Sunday, December 30, 2012

Favorite UK songs from 2012

Bonus post!  We thought it would be fun to document our favorite UK radio songs thus far.    Kerry and I listen to quite a bit of radio on our road trips and drives to the gym, usually BBC Radio 1, which is usually just popular songs repeated over and over.  I believe most of these were released in 2012, but there might be a few older songs that gained popularity later this year.  I have no idea how our picks are doing in popularity stateside.  Many of the artists are from the UK, but there are a few Americans thrown in the mix too, I think.

Quite a bit of dance/house music, which is huge out here and has been growing on us.  House music was usually on the playlist at CrossFit Indy North before we moved anyway, so we were primed and ready for it when we got here.  I do have a few indie rock songs in the list, which is what I would tend to listen to if I had my own playlist.

So what do you think?  Post to comments!  What are we missing back in the US?  Are any of these songs equally popular?  And to my UK friends - do we have good taste?


Calvin Harris featuring Example - We'll Be Coming Back

Mumford and Sons - Lover of the Light

Swedish House Mafia - Don't You Worry Child
Porter Robinson - Language

Ellie Goulding - Figure 8

Calvin Harris featuring Florence Welch - Sweet Nothing

Alt-J - Matilda

David Guetta featuring Sia - She Wolf

Plan B - Ill Manors

The Lumineers - Ho Hey

Willy Moon - Yeah Yeah

Then two songs that we can't agree on
Kerry's pick:  Disclosure - Latch

Jeff's pick: Rudimental featuring John Newman and Alex Clare - Not Giving In

Bonus list -  Guilty pleasure songs we would never admit to actually liking, but will forever remind us of our time here in the UK.

Sam and the Womp - Bom Bom

Dizzee Rascals - Bonkers

Robbie Williams - Candy

"Home" for the Holidays

I'm still enjoying my break from work, continuing the trend of lazy dayz.  But not so lazy that I have nothing to talk about:  I'll pick up from when we got home from Edinburgh on Christmas Eve.

First, a little background.  Kerry's family traditionally has a Polish dinner on Christmas eve of perogies and kielbasa.  However, as children, Kerry and her siblings and cousins never enjoyed these delicious Polish dishes, so her parents would order a pizza for the youngsters.  Well, this stuck, and so the Christmas Eve tradition continues to be perogies, kielbasa, and pizza.   If I tried to recreate the tradition, I'd be the only consumer of the former two.  Also, my family tradition was lasagna which, again, is not popular with my better half.

So, this Christmas Eve, since neither of us are big fans of the local takeout options, I tried to make pizza with dough we made and froze beforehand.   Additionally, I used our meat grinder to prepare some "real" Italian sausage (at least how we're used to it back home) from a pork loin.

Throwing some pizza dough around in my sweats 
The final result was tasty, but not so great in the looks department - the crust stuck to my baking sheet.  Amateur mistake, I know.

Christmas morning we slept in, and then we started the festivities with champagne and a bit of squeezed orange juice -  not a true mimosa since I was lacking the Cointreau.

Like I said in the previous post, this was our first (and likely only) Christmas with just the two of us.  We were a bit worried we might feel a bit lonely or homesick, but to be honest, it was really quite nice!  We worked on a Christmas puzzle that I borrowed from a coworker (thanks Carol!).  Christmas puzzles were another family tradition of ours.

For lunch we had tortilla chips and salsa, and then made some almond crescent meltaway cookies.  I forgot to buy powdered (icing) sugar to dust on the cookies, so I attempted to make some in the food processor with normal granulated sugar...haha, not enough power with our little machine.  

After lunch, Kerry's family was starting to wake up back in the Central time zone, so we set up the  Google "Hang out" session to virtually join her family in the hot tub.  This is another annual tradition - Christmas morning you jump in the hot tub with a glass of wine.  I was actually drinking coffee with brandy this year though.

This will be a great year to add to the collection of Christmas morning hot tub photos!
Later, my family on the Pacific coast woke up, so I gave them a call through the Viber smartphone app which works over WiFi or 3G mobile internet (no calling fees).  They spent Christmas up in the mountains east of Seattle.

I must take a moment to say that we were invited to some Christmas dinners by some of our very thoughtful UK friends, and we were truly touched by the invitation.  However, in the end we decided to make the most of this simple holiday, and maybe even start some traditions of our own.

For dinner I made a real steak.  I caught a great deal on a thick bone-in ribeye.  When I say thick I'm talking 2.5 inches, over 1 kg.  Basically this would be a standing rib roast, but with only one rib, it was cooked on its side.  I served it with some greens in my signature style - steaming them in the juices of the steak.   Instead of offering a steak sauce on the side, the diner eats the greens that are just packed with flavor.  You read it here first, folks!

And now for the best part of a UK Christmas - the PUDDING!  This year I simply bought one from Asda, but I did spend a few extra for the "luxury" version.  I did a bit of research online and with coworkers to know that it should be served with either custard or brandy butter, so I made both.  Custard is simply being egg yolk tempered with a hot mixture of cream, sugar, and vanilla (hah, hard to go wrong there!).   Brandy butter being exactly what you think - brandy + butter + sugar whipped together.  I got a bit too generous with the brandy and the whole mixture broke, so it was more like the worst cocktail experiment ever, but it still tasted good!

The pudding was steamed in a large pot for 2 hours, and then the best part:  you pour warm brandy over it, turn off the lights, and light it on fire!

Hah, all my brandy just ran around the edges, so a bit underwhelming.
I'll say it now - this must be one of the best desserts I've ever had.   The pudding is a dense cake made with molasses (treacle) and mixed with dried fruits and nuts that has been soaked with brandy and aged 6 months.  The fire from the brandy toasted the outer crust.  The flavor is very rich, moist, boozy, and incredibly complex.  And then you add extra cream and butter!   This is the tradition I'll be bringing back - I'll make mine from scratch as soon as we get settled so it can age as long as possible.

On Boxing Day, most places were still closed, so we finished our puzzle then took a long walk along the canal near our house.  This is the first time I've actually explored Sandiacre.

Geese were expecting bread or something, spoiled brats

The rest of the week remained low key, but on the 29th we went to London.  This is London Trip #3 and is best left for another post.  It was a quick trip, but I fear I may go off on some rants if I try to write it all now, so stay tuned for that first thing next year.  In the mean time, have a wonderful New Year's Eve, and an amazing 2013.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmastime in Edinburgh

Well, I'm halfway through my Christmas break and just had the least productive day in a long time, on purpose.  It's been a quiet holiday, just the two of us, but one that will be memorable, as we both think it will be the only Christmas we'll ever spend as such.

On Dec-21 we drove up to Edinburgh, a drive that took just about 5 and a half hours from the Sandiacre bungalow.  Some months ago we reserved a flat just off High street in the heart of old town just south of the train station.  Interestingly, the train would only take 4 hours, but 2 tickets cost more than the diesel for the Peugeot 3008, and as you might know from previous posts, I don't mind the drive.

A wee bit of Scottish countryside

I entertained myself with a fuel economy experiment by keeping the speed around 65 (limit was 70) and sticking to the left [slow] lane on cruise control.  The computer system on this compact crossover told me I was averaging 58 miles/gallon!  Ah, but don't get too excited.  Gallons here are Imperial gallons, or the volume of 10 pounds of water (at 62 F, of course).  US gallons only weigh 8.3 lbs, but that means I'm still hitting over 45 mpg, not too shabby!  Considering the cost of fuel here, I'll take it.  It is interesting what you can do with fuel economy when you start taking away performance; weighing in at over 2 tons, this car would not be too popular in America with its 100 hp, 1.6 liter engine and 14 second 0-60 rating.

The ironic bit about Imperial gallons is that no one uses pounds to measure water anymore, since that would be confused with British Sterling, Weight is in kilograms for things (well, technically mass but I won't go there...) and stones are used for people, where a stone is 14 pounds.  I've never heard anyone use decimal points with stones, so I would say I weigh 13 stone 5 pounds.  I think, or just round down to 13 stone, but now we're introducing quite a bit of uncertainty into our measurements, don't you think?

Wow, let's get back on track.  We stopped at Sainsbury's for Christmasy treats, wine, and groceries, then I dropped Kerry off at our flat while I went to park the car at the free park and ride, about 3 miles away.  We brought our little tree with us to give the flat a more festive feel.  We then walked to the Christmas Market; I kept my expectations low after Birmingham, but I will say I thoroughly enjoyed Edinburgh's offerings!  It turns out it was the crowd after all - it was much easier to get around in Edinburgh.  I did note that they contained the beer drinking to a garden, which probably helped the congestion issues we experienced in Birmingham.

Colorful lights abound in the ride section of the market.

Would you rather fight a horse-sized penguin or 50 penguin-sized horses?
For dinner we had a pork roast with sprouts and potatoes, and a luxury chocolate yule log cake for dessert, thanks to Sainsburys.  Then we watched Love Actually with newfound appreciation for actor Andrew Lincoln after just finishing Walking Dead season 3.  Most of the actors in that movie have ended up with pretty successful careers.  2003 was the last good year for Christmas comedies evidently (Bad Santa was released the same year).

On our first full day, the itinerary was to hike up Arthur's Seat - an extinct volcano - and then go to the Castle.  It ended up being a pretty rainy day (surprise?), so we had to roll with the punches.

Loved Edinburgh's architecture

I have not studied Scottish poetry, but now I know where to go.
Working our way up against the wind and rain

Close enough - let's turn back...

We didn't make it to the top unfortunately, owing it to the weather.  Still saw some great views of the city, and this was the 2nd volcanic rock we've climbed in as many weeks!

The rain persisted at the castle.

Brace yourselves, a mob of umbrella wielding tourists approach!

More great views from the castle entrance

There are two military museums on the castle grounds which served to keep us dry and warm as we browsed through Scotland's fascinating military history.

War posters in the regimental museum
And we then got to see the royal jewels - a crown, sword, and sceptre along with the stone of destiny (which looks like a concrete block to the naked eye but has loads of historical significance).

Kings family tree goes way back

The faux fire in the great hall provided no warmth
A huge cannon on display next to Mon's Meg, an old medieval siege gun

The cold was starting to get to us so we headed back home to warm up and eat lunch - this is  a great reason to rent a flat near city center - no fuss finding restaurants.

Kerry warming up by a fireplace-shaped heater that did provide warmth
We rallied to walk around downtown some more at night, taking in the city sidewalks dressed in holiday style, then found a pub for some mulled wine.

Wine and a pint - better prices than the Christmas market!
After a dinner of hamburger patties and roast cauliflower, we broke out a Sainsburys pie and watched Home Alone.  I hadn't watched this one from beginning to end in about 18 years, but I must have watched it 40 times as a kid on VHS; it brought back some good memories.  

Our final full day we went to the zoo!  We are unabashed zoo fiends, and Edinburgh is one of the 16 zoos in 11 countries which have pandas.  We've seen the pandas in DC in 2004, and San Diego in 2009, so it was high time for another panda viewing!   I read in advance that the Edinburgh bus system takes exact change only - I used this as an opportunity to unload the large quantity pennies and 2-pence coins that I've acquired.  You're welcome Lothian bus system.

The Edinburgh zoo is not large, but the exhibits it does have were well done, which is the mark of a good zoo, in my opinion.  Animal pictures through glass never turn out well, but we had a great time.  The weather was just slightly better than the previous day, so attendance was very low.  Panda viewings are usually tightly controlled, but we got to come and go as we pleased.  As pandas sleep 16 hours a day, the odds of seeing them active are pretty low in a 30 minute window, so we thought this was a great opportunity and went back for a 2nd viewing in the afternoon.

Other highlights were the koalas, chimpanzees, penguins, and the squirrel monkey which defecated in his hand and smeared it on the glass right in front of Kerry's face.  

A bit more rain when we arrived, but it cleared up later
Tian Tian (female)
This chimp had remarkably bare arms which showed off his muscular definition

A very friendly Steller's sea eagle
The sun came out for a brief moment!  I believe this is as high as it gets this time of year.

After the zoo we did a quick walkthrough of the National Scottish Museum, we really only saw a small slice of the museum with the time we had (and level of fatigue climbing).  It was pretty large - they combine Scottish history with natural history and art all in one place, so you have to just pick one and go back another day for the others.   Mind blowing fact of the day - 410 million years ago Scotland was a separate land mass from England, that had traversed all the way from the south pole through the equator.  I wonder if the modern border is where they joined up?  And if so, how did they know?

Dinner was roast chicken with green beans and a Sainsbury's Italian panetonne.  Yeah, I know we're getting a bit ridiculous with the desserts but hey it was nearly Christmas!

Christmas Eve, on the way home I took a more scenic route on the A7 thorugh Scottish Borders territory, then took the A68 through Northumberland national park.

A7 Borders historic route

Northumberland Park

Driving on The Street - the GPS did not like my scenic route

Straddling the border

Union Jack - now I get it! (slaps forehead)

So we are home on Christmas Eve, but I'll save the events that unfolded from this point for another post.  This post is way too long anyway.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Happy Christmas, Birmingham!

So we hear a lot about Christmas markets out here; better check out a popular one on a Saturday evening!  Birmingham's Christmas market is "twinned" with Frankfurt, whatever that means.  Basically there's a lot of German fare to be had and it's all very festive.  I think folks enjoy going to these to get themselves in the Christmas spirit - but they seem to all come at once.  I wasn't surprised it would be busy on a Saturday night, but I haven't been in a crowd like this since I tried to walk down Georgia street in Indianapolis the weekend of Super Bowl XLVI while LMFAO was performing.

The lowenbrau was flowing in 1L mugs beneath Santa

No surprises here, exactly what I imagined a Christmas market stall would look like.
 To start, I filled up on some German treats.
Hard to beat a real German pretzel with butter 

Hard to beat an authentic 0.5m bratwurst (doubled up) with mustard

Hard to beat...nevermind I'm stuffed, I'll just look.

Kerry by the merry-go-round

I wasn't joking about the crowds, especially near the beer stalls.

Festive lighting across the street

Gluhwein!  The main reason to go to the Christmas market - hot mulled wine.  Out of a ceramic mug no less.

The funny thing about the Christmas market was that everyone was walking around with giant glass beer mugs or hot wine mugs - no paper, foam, or plastic anywhere.  You pay a 3 pound deposit (5 for the 1 L mugs), and get a token.  You have to return both to get your money back, and you get to enjoy the experience of real drinkware.  The problem with this premise tonight, of course, is the crowds.  To get your deposit back meant you had to enter the fray of drunk Brits which increased significantly during the hour we walked around.

A life size Christmas pyramid - something tells me the candles on this one are just for show...

The bottom line - maybe we're a couple of Scrooges, but this experience did not make us feel very Christmasy.  I always enjoy German sausages, but I just didn't get the rest of it.  Sorry folks, if you added barn animals and put it 6 months earlier you'd have an American midwestern county fair.   Frankfurt may want to find a new twin - I might suggest Cincinnati.  I don't even blame the drunk crowds, but that did certainly detract from the experience.  We're going to Edinburgh next week, so maybe that will be better?  I'll keep an open mind.

To be fair, I'm sure a lot of Europeans would struggle to understand a lot of our traditions back home.  I have fond memories of going to Chicago's State street with my parents and sister to look at the Marshall Fields window displays which tell a different story every year.  It's all about what you grow up with, really.

The one thing Kerry wanted was a fresh slice of gingerbread (not the hard cookies).   This was nowhere to be found, so in an effort to salvage the night we went back home and baked our own then watched The King's Speech.  Kerry did put some effort into our own little Christmas by decorating our living room without spending too much on things we can't fly back home with.

Charlie Brown would be impressed

Well, only 9 more days until I can indulge in my first Christmas pud!  We bought one from Asda that's been aged for 6 months.  Let's just say that my expectations are high after being disappointed by Yorkshire pud - which is nothing more than plain bread in a bowl shape.

Cheers and Merry Christmas to our family and friends!

Tenerrific Tenerife

Dec 2-7 was an unexpected excursion made possible by my parents' timeshare week exchange.  The timeshare interval was about to expire so they offered the week to us, and we were beyond grateful for the generosity.  In no scenario of how my life would unfold have I ever imagined spending a week in the Spanish Canary islands 60 miles off the Moroccan coast in December, in celebration of nothing in particular.  Kerry and I have done nothing to deserve such opportunity, and for that we try to remain forever thankful.   Everyone - friends and family, new and old, who we connect with along the way weave a fabric that is shaping my life before my eyes.  When I step back and think about the chain of events which led to my current situation, I'm dumbfounded.  We only hope that one day we can humbly return the favors offered to us.

Sun, sand, sky, and sea - makes you feel human

The 4.5 hour flight from Manchester to Tenerife South airport (the big one they built after the  1977 disaster) was quite a deal.  $145/person roundtrip for a 2000 mile journey seemed too good to be true; a similar journey from Indianapolis to the west coast is almost unheard of these days.  I studied the public bus system (TITSA) before we left, and that, coupled with my weak handle on the Spanish language, gave us the confidence to get around the island without a car rental.  In fact, it was the smoothest transfer so far - usually the chaos that is getting from the airport to the hotel with local currency in hand is the most difficult task associated with our trip.  Maybe we're getting good at this?  But I don't want to brag; I'm sure  the next time will throw a few more curveballs.

Soaking in the sun near our timeshare in Chayofa

Some views from our neighborhood

The best part of this trip was we had a kitchenette, which means we were able to cook dinners instead of having to find a restaurant every night.

Shopping for supplies:  water and wine.  We were told not to drink out of the tap, and wine was under 4 euros a bottle.  Now walk 1000m, no drops!

Making some dinner plans at the carniceria

Not a pedestrian friendly route back from shopping

Rebels without a car

Appreciating the views and we decided this 3200' hill must be climbed ASAP.
The week was low key, with the budget focused on food and bus fare.  Even though we were there 5 nights, the time spent poolside and oceanside reading novels makes it easy to compress this into a single post.

Poolside reading and vino

Looking for the perfect beach spot in Los Cristianos, better take my shirt off
Ocean views here beat Skegness for sure
Here's a summary of our trip because after this I'm going to focus on our two excursions.
Day 1:  Check out Los Cristianos, buy groceries, hang out on beach
Day 2:  Excursion 1 - Climb Roque del Conde
Day 3:  Relax poolside, Check out Playa de las Americas
Day 4:  Excursion 2 - Descend into the Masca Gorge
Day 5:  Catch a 6:30 am flight home ("beggars" can't be choosers, you get what you pay for, etc)

Like I said, we wanted to climb the hill (Roque del Conde), so we did.

Obvious sign

Cobblestone path?  Not for the hikers - crazy folks used to farm this hillside

Important rule about hiking is to stop and enjoy the view often

The start of the hike descends into this ravine

From my time spent in AZ, I knew prickly pear fruits were edible.  They were nice and ripe here so I stopped for a snack - only a few thorns got stuck in my lip.  Great taste, imagine a tart raspberry/pomegranate blend.  Stains the fingers pretty bad though.  Kerry ate one too.

Massive organ pipe cactus?

Near the peak

Made it! A view of Tiede volcano behind me, only another 8000 ft climb to tackle that one... next time.
This orange lichen is very vibrant, and I'm sure there are interesting facts to be read about why.  I'll add that to the list.

Well that looks precarious...

Found some goats grazing on the way back down, can you spot them?

Didn't do any fact checking, but this looks like lit could have been lava 100 years ago
To refuel after this walk we hit up a local restaurant where I had some local dishes of calorie dense gofio and papas arrugadas (a bland chickpea paste and small potatoes with wrinkly skin boiled in seawater).   It was served with some tasty pepper sauces however.  Kerry had some prawns with garlic - always a winner.  It's been a long time since we had some good shrimp.

The next day was low key.  We watched some surfers and it made me want to try it out some day.  Surely it is less painful than learning how to snowboard?

Nothing like ocean sunsets

Thursday was the big hike starting from the remote town Masca. This was going to take 3 buses to get there, with the final bus only making one trip a day, and we would only have 6 minutes to make the transfer.

Well you guessed it, we missed that bus.  There was a bit of confusion when buses were late and then as to which stop we were supposed to get off in Santiago del Tiede.   Luckily it was a very short ride we missed to Masca, only 5 km.  We're highly capable, so we walked it and saved 3 euro.  In fact, I was glad we did; it made us appreciate the remoteness of this village all the more.  

One side note - I was impressed by the bus driver handling the mountain roads to get to Santiago del Tiede.  Considering how often I imagine the bus needs its brake pads replaced, the ride was a good deal.  

Sorry for missing the last leg, but the walk to the trailhead had amazing views

Reminds me of Phoenix

Good grief, have I no concern for safety?

One of my favorite pictures from the trip, with La Gomera in the distance

Buses would have to make 3 point turns to make this corner

Shortcut?  It was a bad idea - the volcanic dirt was loose and we both gashed our hands as we slid down to the next switchback.

At the trailhead we descended into the jungle gorge, which was full of amazing views that reminded me of some sections of the grand canyon.  The cliff walls were only 600 meters, but still impressive.  I got trigger happy with the camera here so brace yourself.

"The decrease takes 3 hours transitting spots that might cause vertigo, present difficulties  at passing, or suffer danger of rockfall."  Huh?  Just keep going.

No one was around to take our picture.

Cool sign, instagram-ish effect from the sun.

Not sure what I'm trying to do here - maybe I thought the hike was not dangerous enough.

The last manmade structure for a while.  I should note we saw quite a few elderly Germans on the hike, as in the upper right corner.  Impressive fitness, this hike was no joke!

Some of those 600 m cliffs. 
More old lava?

Kerry hiding in the tall grasses, can you spot her?

Slippery when wet

The last thing you'd see if you fell

Still on the trail?  I don't see any cairns.

The stones are strategically placed to avoid wet feet, but still slick.  We both had wet feet by the end.

More excellent scenery

One of the more technical spots on the trail

Made it to the water!

Black volcanic sand

Refreshing myself in the waves

Kerry was not done being dangerous yet

We had some food on the beach and hung out in the sun for an hour before we got picked up by a boat that took us to Los Gigantes.

Waiting for the boat

The driver started handing out beers

Hard to believe we hiked down between those cliffs

Condos hanging off the cliffs in Los Gigantes.  You can imagine how the town got it's name.

Gigantes would be a great town to spend more time in, it seemed much less touristy than Los Cristianos, but I think it was more well-to-do overall.   We had to catch our bus home though so didn't have a lot of time to enjoy.

Our flight left early on Friday, and we were both a bit stiff when we woke up.  That hike was pretty hard on the knees and hips, since it was mostly downhill the whole time.  Totally worth it though.   We were very pleased with the mix of activity and rest on this trip, even though we missed the volcano.  Oh well, it was always cloudy around the peak anyway all week.   Upon return it was only two more weeks of work to wrap up the year.

Dawn - a view courtesy of RyanAir.  Adios Tenerife.