel.  I have been so slow to put this blog post together that I can now post that without spoiling the surprise. My mom bought some nice butcher block cream which she proceeded to forget at Sue and Mark's house.

After we were shopped out we collected Dad and wandered down to the local Pizza Express. This is a chain of Italian restaurants which is fancier than it sounds. They make delicious thin-crust pizzas - my favourite is the Padana, with goat's cheese, red and caramalised onions, spinach and garlic oil. We had wine and a nice long catch-up. South Ken is a great area of London, it feels very "omg I'm in London" to me. But also with a good dose of quaint and cute.

David was literally wrapping up writing his thesis in the days my parents were here, so we were trying not to be in the way, and to be quiet when we were in the flat. Shh!

Thanks for coming to visit us, family!

Thanksgiving in Streatham

Shortly after we moved in to our new apartment, it was time to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. (So what if no one else is doing it?)

Our move was not without its challenges - the previous tenants did not leave the apartment very clean, but it was clean enough in our new landlord's opinion. So, after leaving our old apartment in pristine condition (with the cleaning fumes still clinging to us) we had to start right over at our new place. Not fun. But we got past it and I think we're even starting to feel like Stanthorpe Road is home.

I decided I needed to kick-start the homey feel by cooking us Thanksgiving dinner, even if it was only for two. (This was in spite of the fact that our oven was broken and the new one was delivered on the day of the cooking. Most intelligent people would be deterred by such circumstances - not this girl.)

We went out in the afternoon to wander around Streatham Common where there is a nice garden.

At one point I was thinking of doing a roast chicken, which I had done for our first Thanksgiving in Dallas. However, I was daunted by the oven situation and decided to opt for turkey breasts instead. Not sure why I thought this would make such a huge difference but whatever.

Root vegetables, leeks and sage
Go turkey go!

It felt very homey indeed, amid busyness at both school and work. With October underway David had barely eight weeks to go in his programme!

...and then we had to move.

Life in London continues to go well! However we had a bit of a challenge in the fall (as David launched into the final, busiest stages of his master's work) - our building was sold at auction and the new landlord immediately gave notice to all the tenants. This left David and I with eight weeks left to live in our apartment, when we are were only planning to remain in the UK for about four months tops. We offered more money for the ability to stay, we begged, we groveled (I offered to cry but didn't get the opportunity) - to no avail. Moving to a new apartment was our only option.

At the same time, my work was in a position of needing me to stay on about another month than originally intended. I used the opportunity to secure a contract for my tenure (rather than week-to-week temp work) and so I will be in my current office manager job until the end of February. In fact, I'm hearing rumours that they would be interested in keeping me on long-term - it's nice to be wanted!

Aside from the inconvenience of the timing (which was huge), we were so sad to be forced to leave our apartment which had been such a good set-up for us. We knew we would have little hope of finding something a) short-term; b) affordable; c) at the same level of niceness as our first place; d) in an equally convenient location to our destinations (school for David, work for me.)

I mean... look how nice it is!  :)  

In a show of domestic grief I baked a pie.

Don't make me leave!

Maybe if I give the new landlord this pie he will let us stay.

So I found myself plunged again into scouring sites like Zoopla, Findaproperty and Primelocation to land us a new place to live. The trick in London is that places are snapped up very quickly. By the time a listing makes it online, it is probably practically taken already. And you can pay a lot of money for a not very nice place. Well, it was a team effort as usual - I combed the listings in our price range obsessively, weighing all the options from a truly short-term rental with all utilities etc. included, to a longer-term rental like the one we were currently in, with the understanding that we'd have to leave a little early and absorb the cost. We looked at a few apartments, some of which were crummy to the point of absurdity. (One had the bathroom split between two sides of a hallway, so that if someone was in the bathroom with the door closed, you couldn't get in or out of the bedroom. Oh and carpet on the bathroom floor - ew.)

One day while I was at work, one of our lettings agents got in touch to say that he had an apartment available in our price range, close to Streatham rail station. Streatham is on the same rail line that we normally use, but one stop closer along the line to where we normally go. (David takes one line straight into Elephant and Castle to go to LCC; I go to Herne Hill and switch to cross the river and get in to London Victoria for work.) Well, the lettings agent said he could show us the apartment immediately, but I was stuck at work. So I took the appointment, and called David at home with instructions on how to go see the flat. I could tell by his tone when he called back after seeing it that it was a good find and we should go for it.

And so it was, on an unseasonably warm day at the end of September, that Hilary and David loaded their stuff into a friend's borrowed minivan and moved from Tooting to Streatham, to an apartment Hilary had never seen.

And they lived happily until their lease's break clause.

David and me at Streatham Common.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hospitalisés à Paris - Dad's 60th Birthday

Over the summer my parents made a big move - rivalling their exodus from northern Ontario to Toronto in their early twenties - for my Dad to accept a music ministry position with the World Council of Churches, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.  After months of planning, including renting out the house where I grew up and shutting down their telephone number (!) they moved to Geneva in mid July.  They were just in time to take a quick weekend off from the new job (ha ha!) to meet David and I in Paris, where we all celebrated my Dad's 60th birthday together.

David and I took an eeeearly train from London to Paris (via the aforementioned Chunnel - love it!!), shivering in the cold morning air of late JULY as we walked from the bus to St. Pancras International train station.  We arrived in Paris just before lunchtime, and had the afternoon on our own before my parents' arrival later that afternoon.  We happily undertook the walk from Gare du Nord to our hotel - get this - right by Notre Dame de Paris, stopping on our way for a croissant and a pain au chocolat - so tasty!!

We stopped here to eat our croissants.  Ahh!
I couldn't resist taking a picture of this, and remembered getting to hear Franz Liszt's music in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig!  What an amazing year!
David wayfinding.
Our wanderings brought us past the Centre Pompidou, which I first saw on my trip to Paris with the Kopuli when I was 19.  There was some kind of incredible omelette smell coming from a nearby café, but we resisted temptation because we had such big culinary plans for later in the day.  It did smell good though - grilled peppers or something.

As we approached the hotel we crossed the Seine - ah, Paris!  We got very lucky with the weather because rain had been forecast but the sky was beautiful and the temperature perfect.  We took in the Paris-Plage setup, where they card in sand and giant beach chairs and water misters, and people get a chance to enjoy the "beach" right there along the Seine.  Cute!

After that, thanks to David's wayfinding (and my Mom's dealfinding) skills we had no trouble finding the Hôtel Dieu, where we would be staying for the weekend.  So, it's actually a hospital, which used to be a monastery, and because of the tradition of the tradition of monastic communities being centres of hospitality as well as healing, they've retained this little suite of hotel rooms tucked way away on the top floor in one corner of the hospital.  You can stay there for a good price - really good for the centre of Paris, the location is unbelievable - and it's a nice spot to rest your head.  Plus it's hilarious, you're staying in a hospital.  The running joke was "Oh yes it's Andrew's sixtieth birthday and we're afraid the excitement will be too much for him so we're staying at a hospital."  Hah.

Our hotel / hospital.  Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Beautiful vaulted hallway on the ground floor of the hospital.

Pretty garden courtyard in the hospital!

How do you get to the sixth floor?  Can't find it... oh well this is a pretty view.
I can't find the hotel rooms, but this guy's handsome, let me take his picture.
We eventually found the hotel area, after the elevator left us off on the fourth floor and we had to walk up two flights of very employee-only-looking stairs to get to the sixth floor.  Though the rooms weren't ready, the kind staff let David and I leave our backpacks off with them while we explored the city for the day.  I even did well using my French to speak to the concierge.

The view from the skylight - what did I say, location, location, location!
Freed of our backpacks, we set off on our sightseeing adventure.  We literally crossed the street and this is what we saw!

Seeing Notre Dame again so strongly brought me back to my first trip to Paris in 2003.  Notre Dame had been really high on my list of must-sees and I think it was basically the first thing we did on the first day we arrived - those Kopuli are so good to me.  It was one of the most famous sites I'd ever seen in my life up until then, so you can imagine it made an impact on me.  It's just so beautiful!  Seeing it again, though, it was so interesting to find it looking more low and squat than I remembered - if a cathedral can possibly look low and squat!  I think it's because now I've seen other similar churches that are taller (St. Paul's being pretty high on that list).  Oh, I'm so worldly, Notre Dame looks small.  Ha ha!  

David an I were so excited to be in Paris together again, still having adventures together, about eight years and one wedding later.  He's my travelling companion!

We darted around to the park at the back of the cathedral, another spot I remember loving from our first trip. 

Ahh, time for a quick sit!
The clouds began to threaten a little but we still struck out on our walk.  We took a good long stroll down along the Seine, enjoying the Paris-Plage goings-on and all the beautiful buildings of Paris.

Fabulous sand castle project going on at the plage!

The Louvre

Me in the Louvre courtyard!

We found a little grocer a couple of blocks south of the Seine and bought a simple lunch - goat's cheese, prosciutto and fruit.  Then we popped into a boulangerie and bought a big baguette and some little cream puffs for dessert.  We brought our treasures with us to the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries, which is dotted with green metal chairs for the public to relax on, and ate our lunch and soaked up the sunshine.  I could have sat there forever.

We sat, dozed and people-watched for a good long time, and kept saying we couldn't believe how lucky we were with the weather, when rain had been forecast for much of the weekend.  Some of these metal chairs that they leave out for people are even shaped to recline in - ahhhh.

Where to now, travel buddy?

We continued our nice walk along the Seine, gradually making our way back to the hotel.  We got back there with time to have a bit of a rest before meeting my parents, whose train arrived around 3pm.

With David's transit instructions, they had no trouble finding the hotel, and we had a very joyful reunion across from Notre Dame.  It was the exact day of my Dad's birthday - I couldn't believe we were all there in Paris together.  When I think about it, if you have told me ten years ago on my Dad's fiftieth birthday (it's ten years since he got his lute!) that we would be in Paris together for his sixtieth, I would have thought "WOW, we're going to take a huge family trip to Paris together [i.e., from Toronto!] to celebrate Dad in Paris, what a big trip!"  I never would have imagined David and I would have been living in London, and be able to hop on the train and be in Paris in two hours, to meet my parents fresh from Geneva.  What an amazing life this is.  I'm grateful every day for these experiences.

We wasted no time in getting the party started.  After settling my parents in their room (the hotel people had kindly put David's and my stuff in our room once it was ready!) we gathered for birthday presents.  These were punctuated with my parents' stream-of-consciousness stories from their first week or so in Geneva, including starting the flat hunt, getting set up at the WCC, braving Swiss beaurocracy, trying to figure out how to get their laundry done (harder than it sounds) and my Dad's experiences in Jamaica and Armenia as part of his new position.

One of Dad's gifts - marmalade from London.
We spent a good long time opening gifts and cards, sharing stories, and saying things like "can you believe we're in Paris together?"

After that, we got dressed and went out for birthday dinner at a suitably Parisian hour.

What fun!
David did a ton of research and chose the restaurant for Dad's birthday dinner.  We walked from the Hôtel Dieu to the edge of the Quartier Latin to Le Petit Prince, which came highly recommended by the online community.

We had an amazing meal - good choice, David.  My appetizer was Verrine de roquefort aux noisettes en crumble de fruits secs - a soft Roquefort cheese dish, almost like a parfait, with a sweet crumble and dried fruit on top that you ate with crusty bread.  Delicious!  David had Poelée d'escargots et pousse d'ortie, jus d'herbe corsé - escargots with a very interesting and tasty herb compote, kind of like a wheatgrass compote.  For my main course I had the special which came highly recommended by the server, a fish filet (Cod?  I can't remember, but a white fish) with a thai-inspired peanut dressing accompanied by very French creamy potatoes.  David had a very interesting lamb dish garnished with watermelon coulis - made all the more interesting by the fact that he was sure he'd ordered the duck confit.  My Dad the birthday boy treated himself to Minute de bœuf sauce poivre - filet of beef with peppercorn sauce.  Doesn't it all sound so much better in French??

We all enjoyed noticing the French-language turn of phrase " son..." when describing a dish; as in "Noix de Saint-Jacques en persillade et son millefeuille de légumes," meaning "such-and-such with a side of such-and-such, but roughly translating to "something with its something else."  We decided it was like the main dish has a sidekick; roast chicken, and its sidekick, scalloped potatoes!

We enjoyed a carafe of wine and each other's company very much, and fêted Dad the very best we could.

Mom's dessert - Tarte Tatin aux pommes "maison", glace caramel au beurre salé 
My dessert (my favourite) - Crème brûlée au carambar

You can't tell, but we're in front of Notre Dame!

The next day we set out on our big site-seeing day.  We really only had one day all together in Paris, so we did want to take advantage of it.  We started out on a walk similar to what David and I had done the day before, along the Seine.

The Paris hôtel de ville
So, which picturesque sidewalk cafe do you want to stop at?
We ate breakfast in the outdoor area of a cafe that looked across a plaza to the Centre Pompidou.  We had a nice slow start to the day and took in the passersby.  Mom and I poked around a street shop and bought pashminas that we both like very much.

Nearby the Centre Pompidou


Part of the Paris-Plage along the Seine.
Back toward the Louvre!
Me and my Mommy.
After a nice long walk we arrived at the Musée d'Orsay, which we had decided was a must-see for our brief trip.  This is the large collection of Impressionist paintings, which tons of people have told me is their favourite thing about Paris.  What I hadn't known is that the museum is housed in a former rail station - WOW, so gorgeous.

Statue outside the museum.

Of course there was no photography inside, and actually it was an interesting experience of the museum because large parts of it are under construction and the collection was jammed into a relatively small number of rooms.  Still amazing, though - hugely famous works by Monet, Renoir, Dégas et al.  Mom and I were particularly taken with a pastel portrait of a woman with a creamy, wispy dress and a great eggplant-coloured hat; we were sad when there were no prints of it in the shop.  I was also taken with a hugely ornamental clock, which would have been the station clock, in the grand hall.  I could have sworn I took a picture of it, but now I don't have one, so I think it's just the picture in my mind.

After that we hopped on the Métro to make our way back to the hotel.  After a brief rest, we got ourselves ready for our evening's activities - mass at Notre Dame and another nice dinner right nearby.

The mass was a hubbub of tourist activity.  Once we got inside Notre Dame, the front two thirds of the congregation was already full.  We were jostled around by fellow tourists who continued talking and shuffling as the procession and mass began.  I tried to stifle my urge to clutch at my pearls amid what felt like a very unliturgical din - they continued to allow tourists to stream around the outer part of the sanctuary as the service progressed.  We tried to sing along with the responses, but we didn't know them and the music wasn't printed - they needed a Catholic worship enlivener!  We enjoyed it nonetheless and I was even able to follow most of the sermon.  When we came to a long part of singing that I couldn't follow, I just enjoyed staring up at the vaulted ceiling - wow.  After the service we wandered up to the front to have a look at the alter, but after a couple of minutes a low, booming voice - God?? - announced that the cathedral was closing and all visitors should make their way to the exits.  The mass had been almost completely full - what a great chance to experience worship in the heart of Paris.

After that, we still had some time until our dinner reservation, so we walked down a ways away from Notre Dame and our hotel, and stood on one of the bridges across the Seine visiting and taking in the scenery.  Seinery?

Wearing the pashmina I bought.

Je t'aime - nous voici à Paris!
Happy birthday plus one, Dad!

Our evening meal was at Au Bougnat, which is actually very close to Notre Dame.  It was the runner-up for Dad's birthday dinner, and David and I decided to make a reservation there for the second evening so that we wouldn't be searching around for a restaurant with an available table.  We are so glad we decided to do this - the restaurant was great!  It had a wonderful atmosphere and the food was delicious.  We had unbelievable smoked salmon as an appetizer, which was very rare, almost like sashimi.  My main dish was Filet de canard à la plancha, étuvé de navets ronds au thym et laurier - a completely delicious duck filet, and its sidekick, steamed turnip with thyme and laurel.  David chose the unbelievably delicious Pavé de colin en croute d'herbes, riz arborio comme une paella et coulis de crustacés - hake filet with an herb crust, YUM, and a creamy rice paella.  We all agreed David had done very well with the restaurant selection.  

We had hugs all around before going to bed, and David and I headed back to London the next day.  What an amazing time, seeing each other in Paris!  I hope I will be back soon, but I'm not sure any visit could top such a wonderful time with family.  Plus I need a bit of time to work off all the cream sauce.

Mon cher papa,
c'est à ton tour
de te laisser parler d'amour.

Joyeux soixantième, papa!