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Sandwiches, Cakes and Scones, Oh My!

If there's one British tradition I truly love, it's afternoon tea. I feel like the British are the only people in the world who actually understand the need to sit down and have a rest and a very good snack in the late afternoon. Because three meals a day isn't really enough, is it?

I think Anna Maria Russell, duchess of Bedford, who began the afternoon tea tradition in the early 1800s, was very sensible. At the time, a light lunch was served around noon, but dinner was not until a fashionable 8 p.m. at night, so there was a long stretch of day in which to become very hungry. So Anna got in the habit of eating some bread and butter, cake and drinking tea around 4 or 5 p.m. to stave off the hunger pangs.

Although I am clearly not a duchess in that time period -- or a duchess at all, like some other Americans living in the U.K. -- the long stretch without food is a problem for me too. As not-a-huge-breakfast eater, I tend to eat lunch at noon. By the time I'm finished with work and home again, it is often 8 p.m. or even later. (For the record, I am eating breakfast now that I am pregnant.)

So I tend to eat a snack around 4-5 p.m. and drink a cup of tea. How I wish that my afternoon snack and drink could be amazing as a real afternoon tea. If you've never had it, you must try it sometime. It's one of my favorite things to recommend to tourists to London (or the U.K. in general). My friend Kelly and I regularly go out to fancy ones in London -- she's an expert at finding cool ones, like the Willy Wonka-themed one we dined on earlier this year. Note the candy floss (cotton candy) as a very cool special effects extra.

If you've never had afternoon tea, here is how it works. It usually consists of selecting a pot of tea (the selection is always very overwhelming and includes herbal as well as black, white and green tea). Then there's the food. First a selection of small sandwiches arrives -- and yes the crusts are always cut off. Traditionally these would be cucumber and cream cheese, smoked salmon, coronation chicken (which is like chicken salad, but a little spicier), ham, and last but not least egg mayonnaise (what they call egg salad in the U.K.). The egg mayonnaise usually has watercress in it. The best part? They will give you as many of these little sandwiches as you want (afternoon tea is usually not cheap, so eat up).

Then come all the little cakes. Miniature versions of whatever the pastry chef has dreamed up, so you can taste a huge variety. But my favorite part by far is the scones, spread with clotted cream and jam. It's hard to describe how good this tastes. From what I understand is that you can't even get clotted cream in the U.S. My Mom and Aunt Pat tried and failed this summer. They even attempted to make it from scratch but then couldn't find regular cream as you need the unpasturized kind and that isn't sold anywhere they could locate.

I've clearly converted my Mom. When she was as in town in April, I took her to my absolute favorite one in London -- Fortnum & Mason's Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. It is quite the experience there. A live pianist plays in the background as you eat your miniature sandwiches, cakes and scones. (Even the little guy likes afternoon tea. After we had our meal I had a very early ultrasound scan scheduled and we saw him dancing around on the screen.)

How adorable is my Mom?
Of course, when you're paying for it, you can have afternoon tea at any time of day really. Sometimes I like to schedule it for lunch, because then you can really dig in.

But someday, I plan to eat a proper afternoon tea every day. I just need to figure out how to make this a reality.

The Best Laid Plans...

Hello, I'm back.

It has been a long while since I posted a blog -- four months in fact.

This year has been a very good lesson in the fact that the best laid plans sometimes just don't matter.

At the start of the year I laid out some intentions, including my New Year's Resolution not to work on Saturdays anymore. There were a lot of things I wanted to do. Like go ice skating once a month and finish the re-write of my memoir. And in January, I diligently spent a small amount of time most days of the week  (apart from Saturdays) working on said re-write. The hub and I went ice skating on a Friday night after work in Streatham and I was pretty excited that we would keep up that new habit. I was going to even buy some ice skates the first weekend in February.

And then.

It seems really silly to talk about ice skating during one of the hottest spells in London I can remember. But that's kind of the way the year has gone. It was January and now it's July. On the last day of January, my mother-in-law had a terrible fall and a subsequent brain hemorrhage. She was in the hospital for 10 weeks and was transferred to a neuro-rehabilitation facility after that. We are now in the process of moving her home with full-time care.

When things like this happen you would be surprised just how fast you drop everything else that is going on. It has not been easy, but it has also shown me how supportive everyone we know -- our friends, family, work colleagues -- could be. Everyone has been simply amazing.

And then as this wasn't life-changing enough, there's also something else.

The hub and I will be having a baby boy! In November. Which is pretty exciting (in a thrilling, roller coaster ride way).

So that's where we are. Wanted to fill in all of you lovely readers on what's been going on, because I've really missed blogging and want to get back to it. I have lots of ideas for things to say, and luckily seem to have found that second-trimester energy boost "they" talk about. Now if the heat wave would just subside!

I look forward to returning to our ongoing conversation.

Let It Go (Or Rest)

I finished the first draft of my novel in late September. And as good as this felt, as a writer, I know that writing is actually all about re-writing, so as I crept to the finish line, I knew that this was only just the beginning.

So the question became: What now?

It didn't take me long to decide that I would let it "rest". I think I need a bit of space and distance from it to feel less attached, so that when I do read it and decide on the editing strategy, I won't be as crushed as the first time that I read my memoir.

You see, the novel is not the only "first draft" I have hanging around at the moment. Back in 2015, I wrote a memoir about moving to the U.K. and my first year here. I've heard that your first book is like throwing up on the page, and I have to say that after re-reading my memoir I understand that completely. 

When I read the memoir for the first time, I simply cried. And no, my work did not move me to tears of great emotion. These were big salty tears of self pity and wallowing, and possibly shock. It was so bad!

Although there were (very small) parts of it that I liked, it just didn't hang together in the way a book should. And fair enough, it was my first attempt to write a whole book. It's not like I could expect to be good at it. But I guess I didn't expect it to be that bad.

As I worked on my novel over the past year, there was that nagging feeling, however, that I needed to do something about the first 60,000 words I toiled away at. In the back of my mind as I hacked away at the novel, I wondered what I should do with the first manuscript (and nothing was a definite possibility as well).

I think I wasn't really ready to deal with it -- I needed some distance before I could let anyone read it, let alone edit it. But in the end, I knew it needed to be done. So over the summer I got back in touch with the editor I had first chatted with about the book. She was still interested, and so I shut my eyes and attached it to an email and sent it over to Boston for a read through.

I was nervous, but I knew that this particular editor at least likes my writing and is also the kind of person who would be careful enough with my frail ego (my financial writing ego is a lot tougher), even if she came back and said the book needs a complete re-write (which it does). Sure enough, she was nice about it, but came back with very specific and helpful notes on what I could do to improve the book. Everything she said made complete sense.

I think it was really helpful that I had left the book for a while to get some distance from it. Attachment to the work we have done (made worse by the back-breaking work), can sometimes be a real block to improving it.

So since September I've been letting the novel have some rest and relaxation. And in the meantime I've been rewriting the memoir, with the hope of having a new draft ready to send back to my editor as soon as I can. It's back-breaking work as well. But hopefully it will mean that no one will ever again read it and cry (in a bad way). 

Photo credit: Sharon Drummond #ds139 "Writer's Block" via photopin (license)

Bulls eye!

Darts is one of those things I have absolutely no interest in. Whatsoever.

So it was a bit weird when I started to become obsessed with an old game show here in the U.K. called Bullseye, which involves darts. Let me explain.

It all started out innocently enough as I found watching repeats of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, on the game show channel here called "Challenge", very soothing. With everything that's going on in the world, and the constant crush of information and hysteria on social media that's out there, this game show harks back to a more innocent time -- where the possibility of winning a million pounds could apparently fix a person's life.

But then something caught my attention. I noticed there was a show after Millionaire, involving the puzzling combination of darts playing and quiz questions. In this show, which aired mostly in the 1980s and 90s, three teams of contestants compete for money and prizes. One person plays darts and the other answers questions. It makes absolutely no sense why these two skills are linked together on the same show, but it certainly hasn't stopped me from finding the whole thing mesmerizing.

There's just the strangeness of the concept, but it's also the fact that I love getting a glimpse into something that existed before I moved to this country. It's a window into a time gone by.

The really strange thing when you move to another country is that you don't know the history. After 15 years of living in this country I have a pretty good knowledge of local celebrities and culture, but it only starts in 2002. Most things before that need to be explained to me (including biscuits). I didn't know who Jimmy Saville even was, and I hadn't ever seen that video clip of Prince Charles saying "whatever love is" (jerk).

So Bulleye gives me a glimpse. There's a bit at the beginning where Jim Bowen the host (with his dulcet calming tones) introduces the sets of guests and asks them to tell their funny anecdotes or asks them socially awkward questions like "So why is it that you're between jobs?". Most of the time the accents are so strong that I can't really understand what they're saying. I also don't get the jokes, because the audience is already laughing while I'm still trying to figure out what they've said, let alone why it's funny. It seems like Britain was a different place back then, or at least one that is more foreign to me than the place I live in now.

It's also a reminder -- particularly in these times -- at how much we have moved on at least from overt sexism. Bowen's instinctive "good girl" when a woman answers a quiz question correctly is incredibly jarring and something you would never see now.

When you look beyond that one grating verbal tick, Bowen is a nice calming host. He's always reminding the players that it's "early days" when they get the first quiz question wrong. And he tells them not worry when they are knocked out and really talks up the consolation prizes. He's also always invoking "Bully" when he speaks -- the cartoon bull mascot of the show -- as if he is very much real. I certainly believe!

I wonder if British expats in America enjoy seeing old episodes of the Price is Right with Bob Barker as much as I enjoy watching Bullseye. I wouldn't be surprised. But I feel it's really not fair. There is no American game show that is quite as cool. Or maybe it's that novelty always wins out. If it's new to you...

Have you ever stumbled on something cultural from the past that intrigues you?

Photo credit: Leo Reynolds dartboard via photopin (license)
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