Home Cooking: Goat Cheese, Artichoke, and Smoked Ham Strata

photo credit: Better Homes & Garden

Whenever I want to serve a special breakfast/brunch dish that can be enjoyed at any time during the morning, either cold or reheated, a strata fits the bill perfectly. A strata is convenient because it can be prepared the night before and be refrigerated overnight, so that all that has to be done in the morning is heat the oven and pop the pan in to bake. Because a strata is basically a savory bread pudding, the variations are endless, and they’re a great way to use up leftover bread, meats, vegetables, or those last bits of cheese that are hanging around, and they’re perfect for main dishes other times of the day as well.

This recipe, from Cooking Light magazine, is a long-time family favorite of ours. It blends tangy goat cheese into the milk and egg mixture, and the middle is filled with diced ham, artichoke hearts and parmesan cheese. It works perfectly as a main dish any time of day.

Although you don’t have to use lower fat ingredients, I typically keep it lean by using egg substitute and skim milk, and making sure all the fat is trimmed from the ham. And, even though it only calls for a small amount, I also usually skip the nutmeg as it’s a flavor I don’t care for in savory dish (there’s a long story there). I’m not exactly sure about a substitute for the fontina cheese as I always just bought a piece when I make this, but a mild cheese like Jarlsberg would work, I think. Finally, the original recipe asks for sourdough bread, but French bread works just as well. Day-old or leftover bread works better than fresh no matter what bread is chosen.

GOAT CHEESE, ARTICHOKE AND SMOKED HAM STRATA

  • 3 1/4 cups low-fat or skim milk, divided
  • 1 8-oz. carton egg substitute or 4 large eggs
  • 1 4-oz. package goat cheese
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp fresh thyme, or 1/4 tsp dried
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 10 slices sourdough bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 ounces coarsely-chopped smoked ham
  • 2 14-oz. cans of artichoke hearts, well-drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

In either a food processor or blender, combine 1 cup milk, egg substitute or eggs and goat cheese and process until smooth. Add the goat cheese mixture to the remaining 2 1/4 cups milk in a large bowl, then add pepper, thyme, nutmeg and garlic and whisk to combine. Add the bread cubes and stir gently to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Place half of the bread mixture (the cheese/mil mixture will not be completely soaked in) in a 9″ x 13″ pan coated with cooking spray. Arrange the chopped ham, artichoke hearts and Parmesan cheese over the bread mixture, then cover with the remaining bread mixture. Pour any leftover cheese/milk mixture evenly around the pan. Sprinkle the top with the fontina cheese.

The strata can either be baked (uncovered) at this time, or put into the refrigerator to sit overnight for baking in the morning. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes or until the edges are bubbly. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving. Makes 8 servings.

So Very Thankful

In spite of everything 2020 has thrown at us, Brett and I have much to be thankful for this year. Plans and dreams were thrown to the wind back in March when the pandemic began to rear its ugly head, both while we were in Japan and in the U.S., but in spite of some roadblocks that have popped up now and again we’ve had a very good year overall.

Gratitude for all that we have is what has kept me sane this year, and I have much to be thankful for:

  • Health: I am extremely grateful for our continued good health, the health of our children and their significant others, and our grandchildren. Also, who knew at the beginning of the year that this would be the one where Brett and I finally got our act together as far as diet and exercise? We’ve at last figured out a way exercising that we enjoy doing and that works for us, and we’re getting in shape and losing weight. We’ve also set goals that make sure we maintain and improve on what we’re doing now.
  • Family: We are also truly blessed that all of our family is thriving, and in spite of not being able to get together this year following our departure from Japan, we’ve all done more than a good job of staying in touch and checking up on each other. We’re feeling hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to put together a reunion next year. As always, I’m grateful for the love, support, friendship, and companionship of my husband, Brett. I got lucky with this one.
  • Kaua’i: Our sudden return to Kaua’i last March was frankly a shock to our system, but now we couldn’t be more happy that we decided to come back, and are beyond thankful that our kids encouraged us to return and settle here again. This time we seem to be better at appreciating what we have here, and are more appreciative of our quiet lifestyle. While not free from the virus, Kaua’i continues to be an extremely safe place to be during the pandemic, and we are grateful for the commitment of those who live here and now visitors about wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and practicing other safe behaviors. While we enjoyed the months we had this year without visitors and traffic, we’re genuinely glad to see businesses picking up again and people going back to work, and are thankful that Hawaii’s testing protocol and quarantine seem to be keeping the virus at bay.
  • Many blessings: Both Brett and I have received many blessings this year, from spending time with friends here on the island to a long stay near our family in Japan at the beginning of the year to finding a great place to live when we unexpectedly returned to Kaua’i (and the good fortune of being able to buy back our old car). We’re blessed to have a solid, dependable income, always enough to eat, and to be able to live in such a beautiful part of our country. 
  • My readers: I have the best readers in the world, and I am always thankful for all who continue to visit the blog and read whatever I have to say. I’m grateful as well for the advice, support, and kind comments I receive. I am lucky beyond measure to have met several readers in real life and become friends with them, and hope I am able to meet many more in the years ahead.

Wishing all my readers, their friends and family, a very happy Thanksgiving. It’s been a wild ride this year, but worth remembering that “It’s not happy people who are grateful, it’s thankful people who are happy.” 

Home Cooking: Addictive Pumpkin Burritos

photo credit: allrecipes (I think someone went a little nuts with the cilantro)

Several years ago a friend sent me this recipe for burritos and when the girls were young they quickly became a favorite and a nice change from more “traditional” burritos. They’re not only delicious and easy to make and the ingredients don’t cost a lot. They’re also quite nutritious, and surprisingly low fat (and can be vegan with the cheese left out). They can also be wrapped individually and frozen to reheat later for snacks or a quick meal.

The original recipe called for cooked and mashed sweet potato, but I substituted pumpkin and it worked perfectly. With pumpkin, add the water to the bean mixture gradually though as canned pumpkin tends to be a bit “wetter” than  baked sweet potato and the bean mixture doesn’t need to quite so wet (which risks making the burritos soggy). Canned refried beans can be substituted for the kidney beans in the recipe to save on time, although I personally never thought it took all that much time to mash the kidney beans. There’s no reason either why other types of beans, such as black beans or pintos, couldn’t be substituted if you prefer them, and pureed butternut squash or a large can of sweet potatoes (follow the same advice about adding the water) can also be substituted. The spices might seem excessive to some, but I happen to think they’re just enough (and we have also added salsa as well). The friend who sent me the recipe halved the chili powder, cumin, mustard and cayenne pepper and said they still tasted great.

If you do end up with some leftover bean mixture it can be added later to scrambled eggs for a breakfast burrito!

ADDICTIVE PUMPKIN BURRITOS

  • 3 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 cups canned kidney beans, drained
  • 2 cups water or less, as needed
  • 3 TBSP chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 4 tsp prepared mustard
  • pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 3 TBSP soy sauce
  • 4 cups cooked and mashed pumpkin puree, sweet potato, or butternut squash
  • 12 10-inch flour tortillas, warmed
  • 8 oz. shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or Pepper Jack if you’d like a little more spice)

Preheat oven to 350°. Heat oil in a medium skillet, and saute onions and garlic until soft. Add beans and mash well. Gradually stir in water, and heat until thick and warm. Remove from heat and stir in chili powder, cumin, mustard, cayenne pepper (if using) and soy sauce. Divide bean mixture and pumpkin puree evenly between the warm tortillas; place next to the lower edge and top with some cheese. Fold the edge over tightly, then fold up the sides and fold over again to close. Bake for 12 minutes in the oven and serve warm. Chopped green onion and sour cream go well with these burritos.

You can freeze these burritos for later use. Don’t bake them, but wrap each one individually in foil, then place in a bag and freeze. Heat by taking off the foil and microwaving for two and a half minutes, or defrost and bake according to directions.

Home Cooking: Pumpkin Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting

(photo credit: chocolatewithgrace.com)

Fall has arrived (well, everywhere but here) along with pumpkin season. If I remember correctly, Trader Joe’s and lots of other places probably have a pumpkin version of just about everything they sell (pumpkin cream cheese? pumpkin coffee?) on their shelves right now, both sweet and savory, or at least they did a few years ago. My favorite pumpkin item from Trader Joe’s was the pumpkin spice toaster pastries, which were a fun breakfast treat. 

We are still big fans of pumpkin (although we gave the pumpkin cream cheese a pass and I may be the only one who doesn’t like pumpkin spice lattes). I have been known to stock up on organic canned pumpkin in the fall (when prices are low) so that I have it available year round, and back when we had a garden we grew our own pumpkins and then baked them and froze the puree. We love pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin coffee cake, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin nut bread and roasted pumpkin, but I think our whole family would agree that these pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting are at the top of our list of ways to enjoy this iconic fall squash.

This pumpkin bar recipe comes from a restaurant Brett and I used to regularly dine at, especially for special occasions: Ron Paul’s in NE Portland. The restaurant closed many years ago, long before we left Portland, but while it was open the wonderful Mr. Paul put out a regular newsletter which included this recipe. They’ve been a favorite since the first time I made them.

The bars are rich and moist, and the frosting adds just the right amount of sweetness without being overpowering. Mini chocolate chips can be substituted for the nuts if you want to take it to the next level, but we prefer pecans (or walnuts).

PUMPKIN BARS WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

For the bars:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 2/3 cups sugar
  • 2 cups pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (or mini chocolate chips)

For the frosting:

  • 3 oz. softened cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup softened butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a large bowl, blend together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, then add sugar, vegetable oil, and pumpkin stirring until well mixed. Add pecans (or walnuts or chips). Pour into a well-greased 10″ x 15″ x 1″ (jelly roll) pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly golden and set. Cool and frost.

To make the frosting: Beat cream cheese and butter together until fluffy; add powdered sugar and vanilla and beat on high speed until smooth. Frost when bars are completely cooled. Makes 32 bars.

The Walk to Our Son’s House

Our son’s home is the next stop from our subway station but requires about a mile’s walk once we leave that station. I have yet to be bored with the walk even those Brett and I have made it more times than we can count. The walk always offers a slice of “real” Japan and “real” Tokyo, and we continue to discover new things along the way every time we make the journey.

(The pictures below were taken on two different days, which is why the sky is blue in some and not in others.)

We pass a 24-hour underground McDonald’s on the way out of Komazawa-Daigaku station. We’ve never gone in.

Once out of the subway station we begin a long walk alongside a busy major street (cars drive on the left in Japan); up above is an expressway. The stacking is common throughout the city as it saves room in crowded Tokyo. In fact, just a little farther down the road, closer to where we’re living, we just discovered there are actually TWO expressways stacked on top of the road, one on top of the other. Some of the bare trees on the side of the street are ginkos, but I’m not sure what these are. Yes, it’s much more attractive when they’re leafed out.

This is our view down the sidewalk as we get started. We walk on the left side going to our son’s, on the right coming back, often single file because of the number of people using the space. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants along the way, just about everything you could imagine, with offices and apartments above (an apartment building will have balconies; an office building won’t).

We pass one gas station not too long after we get started. If you’re a cardholder, regular gas costs ¥144/liter ($5/gallon). If you don’t have a card, it’s ¥146/liter.

There are many tempting restaurants on the road, like this traditional ramen shop with its glowing lantern.

Our favorite though is this little okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake) restaurant, run by a woman and her son. It’s very cozy and old-school, and the food is very good!

Eventually, we turn a corner and head for the Komazawa Olympic Park. Right after the turn is this traditional sweet shop, with a noren (shop curtain) over the door. Strawberry sweets are big now, but I want to stop in one of these days for some sakura mochi (mochi folded over a sweet bean filling and then wrapped with a pickled cherry leaf). It’s my favorite, and only available for a few months every year, around cherry blossom season.

Mitsubishi corporation employees can live in one of these subsidized apartments. They range in size from two rooms to some rather large apartments with terraces, assigned I assume, according to one’s position in the company. This complex contains three other equally large buildings.

A little further along, we walk past the entrance to Komazawa-Daigaku (Komazawa University). The apartment building in back is new since last year – and they built a separate little house on top!

We eventually reach Komazawa Olympic Park, where we turn left and pass by a pretty vegan restaurant called Mr. Farmer. We’ve checked out the menu but it’s expensive and nothing on the menu really appeals to us.

We turn right at the large skateboard park. 

Just past the skateboard park is the new baseball stadium, which was under construction all last year. Those big, bare trees will be loaded with cherry blossoms in April!

Some of the seating in the new stadium. We thought it might be have been built for the upcoming Olympics, but it’s used by local college and high teams, for games and tournaments. Our son said it’s incredibly noisy when a game’s going on. Although the sports venues at Komazawa Olympic Park were built for Olympic sports and crowds, there is a lack of transportation infrastructure in the area that makes holding such events there impossible.

Just across the road from the stadium is a small bird sanctuary that we walk past, although we’ve come to call it the “cat cafeteria” because there are usually three to four cats waiting inside the fence. We’ve even seen people leave out food for the cats. We have yet to see a bird there.

A couple of turns later and we’re at our son’s home! It’s a big house for Japan and sits among several other big houses along a narrow road. It has a large, bright open plan living/dining/kitchen upstairs, five bedrooms (including a traditional tatami room) on three levels (two are used for offices), two toilet rooms, a large bath, two balconies, one in the front and one in the back, and lots of storage. It doesn’t have any yard but there is a small garden area on the right.

We usually don’t walk back through the park when we walk back to the station at night, but instead walk up the street and turn right back onto the street we walked on to get to the park. It saves us a few steps doing it that way, but during the day we prefer the scenery and activity in the park.

The Argument for Continuing to Travel

Brett and I are still feeling restless, and not ready in many ways to again take on the responsibilities that come along with settling down in one place. The biggest argument against us stopping our travels is still that there are too many places in the world we want to see and experience!

Below are some of the places we’ve talked about wanting to visit in just the last three weeks:

  • Botswana photo safari (it’s too expensive really, but we still love talking about it).
  • Capetown, South Africa
  • Morocco
  • Kenya (Brett has visited before but would like to go again – me too!)
  • Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland (we’d also like to see Iceland, but it’s not as high on our list)
  • The Benelux Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, & Luxemburg)
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Czech Republic
  • The south of France
  • Spain
  • Northern Portugal
  • Naples and Sicily – Brett has been to both, courtesy of the navy, and would love to return
  • Greece (yet another place Brett has been before and we both want to visit)
  • Ireland
  • SE Asia: Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore
  • Australia (to ride The Ghan from Adelaide up to Darwin)
  • The South Island of New Zealand
  • Mexico
  • Costa Rica and Panama
  • Argentina (including Mendoza, Patagonia, and the Iguazu Falls this time)
  • And, just because, a trans-Atlantic cruise on the QE2

Of course, we also want to continue to spend time in Japan with family, and we’d also like to visit some parts of China we haven’t seen yet.

This continues to be an ideal time in our lives to travel, and even with helping out YaYu for the next couple of years, if we’re careful it’s doable. And, we ask ourselves, with a wish list of destinations this long how can we possibly think we’d be happy settling down?

And yet . . . from the We Did Not See This One Coming files, our daughters let us know the other day that they would like it very much if we settled back on Kaua’i again. That was a surprise! While Southern California is still high on our list, we’d love to live in Hawai’i again but up to now hadn’t considered just the two of us going back. They’ve given us lots to think about there.

So, everything is still on the table, with good arguments on both sides. For now though, we feel our plans for after June will be a good compromise between the two . . . stay tuned!

Closing Out the Books for November

Yeah for us!

After two frustrating months of being over budget while we were in the UK, we had a very good month in November and ended up with a daily spending average of $29.93! We had an overall daily spending average for our entire three months in the UK of $38.30, not where we hoped to be but not as bad as it could have been.

The main reason November was a less expensive month was that other than our quick trip to Bath and another over to Stratford-upon-Avon, we really didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t even get out that much in Blockley! While the gloomy weather was frankly depressing and kept us indoors much of the time, it also meant there were fewer chances for spending. Winding down our food shopping at the end of our stay helped to keep costs down as well. Our daily average was low enough that our (expensive) dinner at the village cafe, our travel day spending, and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s after we arrived in Portland didn’t take us over $30.

We’re sticking with our $35/day spending average in December. While food spending is going to be higher than usual this month it’s really our only expense other than gas for the minivan. Being very careful and sticking to our list is going to be key to not going over budget this month (we’ve done a good job of this so far). I’ve made a menu for when the girls are here, but they all still have big appetites and I hope everything I’ve planned will be enough for them without us having to overspend. We hope to be able to go out together once for dim sum, but a trip over to IKEA for some Swedish meatballs may be all we can afford (thankfully the girls love those meatballs).

Sunday Morning 12/1/2019: Back in Portland

Our Thanksgiving travel day turned out to be not so bad, although it was still a very l-o-n-g day and very, very tiring. However, we are back in Portland, rested (somewhat), and ready to turn our efforts toward getting ready for Christmas and the girls’ arrivals.

One last sunrise over the countryside as we left the Cotswolds.

Our travel day did not start well though. When we got on to the platform at Moreton-in-Marsh there was an announcement that our train had been canceled! This was not good, but we got on the next train (which was late) with our heavy bags, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We changed at Oxford and got on another train which ended up arriving 10 minutes late into Reading. We had to literally run through the station there to catch the train to Gatwick, climbing on board less than 30 seconds before the doors closed. If we had missed that train our travel day would have turned out very differently than it did.

We arrived at Gatwick with less than two hours to check our bags, go through security and get to the gate, and there was a very, very long line at check-in (there were other flights besides ours going out). While we were waiting though we saw a sign announcing that upgrades for our flight were available. Brett and I made a quick command decision and a few minutes and a few hundred dollars later we had premium seats (Norwegian Air premium class is a sort of a blend between first class and premium economy). The upgrade meant we didn’t have to pay extra for our overweight luggage and also allowed us to go quickly through the premium security check line. We had just enough time to grab some coffee and food at Pret A Manger before heading to our gate. We had been warned we might not get any meals on board because of our last-minute upgrade (and apparently Norwegian won’t bring meals from economy up to premier) so we bought enough at Pret for two meals, just in case. The plane was boarding when we got down to the gate and the next thing we knew we were buckled in our seats and on our way.

Our comfortable seats were in the last row of the premium cabin, which meant we could fully recline without bothering anyone behind us. I used the blanket for additional lumbar support.

Upgrading to Premium was the right decision and worth every penny, especially since if we hadn’t done it we would have most likely missed our flight and spent a LOT more for tickets on another flight. We had bigger seats with footrests, increased recline, and lots of legroom and along with a very smooth flight our 11-hour trip to San Francisco was very comfortable. We both slept for a long stretch in the middle of the flight which made the time onboard speed by, and while we didn’t arrive in San Francisco feeling refreshed and perky, we weren’t dragging either. They did have a meal for us – a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving (!!) – and we ate a couple of our Pret A Manger sandwiches for a later snack. The layover in San Francisco didn’t drag as much as we thought it would (we ate a third Pret sandwich there so didn’t buy anything in SF other than some coffee) and before we knew it we were on our way to Portland. Things got weird again though once we got to the car rental agency because there was no car for us in spite of having a reservation (there were no cars at all)! We were initially offered a pick-up truck instead – NO THANK YOU – but we stood our ground and ended up with a seven-passenger minivan at no extra cost. All’s well that ends well.

It’s December 1 and time to announce the winner of the Afternoon Tea giveaway as promised! Chosen out of 87 entries using a random name selector, the winner is:

HELEN! Come on down!

Congratulations! I will email you in the next day or so to get your mailing address and plan to have your package on its way by the middle of the week. I again want to thank everyone for all the fantastic travel tips you sent – I will be pulling them all together for a post later this month! I was very happy to learn a few new things I can use going forward!

This morning I am:

  • Reading: Because of the packing we had to do, and a general case of pre-travel nerves toward the end of our stay in England, I found I couldn’t concentrate on all the names and places in The Guns of August, so I downloaded Stephen King’s The Shining because I knew it would keep my attention. I finished it last night because once again I was scared enough that I couldn’t put it down (I read it when it first came out and stayed up all night to finish because I was so scared). I’ll get back to The Guns of August later today, after we’re settled in our long-term rental.
  • Listening to: Brett’s getting his breakfast ready in the kitchen, and the heater is blowing overhead but otherwise, it’s very, very quiet here. The heater has been on constantly since we checked in on Thursday night because it is COLD outside, below freezing last night. This rental has been very quiet and comfortable overall as we have worked through the jet lag and a crazy sleeping schedule, but we’re looking forward to getting into our long-term rental later today.
  • Watching: We haven’t been watching anything the past few days because there’s no TV here! I didn’t watch anything on the plane either, a first for me; the flight was smooth enough that I could read instead. We’ll get reacquainted with American television once we get to our new place.
    We did a quick shop at the nearby Trader Joe’s to get us through the first couple of days in Portland. I love their food but so expensive compared to the UK! The chili relleno was good enough that we’re going to get more to have this coming week.
  • Cooking: For now all I’m planning to fix this week is Thai red curry chicken with sweet-sour coleslaw; chili rellenos with avocado; tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches; and breakfast for dinner (eggs, bacon, and fruit). We picked up a few things from Trader Joe’s on Friday and are going back again this morning to do a bigger shop before we move over to the rental, but it’s a little hard to know what to get because I don’t know yet what cookware or utensils there will be in the kitchen there (Are there baking pans? Casserole dishes?). Brett and I will be sticking with low/no-carb eating once again during our Portland stay (it’s back to cauliflower rice for me!). Shopping trips to Costco and Winco will be next week to get ready for the girls and their appetites, and then we’ll hit the Asian markets with them when they’re all here.
  • Happy I accomplished: A successful travel day is always an accomplishment, but with trains being canceled or late, making it in time to catch our flight felt like a miracle because of so many things going wrong when we started out.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We came out ahead getting the minivan for our car rental – we now have more than enough room to carry everyone around and Meiling’s boyfriend as well when he’s with us for a couple of days. I can be very assertive when I need to be – Brett says I scared him a bit at the rental agency because I wouldn’t back down LOL.
    We shared two Pret A Manger sandwiches for a snack on the plane – tuna salad with cucumbers and smoked salmon with cream cheese. We ate our other sandwich during our layover in San Francisco (a yummy roast hoisin duck wrap) which saved us from having to buy food there.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We had a fairly low-cost travel day as those things go, spending only $71 for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffees (which is pretty low for airport spending, all things considered – everything in an airport is expensive, no matter where you are in the world). We still had two pieces of cake leftover when we arrived in Portland which Brett ate for breakfast on Friday morning before we could get to the store (I ate the free Kind bar we got on the Alaska flight up to Portland). Paying for upgraded seats cost extra but still less than we expected, and the upgrade covered our overweight luggage. We also ended the month under our daily spending average!
  • Grateful for: Brett and I were especially thankful to make our flight because if not we would have had to book with another airline at the last minute which would have been beyond expensive in so many ways. We are grateful we had the funds to cover the upgraded seats, although our travel fund is now practically at zero. All of our upcoming flights are covered until the end of next May though, which gives us a few months to build up the fund again.
  • Bonus shoutout: I want to give Norwegian Air a huge shoutout for their service. First, flying Norwegian almost always costs half or less than half of what legacy airlines charge for the same route. This was the second time we’ve flown with them back from London Gatwick and once again we had a very good travel experience for a very reasonable price. The service is superb and the cabin crew top-notch (they hire from throughout Europe). If you’re taking a long-haul flight to Europe and back I can’t recommend Norwegian enough for both price and service. They are a low-cost carrier (LCC), so have tough weight limits for baggage, but if you’re traveling with only a carry-on the low fare ticket prices are amazingly low (they charge for everything extra though). The Low-Fare Flex option in coach is the way to go if there’s a bag to check, and with this fare, upgrades are sometimes possible for exit row seating (more legroom), and meals are included in the price of the ticket. However, based on last week’s experience, paying a bit more for Premium seats for longer (7+ hour) flights is well worth it. Norwegian Air only operates out of a few airports in the U.S. on a somewhat limited schedule, but most of these flights use the 787 Dreamliner. The 787 is quieter, the air is humidified, the lighting more subtle, there are bigger windows with dimmers instead of a shade, more bathrooms, and more overhead luggage space too, all of which make for a much more comfortable flight.
Some much needed blue skies and sunshine greeted us in Portland!

The past couple of days in Portland have been cold but clear and sunny, a much-needed respite from the gloom we experienced our last three weeks in England. Those weeks were a very hard time for me, and I could feel myself slipping deeper and deeper into seasonal depression, not wanting to get dressed or do much of anything. I actually had a few days in a row where I stayed in my pajamas on the sofa and wasn’t able to muster the enthusiasm to do much of anything, not a good sign. Thank goodness we had the packing and such to do, but I’m not sure how things might have turned out otherwise as much as I loved our little village and being in England. Weather is going to be a key factor whenever and wherever we end up settling down. I can take the gloom for short periods of time, but extended periods of gray skies and incessant rain have a very negative effect on my well-being these days.

It’s a cliche to say so, but I honestly can’t believe 2019 is almost finished. It’s been another great year for us, and we have much to look forward to next year as well. In the meantime, we still have plenty to do before the year ends and our girls will be here before we know it. So, here’s to a great week and a great month coming up!

Sunday Morning 11/17/2019: Week 11 in the UK

The fall color is glorious now (if there are any leaves left on a tree, that is).

We’ve had another week of weather extremes, from bright sunny days to rain and wind. The only constant has been the cold. Because of the nicer days, we were able to check another couple of things off our list, including fish and chips from a neighborhood chippie in Moreton-in-Marsh on Monday to a wonderful visit to Stratford-upon-Avon on Wednesday to a long walk in Blockley yesterday. The rest of the week we spent indoors bundled up and with the fire going, trying to stay warm!

The War Memorial in Moreton-in-Marsh. The squares filled with names are those from WWI.

Monday was Armistice or Remembrance Day in the UK, although unlike our Veterans and Memorial Day, it was not a holiday, or at least as far as we could tell. Buses ran on a regular schedule, kids went to school, and so forth. The war memorial in Moreton-in-Marsh was covered with poppy wreaths, and we sat there while we ate our fish and chips, and talked about how many more names there were for WWI versus WWII and later conflicts. Over 700,000 British men were killed in WWI (2% of the population) and another 1.675 million were wounded, many grievously. A whole generation of young men was lost, and the British have never forgotten them.

Brett and I shared an order of fish & chips because it was MASSIVE. The crisp, delicious piece of cod was over 14 inches in length, and the chips (fries) would have fed our whole family. All this cost just slightly over $9.00. We tried our best to finish but couldn’t eat all of it.

We woke up to glorious weather on Wednesday so bundled up and caught the bus over to Stratford -upon-Avon, about an hour away from Blockley by bus. We bought Full Story Tickets (yeah for senior discounts!) so that we could visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, the New House (where he lived at the end of his life), and Hall Croft, home of his daughter, Susanna, and her husband, Dr. Hall. Both the birthplace house and Hall Croft buildings are original from the 16th century and have been preserved, but the New House deteriorated to the point it was demolished in the late 19th century, and only the gardens remain now. Actors presented soliloquies from Shakespeare’s plays or recited sonnets so we requested a sonnet and heard the 18th (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”), and another visitor requested Marc Anthony’s eulogy of Caesar from Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.”). Both performances brought high school English roaring back for me – I was surprised by how much I could remember from both the sonnet and the speech. The New House gardens (Shakespeare and his wife had gardens here back in the day) were lovely and filled with stunning modern sculptures representing many of Shakespeare’s plays. Hall Croft was an amazing opportunity to experience the layout of a Tudor-era home from the kitchen to halls to bedrooms. The whole place was fascinating and beautifully preserved. Afterward, we shared a sandwich in a nearby pub while enjoying fancy gin and tonics. We had planned to visit the Guild Hall after lunch, but it had become colder and was getting darker at that point so we instead headed for the bus stop and the long ride home, a good thing as it began raining shortly after we started. We had a great day and are glad we made the effort to get over there – below are a few pictures from our visit:

Finally, don’t forget to enter the giveaway! It will be open through November 29, and you can enter once a day to increase your chances of winning. Thanks much for all the great travel tips that have been submitted so far (if you’ve already posted a tip you don’t need to leave another for future entries). I will announce the winner on Sunday, December 1 so I can get it mailed out quickly to the winner in case they want to use it for a holiday gift.

This morning I am:

  • Reading: I finished both Code Girls and  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, this past week. Code Girls started off sort of slow, but by the time they were in the thick of the war I couldn’t put it down. How they broke so many codes was (and is) pretty amazing all on its own, but these women’s success rate was nothing short of impressive. I also read A Single Thread straight through this week. It was a real page-turner and I’m so glad it was recommended to me. Today I’m going to begin the next book in the Inspector Morse series, Service of All the Dead. By the way, when I finished A Single Thread I achieved my goal reading of 52 books for the year!
  • Listening to: We woke up to the sound of rain hitting the skylight windows, so it looks like another day indoors for us (but that’s OK; we have laundry to do). The church bells have rung but otherwise, all is quiet. We haven’t turned the fire on yet though – that’s a near miracle these days. It’s cool inside but not chilly yet while outside it’s just plain gloomy.
  • Watching: We finished up the new season of Doc Martin this past week – there was a surprise ending – and are still watching Endeavour with one more episode to go. Tonight we’ll begin the new season of The Crown – I’m excited about that!
    We could have had local pheasant for dinner one night – just $9.00 for two (no thanks though – not a fan of game bird).
  • Cooking: We’re having breaded cod and roasted root vegetables for dinner tonight, two of our favorite Aldi products. We’ll head over to Moreton-in-Marsh one last time this week to shop at Aldi for the last time. It’s been a great resource for us while we’ve been here and saved us a bundle too. I usually have a shopping list made at this point but have been unmotivated so far this week to make one. 
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: Getting to eat authentic fish and chips from a chippie and getting to Stratford were two big accomplishments, as was our walk yesterday. Having to walk almost the whole way on pavement though aggravated my bursitis once again – walking through fields and pastures has been much easier. Another accomplishment was getting my carry-on bag packed with things to go back to the U.S. on our flight and am so happy that’s finished and ready to go. We found out that paying to check the bag to San Francisco cost less than paying $$$ for postage. We will also have to pay to check it from San Francisco to Portland, but even with that, it’s still less than postage would have been.
  • Looking forward to next week: We have nothing planned for next week except for a special dinner on Friday evening at the village cafe. They do a three-course dinner every Friday evening, and we have been saving that experience for our last week here. If we get some breaks in the weather this coming week we want to take more walks through the village – I don’t think we could ever grow tired of this place.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: The two beautiful days we enjoyed this past week allowed us to do a couple of things on our list as well as grocery shop, and they also cheered us up. We were also glad for the somewhat warmer temperatures yesterday that let us get out for a long walk. Brett is almost completely over his cold, thank goodness. It could have been worse, but between medication, lots of liquid, and staying warm he’s been able to get over it fairly quickly. I have thankfully stayed well.
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We saved nearly £10 on our visit to Stratford by purchasing the Full Story tickets for the Shakespeare locations and using the senior discount. Other than having a simple lunch while we were there we didn’t spend anything else. We spent a bit more than usual when we went grocery shopping this past week but bought extra to get us into the coming week in case the weather is bad enough that we can’t go shopping tomorrow. I used up all the odd bits of vegetables in the refrigerator to make a big pot of chicken and vegetable soup, and we’ve eaten all other leftovers and not thrown away any food. Our daily spending average is and has stayed below our limit of $35/day.
  • Grateful for: We may be confused or unsure right now about what we’ll be doing after the middle of next year, but we are very, very thankful that we have choices. So many in the world, including the U.S., do not and we know we are fortunate to have several paths we can potentially take. I’m also exceedingly grateful for all the feedback we received from readers this week – it has helped us to refine our thoughts on what we should be looking at and thinking about as we go forward.
    Chobe National Park in Botswana
  • Bonus question: What are the top three places you still want to visit? For me, number one remains a visit to Botswana, in southern Africa, to visit the national parks and the Okavango Delta to see as many animals as possible. I’m still trying to figure out how we can do this but it may take a while. Numbers two and three on my list are Amsterdam and the Benelux countries, and Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland – I want to visit all of them!). Germany tops Brett’s list, but otherwise, he agrees with me about the second and third.
Trains no longer stop in Blockley, and there’s no longer a station building either. Where the station would have once sat was a good 1.5 miles out of town.

Yesterday we took what may have been our last “big” walk during our time here – a trip out to where the old Blockley Station used to stand. The skies were overcast, but the temperature was a bit warmer than it has been so the three miles was doable although we had to walk most of the way in the road as the paths on the side were too muddy or even underwater. Once again we discovered parts of Blockley we hadn’t seen before, from the village garden allotments to the cricket field to more beautiful stone houses. We imagined what it must have been like back in the day walking to and from the station to go shopping, or to school, or even to work at the mills. Back to the village from the station was uphill the whole way.

Empty and quiet now, the Blockley village garden allotments sit right outside the edge of town. We could see many vegetable plots and fruit trees, and there was a (now empty) stand outside the gate where produce is sold during the summer.

It’s almost hard to believe but this coming week will be our last full one in England, and ten days from today we’ll be up early and off to Moreton-in-Marsh station one last time to catch the train to Gatwick Airport for our (long) flight back to the U.S.

I hope everyone reading had a great week. I’ve seen several pictures of snow falling back in the U.S., and hopefully that’s a good (or at least an OK) thing for most people, although it seems rather early. Wishing for good things happening for everyone in the week ahead as well as good books, good food, and good friends!

The Luxury of Slow Travel

A side street in Lisbon, Portugal

What do you think of when you think of luxury travel?

Is it flying first class and having a big, comfortable seat with a footrest, one that reclines into a bed? Dining on real china with real silverware instead of having to use plastic everything? Receiving special treatment the airport, like being seated early and greeted with fresh coffee or a cocktail?

Is it being pampered in five-star lodgings with high thread-count linens, every amenity you could imagine, or a staff that knows your name and takes care of every whim?

Or is it taking the time at your destination to truly unwind and experience your location in more depth versus skimming the surface and racing from sight to sight or activity to activity?

While I have greatly enjoyed the first two aspects of luxury travel, over the past year I have come to realize that embracing slow travel was the most luxurious thing I had ever experienced. While we enjoyed our structured tour of India, and our train ride across Australia, embracing the ethos of slow travel and the opportunities to connect with a place and its rhythms, culture, food, and sights has made for our most memorable travel experiences, with the added benefits of costing us far less than it would otherwise and being easier on the environment.

A magical shot of St. Peter’s at dusk, captured as we walked back to our apartment one evening in Rome.

Our slow travel experiences didn’t mean we had to make or find the time to be in a place for a month or longer, although we were able to do that in a couple of places. But it did mean what the name says, that we slowed down, and didn’t feel like we had to try to do and see everything (especially on a rigid schedule) or eat everything, or try to fit every experience into our visit. Slow travel meant interacting with the local culture up close whenever possible, trying to overcome some of the language barriers that we encountered, and taking the time to notice and observe local customs. Slow travel for us was about making connections. All of this took place sometimes within the space of a few days all while visiting and experiencing some amazing sights along the way.

Street art can be found down alleys or off the main thoroughfares, but sometimes you have to look up to find it, like with this work in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Some of the ways we did this were:

  • Staying in homes and apartments through Airbnb versus staying in hotels.
  • Shopping for most of our food in local markets versus eating out all the time.
  • Using public transportation most of the time.
  • Not having a set schedule every day, or a list of things we had to see or do. For the most part we got up and got going when we were ready to start our day. And some days we did nothing but explore the neighborhood we were staying in, or stay home and read.
  • Adapting ourselves to local customs whenever possible, such as removing our shoes when entering a home in Japan (and then turning them to face out), or greeting shopkeepers and other workers in France with Bonjour! before any beginning business operation.
  • Not expecting people to speak English with us. If they could or wanted to that was great, but we never made it the expectation. We tried to learn how to at least say hello and thank you in the local language of every place we visited (and excuse me or pardon me if possible).
A fruit market in Italy

Time, whether long or short, can either be one’s nemesis or one’s ally when traveling, something that there’s never enough of or a luxury to be savored even if all one has is a few days. When the emphasis is on experience over sights, and quality over quantity, the time one has can become the ultimate luxury of travel.