Category Archives: Home-making

The Halloween costume I almost didn’t wear

We skipped celebrating Halloween last year. No, really- we were those people who hid in the bedroom with the lights out, and whenever the doorbell rang, I held my breath until I heard the footsteps fade away. I knew the kids couldn’t hear me breathing anyway, but somehow that abated my guilt.

This year, we resurrected the Halloween party we had two years ago, down to the same costumes. We also invited friends from different social circles (e.g. John’s entire department and my ex-colleagues) who ended up chatting and, I think, enjoying each other’s company. I still remember my friend Robyn praising our 2012 bash, saying she loved how we invited people from various parts of our lives who didn’t know each other, but who all got along. It’s damn hard to make friends when you’re an adult (or maybe it’s just me?) so I like opportunities to throw strangers into a room and see what happens.

We had a really great time, which always surprises me about parties. I don’t really like large gatherings and feel the need to take a nap after talking for more than 10 minutes, but good company and good food put me at ease. Seriously, friends went out of their way, bringing gorgeous caramel apples and chocolate cake and pizza and…the list goes on. I tried to refrain from turning into my alter ego, DJ ADD (if we were at a party together in college, you’ll remember my tendency to change songs after 30 seconds), and let Spotify do the work with a cheesy Halloween playlist. Not even mine. I’ve become lazier about parties, abandoning the obsessive cleaning beforehand (well, to an extent), and even buying a dessert instead of making one from scratch. No one complained.

I was also dreading the party a bit because of the costume factor, even though I love dressing up and putting on layers upon layers of eyeshadow. John and I were zombie Germans two years ago, and again laziness drove the decision to recycle those costumes. But my dirndl is now at least two sizes too small, a result of loosening my iron grip over food intake, not setting foot in a gym for 3 months, and, well, an affinity for dipping chocolate in peanut butter. When you have to pay outrageous prices for Reese’s in this country, you go to extreme measures for your fix.

I try not to let it get to me, because I hate the pressure on women to look and act a certain way and I try not to buy into all of that (anymore). But squeezed into that dirndl, I couldn’t help compare myself to those cumberland sausages I was serving. I was paranoid that buttons were going to pop off. I thought, how was I ever that small? Oddly enough, I didn’t feel small, then. That’s body dysmorphia for you.

Anyway, I put my faith in German craftsmanship and trusted that my top would stay buttoned, and luckily it did. I let insecurities slip into the background as I gave John some smokey eyes and teased my hair into oblivion, and welcomed friends into our teeny tiny apartment (seriously, it was a little like a clown car, but doable). As for next year, I think it’s time to retire the Gretel get-up and wear something that fits, and not feel bad about it.

Birthday (Cake) Week

It’s the husband’s birthday on Thursday, and what better way to kick off a week of celebrating (because one day isn’t enough) with cake? Cakes, actually. This week I’ll be posting 4 recipes, because we both have 4 letters in our first names and John is turning something-4. 

First up is Smitten Kitchen’s blueberry crumb cake, which is currently in the oven. I’m a little nervous, because I don’t have a fancy stand mixer, nor the patience to mix with my adorably old-fashioned  egg beater device that you crank by hand. So, I mixed all the liquid ingredients at once with my trusty stick blender, and hoped for the best. Also, my oven temperatures are kind of a joke. There’s a dot for 175 C, and then again for 200 C, so I had to guess where 190 was. And finally, of course I don’t have a 9-inch cake pan, so I used a small round (5-inch, maybe) souffle dish and a 4 x 8-inch glass baking dish. 

Everything I’ve read about baking warns you to be precise (in ingredients, tools, temperatures and times) but I usually have good luck just winging it. Except for those failed lemon-rosemary cookies that turned into one big puddle. 

Oh, I found another stranger’s shopping list today. This one is less interesting but also more confusing than last week’s edition, so I figured I’d share: 

– Method wood polish (I’m a shameless Method fan, too).

– milk

– milk for children (they need different milk than adults?)

– Peper Shop (no idea)

– black chorizo (I’m pretty sure this doesn’t exist)

– Gaugin Guitars or Picasso instruments (they definitely don’t sell these at Waitrose)

My prediction is that the owner of this list is a housewife who can’t spell, and who believes your age should determine the kind of milk you drink. I hope she finds her black chorizo someday.

P.S. The cake looks good!

Full-on Fall

I could sit here for thirty minutes trying to organize my thoughts, but am trying to minimize the time I spend in front of a screen when I get home. I’ve been taking breaks at work just to sit outside for a few minutes– luckily the weather is still nice enough for that. I just thought about this in relation to my previous job, because I was just as busy but didn’t need that “nature break.” Probably because it involved lots of paperwork, and this job has none of that. I almost miss that feeling of rustling through program commitment and trip reservation forms. Actually, I do miss it.

We are still settling in here in Oxford. 2 weeks ago, we finally got a real dresser for our clothes. Two, actually. It’s nice knowing where to find socks, and t-shirts, and it’s also a good feeling when your clothes have a home. It means this is home now, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. Except maybe the minutes spent vacuuming cat hair.

In cat-related news, we’ve reluctantly allowed them to become indoor/outdoor creatures. Ikky would whine all the time in this little flat, and Zora would sneak outside any chance she got. As of today, they now have collars with bells, so we feel a little better letting them roam free. If they get hit by a car, at least they’ll die happy, right? That’s a morbid thought, but I’m okay with it.

Yesterday I was insulted with just about the worst remark I could imagine. Poor grammar. Even criticizing my appearance doesn’t cut as deeply as that. I’m chalking it up to American vs. British English, but the wound stings and I worry that I’m not actually the strong writer that I think I am. I’m debating the grammar in that last sentence. And now I’m convincing myself to get over it, embrace my flawed sentence structure, and take comfort in being a linguistic outsider, a foreigner, in any language I speak. Being a foreigner isn’t a bad thing. It means I have many homes, and an interesting, traveled life.

An interesting, traveled, married life. Today marks 1 month since becoming a Mrs., and it feels pretty awesome. I still think it’s weird to be congratulated for it, because it’s different from the usual things that call for congratulations. Degrees, promotions, that sort of thing. Congratulations for a relationship? I’ll interpret these well wishes to simply mean others are happy for me, and in that case, I’ll take it. Or maybe people are congratulating me for landing the best husband ever, in which case I’ll also take it, because it’s true.

P.S. we had these for dinner, and they were amazing. Skip the oven part and use two pans, one for the pork and one for the apples. Use butter, not this “vegetable oil” nonsense. Up the cinnamon. Serve with rocket salad, and a lovely miso-tahini-apple cider vinaigrette. Eat the fat off your picky husband’s plate. Enjoy.

Epilogue to a Wedding, Prelude to Autumn

Part of my hesitation to write, I have to admit, has been because my trip back to the “rebel” country hasn’t been as rosy as expected. To begin with, I woke up with a sore throat the day after arriving, which progressed to probably full-blown bronchitis and is still lingering. That’s a diagnosis brought to you by Dr. WebMD; even though I have some sort of international health care card, I don’t think an actual doctor could have done anything for me.

I got well enough in time for the wedding, and got through the day with smiles and a hefty dose of cold pills. Any way I phrase this will sound terrible, but I have to be honest: there’s a lot of pressure for the big day to be this wonderful, magical event. Months of over-planning and over-scrutinizing are supposed to lead to a carefree, effortlessly elegant day where it hits you that you’re a Mrs. now, and have a Mr. for life, and you celebrate that with your nearest and dearest.

Don’t get me wrong– it was a wonderful day. And it feels fantastic to be married to my favorite person. But from a rushed morning to a delayed ceremony start, to worrying that no one could hear us from that picturesque gazebo on the top of that hill in Chickies Rock Park, to accidentally leaving in that bit about gay marriage that might piss off some relatives, to feeling rushed while setting up the food for hungry guests and not having any idea where to put all of the stuff, to spilling barbecue sauce on my dress on three separate occasions and making the mistake of using a burgundy-colored napkin to blot it out (not my smartest decision), to…just knowing that we didn’t really devote more than 2 minutes to anyone in particular, it just wasn’t all that Martha and David (that’s Stewart and the Bridal mogul to the uninitiated) promised.

I expected that, to some degree. But I still wish I could have done it perfectly, because that’s how I am. On my wedding night, we stayed at John’s mom’s house, and the groom eventually passed out around midnight while I was up until 4 or 5 because I couldn’t stop my brain from flashing images of the day (greeting guests, blotting stains, searching for extra guacamole and tin foil) in front of my eyes.

The icing on the cake (possibly the only item of which there was no leftovers) was that throughout the day, and even a week later, people are still telling me what a great time they had and how relaxed and happy I looked. The pictures will show that, too. So that’s how I will choose to remember it. Still, I felt the need to give you a sneak peek of the “man behind the curtain,” to reinforce that– appropriately, like a marriage itself– things are never perfect. They’re messy and a little chaotic and the key to happiness is learning to embrace all of it.

And then there’s the aftermath. Now that a week has gone by, I can laugh about taking all of the tupperware into the back yard, along with a sponge and a gallon of dish soap, and hosing everything down. And pawning off bags of roasted garlic baguettes, pickled red onions and tortellini salad onto anyone who entered the house. These tasks kept my mind occupied, which I needed. My amazing, genuine and brilliant (to borrow the British slang) mother-in-law isn’t doing well, and I just don’t know how to deal with illness and…well, hopelessness, on my part. I want to make things better, and when I can’t, I either shut down or find a way to distract myself.

One of the distractions, of course, has been sugar. They call it emotional eating for a reason. I suppose there could be worse coping mechanisms, so I’ll give myself a break, but I do look forward to getting back on my bike and off the addictive white substance back in Oxford.

And yet, I’ll really miss it here. I loved spending time with my family (and new family!) I’m leaving just as my favorite season hits. The fine line between summer and fall. The few days where the air has a crisp edge to it, but the leaves haven’t lost their summer luster. The days where we introduce scarves and layers to our wardrobe. Not to mention the pumpkin spice everything.

I’ll miss you, Pennsylvania. But it’s time to go home, and start the next chapter of my life: experiencing my first autumn in Oxford. Oh, and learning how to be a nagging wife to my darling “hubby.”*

*I promise to never use this term seriously.

in 14 days

I’ve been putting my spreadsheet skills to use the past few days, flying between tabs in a massive Google Docs file, to finalize all of this “wedding stuff.” As the big day approaches, I continue to fight the good fight against the wedding industrial complex, with all of its shouldsmusts, and have you considered?’s

But even after brushing aside all of the unnecessary tulle, pomanders, and intricate invitations (I’ve seen envelopes within envelopes, not joking), there’s still a lot of essential stuff. It’s not just a matter of inviting a few friends over for pizza and a movie (my specialty). There are checklists to check, food and containers and utensils to buy, playlists to plan, and, oh yeah, I should probably make an effort to find some shoes to wear.

In moments where it all starts to become too much and I find myself turning into exactly what I wanted to avoid, I stop to remind myself of the following key points. They’re worth reiterating, because repetition takes the impossibility out of “easier said than done,” turning it into “Said. Done.” Consider it a wedding planning mantra, of sorts.

In 14 days:

1. It won’t matter whether or not I remembered to add my favorite Spice GIrls songs to my playlist. In fact, guests will probably prefer the omission.

2. I won’t be panicking over whether x pounds of meat was enough for x people, or whether the tomato slices suggested my knife sills leave much to be improved, or whether the cake was just a little bit too dry or too sweet. I will have realized that our guests have traveled to see us get married, not to eat a 5-course, 5-star meal (though tummies will be happy and satisfied, since our dishes will be made with love and minimal food poisoning risk).

3. Additional note on the former: I will look back on my crazy Google Docs tabs and say yes, it was worth it to self-cater, because I wanted that personal touch, and I can’t deny my innate nitpicking toward vendor-made meals (I can’t count the number of times I’ve tasted something and went, “I could have done this better.” Food snobbery at its finest).

4. I won’t be worrying about potential breakouts, scrutinizing what I’m eating out of the irrational fear that a few extra spoonfuls will suddenly bulge out of my dress, or whether the bruises on my leg (note: I bruise very, very easily, because I’m a dainty flower) detracted from those powerhorses that propelled me through Oxford on my bike.

5. It won’t matter whether the guestbook was set up this way or that way; whether we skipped the galvanized steel drink buckets, or how my handwriting on some signs turned out.

In 14 days, I will be married to my best friend, my soulmate, as much as I want to cringe and roll my eyes at that term. I’ve just gotten to a point where it’s no longer enough to live with John and talk about “when we’re married;” I’ve gotten to the point where I feel incomplete without him, and confident that no matter what craziness spouts out of my mouth on any given day, he will be there to support me and encourage me, and I want to do the same for him. It’s what makes me happy (among other things, like the cats and bacon).

In 14 days, we’ll both be wearing shiny matching rings, ready to take on the world as a new family. Things won’t ever be perfect, and I wouldn’t want them to be, but I think we will both feel that things have just…shifted, a bit. Nudged us closer together– something that’s been happening all along, even when I think it’s impossible to keep going and growing.

And in 14 days, I can put aside the spreadsheets and get back to real life, with my husband.

Oxford, Lately

It’s been a little while since I’ve written, but not for lack of intention. Every night I’ll think, “I really should write this down somewhere,” followed by “but I’ve been in front of a computer all day” and finally “nah, I’ll remember it.”

Of course, I don’t.

But today’s the day– the day where I happen to have an hour or so of train time with no book to read (too lazy to download books onto my iPad– sad, but true) and no Wi-Fi connection to draw my attention to more pointless pursuits, e.g. finding the perfect julienne peeler on Amazon. (It took 20 minutes, but arrives Friday!)

I brought a half-liter of coffee with me today, but knew it wouldn’t be enough. 5 minutes before the train departure time, I grabbed a large cappuccino to go, and my body is thanking me for thinking ahead. I was so excited to go to bed when it was still light outside at 9:30, and then I realized that I didn’t do any of my freelance work that was due that afternoon (American afternoon, I was still on time!)

So, my brain isn’t fully awake yet. I normally wake up 25 minutes from now. And that’s why, without a proper introduction or logical organization whatsoever, I present to you, 5 readers, some highlights that I might want to remember one day.

1. My typical pancakes + yoga Saturday morning last weekend was even better than usual. Actually, the recipe flopped (a gooey mess salvageable as crepes) and the class was mediocre, but my trip afterward to the covered market was a success. A sales pitch from the produce guy charmed me into buying the smallest £2 Pakistani mango (or something like that). Totally worth it. And I tried wild garlic for the first time, mainly because it basically looks like a dainty white flower with long, elegant leaves. You can eat the whole thing, stem to tip, and I found it highly amusing to tell John, “OMG, eat this flower!” and kiss him with my garlic breath. Tip: great in arugula salads.

2. The only consolation for post-vacation woes (aside from the cats) was hopping on my bike again, which I did promptly upon returning home, to pick up some sustenance at the co-op. It’s clearly the superior mode of transportation, as much as I do like to walk (and run). I kind of hated biking in Philly, and never identified the root of my reluctance until I moved here. I thought I hated biking itself, because I’m slow and like to whine about the slightest burning sensation in my leg muscles, but it turns out I actually only hated biking in Philly. Maybe that makes me a snob, but you really can’t argue that the scenery is just nicer here. I’m still loving my 40 miles per week commute, and actually find myself making additional trips just because I can.

3. Our 387 sq. ft. walls were starting to close in on us, so John and I rearranged the living room. Basically, we were embarrassed by our neighbor’s comment that we were “living like students,” because we’ve done that for most of our lives, so we decided to keep the bikes outside (need to buy a chain soon!) and squeeze the two-seater sofa into the conveniently two-seater sofa-shaped entryway. I measured the space and was sure we wouldn’t be able to open the door all the way, but apparently using a tape measure is not part of my skill set. It fits! And the room looks much bigger now. I also found a way to open our window without Zora jumping out (it involves using shelf liner as a makeshift screen), so we can finally circulate some air for more than 5 minutes (when she’d typically find a way out and we’d close the window in defeat).

Getting out of the office

“Train to London Paddington, Next Call: Reading.”

Yes, I’m on my way to Reading. I wonder how it compares to the one in PA. But I won’t stop there long enough to find out, as it’s my transfer point to Maidenhead. I woke up an hour earlier than usual today, surprised that the sun was up already and that I actually felt awake, to venture out to our client’s office for some webinar recording. If all goes well, the videos, narrated by my “soothing” voice (well, that was a co-worker’s compliment– I’d describe it more as a manly, monotonous lisp) will be broadcast on the big scary internet. There’s even an app for the site, and I cringe to think of being watched on a phone or tablet.

Well, half-cringe. The other half of me is flattered to take on the task and happy to get out of a typical day in the office. Not that I mind the cubicle lifestyle too much, but it’s great to get a change of pace once in a while. I’m looking out the window at the rolling green countryside: sheep, houses, trees, a bright blue sky. It never stops feeling like I’m dreaming here, really. Except when it rains. And even then…

Switching gears (something I’m still having trouble with on my front derailleur– it might be time to cough up some money for a proper tune-up), the other day I made the mistake of looking at my wedding planning checklist and immediately got overwhelmed. Lists, and big projects, are like that: one task after another, and it all seems to scream at you to get it done. Logically, I know that I have no problem completing a project at a natural yet efficient pace, under the deadline, wondering why I ever worried in the first place. But I have a hard time remembering that when facing something new..

A wedding is pretty new. I decided from the beginning I’d abandon pointless place cards and seating arrangements, “favors” that are never as favorable as intended (Hershey’s Kisses with the couple’s name? Sorry, you just wasted 5 hours putting a sticker on what covers a mediocre piece of chocolate and will inevitably be thrown away), bachelorette/bridal shower plans, matching outfits, etc. And yet, the list looms.

Have I decided where to get folding chairs for the ceremony yet? Exactly how much food do people eat at an appetizer/dessert reception, and how did I decide it’d be a cinch to self-cater a picnic style reception? When will I find shoes and a dress?

Then I get a hold of myself, and remember (like my friend Erika says) that’s it’s more of a “wedding theme party.” No one is going to remember or care about the little details. And like all projects, this will be doable if I stick to a schedule, and don’t peek ahead at what needs to happen 2-3 months from now.

So, aside from some minor wedding stuff, this weekend I’m making it my mission to finally put some more pictures online to entice our friends and family to move here. After all, I can only say “Oxford is awesome, and I never want to leave” so many times before it becomes annoying. Photographs say all of that, and more, in a much classier, more convincing way.

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