Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

What an amazing year 2011 has been.  Although I've wanted it for as long as I can remember, the fact that my dream of living abroad actually came true still makes me giddy.  I am incredibly lucky to be living where I am with my fantastic husband, great friends and adorable little kitties.  I hope next year brings health and happiness to all of you and your families.  Thanks for taking the time to stop by!  See you in 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chocolate, Waffles and Fries, Oh My!

Any country that is famous for its chocolate, waffles, fries and beer is just fine by me. Trust me, Belgium lived up to all of the hype, and more! Dan and I found a good deal on flights and hotels to Brussels, so we made a long weekend of it. As we were telling people our plans, over and over we heard that Brussels is great, but we should try and spend as much time in Bruges as possible. We switched our plans and decided to stay two nights in Bruges and two nights in Brussels instead of all four nights in the capital. That was a GREAT decision!

We flew RyanAir into Charleroi Airport which is about an hour south of Brussels. We only figured out we weren't flying into the main Brussels airport as we were checking into our flight in Manchester. Oops. Luckily for us there is a bus that goes from Charleroi right into the main train station in Brussels. That was perfect because we were planning on spending the first two nights in Bruges. The train runs every half hour and only takes an hour.

We got to Bruges after 5pm so it was already dark. That was fine by me because we got some beautiful views of the city as we walked from the train station to the hotel. This is a great time of year to visit Europe because so many cities are decked out for the holidays. Bruges was no exception. There were lights on all of the trees and a small Christmas market in the square. Of course we stopped to grab a quick crepe with chestnut filling. 

We spent the next day and a half just walking along the canals and cobblestone streets. Dan and I both fell in love with this city. It is so simple, but so beautiful. 


Of course we had to sample the local cuisines :) We pretty much went to every chocolate shop in the city. Chocolate in Belgium is not like chocolate elsewhere. It really is so much better than any other chocolate. It's a lot creamier and smoother. Amazing!

One of the shops we stopped in was performing a live candy making demonstration. It was so interesting. I am still in awe how they took boiling sugar and made it into works of art.

Pouring boiling sugar onto metal table
Pulling hot sugar to add volume
Final product.  Pineapples are in the candy before it's cut!

Another favorite activity was sampling the street foods. We stumbled across a market and decided to make that our lunch. We bought a smoked herring, a block of local cheese and some freshly baked bread. It was heaven.

We also checked out the Disney ice sculpture exhibit. It was a little expensive and had the potential to be a big rip-off, but it was actually really awesome. There were a ton of Disney characters that were all intricately carved. There was also a reindeer-pulled sleigh with fur-covered seats, a bar, and a two-story ice slide! It was absolutely freezing in the pavilion so we didn't stay too long, but it was definitely worth the price of admission.

Each night after exhausting ourselves with walking, eating and more walking, we came back to the hotel and celebrated Chanukah. Really, can you think of a better present to ourselves than fresh chocolate?

Stay tuned for part two of this tale, when our heroes travel to Brussels. There will be lots more chocolate, and our first introduction to waffles and fries :)

Read more about my trip to Belgium
Christmas in Brussles

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It Only Gets Better From Here

Today is the Winter Solstice (special shout out to all the Wiccans!).  That means that today is the shortest day of the year with only 7 hours and 23 minutes of daylight.  The sun didn't rise until 8:23 this morning and will set at 3:47!  Crazy! 

Thankfully, it can only get better from here.  Today marks the turning point where it will start getting lighter earlier and will stay light longer.  I am so ready for it.  In the meantime, you'll find me camped out next to my happy light.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Day in the Life

Lest you think that my days are filled exclusively with beer and cookies, here's a more accurate representation:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Homemade Oreos

I have made Smitten Kitchen's homemade Oreos before with great success, but I forgot that I don't live in the States anymore.  There are times where I can go for days forgetting that I live abroad.  But then sometimes, it hits you right in the face and you realize that this is in fact a foreign country. 

The frosting for the Oreo calls for shortening.  No problem at home.  Just grab a can of Crisco and you're good to go.  They don't make that here though.  And there really isn't even a substitute!  They have refrigerated shortening which will work if you're baking, but this frosting isn't cooked and needs to be kept at room-temp. After a long search and discussions with the local baker, I was directed to try vegetable suet.  At first I was pretty grossed out because suet is traditionally raw animal fat.  But then I realized that 1) this is a vegetarian version and 2) isn't that exactly what lard is?  I wasn't 100% convinced though, but the store owner ended up giving me the package for free.

It ended up working OK, but it's really not the same.  The real problem is that it comes as shredded pieces of fat rather than just a solid.  So it was really hard to get it completely smooth in the frosting.  As hard as I tried, I still ended up with little pieces of suet, which is really not appetizing.  When the frosting was in between the two cookies you couldn't really tell though. 

The most important thing is that the final product tastes just like an Oreo!  I'll definitely be making these again whenever I need a little slice of home.

Holiday Cheer

As Buddy the Elf says, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.  The second best way is to bake cookies and give them to your friends and neighbors.  So that's what I decided to do.

My Easy Bake Oven has been working overtime lately.  In addition to making cookies for my holiday party, I also participated in a cookie drive for the single military members on base.  I think it is so nice that these young men and women who are serving our country and living a thousand miles from home will at least get some home-baked cookies.  The base commander asked for people to donate cookies and for volunteers to help assemble the packages.  The response was overwhelming!  Our base is pretty small (only around 2,000 people) and we have just over 100 single military members.  We got more than 4,600 cookies!! 

My cookie contribution

It was so awesome to be a part of the effort.  I only made around 50 cookies, but some people brought in two or three hundred at a time!  We ended up having so many cookies that we greatly expanded the recipient list to include the post office, fire station, police dog kennel (for the trainers, not the dogs), and a lot of other important offices.  We were also able to distribute holiday cards from people all over the world who send messages to military members through the Red Cross.  It was awesome.

And, on a personal note, it was awesome for me because it was the first time I got to make Christmas cookies!  I make cookies all the time, but I've never really had a chance to use red and green frosting.  Ha!  And how cute are the little men?  I'm in love.

I also wanted to make a little something for my next door neighbors, the trash collectors and the mailman.  I have only met one set of neighbors so far, but they're really nice.  I am hoping to meet the other ones as soon as I stop being lazy and go introduce myself. 

Trash collection and mail service are different here than I'm used to.  The trash guys (or rubish collectors) come right up to your door to pick up your trash.  You don't have to put your rubish bin on the street.  Our driveway is pretty long too, so it's really convenient for us.  They also leave you new trash bags!  So considerate. The post man also comes right to your door.  I don't have a mailbox, I only have a slot in my door that the mailman slides the mail into.  It feels very small-town to me.  I love it.

I decided to make a couple of different kinds of cookies and put them in little cookie jars.  Two of my favorite cookies are chocolate chip and Oreos.  I am a HUGE Oreo fan.  So much so, that my co-worker bought me a box of double-stuffed Oreos as a going away present :)  The Brits don't have Oreos though, so I made them.  I'll tell you how that went in another post.

I think they turned out really cute and I can't wait to give them away.  Happy holidays everyone!

Monday, December 19, 2011

12 Pubs of Christmas Crawl

A couple of my friends had a great idea to create a 12 pubs of Christmas crawl through Harrogate.  They put together an impressive list of pubs and had a very tight schedule to make sure we could all still be home at a reasonable time.  The goal was to drink a half pint at every stop.

We started at 1:00pm yesterday at Christies with around 9 of us.  The group got bigger as the day went on.  Unfortunately Dan wasn't feeling well, so he had to sit this one out.

My friend Tracy came prepared and brought a bag full of Santa hats for us to wear.  Many of the hats were from foreign countries and said Merry Christmas in the native language.  Mine said "Key West."  Not so foreign, but it did have a margarita on the end! 

PUB 1: Christies
The pub crawl gang
PUB 2: Wetherspoons

PUB 3: Hales Bar
Apparently Hales Bar is the town's gay bar.  I'm not sure what gives it that distinction because it just looked like a regular pub with leather booths and nice lighting.  The only real indication that something was different was their poster for their New Year's entertainment:

Sinderfella: Adult Filthy Pantomime
How can I convince Dan that this would be awesome?

PUB 4: The Old Bell Tavern

Three half-pints in and I was starting to feel it.  I needed to pace myself, so I sat this round out.

PUB 5: The Fat Badger

PUB 6: The Montpellier

On our way to the 6th pub we stopped to take some pictures in the Harrogate picture frame.  I love this thing.  It's right in the middle of the town square.  It was built this year to be a "living post card" from Harrogate to be displayed at the Harrogate Flower Show in April.  They moved it to the town square when the exhibit was over.

 PUB 7: Banyon

By 4:30 we were all starting to get a little hungry.  We stopped at Banyon for a light dinner and another half-pint.  I was too busy stuffing myself with cheesy garlic breadsticks to take any pictures inside.

 PUB 8: Pitcher and Piano

We were definitely getting a bit silly at this point.

 PUB 9: The Alexandra

I tried my first ginger beer here.  I only had a few sips of someone's (in addition to a half-pint of my own), but it was pretty much what I expected it to be.  I think if you like fresh or candied ginger, you would really like this.  If you're like me though and only like pickled ginger with sushi, you should pass on the ginger beer.

PUB 10: Muckles

And here's where I crapped out.  I was still having a great time and was feeling fine, but it was already past 6:30pm and I had been going since 1:00.  And, Dan and I had a skype date with our good friends Joey and Tati set for 7 and I didn't want to miss that.

While I can't say that I completed the 12 Pubs of Christmas Crawl, I had a fantastic time for the first 10 pubs.  It was really a fun group of people and a great set of pubs.  I hope this becomes an annual tradition!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

'Tis The Season

I absolutely love this time of year!  One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is all of the parties!  This year has been no exception.  We've already had a jam-packed party season and have a few more festivities to attend before the new year.

The party season started off with a second round of Thanksgiving.  Every Monday night a group of people from Dan's work get together for a casual dinner.  A few weeks ago, one of the couples decided they'd like to host a Monday night dinner on Sunday instead and make it a Thanksgiving party.  Anyone who knows me at all knows that I LOVE Thanksgiving.  Actually, you don't even need to know me that well...I'm pretty outspoken about it (see this year's awesome Thanksgiving recap here).  Needless to say, I was pretty stoked about this party. 

Host Randy (front left) and Dan are still in Movember mode

Then, the next night, another couple continued the regular Monday night schedule and declared it the beginning of the Christmas parties.  Everyone was told to come in ugly sweaters and we'd watch Christmas movies.  Now, I'm Jewish, but somehow I still absolutely love Christmas.  It's kind of ridiculous, actually.  But I just love all the movies (It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite) and Christmas songs. It's a sickness.

Sadly I don't have any pictures of the ugly sweaters on display, but there were some good ones.  I even went to our local thrift store to pick some  up, but they were nothing compared to our friend Sarah who was fully decked out in a sweater vest with raised reindeer.

Dan and I decided we needed to step in and spread some Chanukah cheer.  So we volunteered to host the next Monday night get-together, Chanukah style.  We made blitnzes and latkes and dreidel-shaped cookies and served bagels and lox. 

We even bought a bunch of dreidels and taught people how to play the game. 

It was our first time hosting anything in the new house, and it went really well.  I can't wait to host many more parties in the future!

After our Monday night get-together, we also had a holiday party for Dan's work.  It was hosted by one of Dan's co-workers Bob.  Bob and his wife Lisa work in a gorgeous barn conversion near the base.  A barn conversion is a property that was once a barn that is now converted into a really nice, luxurious house.  This one was no exception.  It was amazing!  They had a hot tub, a 360 degree shower, and a sauna (!) in their bathroom!!  Their conservatory also had the most incredible views of the Dales.  It was awesome.

And our final party thus far is one that deserves its own post: 12 Pubs of Christmas.  Our friends put together a great list of 12 pubs in Harrogate in which to grab a half pint.  I have a bunch of pictures to share for that, so hopefully I can blog about that tomorrow.

As you can see, we're having a very merry holiday season.  I hope you're doing the same!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My First Auction

Harrogate has a well-known auction house that runs auctions every Friday.  It's different each week but usually contains around 600 lots of everything from rugs to glassware to jewelery to furniture.  Thompson's puts the lots online on Wednesday night and you can go to the warehouse to view the items on Thursday.  The auction starts at 11:30 on Friday morning.

I've been looking at the website for a few weeks now and this week's lots looked really interesting.  I'm still looking for a coffee table, some nightstands, chairs for the living room, and a couple other odds and ends.  I saw some things online this week that looked really promising, so I asked around to see if anyone wanted to go with me.

My friend Alisha and I made a day of it and had a blast!  We had no idea what to expect, but it was so different than I thought it would be.  It was a completely packed house...packed with both people and things!  You could hardly even move with all of the items stacked around!

Alisha surrounded by auction items

Can you spot the auctioneer?
The auctioneer was hilarious.  Each lot took no more than thirty seconds; it was so fast!  It was really fun watching people bid though.  Alisha was nervous that we were accidentally bidding while scratching our faces or picking up a pen.  People really were bidding by just a quick nod of the head, so you had to be careful or you'd end up with something you didn't want!

Initially I was interested in a pair of nightstands and a trunk, but both lots went for a lot more than I was willing to pay.  Alisha was eying a corner cabinet and a bookshelf.  She got really into the bidding process and ended up with the corner cabinet (for only £18!!), a rocking chair, a bread box and two giant boxes of records. All of those items were less than £60.  

Although I didn't get the trunk I wanted, I did get a really fantastic pine box!  I saw it online and was intrigued, and in person it looked great too.  It is huge!  I thought I could use it as a coffee table.  When the auctioneer started the bid at £12, I was in.  I won at £18!  Such a bargain for a huge piece like this!

My giant pine box!

Alisha has some experience in woodwork, so she's going to help me finish it in a gorgeous antique varnish.  It was too big to use as a coffee table, but it will look great as a side table in the living room.  It's going to take some hard work to get it looking the way I want it to, but it should be a fun project.  I'll update you on my progress.  In the meantime, I'm just loving the way it looks in the raw :)

All the Cool Kids are Doing it

Not only am I on a bowling league, I also regularly play cribbage.  How cool am I? 

Cribbage is a card/board game that is usually played by older people.  The rules are really confusing, but once you get the hang of it, it's really fun.  Somehow a group of people from base hooked up with a cafe owner named Gary to form a little cribbage league.  Around 6-10 people get together each Thursday to play a few hands.  It's a great way to spend an evening!

Cribbage board

Rachel and cafe owner Gary

Playing cribbage

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More Things I Love in England

You know what's awesome?  Ordering something online and getting it the next day. This country is so small (and/or their post offices are so efficient) that shipping times are dramatically reduced.  It's just one more thing I love about this country!

Ladies of Leisure Tea Party

Yesterday kicked off what I hope will become a fun new tradition.  My friends Jess and Rachel and I got together for a little tea party at Jess's new house.  I made scones, Rachel made brownies and Jess had both tea and Prosecco.  That alone would have been awesome.  But, Jess's new dining room chairs had just been delivered by IKEA, so Rachel and I thought it would be fun to put them together.  She and I have some experience in this area, since we built my couch.

We had a great time and felt really productive!  And, since Jess's husband had no idea that she'd be tackling these without him, it was fun to get them all done before he got home.  Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, but we put together six of these Henriksdals.

Since we're all new to the area and are still getting settled in our houses, we each have a bunch of different projects we need to be working on.  Wouldn't it be more fun to do these projects with friends and bubbly?  Why, yes.  Yes, it would.  So next week we're at my house working on a kitchen table project.  Stay tuned for details!