Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Life with Open Windows

Gosh, that sounds awfully pop-philosophical, doesn't it?  But no, today I'm going to expound on the joys of keeping the literal windows open.

Over the last week or so, the rainy and cool weather that predominated in April and the earlier part of May was finally replaced with lovely summer weather.

A note about said summer weather.  The warmest day we had got up to the mid-20s celsius, which is apparently about as warm as it gets here even in high summer.  Thank goodness for that.  The temperatures didn't seem that high (at home, we can generally get into the low to mid 30s celsius during hot streaks), and yet I would be hot and sticky after just the grocery store run.  The answer: much higher humidity!  Today the high was 23 and I found it much more comfortable.  Nice enough to wear the few items of summer clothing I have over here, but not so hot as to induce sensations akin to melting.

So, we have no air conditioner in our flat and most of the time wouldn't be able to make use of one.  What we do have for ventilation are windows in the bedroom and living room.  For the last week straight, if we've been in the house, at least one of these windows has been open and its been wonderful.  We keep commenting on how lovely the air smells.  The scents of spring flowers, rain, night-time, and sometimes smoke drift pleasantly into the house.  Also, you can hear the birds chirping away very happily (with occasional less melodious calls from crows and magpies).

Every morning, the nursery housed in the complex lets the kids out to run and play.  At our last place, we had a family with five children living above us, so we got pretty used to tuning out children running about and screaming.  Every now and then we cast amused glances at each other when someone is throwing a particularly loud tantrum.

Today, we had a pretty respectable thunderstorm and, with the windows open, heard every crack and rumble and reverberation of the thunder.  This was a great improvement over our basement suite back home; we were always rather insulated from the thunderstorms there, unfortunately.

Now, the other thing it is important to note about the windows in our flat is that they are without screens.  My first thought on discovering this was What about the bugs?  If you leave a door open in Saskatoon for any length of time, you're going to find yourself sharing your home with flies, mosquites, and moths and, perhaps, dragonflies, bees, and wasps.  Not a problem here: England apprently has no bugs.  (Though it does seem to have preponderence of long-legged spiders...)

To date, we've had a couple small moths, a few flies that dart in and then leave again, and about two mosquitoes.  No bees (thank goodness - I thoroughly dislike being trapped in confined spaces with stinging insects).  Also, no birds or squirrels have attempted to infiltrate our sanctum sanctorum.  (Phew!)

So, the open windows have been great so far.  Long may this state of affairs continue!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Picture Post: Summer is Here!

After close to a month and a half of below normal temperatures and rain and overcast skies, the weather gods have finally decided to smile down on England.  Yesterday it probably got up to 24 and today it's supposed to get up to 26!  I'm going to have to start getting a bit creative fashion-wise - we didn't bring very much summer wear with us when we moved over here.

Yesterday, we went to see Terry Eagleton, the famed Marxist literary critic, speak on his book Why Marx Was Right.  I actually found myself agreeing with a lot of what he was saying, because if you actually look at the historical Marx, you'll find he was actually quite bourgeois and a reformist as well as a radical.  Eagleton seemed to moderate Marx, which in turn makes him look much more compelling.  Also, he stated very firmly that any present-day socialist has to admit that a) Marx was very bad at predicting the future and b) that Stalinist Russia must always be seen as a failure of Marx's principles.  Also, he was a very engaging and self-deprecating speaker.  In the 1970s, he wrote a Marxist study of the Brontes, Myths of Power, which I cited in my master's thesis.

And now, on to the photos.  I took these two days ago, which was our first very sunny day, and they mark a familiar walking route I like to take in central Oxford.

I started from the Faculty of English and first made a stop at Mansfield College to check my pigeonhole (or "pidge") for mail (there wasn't any).  This is Mansfield's lovely chapel.

I then headed south down Mansfield Road, past this glorious copper beech.  (That's what I overheard someone referring to it as the other day - mostly I just love the deep red leaves.  We don't get a lot of trees like that at home).

I went to Broad St., where the Sheldonian Theatre and the Museum of the History of Science (to its right) were looking lovely and golden in the sun.

Then I stopped at my favourite, favourite Oxford bookstore, the original Blackwell's.  I took a quick swing through the Children's and YA section and then popped upstairs to check out Literature and Poetry.  But I was very good and didn't buy a thing.

I headed back down Broad for the History Faculty Library, housed in the lovely Old Indian Institute building, for a most mundane purpose - returning a library book.

On my way back to the English Faculty (and my bike), I passed my favourite churchyard, which has quite old tombstones and an interesting mix of light and shadow, because it is so heavily treed.  Walter Pater, the Victorian essayist, is buried here.

This photo is just from last night, but it was such a nice view of Keble College's very distinctive chapel that I couldn't resist.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Life in Britain: Living with Food Allergies

As a follow up to yesterday's post on grocery shopping and grocery stores in Oxford, I thought I would write a little bit about living with food allergies here.

Specifically, my food allergies:
  1. Peanuts and tree nuts (life-threatening)
  2. Eggs
  3. Wheat and barley
Since I had been to the UK twice on vacation, I was pretty familiar with how food labelling works in this country.  The first thing you learn about food labelling here is that it is sometimes quite a bit more specific than it is in Canada, where you often just get a standard "May contain: ____" warning.  Here they will tell you if nuts, for instance, are present in the factory or used to be used on a particular line.  Tesco brand products usually have statements like this: "Factory does not use nuts.  Recipe does not use nuts.  Ingredients: Cannot guarantee nut free."  In that case, I'll take my chances.  Sainbury's products, on the other hand, just out and out say "This product is not suitable for nut allergy sufferers."  Fair enough.

My favourite, though, is my Quaker oats, which states that the product "May contain wheat and barley due to farming practices."  If a bit of wheat is getting mixed in in the fields or something, I'm not overly concerned.

I've also discovered, that there are special "Free From" lines of food available in many grocery stores.  I have yet to find bread I can eat, because it almost always contains eggs, even if it happens to be wheat free.  On the other hand, I've noticed some soups use corn starch or flour in place of wheat flour, which is nice.  At home, wheat flour is used as a thickener in many soups.  Also, the Co-op's house brand of sausages has recently become gluten-free, which is lovely for me.  Who knew there were so many different kinds of excellent sausage: Lincolnshire, Cumberland, roasted red onion, and, my personal favourite, Bonfire Bangers (with apple and treacle - it's like eating dessert!).

On the negative side of things, dairy products, which were never an issue at home, have suddenly become a bit of a minefield.  A lot of yogurt has "May contain nuts" warnings and sour cream from the Co-op and Tesco has nut warnings too.  Consequently, rather than running over to M&S every time we want sour cream, we've just started using the Co-op's creme fraiche, which doesn't have any allergy warnings.

I always knew ice cream might be troublesome too, since there is only one nut-free brand at home (the fabulous Chapman's Ice Cream).  However, google led me quite quickly to a nut-free brand of ice cream here too: Kelly's Cornish Clotted Cream Ice Cream.  Oh my goodness.  So good, so fattening.  It's also rather pricey, unfortunately, but it is fantastically good stuff.

I've discovered I can purchase the same egg replacer (Ener-G) I used at home through a UK website.  I can also purchase a good wheat-free flour mix from Dove's Farm's site.  They also make wheat-free pasta (their tri-colour rice, tomato, and spinach spirals are the best, I think) and wheat-free baking powder.  Yes, baking powder is almost always bulked out with wheat flour here.  Sigh.

I've also found one of the few brands of cocoa that doesn't have a nut warning: Cadbury Bournville Cocoa.  It only contains cocoa.  I became a bit worried in the shop one day that my hot chocolate drinking days had come to an end when I saw a notice on the front of the canister saying that a new allergy warning had been added.  (It really was very nice of them to signal the new warning, unlike my favourite caramel rice cakes, which silently updated their allergy warnings, making them a no-go for me.  However, inveterate label-checker that I am, I spotted it).  Luckily for me, it was only a "May contain milk".  On the other hand, there goes a product milk allergy sufferers may have been counting on.

Thanks to proper food-labelling, it's very easy to get by with my allergies in the UK.  I'm just a bit saddened that good wheat-free cooking mixes (like Celimix) don't seem to be available in the stores.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Life in Britain: Grocery-Shopping

I've been wanting to write a little post on grocery stores and shopping in Oxford since we moved here.  Since a new Sainsbury's opened on Banbury Road just the other day, this seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

With the new Sainsbury's (which has taken over the space vacated by Excellar, a lovely, small wine store that went out of business last November, which resulted in our purchasing a great deal of discounted scotch, port, and red wine), Banbury Road now boasts a total of four (count them - four!) grocery stores within a three-block distance of each other.  Now, the first question you may be asking is: why does a residential area need quite so many grocery stores?  And I can only look back at you with a bemused and confused expression.  I have no idea what possessed Sainbury's to think that Banbury road needed another grocery store.  (I should also mention that we have three different pharmacies - er, chemists - two of which are from the same chain.  I also don't know why this is the case).

So, for our grocery shopping, we can now shop at a small Sainsbury's, a small Tesco, a large Marks & Spencer, or a largeish Co-operative Food.  Generally we shop at the Co-op, even though it's the furthest away, because they seem to have the least expensive produce and dairy, the best deals, and good selection.  However, ever since we discovered milk is 20 p cheaper at Tesco, we've started doing our milk runs there.

One thing we learned about grocery stores in Britain is that they are moving towards self-service checkouts much more quickly than in Saskatoon.  I used to be rather resentful of self-service checkouts at home - wasn't this really just a cost-saving for the store?  Also, it's often nice to deal with real people, as opposed to waiting and waiting for the supervisor to authorize having your backpack sit on the scale or confirm that you are old enough to buy alcohol.  Or, for that matter, plastic knives (the UK has had recent problems with youth knife crime - but plastic knives, really?)

However, I think I've become a convert.  I can pack up my bag (they don't seem to offer bagging as a service over here) at my own pace and pay at my own pace, because there generally isn't anyone waiting for my till.  Also, every now and then, there just aren't any tills manned (womanned?) by actual human beings.  Alas.  Also, I've gotten very good at tuning out the robotic voice asking me if I want cash back.

Now, positives and negatives.  In general, food here is more expensive than it is at home.  However, certain products are happily less expensive.  Italian and French cheese, for instance.  Also wine and spirits, probably in part because they don't have Saskatchewan's price controls on them.  As an illustration: at home, you can get a nice bottle of wine for about $12-16/~£7.5-10 (we aren't too picky, as you can see).  Here, we can walk into the Co-op any day of the week and chances are that a wine we like that would have sat in that price range at home has been marked down to £5/~$8.  There isn't as much selection, but when you can get a nice bottle of wine for that price, we're not complaining.

Also, at home, liquor is sold in Liquor Board Stores or, more expensively, at off sales.  Here, there's a wine, beer, and cider section in every grocery store, even small ones.  Liquor actually makes up a pretty good chunk of the store.  That was rather strange to get used to at first.

Negatives.  There are certain things you just can't get in the UK very easily.  One thing that Tim sometimes misses is blueberry jam.  They do have many, many kinds of marmalade and strawberry, raspberry, tangerine, and blackberry jam.  (My folks bought Tim a jar of blueberry jam from Fortnum & Mason while they were here.)  It seems applesauce, one of my stand-by healthy snacks at home, is only available as an expensive sauce for pork in small containers.  There is a lot more instant coffee sold here than at home, and the grounds you can buy just don't make very strong coffee.  We have of course solved this problem by having kind parents bring us cans of Tim Hortons.

There's also the strange fact that you sometimes cannot find simple things at any given grocery store.  For example, if we want to make pastichio (a heavenly Greek lasagna), we need to hit up about four different stores for ingredients.  I can get wheat-free penne at the big Tesco in city centre, tomato paste from the small Tesco in Banbury, romano cheese from M&S, and the rest of the ingredients from the Co-op.  At home, it was very seldom that you had to look at more than one grocery store for the necessary ingredients.  Luckily, as I mentioned off the top, we now have four stores in close proximity to each other.  It still boggles the mind.

Postscript: Since moving here, Tim has become a big crumpet fan.  Neither of us, however, has tried marmite.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Picture Post: Four Colleges and a Palace

Here are some pictures from the Easter vacation.  The end of March was very warm and summer-like, so Tim and I had an excellent excuse to go exploring Oxford and its college.  April, however, and frankly most of May so far, has been rather cool and rainy.  April was, in fact, that rainiest April since 1910, which is quite something.

 The ceiling of Pembroke College's chapel.

 The view of the Radcliffe Camera from the very grand quad at All Soul's College.  All Soul's is a graduate only college and you must be invited to become a member or become a member by writing a gruelling exam.  Yikes.

 The antechamber of Merton College's chapel.  J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor here for many years.  Also, Merton is very old (I think it was founded in the Medieval period) and has lovely gardens.

 Another view of the Radcliffe Camera, this time from Exeter's Fellows' Gardens.

I really must work in here sometime.  I've only ever popped in to take a very reverent look around.  I usually either work from home or read in the Upper Reading Room at the Old Bod.

And Blenheim Palace, which we visited with my parents.  It is the only non-royal residence in Britain to be called a "palace" (I think).  Its library, which is tremendously grand and boasts its own pipe organ, is apparently the second longest room in a private house in the UK.  Now I'm most curious to find out which house has a longer room.  Also, if you happen to visit and have the opportunity to tour the private apartments of the current Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, do so.  You'll get a much better idea of how the residents of this house actually lived, as the state apartments are only used on special occasions.  And, if you are a Winston Churchill fan (as we all are), take a walk around the grounds because a) they are wonderfully landscaped, with their own waterfall and lake and b) you can see the Temple of Artemis where he proposed to his wife!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Starting Again: Chapter Two

Last week, I felt pretty at sea.  I had just finished my transfer paper and thesis outline, and was beginning Chapter Two.  It felt awfully strange to be able to stop thinking about Chapter One and be able to consider new territory.

Now, Chapter Two isn't entirely new.  Both it and Chapter One look at Charlotte and Branwell Brontë's pre-1846 writing and, at one time, I mistakenly thought it would all fit into one chapter (ha!).  So I've read my primary sources and I've known since January what I wanted to cover in this chapter (the shift from hero-worship and fantasy to realism and irony, as well as the possible Victorianizing and maturing of the siblings' writing).  But, possibly because I already have a half-formed argument in my head, I didn't quite know where to start.

So, I went back to the beginning, to the primary and secondary sources that started me thinking about fantasy and realism, 1830s fiction, the beginnings of Victorian literature, and the pull between fantasy and realism in Charlotte's writing.

I'm also reading more Brontë background: Sue Lonoff's edition of Charlotte and Emily's Belgian essays (to see if I should be discussing them in my chapter), Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, and Charlotte's letters.

It feels so wonderful to go back to reading and thinking and processing again, after a few weeks of writing and revising.  I'm reminded why I decided to pursue doctoral studies in the first place and why, despite this being an exhausting, self-doubting, and brain-twisting way to spend several years of one's life, I love it so much.

For more on the joys and realities of thesis-writing, check out the Guardian's story Ten things I wish I'd known before I started my dissertation…  Many of these points ring true, though during my Master's thesis, I never did feel like I wanted to start from scratch at the eleventh hour.  The guilt and self-doubt, however, is definitely something I'm familiar with.