I’m not sure if I’m getting better or just more used to this teaching lark, but the longest term of the year didn’t feel so horribly long as it did last year. I was, however, very ready for break when half-term rolled around. And what’s a lovelier way to celebrate autumn half-term than with an apple festival?
On Sunday I joined hundreds of other be-jacketed and booted people at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens for their Apple Day festival. While some people were bringing in local varieties to find out what they were, I was just there for a jolly day out. I started with a leisurely walk through the gardens, which are absolutely gorgeous this time of year. I paused at a tent for a pint of hot cider and kept walking until I found a serene spot in which to ponder Stuff and Things and cabbages and kings.
It’s impossible not to quote Keats at this point, and so I did…’seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness’ indeed, so I took myself off to find the fruitfulness. I joined the long line for the apple tasting, chatting to the student in front of me and enjoying the warm smell of crepes and the soft sunshine.
The tasting itself was a lot of fun. I must have tried about 40 different apples; only tiny pieces, but I didn’t want lunch at the end of the tasting. I had ticked off the ones I liked the most and bought a few bags to take home. After that, I had a wander through the shopping tent, stopping off for local cheese, homemade gin, a bottle of cider, and a choice sniffing of all the different chocolates, cakes and pies of local bakers. I only wish I’d stopped to snag a pumpkin, but otherwise, a truly glorious way to start off the half-term holiday.
On Thursday, as well as fitting in some shopping and wandering through town, I stopped in at the Fitzwilliam Museum for a look at their new exhibit, La Grande Guerre. It featured a collection of lithographs and woodcuts from the Great War, donated by the daughter of Cambridge’s own Gwen Ravarat, and arranged chronologically so that the viewer can see the change in tone as the war progresses. I found the exhibit very moving, and the thoughtful curation of the prints allowed the viewer to see the progression from complete nationalistic control of this military propaganda to letting in just the tiniest slips about the realities of the battles.
I was slightly surprised to see how the artists included quite a few images of the various cultural groups who fought in the war. There were the ‘Turks’, the Senegalese, Tunisian and Algerian troops who fought with the French, and ‘les Hindous’, the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who fought alongside the British. In fact, I am more than a little in love with that print, and brought home a small copy.
I lingered so long over the exhibit that I didn’t get a chance to have a wander through the rest of the museum, but I’ll be back. In one of those delightful jumps in time, I moved from the First World War to the Second, meeting Paul for drinks at The Eagle.
I’ve been meaning to visit The Eagle since I first heard about it — and it’s well worth hearing about! It was here where Watson and Crick celebrated the discovery of the structure of DNA (or, at least, where they drank to this discovery). Of more personal note, it’s also where the American soldiers stationed in Cambridge during WW2 used to drink. Fortunately for us, they left behind a bit of the past. In grand American tradition, the soldiers graffitied the ceiling of one of the rooms with their serial numbers and other messages. While the bar obviously caters to American tourists (odd hearing so many American accents in one room), it still has the feeling of a local pub, with students and faculty enjoying a quick after-work drink. We were lucky enough to squeeze into a booth in the back room, but there’s also a beautiful front room with glowing stove that must be gorgeous on a rainy winter’s day, and a few tables outside for a beer under the sun. Will definitely be heading back soon.
I spent the past few weeks actively counting down to half-term. And I do mean literally counting down; I had a running tally of days that I ticked off before my week of freeeeeeedom.
After two days in Stratford spent enjoying hotel breakfasts and the biggest shopping mall in Europe, we caught the train back to Cambridge for a quiet week. It was absolutely lovely to have time to bake again. There’s something incredibly relaxing about standing in a kitchen, going through the motions of a familiar recipe, watching raw ingredients turn into something golden and warm. While I am trying to eat proper dinners these days, not the hurried sandwiches I had last year, I don’t have that much time in the evenings to think about or prepare meals, and almost no time to bake. So it was an incredible luxury to just stand in a kitchen and think about what I wanted. In the end I made a plum cake, and a few days later, made another to leave in the freezer for Paul to pull out when he needs a nice cup of tea and slice of cake. I also made more molasses cookies, again with black treacle instead of molasses, but this time browning the butter and adding the treacle before mixing, which created a crisper, almost toffee-like texture. I was going to bring some of those back with me, but got carried away buying books, and ran out of room in my bag, drat it.
I also spent my usual amount of time mooning around the garden. I’m lucky to live in a green and leafy suburb, but I do miss Paul’s garden. I went out to inspect the changing leaves, admire the hardy white roses which are still hanging on, eavesdrop on the fat birds that hang out around the feeder, and sniff at the cold air. It’s already starting to get dark early, so it also meant I was on hedgehog patrol most evenings, popping up to peer outside and see if I could find the resident hedgie who lives under the shed. No luck this time…
…and that was pretty much my half-term. Nothing exciting, just peace, quiet, music, books, bubble baths, big cups of tea, spending time with Paul, feeding him stodgy winter food, getting my incredibly long mane of hair chopped off, and the occasional trips into town to do some shopping and revel in the autumn colours on every corner. It was exactly what I needed.
I also made a point to go to evensong. I grew up listening to King’s College Choir and, although I’d passed the college multiple times over the past year, never managed to make it before. I almost didn’t make it this time, but in the end, found myself joining the long queue waiting in the dusk. King’s is always awe-inspiring, but there is something rather magical about seeing the lights go on in the quad and the slow ringing of the bells. The music was glorious, and the chapel, lit by candles, was dazzling. It’s impossible to be in there without thinking about all the people who have passed through over the years, and equally comforting to see the choristers, who look and sound like angels behind their golden lights, pushing and jostling each other on their way to communion. I gave one my patented Teacher Look until he piped down and then I went back to thinking about church mice (as you do).
Knowing I’d be in Cambridge for the half-term, I’d been making a list of things I needed to buy. I ended up getting quite a few things on my list, necessary things like a hair dryer, fun things like new nail polish and perfume, household things like candles and holiday decorations, and even some new clothing. It was also an opportunity to get some of the teachery things that run out quickly, like marking pens and stickers, and the things you don’t know you need, but inevitably do…like foam, sequins, and sparkly paper. There will be an English crown in my classroom.
And, unsurprisingly, I left Cambridge with a huge stack of new books. You know you have a problem when you arrive with one bag and have to buy a small suitcase just to get home. Paul brought me some book finds from the market, a copy of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”, which I would not let myself open for fear of getting nothing else done, and then I went mad at Heffers, The Haunted Bookshop, and various other stores. And the worst thing is, I now have nine new books on my wish list that didn’t buy.
Basically, the perfect half-term.
I know that the new year starts for most people on January 1st, but for me, it’s always been the first day of school. Now that I’m teaching, this feels even more the case. I’m in a new place, in a new town, in a new school, with new students, and all kinds of new things to learn and teach. It’s all very exciting, except when it’s also a little “aaaaaaghh-ish!”. Fortunately, there’s always a weekend right around the corner when that happens. This past week was a bit rocky, so it was lovely to just flop on Friday night and not have to deal with anything that smacked of newness!
By Saturday, I was already feeling more myself, and a day spent shopping and walking around a rainy London only helped. It takes an hour to get into London from my new home, so I wanted to cram as much shopping as I could into the day. I walked up and down Oxford Street, browsing through the enormous John Lewis, popping into shoe stores, walking into anything that looked interesting, getting a few things at Boots, and eventually ending up at Gap, which seems both weirdly familiar and yet very different to the store I know from home. I eventually found some really lovely things for my home, so I walked into Marylebone to visit Daunt Books, something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. The store is beautiful and temptingly stacked full of enticing books, but it’s the travel section that bowled me over. I love how it has been arranged by regions and countries, with biographies and memoirs stuffed into their relevant countries. I snapped up a small book on Copenhagen and ran through the rain to the Nordic Bakery for a warm and spice-filled cinnamon bun and an enormous latte, and read my book and munched while I sat out the worst of the downpour. (Many thanks to Miranda who first recommended the bakery!)
I’ve spent the rest of the weekend just trying to relax and clean and get ready for the week ahead: lots to do. Fortunately, so many of the new things in my life are also quite lovely. Like my generous, apple-donating neighbours.
One of my favourite ways of cooling down in Dallas was to stop for a bubble tea. I’m not exactly sure when bubble tea became so popular, but there have been fun and quirky tea houses popping up all over the state for the past ten years. I had missed it this past year so I was especially pleased to spot a small, bright shop in Cambridge’s city centre.
Ooshi is a small cafe on Regent’s Street with a colourful storefront. There is a staggering array of flavour options, and they have natural flavoured “ooballs” as well as pearls and jellies. There are also some luscious looking cupcakes and mini-cupcakes and other various sweets. My coconut bubble tea with pineapple jellies was absolutely delicious, with plenty of ice and a lovely froth at the top. The cup was sealed and the fat straw made a satisfying “plonk”, and there are comfortable cafe chairs and tables where you can sit back and enjoy your tea. I’m a bit dismayed that I found Ooshi right before leaving Cambridge, but I’ll be back to try some of their other flavours.
One of the things I miss from home is cookies. Don’t get me wrong, I love biscuits and trying out new varieties, but sometimes I just want a much-loved cookie from home. The humble oatmeal raisin, my mother’s peanut butter, or the gently spiced and chewy molasses, which I’d been especially missing. With this in mind, Paul brought home a tin of Lyle’s Black Treacle and I gave it a shot.
They’re not exactly the same. The treacle is thicker, darker, and the taste somewhat overpowers the cinnamon and allspice, although you can still taste the ginger. If anything, they taste a bit like gingerbread cookies. I’ll keep looking out for molasses, but in the meantime, these aren’t a bad alternative!
Every now and then I have a desperate need for food from home. Sometimes it’s understandable, food I ate a lot, like breakfast burritos, and sometimes it’s really damn weird, like Dr. Pepper slurpees, which I rarely ever drank (and basically doesn’t count as any kind of food product past the age of 9). This morning I just really craved Tex-Mex, but it’s too warm for grilling fajitas or baking empanadas, so tostadas it was. When Paul got home, I fried the tostadas and we dug in. Kudos for him for (a) eating it with his fingers like a proper Texan, (b) trying everything, even the limes and jalepanos, and (c) basically being a really good sport and humouring me.
I know I’m biased, because this is the food of My People, but this is a really fast and easy dinner to make in the summer when it’s just too hot to be in the kitchen for that long. And better still, everything but the tostadas can be made ahead of time and popped in the fridge until you’re ready for dinner. In spite of the fact that the tostadas are fried, and there is never enough cheese to please me, the meal is actually not too heavy for hot weather. Black beans for protein, lots of garlic, tomatoes and lettuce and limes, and since I don’t like sour cream, I blitz together Greek yogurt with cilantro and garlic to make a cream sauce. The tostadas only take a few minutes to fry, and if you get bored, you can pop the bubbles as they come up.