Archive | May 2012

Puddle Prance

Yesterday was one of those days. You know the ones I’m talking about…where you are cranky and bored and short-tempered so thank goodness you don’t want to be around anyone, where even a shining sun can’t motivate you…those days?

Knew you would.

No one likes those days, least of all when you’ve just had a good week with beautiful weather, so I decided to go for a run in the hope that some physical activity was all I was really craving. I love running, weird I know, but with how much training for dance I had these past 7 months I didn’t want to overdo anything or possibly injure myself, so I hadn’t run since the summer. I went for one about a week ago to a park up in my area and it was great. Dan went this weekend on a run to Port Meadow, that beautiful countryside path to Wolvercote. While I obviously am not in good enough running shape to run the whole thing, walking there with some intermittent sprints sounded like just the ticket. So with that decision made, I packed up my iPod and water, changed into running clothes, and sent off a quick “bye” text to Dan before going out.

I may have also ignored his responding text of “You know it’s going to rain, right?” Oops.

Now I may be weird, but we already knew that, in that I actually really enjoy running in the rain. It’s surprisingly fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried it. You just have to be cautious of slippery surfaces, but what’s a run without a little risk? (Answer: A safe one). And I figured, it’s England, it never rains that much to be intolerable, particularly after this gorgeous sunshine.

Wrong!

I didn’t realize that by rain, he meant torrential rain accompanying a thunderstorm. But he did. Oh yeah he did. I wasn’t even to Jericho when a drizzle rapidly morphed into literal buckets being dumped on me. I can honestly say that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that much rain at one time. Thankfully, it was warm rain so I wasn’t going to chill to my bones, but I soon realized that if I wanted to protect my iPod and cell phone from irreparable water damage, I was going to have to sacrifice my shirt to save them (oh c’mon guys I was wearing a sports bra!). I hid under a tree and quickly wrapped them in my shirt before braving the storm and continuing on my path. Figured I might as well since I was going to shower anyway.

Roads here are not the most even of surfaces and I was heading towards a dirt and rocky path; puddles and mud were going to be inevitable. I saw one, a quite wide one too, directly in my path, but I estimated that the puddle was only about an inch deep, totally manageable for my mesh running shoes. I never was skilled at estimating. I didn’t divert my path and ran straight through the puddle.

And immediately sunk mid calf in rainwater.

There was no hope after that. Soaked socks and squishy shoes combined with contact lenses freaking out because they were filling with rainwater, I ended up just standing there in this pond laughing at how much I looked like a drowned rat. A few guys in a van stopped to make sure I was ok/laughing at how stupid I had been not to watch where I was running/compliment me on my beautiful accent. I just shrugged and continued. Why not? After all I was already drenched and dirty and I really wanted to run. So I did end up running to Wolvercote via the deserted Port Meadow path, artfully leaping over and around further puddles. The only person I met on my trip was this Belgium named Roan who also loves running in the rain, so much so that he swam across the Thames spontaneously to get to the other side…because there is another reason to swim across the Thames? Anyways, he was really cool and we shared running-in-the-rain stories until we parted ways at The Trout.

I chose to walk the way back to my place because the sun was out and I had the time. Unfortunately by this point the rain had soaked into the ground and turned puddles into mud, but I had already run through a pond so did any of it really matter anymore? I hated getting back into town though. Apparently the Oxfordians aren’t used to seeing runners in sports bras and shorts especially not on Cornmarket or High Street, so I received a lot of weird looks from people of all ages. No one even would have noticed  in LA.

Back home a few hours later, I felt completely rejuvenated though utterly knackered. It was all completely worth it, even having to wash my shoes in the bathtub because they were caked with mud.

Running in the rain, especially through the stunning Port Meadow, totally my best experience in a thunderstorm 🙂

Port Meadow on a sunny day at twilight

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Will It Grill?

Answers:

Yes

Burgers, Sausages, Chicken Skewers, Bell Peppers, Courgettes, Onions, Steaks, Chicken, Veggie Burgers, Arms/Fingers of the Grillers

No

Steak for 6 seconds on each side, Cauliflower

These are the experiments that were conducted at yesterday’s joint birthday BBQ extravaganza.

Partner’s birthday is coming up this Friday and one of the other girls in the Keble MCR has her birthday today, so the two of them combined forces and planned a BBQ to celebrate with all of Keble MCR and a select group of their friends. It seemed that within a week of the Facebook invite being posted, there were 80 people RSVP’d, so legendary is Dan’s cooking skill. And luckily for me, I was quickly requested as a sous-griller and dessert baker (both my parents would be so proud). I love helping people out with big parties, so much more than being just a plain guest. And this party definitely turned out big!

Having planned out the desserts and baking schedule the night before, Dan and I met for breakfast at Greens Cafe before heading off for a Tesco run. Sometimes grocery shopping in the UK can be really frustrating with different names for things and a few basic cultural differences leading to an extra 30 minutes inside a store as you search for sweetened condensed milk and baking chocolate. But we did eventually find everything for the three desserts we needed to make from scratch.

Baking commenced at 11 am and didn’t finish until nearly 3 pm, though when compared to the Super Bowl party, this time around things were super relaxed and went smoothly. Possibly a function of only having to make four recipes instead of the 11 we had for the other party, but nonetheless we have also kind of found a rhythm in the kitchen and got into a groove quickly. First up was the easiest, only no bake item: Rocky Road! Simple enough, melt chocolate and stir in mix-ins before popping it in the fridge for the rest of the day.

Rocky Road

Then Dan worked on the two chocolate and two carrot cakes (unfortunately we had to make them from box mixes for lack of time, money, and recipes) while I made a brand new recipe of Oatmeal Lemon Creme Bars. Just in case everything came out poorly, we had a revolving oven of my family’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies cycling through the whole day; thankfully I had frozen cookie dough from my last batch ready to go. I still kind of can’t believe that nothing went wrong. Timing was all perfect, ingredients all available, dishes all simple to clean. Before we knew it, everything was finished and all that was left was for me to frost the cakes while Dan made us lunch.  Easy peasy, oatmeal lemon bar squeezey.

It was only 3 and the party wasn’t starting until 6, but there was still tables and chairs to nick from Acland’s kitchens and a sound system to figure out, so we worked on the outside party area for a bit then headed upstairs for reading/relaxation/15 minute cat naps. Dan had to start the grill up all too soon, and it was nonstop from then on.

Four hours in front of a grill…FOUR HOURS! There was no break as people were all hungry and eager for some of the Grill Master’s wares and his assistant’s grilled vegetables (okay that second part isn’t true, but I like to think that people actually wanted the vegetables as more than a TMO until more meat came off the coals). Burgers, sausages, chicken wings, kebabs…the waiting pile of meat seemed to grow of its own accord as people had apparently heeded our notice of not having ordered enough meat to go around.

Full grill=Happy guests

What we did run out of was charcoal, sending one of our dance team friends on another Tesco run so that we could fire up the other half of the grill and serve our anxious customers. Food was flying off the platter faster than Dan and I could put it on–except the cauliflower. And I still have no idea who thought it was a good idea to grill unseasoned, unoiled cauliflower? Hint: It doesn’t work, sorry cauliflower fans. As for the sides situation, since Dan and I both spent the entire night in front of the BBQ, I have no idea how people fared in terms of sides, but I never heard any complaints so I’m assuming it went fine.

Nick, Pippa, and Pippa’s younger brother

A few times people were kind enough to ask Dan and me if we needed a break to go socialize and get something to eat ourselves, but every time we politely declined. Both of us agreed that we had the best job and the best location in the entire party. Apart from the fact we both love cooking, because everyone went to the grill at one point or another during the evening, we got to meet everyone and socialize with our friends while slinging burgers and sausages, all while hanging out with each other. Was there any better way to spend the night? No, we were both in agreement.

Four hours at the grill. My dad will be so proud 🙂

But regardless of my new grilling lessons, I am at heart a baker, and I was really looking forward to everyone’s enjoyment of the desserts we had made earlier in the morning. Of course I wasn’t expecting the reactions I received. Always unsure about a brand new recipe that hasn’t been tested, I was a little anxious about how the lemon creme bars were going to go down with everyone. Were they an adequate follow-up to my peanut butter chocolate cupcakes (which, funnily enough were still being talked about last night as people lamented that they hadn’t known I was baking and so hadn’t requested their repeat appearance)? Based on their quick disappearance and the most common comment after one bite being “Holy shit”, I think I can say with mild confidence that yes, they were well liked. There was one girl who kept dragging over all her friends to get another bar, so afraid that they would be gone before they had a chance to try them! And one of Dan’s friends from his lab has asked for them to accompany Dan’s birthday cupcakes we are making for the Engineering lab on Friday 🙂 All the other desserts went equally as well, people loved Dan’s carrot cake, and the two of us ended the night under the stars smiling over how successful the day had gone.

There really is nothing like spending the entire day with my dance partner baking, cooking, and laughing. Happy Birthday Dan!! So happy that you got such an amazing party 😀

Dan, the BIrthday Boy and Grill Master

Spontaneous London Reviews from A Day Trip

I couldn’t stomach the thought of sitting around Oxford doing nothing but wait for an email that I no longer think is going to come for the third day in a row, so I decided to leave. Originally I was hoping to go to Lanhydrock in Cornwall despite the 4 hour train rides it would have taken to get there, but the price was a bit, shall we say, prohibitive? In fact it seemed like every place I thought I might travel to was crazy expensive. Now I am definitely not one to scrimp on travel expenses (remember me traipsing off to Zurich with no warning?) but if I’m going to spend the money to go to Cornwall or York, I should probably do it as a weekend trip and make it really worth my while. Which is how, at 2 am, I came to the decision to go into London for the day.

Yet it would not just be any old day in London, not one spent wandering the streets and museum aisles with headphones from either my iPad or an audio guide. No if I was going to do London alone, I was going to boldly go where this Jenna has gone before: to the theatre!!!

Apparently I picked the perfect day as well. It was indeed the third day in a row of gorgeous sun (could I perhaps get some color to my skin?!) and, since it was a Wednesday, many of the popular shows were doing their matinees, meaning that I could see not one but TWO productions all in the same day! Talk about indulging my theatre junkie 😉 As soon as I hopped off the X90 bus I headed over to a tkts booth in the theatre district of Leicester Square, crossing my fingers that I could score a seat to both of my planned shows. I know that all the guidebooks and Dan tell you to go to the “only official discount theatre ticket” place in the middle of the square, but the line was really long and after my experience of missing out on War Horse tickets by literally three minutes, I wasn’t really in the mood to take any chances, so I went to one of the imitation discount booths down a side street. Official or not, I did score some amazing seats for what I consider cheap for the theatre. Next time maybe I’ll get into London a bit earlier and use the official one to compare deals, but I wasn’t going to compromise on this sunshine day that had the makings of being one to remember.

Sunshine!

And which shows did I score those coveted tickets to, you ask? None other than Les Miserables and Chicago! Success!

Yes, I’ve seen Les Mis before, but I’m also the girl who saw Wicked six times and Billy Elliot twice, not to mention the number of times I saw each Harry Potter movie in cinemas, so obviously I don’t care about repeating. In fact Les Mis was even more incredible the second time, but I’ll get to that later.

The matinee doors weren’t even going to open until 2 pm, and it was only 10:30, so I decided to wander the surrounding neighborhoods of London, taking advantage of the weather while it lasts (it’s already cloudy outside as I’m writing this, though that could just be the morning haze). I found myself first in Chinatown and then in SoHo, without nearly getting hit by a car once, so I guess everyone else decided that walking and fresh air was the better option than sitting in a potentially stifling cab. At least Londoners appreciate the sun when they get it! Back home we almost get sick of the heat, granted ours is about fifty degrees hotter than yesterday, and eventually start seeking cover in shopping malls and restaurants. But once again I digress into talking about the weather, an apparently way too easy of a distracting topic. So I’ll move onto cupcakes.

No, I’m serious. Among the stores I came across on my traversing the sidewalks of SoHo was the London version of LA’s Sprinkles or Manhattan’s Magnolia Bakery: Hummingbird Bakery. Surprisingly they don’t make hummingbird flavor cupcakes, but I guess that is more of a Southern American thing. I’ve heard of Hummingbird mostly through that addicting website known as FoodGawker, and since I obviously make a lot of cupcakes myself, I decided to go ahead and try one of theirs. I was hoping that they would sell their cupcake mini’s in store like my favorite New York cupcakery Baked by Melissa (you have to go if you are in New York!), the perfect way to try multiple flavors and give a truly accurate review, but alas those are apparently only available online and I was forced to get a full sized in one flavor. Of course I had to go for red velvet, that ultimate benchmark for the quality of a bakery!

Mmmmmmm…red velvet

I’m no where near creative enough to write cupcake reviews like Dan (see comments section of this post for the latest one), but I can give you my highly detailed notes on the cupcake experience in case anyone makes their way to Hummingbird Bakery anytime soon. The first thing I noticed about the cupcake was that it was well proportioned, a frosting to cake ratio of 1:2, and a wonderfully moderate size, not the super-sized monstrosities guaranteed to give you diabetes in one bite that so often come out of US bakeries. The cake itself was a rich, red color with a pleasant medium chocolate flavor that complemented the frosting without either overpowering the other. A little too dense in my opinion–I prefer a fluffier cupcake, because all things are better when they are fluffy–yet still moist. I wonder how it would be later in the day once it is no longer as freshly baked as this one seemed to be. Now the true mark of proper red velvet cake in any form is the frosting. Hummingbird Bakery went the correct route with a cream cheese frosting and not that buttercream disgustingness that people use instead (it’s not red velvet without cream cheese frosting people!) and it was a good, fluffy (told you) frosting, though with too much icing sugar added in for my taste as I’m not a fan of overly sweet frostings. Overall: a solid effort that I would definitely try again if I ever find myself in SoHo with a cupcake craving, but the dense cupcake and slightly too sugary and subsequently grainy frosting led me to toss the last third of the cake part into the bin and head for a corner cafe to down a bitter coffee.

While enjoying that blissfully bitter cup of caffeine, I whipped out my sketchbook and just started drawing. I just recently started to get into drawing, encouraged heartily by my mom, and I knew that by nature of being alone in London I would have tons of free time, so I somehow managed to pack my sketching pencils and book into my already so full that half the time it wouldn’t close purse. I felt so artsy at first, sitting in the middle of Leicester Square, drinking barely sweetened coffee, waiting for a West End production, sketching the cafe patio across the way, until I became so absorbed in the drawing that I lost all that pretension and forgot everything except which direction a line had to go so that I could achieve the right depth of field. I ended up taking up that corner table for over an hour while I finished my sketch, so I left a more generous tip than one cup of coffee called for to compensate. Thanks random cafe for the extremely pleasant diversion 🙂

Leicester Square decking out for the Jubilee

With still more than an hour to kill before doors to Les Mis opened, I took to the streets of Piccadilly and Regents Street, leisurely strolling past the storefronts and stopping into a Boots to buy a pack of tissues (not going to make that mistake again!). Londoners really came out in droves at lunchtime, so it was fortunate for me that I had enough time to spare so that I didn’t have to rush through a crowd; I just let the swarms slip by me and took side streets whenever I could. After a giddy find of a brand new Whole Foods (they have my peanut butter but not Luna bars, almost success?) more crowded than the streets outside and a quick spot of lunch, I headed into the Queens Theatre and back in time to the French underworld of the 1800s.

Whole Foods! Feels like a slice of home

I don’t think I need to gush on and on about how incredible Les Mis was, though it completely would deserve another helping of exuberant adjectives. I was surprised that for a matinee it was basically the same cast as the evening show I saw back in March with my mom, with the exception of a different Cosette and Marius (funnily enough, the Marius I saw last time was in the chorus this time looking exceedingly bored). I’ve always associated matinees with the understudies or second string of performers, but I guess the West End is fortunately different. And I don’t know if it is the music or the beautiful singing or just the emotions of the story, but I seemed to tear up for almost the entire performance regardless of what was going on at the time. Has that ever happened to you? When you just become so overwhelmed by the beauty of something that you feel unworthy to experience it and just start crying? No? Okay so maybe I’m the odd girl out, but it is definitely how I felt for the majority of Les Mis. Thank goodness for foresight in buying tissues and not wearing mascara (oh no! Did I just admit to that?).

All too soon the final curtain fell, eliciting the fastest and most exuberant standing ovation I have ever seen from a London audience. The cast even came out for an additional bow because the audience wouldn’t stop clapping, myself included. But all great things come to an end, and I was shuffled out of the theatre against my will. I would have stayed and foregone Chicago for the evening performance of Les Mis, but I thought I would be making a better use of my time to see a new production as well. But Les Mis, I’ll be back!

I found myself once again on the streets of Piccadilly with two and a half hours to spare before curtain up at a theatre four blocks away. The great thing about May in England is that the sun doesn’t set until 9 pm-ish, affording me ample daylight to retake up my wanderings armed with a book of London architecture. I find architecture really interesting, probably because of its very close links with history, but I know very little about it and have picked up a few books with the intention of learning more. That is how my London architecture book ended up squeezed into my too small purse alongside my sketchbook. The poor purse’s zipper. London really is a highly navigable city by even just walking, provided you have a decent map, which I did, and therefore walking from Piccadilly Circus down to Westminster Abbey and back up through Trafalgar’s Square via Whitehall to Leicester Square is an entirely feasible plan of action. And a great, educational way to pass 90 minutes in the fresh air. Only made sense to do so, taking my time to read about every building I could find, discovering the Scotland Yard building for my brother, and really looking at the buildings to understand the elements that the book discussed. Random things like the way Portcullis House was designed in 2001 to evoke a symmetry with the Scotland Yard building despite one being made of brick and stone and the other glass and steel. I never would have even thought of something like that, though once it was pointed out to me I can completely appreciate the architect’s intent.

Scotland Yard

Portcullis House evoking Scotland Yard, can you see it?

On my walk, standing outside the Admiralty Building reading about the architect’s decision to forego the use of columns unlike his contemporaries, a random Londoner stopped by me and commented on how I picked the best possible day to be a tourist in London. I thought that it was a random statement, until I soon found out that such a conversation was really just his opening line to ask me for a shandy. With no idea what a shandy was, but knowing that in any situation going somewhere with a stranger is not the smartest decision, I politely declined with a “no, thank you”. Normally that would be the end of the conversation, but this businessman then proceeded to engage me in a cultural comparison of the polite way to refuse an invitation. He commented that it must be an American custom to simple say “No” to such a question while a Brit would say “Sorry”. I replied that in fact I was being very polite by saying “No, thank you” rather than just a flat out refusal. I then thanked him for the compliment of his attention and turned back to my book. And apparently a shandy is a very delicious drink of a blend of alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Sorry, but that doesn’t change my mind. And there was his sorry, just for him! Weird interaction.

I promise you that you are reaching the end of my saga; only three more things to go: a city, a surprise, and a fox.

I love the movie of Chicago, even if I’m not the biggest fan of Renee Zellweger, so I made the mistake of going into the stage show with high hopes of a similar sultry and well choreographed package. Lesson shatteringly relearned: No expectations are good expectations. I truly almost walked out and asked for a refund, before realizing that the theatre wouldn’t give me one since I hadn’t bought my tickets directly from them. First problem, the accents. Now I know that a Chicago accent is difficult for an American, much less a British actor, but if you aren’t going to do a proper Chicago accent at least do a Standard American English one, not a Southern accent and not a valley girl. And make it consistent, none of this switching in and out of poorly performed dialects. Second problem, the choreography and stage design. Apart from the utterly boring minimalist stage that could be the way the musical was originally intended, Chicago is based on the Vaudeville and Cabaret movements, so yes the movement should be subtle and sexy, but you can still be subtle and sexy and actually move across a stage at all much less without prancing. For example, remember Queen Latifa in “When You’re Good to Mama”? Yeah, copy her, walk around, actually swing your curves a little, don’t just stand there and occasionally raise your hand to shoulder level. And Velma Kelly? You are not a giraffe though you may be taller and skinnier than one, so don’t dance like it. Third problem, Roxie Hart. The best way I can describe her was a cross between Kristen Chenoweth in Wicked and Yzma, the villianess from the Disney pic The Emperor’s New Groove. I think that gives the most accurate depiction. Fourth and in my opinion biggest problem, where was all that jazz? Where was the sensuality and the ooze? Yes I said ooze not booze, if you are a dancer you’ll understand what I mean. It felt so little kiddish and perky. The story is about murder, manipulation, and illicit activities, not PopRocks and cartoons. To sum it all up in a quote from Derek Wills from SMASH! “Where’s the sex?!”

Which leads me to the one redeeming quality of the night, the surprise…

I had no idea who was playing any of the roles and was running a bit behind when I was approaching the theatre so I completely ignored the posters of the actors, or else I would have been more keen to sit through the show, based on who was playing Billy Flynn. But I didn’t have any prior knowledge and London theaters don’t hand out playbills so as I sat through the overly rushed performance refusing to clap at the end of any number, I had no idea what was in store for “All I Care About Is Love.” And by what I mean whom and by whom I mean RAZA JAFFERY!!!!!

Raza Jaffery and me 🙂

Yes, Dev from SMASH! was playing Billy Flynn!!!!!!!!!!!! He was by far the best (and most attractive, wink wink) actor in the show and made me believe that he has been underused in SMASH since he can actually sing and dance really well. He also kept up his accent through the entire musical thank goodness His being there was the only reason that I am glad I picked this show, and the picture with him afterwards by the stage door was definitely worth it.

And that brings me to the end of my spontaneous day in London, and to the fox. As I walked towards Victoria Coach Station desperately trying to hail a taxi, a fox ran in front of me on the Pall Mall. Like an actual fox. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real fox before, and I certainly haven’t seen any wildlife besides those blasted pigeons in London. But there it was…a small fox. Random much? 🙂

Springtime at Last?

There have been two consecutive days of sunshine and warmth, but after the teasing weeks back in March that soon gave way to England’s wettest April since 1910 (according to Danopedia) I am hesitant to bask in the perception of spring. Is it folly to put away my winter coat finally into my closet instead of hanging it on the back of my chair each day? Do I dare to wear a dress without tights or even–gasp–shorts?! Or would doing so be tempting the weather gods too much and encouraging them to drop a freak snowstorm or something? See the dilemmas a few days of not just tolerable, but enjoyable weather bring to the people of this country?

But the facts do speak for themselves: the last two days have had such crystal shades of blue skies and balmy air that I have twice ventured outside without a jacket and sweater. Sunday may not have had the cloudless atmosphere, but it was an indication that we may have broken through a cold spell. I even went for a run Sunday morning before heading off to Cuppers to support my Dancesport friends.

Cuppers is the Oxford term for intramural sporting competitions between colleges. I have no idea why they call it Cuppers (and by that sentence just opened myself up to a few long winded comments from readers regarding the origin of the term; I welcome your enlightenment!) but for ballroom dancing it works a little bit different than the other sports. Since you obviously need a couple in order to dance, college teams must be made up of at least one inexperienced dancer who has not competed in the last year. The other member of the couple is allowed to be an experienced dancer, so most of the couples were made up of one member from the dancesport team (either Blues or Beginners) and then a member of their college who learned a dance just for this occasion. It’s quite good fun, and highly entertaining to watch in some cases. As I am the only dancer from my college, and no one approached me about getting a team together, I had the opportunity to merely spectate and take pictures for the largest represented college, my partner’s, Keble College. With a good combination of Beginners and Main Team dancing on behalf of the college, their eventual victory was kind of a given, but no less fun to watch.

Cuppers was run in a typical elimination fashion, with the added addition of the first two rounds being essentially free rounds, though I’m not sure that the inexperienced dancers realized that every single couple made Quarterfinals. But doing this gave them more opportunities to dance, and since when is that ever a bad thing?  Randomly there would be a break for some general social dancing, so Dan and I ended up with a spontaneous Quickstep, Waltz, and Jive under our belts before the embarrassment of Bruce teaching us a line dance to “Stayin’ Alive” put me off dancing for the rest of the day. He should be lucky that it wasn’t forever. Dan claims that I had good fun during it and was just acting out my sullenness, but I claim that I had a headache ever since I went for my run and so I was in truth sullen. Agree to disagree perhaps?

But that is beside the point; the point being of course that Keble achieved the Cuppers win (how cool would it have been if there was a Cuppers Cup?) and Dan and his temporary partner placed second in Quickstep! And one of the other main team guys not dancing and myself correctly identified all four dance finals, down to the random people who were obviously thrown in for entertainment. Maybe I have a future as a dance judge?

Yesterday, after spending the entire afternoon beginning/finishing a book because my tutor still hasn’t emailed me an essay assignment for the week, Dan sent me a simple text: Take a walk at 5? to which I sent an equally simple reply: Sure. Easily persuaded aren’t I? I had a feeling of where Dan wanted to walk to, and at first I was determined to change the location citing bad weather, but as I already mentioned, the weather was perfect for a very long stroll while waiting for the sunset at 9 pm. I arrived at Acland and was handed a camera with no indication that he was going to take it back. I should have known then that something was suspicious, but I can be oblivious and just followed Dan out the back doors of Acland and into Jericho. Yes he was taking us down the three mile path through Port Meadow (if you have been around him for more than five minutes you know that Port Meadow is his favorite place in Oxford). Only then did I receive my challenge. With the camera OFF of auto, I had to take 150 pictures on our round trip walk to The Trout Inn. Some challenge! As soon as I learned that I was being given free range of a camera, I went giddy like a child and ended up with 237 photos (we all know I can be an overachiever). Dan found it really interesting the difference in shots I took versus the ones he would have chosen. So I may have gone a little bit overboard, but especially on the walk back, once the sun was setting, the lighting was so beautiful that taking pictures became a veritable compulsion.

We did stop at the beginning of Wolvercote and at dinner on the patio of The Trout Inn, where we questioned how one could chargrill a watermelon given its high water content. Oh and we unofficially designated ourselves the Duck Police, as there was one particularly cheeky duck that was obsessed with the potatoes of the table next to ours (and yes you did read that correctly). She must have made the leap from another table four times, knocking over the wine glasses that were thankfully empty and snatching chips directly from their plates or the bowl, whichever was closest to her landing mark. Boldly going were no duck had gone before. Because of the obsession with potatoes, I’m betting she was an Irish duck.

I can completely understand why Dan loves Port Meadow so much now. A stunning and relaxing walk that seems like it would look different every time you took it. I won’t put up a fight next time he wants to walk there! I’m thinking picnic by the banks of the stream?

Having been bitten by the photography bug yesterday and still lacking an emailed assignment today, I borrowed Dan’s camera yet again and turned it onto a few well known sites in Oxford. And finally made my way into the Botanical Gardens! While they were pleasant and relaxing to read in for a little while, they are nowhere near as beautiful as some of the other gardens I’ve seen in both this country and back in the LA area, so I didn’t spend more than an hour there. But now it is time to return the camera to Dan and go learn some foxtrot!

Hmmm, is it still okay to wear shorts at 6 pm?

Baking by an Insomniac

Why do we feel the need to classify things? Sometimes I feel like classifying things is simply an excuse to limit ourselves in these pigeonholes of expectations. Why can’t we move beyond our category and become an amalgamation of randomness? Randomness is often so much more entertaining than rigidity (oddly enough that is one of my biggest issues with the restricted syllabus style of ballroom dancing). I mean, why does my blog have to be only a travel log, book review site, autobiography, baking adventures, or cultural commentary? Exactly. I think it can be all of the above and more, and in honor of this realization, I baked you all cupcakes!

Okay so I more of baked cupcakes because once again the baking bug bit and I figured that I was already in the throes of insomnia so I might as well be productive. Doing my research probably would have been a better use of my time, but definitely not as fun. And as a queen of rationalization, I’ll use the excuse that baking was productive; by trying out yet another new recipe, I could check it off of my miles long list and bring a smile to my dance partner’s face when he receives his next cupcake delivery.

I am really looking forward to going home in a few weeks, if only because I really miss using a stand mixer instead of trying to cream things together by hand. Beating butter that isn’t at room temperature yet with a fork, trying to make it smooth and fluffy, just doesn’t give as uniform a product. I’d say that I’ll have to retry all these recipes once I get home and have a better stocked kitchen, but we all know that by then I’ll be so distracted by another new recipe that the only way these will be retried is if they are requested.

Granted, if anyone back home could taste these, they would be requested again and again and again, they are that good. And what interesting flavor of cupcakes did I whip up at 11 pm last night, you ask? Can they really rival my peanut butter chocolate coma cupcakes that I made for Dan’s Super Bowl party ages ago?

Answers:

1. Snickerdoodle Cupcakes!!!!!! Like the cinnamon-sugar-awesomely named cookie that I realize now I have never made before. But now I have made them in cupcake form, so maybe that counts as well.

2. Unfortunately no. But that is not because these aren’t delicious (with yet another deadly good batter and perfect cinnamon-sugar cream cheese frosting), it’s because NOTHING is better than my PBCC cupcakes. I doubt I will ever be able to make a cupcake to rival those, especially since I’m probably going to leave Red Velvet cupcakes to the experts. Dan’s story of a baking failure kind of scared me out of attempting authentic Red Velvet, especially without a modern kitchen.

I can’t wait for Dan to try these tonight and tell me his thoughts. Only then can I really learn if my cupcakes are ever as good as I think they are, or if I’m just kidding myself haha. Here’s the recipe in case anyone wants to try these at home! (I’ve been getting a few requests from people for the recipes I’ve been trying, so posting them here is easiest.) 

snickerdoodle cupcakes

Yield: 28 cupcakes

Prep Time: 25 min

Cook Time: 20 min

I halved the recipe because I ran out of cupcake liners! Time for a Tesco run?

Ingredients:

CAKE:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I used all cake flour, no all-purpose)
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups whole milk (used skim milk…this is what happens when you don’t intend to bake but get the urge and have to modify based on what is in your almost empty refrigerator).

ICING:
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound powdered sugar, sifted (or at least to desired consistency. I hate overly sweet frostings so I only used enough to make the frosting creamy)
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

TOPPING:
2 Tablespoons sugar + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 28 muffin tins with paper liners.

2. Sift together both flours, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

3. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla. Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with additions of milk, beating until combined after each addition.

4. Divide batter evenly among lined cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake about 20 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely before icing.

5. Prepare frosting: In a medium bowl, use electric mixer to blend cream cheese and butter. Add sugars, vanilla and ground cinnamon. Spread onto cooled cupcakes, or scoop into piping bag and pipe on the frosting decoratively. Place sugar-cinnamon mixture in a fine sieve and tap it lightly over the cupcakes to give them a light sprinkle.

Tips:

*The cake part of the cupcakes can be stored up to 2 days at room temperature, or frozen up to 2 months in an airtight container.

Enjoy! And I’ll post Dan’s comments at the end of this post once he gives me the official review 😉

Coming Full Circle

I feel a little sheepish writing down my version of events from this weekend. Partner’s blog has already detailed everything so well and accurately, and about three days ahead of me, that I’m a little embarrassed to tell the story so many days after it happened. In fact, the number of times I’ve begun to write this post, only to exit out of the page either in a fit of futility or a sudden case of the snoozes, probably exceeds the number of words I’ve already typed. But as much as I’d love to leave the day in Dan’s very capable blogging hands, I have to admit that there is only a small readership crossover and I should probably explain the weekend as well. Of course, I’ve been so tired lately that I may need to review it myself through his blog (slash copy-past-cite at least one passage).

Why the exhaustion? Let me digress for a moment. Waitressing is freaking hard. It’s not really all that mental challenging, though remembering a large party’s order or a heavily modified one takes some practice and prioritizing an entire restaurant’s worth of customers when you are the only waitress on the floor for a six hour shift requires a mental Tetris game to be on constant PLAY mode. Ok so maybe it’s more of a different challenge than those I face at Oxford in my tutorials. But I didn’t really expect how physically demanding it would be. My average shift is 7 hours, with the shortest ones being 4.5 and the longest being a few 10-hour ones on Friday nights. And when we fill up, things get hectic. You have to greet new guests and manage who sits at which table, hot food has to be delivered first, then hot drinks, cocktails, and cold food/drinks; every time you go back and forth between the tables and the tills, people need to be checked on, order items, pay their bills, have their plates cleared. You have to juggle the tables and their orders with the bartenders and the kitchen staff, which sometimes can get pretty heated, and remember to be as polite and friendly as you can with everyone despite how tired you get and how much your feet ache because the tips all go into a pool at the end of the night. But I prefer those hectic shifts to the ones where you have no tables and so spend your entire shift scrubbing the restaurant. It’s a new challenge, but it keeps my mind off of schoolwork and dance for a few (read a lot of) hours each week, so I’m grateful for it.

So the night before the Varsity match this past Friday, I had one of those grueling 10 hour shifts at closing time, meaning that the last hour was spent begrudgingly cleaning the restaurant for the night. I didn’t even get to sleep until 2:30, getting only 4.5 hours of sleep before my hateful alarm woke me up for my makeup and packing time. Thankfully the match was being held at Iffley Sports Centre, a five minute walk from my place, so my wake up time wasn’t even earlier. The match was supposed to start at 9:30 am, so Dan and I did our traditional quick run-through of each dance before resting and stretching so as not to wear ourselves out, then found out that The Other Place was late, automatically making the competition run at least 30 minutes behind for the entirety of the day.

Love you B-Team!

Here is where I steal from Dan’s explanation of the actual process of the match. I was confused until just about the last round of Jive, so I followed the advice of “know your letter and listen for it” thereby dancing when they told me to with no forethought. Just go out there, dance, and try not to do Quickstep to the Waltz.

“The varsity match is the competition between Oxford and Cambridge. Each university selects an A team and a B team of nine couples each. The A teams from each university compete against each other in the ‘Varsity Match’, and the B teams face off in the ‘Challenge Match.’ Thus, there are 36 couples competing. In each team, the couples are divided into three 3-couple pools. Thus, for the Oxford A team, there are pools A, B, and C, each with three couples; the Cambridge A team has pools D, E, and F. The heats are then a round robin format: A vs. D, A vs. E, A vs. F, B vs. D, B vs. E… etc. In each heat, the six couples (3 Oxford and 3 Cambridge) are ranked from best to worst and assigned points 6 to 1 accordingly. Then, the round robin is repeated for each dance, waltz, quickstep, cha cha, and jive (henceforth WQCJ). At the end, the points are totaled and a winner declared for each of the Varsity and the Challenge matches. “-Dan, aka Partner, wheresdannow.blogspot.com

This was a very unique competition experience for the two of us. First of all, we had all brand new routines that were at the Intermediate level instead of our typical Beginner level that we had never performed before. One could argue that that made it more fun for us, and it’s true that I had a lot more fun dancing in this competition than in any of the others. Second, this was the first competition in which we had absolutely no expectation to do well. Because each round is like a 6 couple final, there was no elimination, but you still don’t want to end the lowest in your heat. As Beginners in an Intermediate competition, we fully anticipated being last in every heat. So absolutely no pressure! Any place above last was simply a bonus! It was actually really freeing and lightened us up out of competition mode and into fun, spirit mode. And I don’t care how we actually placed (though cool note, one judge marked us third place in all our rounds for Jive!!), I’m just so unbelievably proud of how far we’ve come since we were paired up in only October.

Making a run for it in Quickstep

After the conclusion of the Challenge Match, there was a quick break for photos and then it was on to the actual Varsity match. That was a really cool opportunity to watch the best of Oxford and Cambridge compete on the same floor. Because of the round robin style of heats, we were able to watch the full routine of each couple out there, really appreciating their talent and style. Oddly enough it also afforded us the opportunity to understand the power of partner dynamics: because of eligibility rules, some partnerships were split up and rearranged, and we could really see where that hurt the partnership, performance, and overall scores of certain couples. I wonder how Dan and I would look if we had to partner other people? Probably miserable as we have way too much fun together! 🙂

Totally in character during our “Phantom of the Cha Cha” or “Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Cha”

The match only lasted about 90 minutes due to the format, so we had plenty of time for a late lunch and to change back into our fancy outfits for Beginners Ballroom rounds. Those rounds gave me perhaps the funniest moment of any competition I have ever danced in. Dan and I, members of the B Team in the Varsity match, were knocked out first round in Waltz. We have never been knocked out first round in any competition, in any dance, ever. The rest of the Oxford main team looked at us in confusion, and then we all started laughing out loud. The problem was obvious: because we have spent practically two months preparing Intermediate level routines, we actually forgot how to dance like Beginners and completely blew the dances. Pretty much hilarious. Thankfully, we partially redeemed ourselves in Latin, finalling in both dances despite messing up our routines a bit. Four days later, I’m still giggling over the irony. And Main Team seemed to get a kick out of it as well. Happy to provide entertainment, as always, folks!

Fast-forwarding to results.

Unfortunately, Oxford lost to Cambridge by a mere 10 points (ultimate heartbreak!) which is basically a tie considering the scores were 1882-1892. Not even .01% difference in scores. The Challenge match was a bit more obvious, 2000-1750ish. Oh well, we’ll take back our trophy next year!

Speaking of trophies, for the Beginners results, Dan and I placed 5th in Cha, and WON 1ST IN JIVE! It was so utterly poetic. Our very first competition as Beginners, we won Jive, and now 6 months later, at our last competition as Beginners, we win it again. We have come full circle 🙂

Jive Beginners Champs 🙂

But even more exciting for us was an award we definitely didn’t expect at all, in fact we didn’t know it existed. We won a coaches’ award for the couple who not only works really hard, but also brings great spirit and smiles to the team as a whole, “who make the team better just by being on it” and so on. It isn’t restricted to a Beginners Team thing either, this award was for the entire team, and they honored Dan and me with it. We both agreed that it was far more rewarding and touching to be given The Bowl (as we now call it) than any of our other trophies or medals from the entire season.

Receiving The Bowl

However, in true Dancesport fashion, the fun didn’t stop when the last award was handed out. We still had to attend the Varsity Ball with our Cambridge rivals that night. If anyone remembers the last OUDC Ball I went to, it wasn’t much different, just more people crashing into you during Viennese and Quickstep and a lot less dancing on my part because I was so exhausted. What made it better was the demo (and you know you’ve been dancing for too long when you tap your partner on the shoulder during the National Champions’ demo and gush about how beautiful the footwork is on her double reverses) and the enhanced friendships I got to enjoy this time around. At the last ball, we barely knew each other, and now we really are like a family. And I am so freaking proud of each and every one of them ❤

For me, the exhaustion has only been compounding with the next morning having a shift at work, a double shift yesterday, and a shift today. And then there is the shift tomorrow as well. Oh and somehow I need to find time to do my Oxford research? Bring on the coffee!

Best Friends, Best Partner Ever

A (Very Delayed) Night of Dan’s Coats

I’m definitely not the kind of person who procrastinates on my work; oddly enough, I’m way more likely to procrastinate on nonacademic things I have to do like laundry and grocery shopping and on fun things like hanging out with friends. Blogging falls under the fun things that gets subjected to my procrastination every once in a while, so I’m sorry that I haven’t been the best with updating as things happen. If I ever get around to explaining everything that has been going on in the last week and a half, you’ll understand why blogging has taken a back seat to, let’s say, sleep. But I seem to have a spare waking moment, so I’ll fill you all in on the Keble Ball last Saturday.

I had originally intended on getting ready for the ball at one of my dance friend’s place, but things got really confusing so I ended up getting almost completely ready for the ball at my own place and then took a taxi to Dan’s to finish. I wasn’t going to subject him to the boring girly processes of hair and makeup, but I needed someone to help zip up my dress. Not that he was going to do that, but his building has a lot easier of access to girls willing to help than mine, hence the “getting ready” at Acland 😉 It also meant that I only had a three minute walk to the ball’s entrance queue in high heels and a floor length dress, all in the cold.

Partners ❤

And that was the running theme all night/morning: holy moly it was cold! I mean, seriously, it was the beginning of MAY! By now at home, I’d be perpetually in shorts and t-shirts, with Uggs only being worn as a fashion statement and not as a necessity. But here in Oxford, I’m still wearing my winter coat and my scarves regularly see the meager amount of sunlight each day. Needless to say, a strapless ball gown doesn’t lend itself well to a peacoat and I was at a serious risk for developing frostbite. Then dun-dun-da-duh! Partner comes in and saves the day and the girl by pulling out of his wardrobe an extra heavy jacket. It may seem counterintuitive, but while a dress with a girl’s peacoat would have looked entirely ridiculous, a dress with a guy’s jacket that is obviously too large for her works perfectly. And, to assuage my inevitable guilt complex that would have made an appearance, this was only a spare jacket, so Dan had one to keep him warm as well. Potential crisis #1: Averted.

Dance Friends: Dan, Pippa, Bizzy, Latt, Rachel

After getting zipped into my dress and doing the obligatory unveiling, I started to get concerned about it’s being a little loose at the top, despite having gotten it altered. Sure enough, when I tested the dress’s ability to hold itself up in the privacy of Dan’s bathroom, it epicly failed and I began kind of panicking. No one wants to spend an entire ball holding her own dress up. I found a strap that came with the dress’s tag and hooked it on; at first I thought it would ruin the look of the dress, but sacrifices must be made for the sake of modesty. And honestly it didn’t turn out too bad. Potential crisis #2: Averted.

Ran into so many friends that night, including Dorothy!

Finally around 7pm we left Acland in a large group and walked over to queue for the ball. The champagne reception wasn’t beginning until 7:30 and the actual ball areas weren’t opening until 8:30, so we unknowingly had 90 minutes of biting cold because the ball committee had been unprepared for the chill and didn’t have enough heaters even inside the actual ball areas. We met up with some friends from the ballroom team, so we made like penguins (with the guys in penguin suits and one girl in a furry shawl) and huddled for warmth, shuffling forward in the clump every time the line moved. We had no choice but to frequently break away from the huddle to take photos; someone made the excellent point that none of us were ever going to look as good during the night as we looked right then, so pictures became obligatory. This also meant that for the sake of vanity, the girls all had to pass our coats/temples of warmth to the nearest person not in that particular photo while we smiled to hide our chattering teeth. Sometime during all this frozen paparazzi time, I realized that if I half hid behind another person, I only had to take Dan’s coat off of half of my arm! So only half of me would end up a frozen Jenna popsicle and the other half could remain just lightly frostbitten. Of course there were some times where even a pretty picture was not worth it and I stayed in the jacket.

Once I’d decided that losing a limb to the cold wasn’t worth it

The ball opened and everyone rushed inside in search of food and warmth, ourselves included. Throughout the quadrangles, MCR, JCR, music room, and college bar there were food stands with a variety of options for both food (substantial things like falafel, burgers, sausages, tacos, and sushi, and sweet choices like crepes, doughnuts, a chocolate fountain, and some incredible cake-pops and mini desserts) and drinks (an absinthe bar, hot ciders, cocktails, multiple general drink bars, and The Missing Bean). They were actually serving all night long, so there wasn’t really any need to rush to stock up on sustenance, but everyone was so hungry by that point that no one really bothered to pace themselves. We ended up in what was called Christine’s Room–the ball was Phantom of the Opera themed, though other than the names of the areas, the theme really didn’t come across at all–beginning the night with those cake pops and mini desserts. Who said dinner had to come before dessert? 😉

yum!

All the rooms were really crowded because it was so unbearably cold outside, even for the native English. The tents set up around the quads for dancing were heated by both some overhead heaters and general body heat, but regardless much of the night’s activities were determined by their proximity to heat at the times where we were coldest and enjoying the fresh air when we could afford a bit of shivering. I spent the whole night hanging out with Dan, it was too risky to separate because with 1600 people and splotchy cell phone service you were never quite sure of when you would next find someone, and we bounced back and forth between his friends from Keble, the Engineering Lab, and our dance teammates. Luckily we had all decided before people scattered too much/got too drunk to meet back in one of the tents for the Beyonce tribute act.  That’s how much of the night was: lose people, find others, lose them during your search for a heater or a seat, find the original people again. But it worked. I felt like I got to spend an even amount of time with everyone we wanted to see and no one was neglected.

Friends and Teammates ❤

I hadn’t known what to expect from the ball, but there was a lot more to do than just dance. There was a hookah bar which neither of us indulged in, a swinging carnival ride thing that was too cold to do, but a really cute little area of traditional carnival games where you could actually win little stuffed prizes. We did the one where you have to roll three balls into the same color holes to win, and since the ball was one of those all-inclusive events, we could try as many times as we needed to win. Dan did it in three and chose a penguin. I did it in a considerably larger number and got a ducky, promptly naming it Agnes (from Despicable Me, awesome movie).

Agnes!

It was a great, and exhausting night. I did have to deal with my dress getting caught on the stones in my shoes and my feet freezing up so much that they gave out for a while as well as the strap I had put on my dress breaking and requiring the use of a replacement I had the good fortune to bring. But none of that could diminish the fun I had spending the whole night with Dan and my dance friends in a rare chance for finery extending into the wee hours of the morning (I believe Dan and I headed out at 4, an hour after city codes mandated the switch to a “silent disco” that I thought sounded really lame). He walked me home and I’m pretty sure we were both asleep before our heads hit our respective pillows, thankfully without dreams of a monkey music box.

Oh, and as for the coats being plural, Dan gave up his actual coat to me on the walk from Acland back to mine at the end of the night. I had already changed back into my street clothes, which had not included a coat, so he ignored by utterly false protests that I was warm enough and gave me his coat for the walk back. Potential crisis #3: Averted ❤