Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve, with Cow Nose

I'm at my mom's house now. The photo above describes, in a nutshell, the region where I grew up. (Yes, basically in a cow's nose.) Mom and I encountered this gal on our walk yesterday -- she and a companion followed us along a fence line, looking for a handout of grass.

So, this is it -- the last day of the year! We have no special plans. I told Mom we should just buy a bottle of wine and sit down by the lake on the dock and raise a glass or two, and then go to bed early. Doesn't that sound great? My stepbrother and stepsister and their spouses are planning to go clubbing in Ybor City, but that sounds like hell to me, so I bowed out.

I also bowed out of the LSU football game tomorrow, which they are attending. I know you're shocked.

In addition to the cows, we saw some birds and butterflies on yesterday's walk. This is a queen butterfly. Doesn't it seem kind of late in the year for butterflies to be flitting around? Maybe it's another sign of climate change, or maybe they've always been here in the winter and I just forgot.

The home of one of our longtime neighborhood families, just two doors down from ours, was demolished yesterday. The new owners brought in a backhoe and knocked the whole thing down. It was your typical low-slung late '50s ranch house, with an incongruous but very mid-century bomb shelter under a mound of dirt in the yard. (I snuck into the bomb shelter once or twice as a kid. As I remember it was just a rusty metal room -- not a place I would want to spend any time.) Anyway, the property hadn't been well cared for in recent years and most everyone in that family is dead now -- they seemed to exist under a gothic southern family curse, involving unhappiness, iron-fisted control, disinheritance, you name it -- but I know it still bothered Mom to hear the crunch and crash of that backhoe. "That's a terrible sound," she said.

I reached a small blogging milestone this year -- I posted here every single day, with one extra post on the day we named Olga. Not a bad run!

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Killer Apple, Part 2

The balsam apple did not disappoint -- when I went to check it yesterday afternoon it had peeled itself open like a creepy alien pod from a '50s horror movie. This is exactly what I remember Mrs. Evans carrying into our classroom.

I was surprised some of you said in yesterday's comments that you'd never seen this plant before. It's very common in Central Florida, growing on roadsides, fences and in orange groves (particularly untended ones). Supposedly it's wild throughout the Southeast. Keep an eye out for it, but don't let the pod people steal your soul while you sleep.

The family vibe is starting to press in on me a little bit. There are a lot of people around here, and conversations tend to flow rather roughly, like a river eddying around rocks and splashing over rapids rather than maintaining a unified, placid stream. Besides, some people want to watch football. Ugh. Why are televised football games always so freaking LOUD?

I stay sane by getting out of the house and walking around with the camera, stalking suspicious cormorants (above)...

...and nervous blue jays.

Today I'm driving up to my mom's house where I'll spend the next two nights before rejoining my dad on New Year's Day.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Killer Apple

Yesterday was a whirlwind of relatives! We had a family breakfast at the local greasy spoon, with my brother and his family, my stepsister and her family, and my dad and stepmother -- 11 people all together. We do not travel in small groups, we Reeds. My nephew tried to call ahead for a reservation but of course greasy spoons don't take reservations, so we cobbled together some tables as they became available and eventually drove away all the other customers.

I got to talk briefly with my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two young nieces before they hit the road back to their home in Jacksonville. Remember when you were young and square older relatives would appear and say things like, "My goodness, you've grown!" Well, I am now that older relative. It's so unsettling to see how big kids get, and how fast.

I visited with my stepsister, her new husband and their two sons (one each from previous relationships) yesterday afternoon, and last night my stepbrother and his wife arrived from Louisiana. I almost never get to see them, so that's a plus.

Amid all this excitement I called my mom and wrote to Dave, and took care of most of my gift-giving -- mainly a few copies of my new book and some beautiful glass window decorations from Ellen, which I ordered after she posted them in the top photo of this post. (Ellen, they're a hit!)

This wild balsam apple in my dad's yard looks like it's about to burst open, so that will be interesting to watch over the next few days. When I was in kindergarten, a school office assistant named Mrs. Evans once brought one of these into the class, bright orange and filled with brilliant red seeds. The teachers told us they were poisonous, so I've always been wary of them, even though I'm not sure they'd really kill. Whenever I see one I think of Mrs. Evans, with her fast walk and blue eye shadow and "That Girl" flip hairdo, holding a colorful, menacing curiosity on a white napkin in her hand.

(Top photos: Shrimp plants in my dad's yard.)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Back Among the Florida Ferns

Well, that may have been the most convoluted single day of travel I've ever had. From a rainy, windy train platform in rural England to my father's guest bedroom in suburban Florida, in the span of 22 hours -- by car, train, taxi, another train, airplane, another airplane, and another taxi.

When I write it like that it doesn't sound all that interesting, but it boggles my mind what we can do nowadays, with these newfangled inventions called aeroplanes.

Not that it was exactly easy! We got off to a rough start at 5 a.m. yesterday morning when the foul weather in England delayed our departure from Norfolk. And it was foul -- gusty wind-driven spatters of cold rain that made Olga put her tail between her legs, shiver and whine, which she never does. The first two trains of the day were cancelled, and I was starting to panic inwardly as Dave explored alternative options, like hiring a car to take us back to London. (I wasn't thrilled with that, because if the trains weren't running could you imagine the traffic?) But then a train magically appeared, and once onboard Olga climbed onto our laps, buried her face in a towel and refused to move for the next two hours.

Once back in London, I found that trains to Heathrow were all delayed by a construction project running past schedule. (Railroad official: "Yes, let's do a construction project during the busiest travel period of the year! Brilliant!") But then, once again magically, the Heathrow Express began running and I got to the airport with time to spare. (This is all testament to the wisdom of starting any trip very early.)

The flights themselves were uneventful. I sat with a rugby player from a British university on my transatlantic flight, and though I couldn't talk about rugby at all, he was a nice guy and I certainly enjoyed the view.

I changed planes in Chicago -- where I ate a Red Delicious apple, which tasted heavenly after airplane food -- and then listened to my iPod all the way to Tampa, next to a woman who was reading a book about Murakami (or maybe it was by Murakami). By this time I had entered that weird, foggy state of travel numbness in which hours pass without really registering. I collected my bag, which miraculously arrived with me, and got a $60 taxi ride (!) to my dad's.

And here I am, typing away in the pre-dawn darkness after five hours of sleep, because while here it's 5:30 in the morning, to me it's 10:30 and I never sleep that late.

(Top photo: My dad's backyard. Fern-o-rama!)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fen, Chaffinch and Tractor

Just a few photos today, because I'm traveling virtually all day and need to get on the road! The wind is howling out there, so let's pray for no train/plane disruptions.

We took our morning walk yesterday in an area known as a fen -- a mossy, uneven bit of ground studded with broom bushes and bare trees. Kind of an interesting landscape, and the hard ground was nice because it made Olga's Kong bounce extra high.

This is a chaffinch, spotted yesterday morning by the bird feeders at our guesthouse. I shot several photos of tits, robins and one unidentified bird. (Stay tuned.)

Finally, this old steam-powered tractor surprised us by driving through the village late yesterday morning. It stopped at the house across the street, where the woman in the green vest seemed to deliver a small parcel. A pretty complex method of package delivery, but very cool! The steam whistle really rattled windows.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Post-Christmas Rural Entertainments

This is the medieval North Lopham church, seen from our window at the guesthouse. It is a pretty amazing view, made more interesting by the slightly off-kilter old windows in the house. (They've been double-glazed so they're actually amazingly well insulated.)

So, yeah, Christmas. Glad that's over. We had a crazy Christmas morning, with shrieking children and wrapping paper flying everywhere -- which I guess is how Christmas should be, if at all possible. Dave and I got some interesting foodie things like a jar of mango and tomato bruschetta and various jams and marmalades, as well as a nice glass window hanging and a Japanese teapot. And various Christmas ornaments to supplement our pathetic collection.

Then we went for a walk in a rural forest right next to a pig farm. I'm not sure Olga even saw the pigs -- there was a hedgerow in the way -- but she surely must have smelled them.

The weather cleared up yesterday (as if by Christmastime divine magic!) with a bright blue sky and sunshine. Unfortunately for photography, the sun is so low on the horizon that it basically shines right into my lens. I had a terrible time photographing the pig farm.

We also saw a free-range egg hatchery where thousands of chickens were wandering in (obviously fenced) open fields, and I must say they looked pretty happy. Dick and Georgia, our hosts, needed some eggs, so they stopped at an open cabinet by the roadside where flats of eggs were stored, and bought a flat, plunking their money into a lockbox inside the cabinet. It's all done by honor system.

I kept an eye out for local birds and did see some beautiful blue tits, but those little things flit around so fast that I just couldn't get a picture. The ones in London practically pose, accustomed to people as they are.

Olga and I went for a separate afternoon walk on a path near the guesthouse. I feel a little bad for her because she is frequently besieged by the children and she's not getting nearly as much sleep as she would at home. So I like to get her outside and off by herself if I can. Still, this particular walk was kind of a mistake -- mud-o-rama.

Christmas dinner went well! Dave made an amazing turkey and he and another guest collaborated on the stuffing, and I helped cut and saute veggies and got things cleaned up. Glad that's over, too.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Glitter-Free Christmas Post, with Pseudo-Celebrity

After a few hours of opening presents with little kids, I feel like I should be posting photos of ribbons and glitter and gold and red foil. But frankly, I've had about all of that I can take, so here are photos of what we did yesterday.

In addition to me, Dave and Olga, another couple is staying at the guesthouse along with their two young daughters. Yesterday we all went for a walk, along with our hosts Dick and Georgia and their dog, Bonnie, in a patch of wooded pasture land not far from the house.

Olga chased her Kong, but she wasn't sure what to do with the resident sheep. She chose not to approach them at all.

Dave said, "They look like Barbara Walters!" Which is completely true.

Yesterday afternoon I went with the other couple, Carolyn and Mark, and their two daughters Zoe and Ella to a church service at the old village church across the road from the guesthouse. (I posted photos of this church the last time we were here.) The service was aimed mainly at children, meant to decorate the "crib," or creche. Zoe and Ella got to participate and we sang carols, many with melodies that varied from what I'm used to in the states. (Apparently this is a common thing in England.) We were identified as visitors during the service, and in the end after everyone formed a circle and enthusiastically sang "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," a village woman turned to me and said, "This is England for you!"

We came back to the guesthouse for authentic eggnog with some neighbors, and finished up with a dinner of beef wellington. And now, after presents this morning, I'm already exhausted.

I hope everyone is having a great Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Adventures on a Malfunctioning Train

Olga's second train journey wasn't quite as successful as her first -- through no fault of her own.

Things started out well enough. We got launched from Liverpool Station at 1:30 p.m. yesterday, with enough baggage for our four-day Christmas sojourn in Norfolk and for me for a week in Florida beyond that -- plus, of course, camera and cooking and dog supplies. Olga, as always, attracted lots of friendly attention in the station and on the train.

We cruised along for more than an hour. Olga was a bit unsettled by all the people and the unfamiliarity, but at least she was eventually able to have her own seat.

Then, on a lonely stretch of track about five miles outside the town of Diss -- our destination -- the train coasted to a stop. The conductor came on and said the train had "lost power," and they were looking into the problem.

We sat on that immobilized train for another 2 1/2 hours -- far longer than our entire journey was expected to take. Olga became increasingly uncomfortable -- panting and squirming around. At first I thought she was just nervous, but it gradually became obvious that in fact she needed a doggy loo, and we couldn't get off the train. We sat and tried to keep her calm. We had a beer, and then another beer. Thank goodness for cafe cars.

Finally, the railroad people brought a second train, which -- after lengthy delays -- they were able to connect to our train to push us to Diss. When we got to the station, Dave took Olga and made a beeline for the door while I gathered baggage, and Olga exploded on the grass down the steps from the platform. Good dog!

Here in Norfolk, she's settled in well. She loves the large enclosed yard at our guesthouse, and we're planning to take her for a walk in the woods later today. Squirrel!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Off to Norfolk

As the title says, Dave and I are off to Norfolk today, taking Olga for her second adventure on a British train. We leave early this afternoon, and the morning will involve packing and preparation. I'm bringing along all my stuff for Florida too, so I can go straight to Heathrow without coming back to Notting Hill -- thus I have to think about what I'll need for both trips in two completely different climates.

Actually, the most complicated part involves cords and chargers for the camera and computer, since England and America have different electrical systems with different plugs. *sigh*

On the bright side, I found a very nice length of silvery, shimmery Christmas ribbon lying on the sidewalk when I walked Olga this morning. It's a sort of filmy fabric embossed with silver snowflakes.  Note to family members: Don't be surprised if it turns up on your present.

I took Olga down to the canal yesterday during a break in the weather, and I finally cleaned up the dead leaves that wintry winds had left behind on our balcony. In the evening, we watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas," thus fulfilling one of my few holiday requirements.

(Photo: A street corner in Notting Hill, with dubious holiday lighting.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Wet Grass and Pee Wee Herman

It was wet and dark, dark, dark here yesterday. The sun rose after 8 a.m. and set before 4 p.m., and in between the sky looked like this (above). None of that stopped Olga's celebratory grass-rolling in Hyde Park, though. That's why it's great to have a dog around -- they get so much joy out of life, even in what we fussy humans might consider a less-than-ideal situation.

In addition to rolling during our park outing, Olga engaged in an extended game of Kong keep-away with a black lab named Nero. The squirrels seemed to be tucked into their nests somewhere, because we didn't see many, but Olga had a great time chasing her Kong, and allowing Nero to chase her in a futile attempt to capture it.

Then we stopped at the Italian Garden, with its paved piazza of pools and fountains, virtually devoid of people. Overall, Olga got filthy and wet but wasn't discouraged until it really began to rain, just as we were walking home, and then she made a beeline for our building, pulling me behind her.

On Friday night I got a kick out of watching Pee-Wee Herman's Christmas Special from 1988 on YouTube. What a blast from the past. Did anyone realize at the time how gay that show was? Many of his guests were and still are gay icons, from Cher and k.d. lang to Whoopi Goldberg and Grace Jones -- and then there's Pee-Wee himself, who might not have been exactly gay but certainly seemed like he could be. (I mean the character, as opposed to the actor who played him.) I didn't really watch the show much in the '80s -- I was in college or working and had more pressing things to do, like go to Goodwill -- but now I wonder what people were thinking. I honestly don't remember, though I do remember some of my gay friends were big fans.

It seems like maybe it was a big inside joke -- gay for people who were aware, who understood camp, but just zany and silly for those whose cultural compasses were dialed in a more oblivious direction.

Anyway, it was a hoot to watch. Charo! The Del Rubio Triplets! Zsa Zsa Gabor! What's not to like?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Work-Free Zone

The wind is gusting against the windows this morning, driving spatters of rain. When Olga and I stepped outside for her walk, she took a few steps and firmly planted her feet, letting me know that she intended to go no farther. (To which my inner self replied: "Sweet!") I let her run around in the little fenced yard outside our building, and then we came back upstairs.

Yesterday was my last day of work until Jan. 6. My fellow librarians all brought each other holiday cards and even small gifts (a bottle of champagne from my boss, an ornament from a coworker) and I felt like a complete loser because I brought nothing. I just didn't even think about it. I guess I have to re-engage with the expectations that go with working in an office. (Though I must say, even at my newspaper jobs, I only ever gave cards to a couple of people. You know me and my minimalist approach to holidays.)

Dave didn't exchange cards or gifts with anyone, either. Is it sexist for me to wonder whether the expectations for office card- and gift-giving are different for men than for women? It seems that men, rightly or wrongly, are more likely to ignore such niceties.

In any case, maybe I'll bring everyone something from Florida to make up for being stingy.

We only worked a half day, so I went to lunch with Dave, Gordon and Anna, another coworker, and then I went for a photo walk, grabbing the few available hours of waning afternoon light and walking from Maida Vale down to Marble Arch. It felt good to get out. I hope to do more of that over the next few days, before we go to Norfolk on the 23rd.

Speaking of which, I learned yesterday that there will be no trains running on Dec. 26, which shoots down my plan of coming back to London on that day. Boxing Day is a big deal here but I never imagined trains would stop entirely. So we'll have to return super-early on the 27th and I may even go straight to Heathrow for my flight to Tampa. That will be a long day of traveling, and pray the trains cooperate!

(Photo: Yesterday, on Edgware Road. I thought you might want to see the man with the Christmasy red scarf more clearly!)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Benjamin Britten in a Medieval Church

Last night Dave and I went to hear some Christmas music -- a series of choral pieces by Benjamin Britten -- at the medieval Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, near Smithfield market. We went with our coworkers Gordon and Keith, and Gordon's wife Donna, and the singing by a small choir of eight, accompanied by a harpist, was truly remarkable -- crystalline and seemingly effortless.

Interspersed with the music were readings about Christmas, a brief prayer and some hymns, which I sang with difficulty because they were pitched right at a point where I was either forced to range too high or too low on the scale. They included "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," which the British sing to a completely different melody, a fact that once again managed to surprise me.

We went to this same church with Gordon and Donna last year, and it's interesting to think we've been here long enough to have created a tiny bit of Christmas tradition! (How many times do you have to do something before you consider it a tradition? Is twice enough?)

I sat listening to the harp, gazing up at the stonework that dates back hundreds of years (the church was founded in 1123, not long after William the Conqueror came ashore!) and felt I could understand the appeal of religion as a common thread that connects us with our ancestors. I thought of all the hundreds or even thousands of people whose eyes had gazed upon the very same stonework, maybe by candlelight or whale-oil lamps. Over our heads hung a memorial plaque featuring the busts of a man and a woman, and part of the inscription read:

Behowlde your selves by us
suche once were we as you
and you in tyme shall be
even duste as we are now

So when the music ended we went off to a nearby pub called the Old Red Cow, where we had dinner and a couple of pints, talking and laughing while squeezed around a tiny table in a crowded upstairs room with steamy windows.

(Photo: A completely unrelated photo of Trellick Tower, reflected in the Grand Union Canal. I love the line of little ducks swimming in the tower's reflection.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Messy Realities

Olga and I met our pal the window-washer on our walk this morning. He told me he'd just come across a guy slumped in front of a nearby shop, wearing no jacket, in the early morning darkness. He bent to shake him awake when another guy approached, said he knew the first guy (whose name is Chester) and would take care of him. So the window-washer departed on his rounds.

Sure enough, I came across Chester and his friend a few moments later -- Chester still slumped but moving, the friend calling out and insistently knocking on someone's nearby door. The friend eyed me (and Olga) but did not speak to us. I think they were drunk or otherwise impaired. It made me think the window-washer was somewhat brave to shake Chester and try to wake him. I think if I'd found him slumped on the sidewalk, I'd have left him there -- though I'd have called the equivalent of 911 if I'd believed he was in distress. Maybe not entirely a reaction in the Christmas spirit, but you have to be careful about these things, especially at 5:30 a.m. on a dark street.

Anyway, that was kind of a story that went nowhere, except to show you that my Grinch heart is two sizes too small. Sorry about that.

My Christmas angst has diminished. I got some things done yesterday and now I feel at least better prepared. Families are so complicated -- the stereotype is that couples get married and have kids, but instead often pre-existing families are brought together by a single relationship (a la "The Brady Bunch"), which leads to sudden gift-giving requirements on a wider scale. Know what I mean?

Today Dave and I have a faculty/staff holiday party at work. The good news is: the library closes early! Woo hoo!

(Photo: Trash collection, Notting Hill.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Plus Plus Plus

We seem to have entered a period of clouds, rain and wind, which shouldn't be a surprise for England in December. I took the tube to and from work yesterday because the weather was just too bad to walk. Plus I am tired.

I feel like I have a zillion things to think about. Dave and I have been asked to cook the Christmas dinner for ten people at the house we're visiting for the holidays, and I am trying to think of this as an honor rather than a curse. (To be fair, when the hosts proposed it, they said we could choose another meal to cook if we'd like -- but who's going to say no to the hosts?)

Plus I still have to get gifts for my nephew and stepmother. Plus I have to order dog food. Plus the Christmas lights on the tree just blew out when I plugged them in, and I had to spend 15 minutes replacing tiny little bulbs until I found the one that was bad. Plus, plus, plus.

I guess this is just regular holiday angst. So much for our simple Christmas, right?

I am trying to remember my Zen training: breathe and be mindful. I am trying to move more slowly, and not dwell on the annoying jostling of the crowds on the tube. I am trying not to worry about my father or think about how I'm going to balance my time with everyone in Florida or how I'm going to ship my coffee table back to England. (Long story!) I am trying not to be whiny. I am trying to live in the moment.

(Photo: Olga bait, outside a church in Notting Hill.)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Losing Our Pubs

Dave is still under the weather. He called in sick again today, which -- on the bright side -- means that Olga will have company in the morning before the arrival of the dog-walker.

I am still trying to get Christmas gifts figured out. I've ordered a few things and I think I have almost everyone covered. Hopefully it will all get to my mom's house by the 27th, when I get to Florida, but if it doesn't we'll cope.

I've mentioned before that real estate values in London seem to have gone insane, with people building mega-houses and mega-basements. We learned recently that our favorite pub in St. John's Wood is due to close, to be turned into a luxury residence, and that another pub we frequented there has already closed to face a similar fate. There's a campaign on to save the first pub, The Star, but the building has been sold so I'm not optimistic. When will rich people stop taking over the world?

(Photo: Streetlight shadows at night in Maida Hill.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Wintry Canal Walk

Olga and I walked along the canal yesterday. So much has changed out that way in the past few months. For one thing, the trees have all lost their leaves and the headstones of Kensal Green Cemetery are now visible across the water. Also, several large wooded areas on the side of the canal where we walk have been cleared, apparently for a large rail transit project. (The train tracks to Paddington run near the towpath, down a slope on the other side of a brick wall.)

Olga did not mind any of these transformations. She remained focused on geese and sticks.

I continued my birdwatching, but all I saw were robins and some blue tits like this one. It's a great time of year to photograph birds, with the trees bare -- but I think many of the bird species have gone south for the winter.

We had a busy social whirl of a weekend. As I mentioned, we had friends in for a movie on Friday, and Saturday night we went to a party thrown by a work colleague in Charlton, which is diagonally across the city from where we live. Quite a schlep! And finally, last night we had our neighbors Chris and Linda over for drinks and nibblies, so we could see them before Christmas. In between we Skyped with my dad and stepmother, ordered some clothes online and I tried to do some housekeeping.

Dave, meanwhile, has come down with something and had a 100-degree fever last night. I persuaded him to call in sick today. My mom always says when you get sick you have to just stop -- and moms know about these things.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Owls of Hyde Park

I took Olga for a long romp in the park late yesterday morning. As usual, she started out chasing her Kong and she wound up chasing squirrels in huge, swooping loops across the grass. Several times I lost sight of her entirely, her chases took her so far afield, behind trees and around shrubs. She gets a little crazy when she goes into "hunting mode."

While she was doing that, I stayed busy with my camera, photographing local birds like this great tit in a wooded area with a few bird feeders. I saw several large mice/small rats running around through the leaves.

Then I noticed a cluster of birdwatchers standing near a dead tree. I went over to see what they'd found, and they pointed out a little owl, high in the branches.

One of the guys asked me if I'd seen the nearby tawny owls. "No," I told him. "Where are they?"

He led me on a five-minute walk to another tree. Olga tagged along behind us, her Kong in her mouth.

He looked up and found the owl right away, "sitting on the balcony," as he put it. He had to point her out to me. Doesn't she blend in well?

I can see how the owls would like that part of the park, considering the presence of the aforementioned rats and mice -- not to mention all those plump squirrels! (Olga never did catch one, but she's getting better, and I fear that day might come.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Black Orpheus

Re. the first-name situation I wrote about yesterday, I've decided I'm just going to roll with it. What can it hurt? We'll see how it unfolds!

Dave and I had some coworkers over last night to watch a movie, "Black Orpheus," which I have wanted to show to one coworker in particular for a very long time. It's such a fresh, remarkable movie even now, more than 50 years after its release, and the footage of the beauty of Rio de Janeiro is unsurpassed. Both of the guys who came over have been to Brazil several times, but they'd never seen "Black Orpheus" -- which after its release in 1959 won the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and helped launch the bossa nova craze of the '60s -- so I'm glad I could remedy that.

I still really, really want to go to Rio. I've wanted to go ever since I wrote to my Brazilian pen-pals while I was in high school. Teresa, Frima and Flavia -- don't their names suggest a Portuguese version of the Supremes? I wonder where they are now. Every once in a while I search for them on Facebook, but even their last names are fairly common and women's names often change anyway, so the chance we will ever reconnect is probably pretty slim.

I wish we could have a quiet weekend here, but it looks like it will be fairly busy.

(Photo: I escaped from school at lunch on Thursday to walk up Primrose Hill, where quite a few runners and walkers were out and about despite the remnants of a foggy morning.)

Friday, December 13, 2013

First Name Basis

An interesting trend is developing at work. I have been introduced to the students as Mr. Reed, and so far they've all called me that, even though it sounds strangely formal to my own ear. But the other day, unbidden and out of the blue, one of the older girls called me Steve. I'm not sure how she even knew my name is Steve, unless she overheard one of the other librarians call me that.

Yesterday, two more kids began calling me Steve.

These are all older high school students, so it doesn't seem weird. In fact if I met them on the street or at a party I'm sure I would have introduced myself as Steve.

But I can see how, as this phenomenon spreads, it might become a little strange. I don't want sixth graders calling me Steve, for example. After all, part of a younger student's education has to do with learning respect for adults and how to function in polite society.

I asked Dave about it last night, and I expected him to be dead-set against being on a first-name basis with the kids. But he actually equivocated and said, after all, that it shows they like me and they're being friendly with me. Only a tiny handful of adults at school -- in fact, I can think of only one -- allow students to call them by their first name.

So now I have to decide whether to nip this first-name thing in the bud, or just let it happen but restrict it to juniors and seniors -- or maybe just seniors.

This woman was among the mobs on the tube yesterday morning. Was it Take-Your-Tiny-Dog-To-Work Day?

(Top photo: Holiday lights in Notting Hill.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mona Lisa, St. Helena and Caroline

I just read the most fascinating book -- "The Emperor's Last Island," by Julia Blackburn. It's about Napoleon's exile to St. Helena, a tiny volcanic speck in the vast South Atlantic Ocean. The British sent him there after the Battle of Waterloo, and Blackburn traveled to the island, said to be one of the most isolated spots on the planet. She described Napoleon's former home there, which apparently belongs to the French government and is maintained as a sort of museum, as well as the location of the tomb where he was buried after his death in 1821. (His body was later moved to Paris.)

I've always wanted to go to St. Helena, as well as its sister islands, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. They are not particularly close to each other, but they have common volcanic origins and I learned about them as a kid through stamp collecting. (They all issue stamps, mainly for export to collectors. Only a few hundred people live on the latter two islands, and finding a postally used stamp from any of them can be a challenge.)

I looked around online and found that flights are now available from the UK to Ascension, a somewhat barren rock used mainly for military and communications purposes. They apparently have a hotel and are trying to develop some tourism. St. Helena fosters tourism as well, but it doesn't yet have an airport -- so getting there involves travel on a Royal Mail ship! Getting to Tristan involves ships too and seems most difficult of all.

As we have discussed, I am always attracted by remote places, so I'm toying with the idea of someday visiting Ascension and/or St. Helena. I would love a place with few people, lots of hiking and interesting flora/fauna/landscape features! Maybe for my 50th birthday?

I met up last night with my Peace Corps friend Caroline, who is in London on business and who I haven't seen in years. We went to dinner and had a pint at a pub afterwards, laughing about our experiences in Morocco and catching each other up on news about our lives and those of our friends and acquaintances from that time. Seeing her was like leaping back in time!

(Photos: Mona Lisa, I believe, guarding a doorway near the Westbourne Park tube station.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Nessie of the Sidewalk

I finally got my Istanbul photos on Flickr. If you're interested you can view them here, though admittedly you've already seen the best of them on this blog.

Dave's crazy week of concerts and work is continuing. I've been home alone for dinner the last two nights, which actually hasn't been so bad. I made pesto pasta, listened to music and read by the light of the Christmas tree.

This is what our poor balcony plants look like these days. Winter is tough on them! The horseradish has died back completely, and our clematis has never really prospered. (I think it's too windy out there.) Last year's heather is a bit scraggly. I may get out there and trim away some of the dead stuff just so we can bring in the pots if it snows -- or I may just let nature take its course this winter, thereby thinning the herd. (Can you have a herd of plants?)

There is a very odd crack in the sidewalk a block or two from our house. Doesn't it look like a snake, or maybe the Loch Ness monster? Olga and I walk past it every morning. I suppose it has something to do with a cable run underneath the pavement, but it's so specifically monster-like I wonder if someone made it on purpose.

(Top photo: A zebra-striped treehouse near where I work, in St. John's Wood.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yuletide Festivities on the Home Front

Behold what I have created. (Well, not the tree itself. As Joyce Kilmer famously wrote, "Only God can make a tree.")

If you know me, you know decorating for holidays isn't really my thing.  Every year I debate whether to even bother, and usually I don't. A couple of years ago I did manage to erect a tree after a failed experiment at fireplace decoration, but that was not typical.

Last night, walking home from work, I decided to take the plunge. I picked up a tree on Portobello Road for £25, and I pulled out our one strand of lights and our handful of ornaments, and BAM! We're good to go!

Our ornament selection is really minimal. Here's one from our trip to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh in July 2012, and we have a few random red balls that I found several years ago -- I kid you not -- in the trash. (Why would someone throw away perfectly good ornaments?)

We have six little critters like this squirrel made of straw or sisal or some kind of bristly substance. I bought them at Target in New Jersey in 2009. They've already lasted longer than I ever expected.

And we have this brass music note, a gift from Dave's oldest sister. And that's pretty much it.

When I lived in New York by myself, I never put up a tree. But I must say, it's kind of nice to have one. I love the soft glow of the colored lights. My grandmother used to say that it never felt like Christmas until the tree went up.

Dave wants to get some tinsel, too -- because, as you may remember, when we adopted Olga last January, her name at the shelter was Tinsel. I hope we don't -- I'd just as soon not have to pull it out of the vacuum cleaner. But if we do, something tells me Olga will develop very sparkly poop.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Post in Which Marilyn Weeps

A busy weekend around here, but not in any way that's interesting. I got a ton of little, boring things done -- laundry, house-cleaning, bathing the dog. Isn't that exciting? Not really?

I did Skype with my mom and with Dave's parents, and it was good to catch up with them. I'd like to Skype with my dad but I want to give him time to recuperate a bit from his recent health problems.

I also went to the high school band concert yesterday afternoon. Dave got a great performance from all the kids, who played, among other things, a terrific wind-instrument version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which I've only ever heard as an organ piece.

I'm barely seeing Dave these days -- he's involved in some administrative things at school as well as a series of concerts this week. He did have time yesterday morning to hurl the Kong in the yard with the dog, though probably not as much as she would have liked.

By Thursday things should be calming down a bit, but we're also easing into the socially frantic holiday season, so we will remain busy. I suppose I should be grateful that we have a social life, and I am, honestly. I am not complaining.

(Top photo: An interior design gallery near Edgware Road late Thursday afternoon -- love those big Marilyns!)