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Archive for January, 2009

House search update

January 31st, 2009

We took the girls to see the one house that we liked among those that we saw on our first house-hunting outing. They loved it. Becky was quite amenable to the idea of having her own “apartment” made out of the ground-floor reception room. Kimmy was altogether enchanted by the bedroom that she called. We figured that most of the size limitations are surmountable. The biggest one that we did not notice before is actually the size of the bed in the main bedroom – we prefer “king”, and the ones there are all smaller than “queen”…

The location, of course, is nearly unbeatable for our desires. We decided to put a proposal to the owners. There are several conditions that they may or may not agree to. We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, we only saw one more house, on the most busiest and noisiest major road, albeit quite spacious. It was entirely unfurnished, which would require us to spend extra money on beds, curtains, etc. When we learned that the landlord would not be willing to install a dishwasher at his cost, we decided that space by itself does not make a winner.

Now that we contacted a bunch of agents, they are bombarding us with their listings, via email and post. Aside from the fact that many of the “offers” are in areas that we never indicated were acceptable to us, we come to the realization that there is simply not enough house inventory in our spec range in the immediate target area. Attractive houses seemingly can be found only in areas that do not improve our location that much – in which case, we’d better stay where we are.

We also invited a couple of moving companies (in England, they are called removal companies) to quote us their estimates. We were pleasantly surprised. I even asked for an overseas move quote, and that came in considerably lower than a corporate quote of two-and-a-half years ago.

Chronicles

Happy blogger

January 30th, 2009

Fellow UCF’er Shawn a couple of days ago posted seven very good tips for being a happy blogger. At first, I claimed in comments that I already follow all of his advice, but just a few days later I come to one of my periodic blogging crossroads, where I want to maintain a “nearly-every-day” frequency of posting (and, yes, I am largely comfortable with this pace) yet do not have anything worthy of a post (or, rather, I have a bunch of musical memories in the pipeline, and some other serialized standbys, but I do not feel like using them as a filler today).

In other words, trying to follow the last of Shawn’s tips was making me an unhappy blogger. I figured the easiest way to turn that around was to direct my audience to his article. I thought it was quite good, which means this post of mine can transitively be considered “not crap”, and we are avoiding a prolonged break. Happy, happy, happy!

Blogging

London Imagery: Blackheath Commons corner

January 28th, 2009

The southeast corner of the vast heath that separates Blackheath village from Greenwich Park is graced by this swan pond. Despite several traffic arteries that dissect the heath in near vicinity, this is a pretty picturesque and pleasant spot. We, unfortunately, do not end up here on foot all that much, which is one of the reasons we are considering moving closer to the area.

It should be noted that the houses in the distance that appear more or less white in this picture are actually painted in different pastel colors, not unlike “The Painted Ladies” of San Francisco fame. I’ll have to try at a later date to capture the colors properly.

London & Environs, Photography

Hungarian mushroom soup

January 27th, 2009

Over the last decade or so, I have become very much a soup aficionado. Not that I did not eat soups before – even beyond borsch, various soups and broths are an essential component of East European cuisine. But it is only in fairly recent years that I started finding myself unable to refrain from ordering a soup when everyone else orders an appetizer, from having a soup-and-sandwich lunch more often than not, and then from having a bowl of soup at dinner at home as well.

The rest of the family shares my affinity, Becky especially (Kimmy is considerably more picky in what she eats, but she is known to wolf down a couple of bowls of her favorite bouillon or some such in a single seating).

Natasha is always happy to oblige, often experimenting with the recipes to create something different from what we tried before. The other day, she produced this fantastic Hungarian mushroom soup. I only got one portion – the growing organisms a.k.a. children consumed the rest.

 

 

Makes 6 portions

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons dried or fresh finely chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2-3 cups chicken broth (if you like it thick, use the smaller number)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (optional)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup sour cream (depends on you liking)

Directions:

  1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Saute the onions in the butter for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute for 5 more minutes. Stir in the dill, paprika, soy sauce and broth. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.
  2. In a separate small bowl, whisk the milk and flour together. Pour this into the soup and stir well to blend. Cover and simmer for 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Finally, stir in the salt, ground black pepper, lemon juice, parsley and sour cream. Mix together and allow to heat through over low heat, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not boil. Serve immediately.

You can add sour cream individually to the plate just before you serve, and garnish soup with either dill or chives.

This is a very rich dish, so if you want to reduce your calories, use low-fat milk and low-fat sour cream!
Enjoy!

Who's Hungry?

Singing in Vienna

January 26th, 2009

It’s a story that long begged to be immortalized in writing, and I finally decided to give it a try. I might even start a whole new category with it, aiming to relay some of the more remarkable and/or memorable experiences from our travels.

Imagine Vienna.

Among end-of-day things to do in the Austrian capital, a trip to the northern suburb of Grinzing to sample heurigen fare counts as one of the most delightful. “Heuriger” is the name for the local new-vintage wine, which over generations gave rise to heurigen, typical Vienna taverns where wine and other drinks are served at the table, while the food can be bought at the self-service buffets; at the most popular establishments, there is live music and the unending atmosphere of good times, for a comparatively small monetary outlay. Wine, music and a “local” experience – we do not need hard convincing to try that combination.

Our first attempt provided middling impressions, though. The recommended tavern turned out to be a fairly modern establishment, serving pretty good food but entirely lacking the authentic atmosphere that we sought. We needed to try again.

On our last night in Vienna, having had first taken a spin on the famous Ferris Wheel at the Prater amusement park, we made another trek to Grinzing, to a tavern by the name of Altes Presshaus.

Now, that was a typical heurige, complete with wooden tables and benches, and serving ladies dressed to evoke simpler times of yesteryear. Two musicians, playing an accordion and a bass, provided an appropriate background.
Read more…

Memoirs

A new house-hunt

January 24th, 2009

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but having publicized our reasons for dissatisfaction with our current residence, we suddenly found ourselves seriously contemplating a novel idea: How about we finally look for another place to stay? There is a big question whether we will be able to repatriate this summer, and if we do find ourselves having to spend another year in the UK, we might as well improve on our location.

That’ll mean making a few sacrifices as well, most likely. We only have one area in mind, Blackheath, which brings Becky to the doorstep of her school, me to a much less schedule-dependent commute, and all of us in general to a more out-going lifestyle. The first requirement is that the house sits no farther than a 10-minute-walk from the center of the village and the train station.

There are practically no houses on the rental market in Blackheath area comparable in size to the one we inhabit now. To combine a good deal with a good location, we need to downsize our existence a bit. Like give up our nice garden (which we take advantage of far too infrequently for that to truly matter). And leave no space for house guests to stay with us in the future (which is a bummer, but then, how many people are actually thinking of coming to visit us in near future?). Our minimal requirement of 3 bedrooms plus either two reception rooms or a reception room and a study is considerably less than the accommodations we have had in the last 10 years.

Anyway, we are people of action. No sooner we decided that we should give it a try, than we had moving estimates arranged for and several viewings scheduled. There are literally a dozen of real estate agencies in Blackheath village. Today, we saw three available places with three different agents.

The first turned out to be a smallish dump on the outer edges of our search radius, with a tiny closet impersonating “a study”, and no same-floor bathrooms for two of the bedrooms. As soon as we stepped inside, we knew it was a non-starter.

The last was an apartment, not in too great of a condition, but in an excellent location just a few hundred yards from the village center. Besides its obvious appearance of slight neglect, it also was mis-advertized: It only had 3 bedrooms and 1 reception room, with no space for a study. Another no-go.

In between those two, though, we saw a beautiful townhouse also shorter than a stone’s throw from the village center. Immaculately maintained, fully furnished, currently occupied by the owners, who plan to be traveling around the world in their retirement for the next few years. It has only one shortcoming – its size. There are only two true bedrooms, so the lower-level reception room – it would go for a “family room” or a “den” in the States – will need to be used as a bedroom as well; fortunately, it is served by its own bathroom/shower suite. The study, while bigger than a closet, is not big enough to function as a reasonable bedroom – there is no way we would be able to convince Kimmy to accept that as her room, seeing that each of the two bedrooms are downright princely, – and is probably too small to fit two workstations. And we certainly would not be able to accommodate more than a single house guest at a time – who would have to be willing to sleep in the living room.

But it’s what I call a workable option, for starters. And we have two months to look at other properties and figure out whether we really want to do it.

At the very least, we found something to be excited about…

Chronicles

Musical Tiramisu: Bamboleo

January 23rd, 2009

It’s been a dismal week so far, and I need a pick-me-up. So, I’m branching out of my regular memories on YouTube series, to better include songs that do not necessarily constitute a specific memory (to be honest, some of my entries in the “memories” feature were not truly associated with specific reminiscences), but rather simply and unfailingly have a positive effect on my mood when I hear them.

Here is one of such songs. I’ve always been partial to Latin music, with acoustic guitar at the top of the list as far as instruments are concerned. It’s a little wonder that I like Gipsy Kings.

Actually, there is a bit of useless trivia associated with the group. I rarely go to live performances and almost never to non-Russian ones. But I’ve been to a Gipsy Kings live performance at NYC’ Radio City Music Hall, sometime in mid-90’s.

————
Anyone wondering why a dessert is included in the name for this new series: tiramisu, which is translated as “pull me up” from Italian, has the implied figurative meaning of “pick me up”.

Music

Burlaki.com RSS feed

January 22nd, 2009
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I know there is a handful of people out there who subscribe to my RSS feed via FeedBurner (which is where the “Subscribe” button on the navigation bar pointed to until today). FeedBurner was bought by Google some time ago, and they are gradually getting around to migrating their service to a different platform. I’ve heard about occasional problems with that from different blog owners who have already been migrated, and, to be honest, I never really needed the additional bells and whistles that FeedBurner provides, some of which, I understand, are no longer going to be available on the Google platform anyway.

Therefore, the Subscribe button now points back to the original feed. I’m not planning to get rid of FeedBurner altogether, so any of my distinguished subscribers who want to stick with that may not even feel a thing, with luck. But if you notice a disruption in the feed at any point in time, please consider re-subscribing with the original feed.

Website Bulletins

He really means it – and that gives me hope!

January 22nd, 2009

I could not resist. Especially since I’ve always agreed with the message.


Via Glenn Reynolds.

Apropos

Pork with Mixed Green Beans

January 21st, 2009

Kitchen experiments by Natasha and Becky continue in earnest. Here is the latest entry: Pork with Mixed Green Beans.

Serves 4

2tbsp vegetable or groundnut oil
2 shallots, chopped
225g/8oz pork fillet, thinly sliced
2.5cm/1” piece of root ginger, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
300ml/10oz chicken stock
4 tbsp chili sauce
4 tbsp crunchy peanut butter
115g/4oz fine French beans
115g/4oz frozen broad beans
115g/4oz runner beans, sliced
Chinese noodles

  1. Heat the oil in a preheated wok or large frying pan over a high heat.
  2. Add the shallots, pork, ginger and garlic and stir-fry for 3-4 minute until the pork is lightly browned all over.
  3. Add the stock, chili sauce and peanut butter and cook, stirring, until the peanut butter has melted. Add all the beans, stir well and simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until tender and pork is cooked through.
  4. Add Chinese noodles to the mix for 2 minutes before turning the wok off. Serve immediately.

Note: You can use other kinds of beans if you cannot find exactly the ones mentioned in the recipe. You can also use crispy noodles instead of Chinese, if you prefer, in which case you do not need to add them to the mix before serving.

Who's Hungry?

Hail to the (New) Chief!

January 20th, 2009

I have little doubt my RSS aggregator today will overflow with statements from everyone and everybody on how momentous today is. How the removal of “Elect” from President Obama’s official designation finally gives us a leader that we can wholeheartedly cheer for and adore. How thankful we need to be to be delivered from the horrors of the last eight years and how hopeful we are to see all of our troubles swiped away by the very first flourish of the newly installed chief executive’s pen.

Ok, that last one was a blatant exaggeration. I’m sure no one in their right mind truly believes that Obama is some sort of a messiah who will immediately start performing miracles in order to turn global distress and suffering into peace and prosperity for all. Far from it, any reasonable person would agree that the incoming President inherits a job and a legacy that you would not wish on anyone. How one person can even begin to hope to affect all of the worldwide maladies, starting with the biggest economic downturn in generations, I cannot imagine.

Ah, but it is not just one person. All signs so far have been pointing to the fact that the next administration will differ from the previous one not just by what kind of person will be in charge, but also by what kind of counsel the President will keep. And, at the very least, the team that Obama has been assembling is one reason for being optimistic that positive changes in domestic and foreign policy are truly coming and coming soon.

Still, let’s see what the President and his team can do before anointing him the Savior. The coronation inauguration today is just the beginning of a hard road, and not even the brightest and the most thoughtful of Presidents is assured success at the very outset. I fear that the more ecstatic we get together as a nation today, the more we might be setting ourselves up for disappointment of having too high and unattainable hopes for the man.

Hope is what Barack Obama has been selling us for all these months. Whether we voted for him or for the other guy, we bought that hope in the end. Change is what we now need to see, in many different ways. Don’t disappoint us, Mr President!

Godspeed!

Apropos

US destinations on World Map

January 19th, 2009
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For those few who care, I have added pins and annotations to the US destinations on the World Map.

Travel, Website Bulletins

A bit of classical interlude

January 19th, 2009
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Kimmy, Natasha and I went to a classical music concert on Sunday. A local foundation organized a series of concerts “to bring classical music to the kids”. These are more than just concerts, as the performers talk about their instruments, demonstrate various techniques, let children “conduct” certain pieces and otherwise keep them entertained.

The idea is that the program is most suitable for children aged 6-12; any older, and they are likely to get bored by the tone of the conversation; any younger, and they are unlikely to be able to sit through the hour-long concert.

Of course, you always get a handful of parents who think that a live Baby Mozart is a splendid idea and bring their toddlers. With all the banging, screaming and futile attempts to keep them still and quiet attendant to the little munchkins. Right in the middle of a Haydn.

Despite all of that, it was a fun outing. The performers were a young string quartet who played several beautiful pieces by Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, Tchaikovsky. The final number was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance, which Kimmy knows very well, courtesy of the Beethoven’s Wig audio series. Hearing that from the stage made her day.

We liked that, too.

Chronicles

Discount air travel, revisited again

January 18th, 2009

I commented a few times in the past (most notably here and here) that the notion of cheap air travel on discount airlines within Europe is rarely as good as advertized. How about another example?

We are planning to fly to Costa Brava in the summer. There are two airports in the area directly connected to London – Barcelona and Girona. The former is served by British Airways from either Heathrow or Gatwick, the latter is served by Ryanair from Stansted. Girona is closer to our final destination of L’Estartit by about an hour over Barcelona, but that advantage brings a bit of ambivalence with it: Our chance to spend a few hours in Barcelona would be on the day of the departure back; if we fly from Girona, we are likely not to see Barcelona on this trip at all.

The best fare for a round-trip for a family of four on British Airways to Barcelona is from Heathrow, for a total of £370. Not too bad, in all honesty. Ryanair, however, offers the round-trip between Stansted and Girona for just £237.1 A considerable difference, with the airports on both ends being more convenient to get to. A no-brainer, right?

Wrong!
Read more…

Travel

Mid-January movie roundup

January 17th, 2009
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I’ve been searching for something to write about and I realized that in the first half of the month, I’ve already seen 9 movies that I had not seen before. A regular feature to the rescue!

Eastern Promises 2007
Good Luck Chuck 2007
Lions for Lambs 2007
Little Miss Sunshine 2006
Lucky You 2007
The Counterfeiters 2007
The Darjeeling Limited 2007
The War of the Worlds 1953
Transformers 2007

Read more…

Movies

Things You Tend Not To Spend Much Time Thinking Seriously About When Making A Decision To Relocate

January 15th, 2009

I have had this item on my blogging to-do list for probably 18 months now, without attempting to address it. To be fair, I have in the past addressed the lion share of this topic in the various posts within the Expat Topic category, but a consolidated summary has been missing so far. Here is finally an effort to rectify that.

Unfortunately, I am not too happy with the end product. I made a few re-writes over the course of several days, deleting and adding content, and in the end, I am left, I’m afraid, more with recaps of things posted elsewhere in this blog than with new and original thoughts. I still feel that it is worthwhile to post some sort of a conspectus on the subject, but anyone who’s been reading this blog since its early days may find little new stuff after the cut. Feel free to skip. Otherwise, you’re risking bearing to hear me admit mistakes.
Read more…

Expat Topic

Thieves thank you for not smoking

January 14th, 2009

I have been working on a big post for a couple of days, and it is nowhere near being ready yet. I can’t have two days in a row without posting something, so here is one of the random things that I find amusing.

 

 

Let’s forget for a second that the intent might be to warn people to protect their possessions. (While on some level I understand the preventive benefit of drawing people’s attention to something they may not be actively paying any mind to otherwise, I imagine thieving “operatives” going, “Damn! We’ve been exposed! We’d better move operations elsewhere”. And then, eventually, “Oh no! These signs are everywhere! We can’t do no business no more!”)

No! The important thing is that you should refrain from smoking. Because, you know, we are concerned about the health of thieves who operate in this area.

I heartily agree. Thieves are people too. How would you like breathing in somebody’s cigarette fumes while trying to pinch his or her wallet?!

Photography, That's England

Simpsonized portraits

January 12th, 2009

My brother asked about the avatar that now pops up next to my comment replies on this blog. It is a simpsonized me, that I have long been using as Gravatar for blogs that support that service.

The big picture looks like this:

 

I think it certainly resembles me. Don’t you agree?

Just to add to this entertainment, here is what Becky looks like simpsonized:

 

Some resemblance, I guess, but very pale skin color…

Neither Natasha nor Kimmy tried.

Idle Amusements

Almond Macaroons

January 12th, 2009
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Over the holidays, we had plenty of opportunities to expand on the series started with this post. Unfortunately, my efficiency in getting to the table ready to eat continuously interfered with any thought of making a food-related post.

Last night, as Natasha was making one of her favorites, she decided that I have been remiss in giving her a regular guest spot on this blog for too long. So, here we go, from our kitchen: Almond Macaroons.

 
The recipe:

Makes 12

1⅓ cup of blanched almonds, toasted
⅞ cup of superfine sugar
2 egg whites
½ tbs almond or vanilla extract
confectioner’s sugar, for dusting – optional

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a large baking sheet with non-stick baking paper. Reserve 12 almonds for decorating. In a food processor fitted with metal blade, process the rest of the almonds and sugar until finely ground.
  2. With the machine running, slowly pour in enough of the egg whites to form a soft dough. Add almond or vanilla extract and pulse to mix.
  3. With moistened hands, shape the mixture into walnut-size balls and arrange on the baking sheet.
  4. Press one of the reserved almonds onto each ball, flattening them slightly, and dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar. (I did not do this last time and the cookies still came out great)
  5. Bake the macaroons for about 10-12 minutes until the tops are golden and feel slightly firm. Transfer to a wire rack. Cool slightly, then peel the cookies off the paper and leave to cool completely.

To toast the almonds: Spread them on a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes until golden. Cool before grinding.

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By the way, by popular demand, the recipe for the original dish in the series, Chilies stuffed with fish paste, has been added to that post.

Who's Hungry?

And another thing…

January 11th, 2009

Oh yeah, I also changed my old boring favicon to a slightly less boring one. If anyone cares to clear their browser cache to have it updated, it would make me happy.

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