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Adventures in East Anglia
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Back after a bit of a pause

Since last summer, a lot has happened. 

In brief:

1- I got a job and am now working at the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute in a lab that does research on chromatin modifications.  

2- I made a sourdough starter from scratch.  It involves mixing flour with water, allowing the natural yeasts that are present in flour to become active and replicate and months later, you have a living organism that you can keep in a jar.  I am beginning to believe the only pets I should be trusted with are live cultures.  Perhaps I should try yogurt, next.  

3- Early in September, Geoff and I went to Italy for vacation and for a couple of track meets.  I ran the 100m dash for the first time in 12+ years, and didn't hurt myself.  I also came in last place.  I didn't care - I was in Italy.  Did you know that the Uffizi Gallery has a boathouse beneath it?  Fantastic use of space!  

4-  We went home for Christmas this year.  It was a surprise for both our mothers.  Boy, were they surprised - though they showed it in different ways.  Geoff's mom was very emotional and cried for about ten minutes.  My mom was as cool as a cucumber.  I believe her exact words were, 'Oh good, you're here.  Go get some food.' (we were in a buffet style restaurant at the time)

Geoff and I have been kept busy - Geoff, with the research, writing and some teaching; me, with the lab work, coaching and the crazy bits of cooking.  My most recent bit of coaching was for the Fellows of Trinity College.  They are a nice bunch of academics and there doesn't seem to be a bias towards one subject or another.  We have a Classicist in the cox's seat, an Engineer at stroke, a Chemist at 7, a furniture maker (spouse of a fellow) at 6, a Mathematician at 5, a Historian who subbed in for the mathmo, a Developmental Biologist at 4, a former senior burser at 3, and two theologians in the bow pair.  I have enjoyed working with them and it is slightly amusing to see men who are top scholars learn to row.  Much of the time, I find myself telling them to stop thinking so much.  They are, thankfully, receptive to my comments and are a bunch of jokers.  The other day, we raced behind one of our undergraduate boats and upon our return to the boathouse, they were discussing the time it took to row the course.  They came in at 8 minutes 22 seconds.  One of them asked one of the chaplains what time the Fellows had rowed.  The chaplain looked at him and said with a straight face, 'Seven fifty.'  They really rowed the course in 9:41, but the funny thing is that this chaplain just finished writing a book on Christian ethics.  

Posted by Cynthia at 9:32 PM BST
Updated: Tuesday, 9 June 2009 10:01 PM BST
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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Our furry friend

There is a little cat that visits us every once in a while.  We first saw her last October and hadn't seen her in a while.  Geoff and I thought she was mad at us because we wouldn't let her come in our flat back in February.  Tonight, she came wandering by and sat on our step, so we got to play with her a little.  When we got up to go inside for dinner, however, she beat us to the door and came in too.  It took us a little while to convince her to go back outside, but eventually she did. 

It's almost back-to-school time for kids here, and the tourists are beginning to thin out a bit.  Probably a good time for it, as all of Cambridge suddenly smells like poo.  We're not sure where it is coming from, as there are farms surrounding the area, but it's kind of smelly outside right now.  Is it the time of year that all the farms spread manure?  Or is it something else?  On a slightly different note, there was a program on the BBC called "Britain from Above" that looks at different aspects of Britain.  One episode was on satellites and how satellite imagery can be used for a variety of things, other than spy missions.  Using infrared, a French company analyzes the nutrient distribution and a computer program to control a tractor that spreads the necessary amounts of nutrients to the areas that require it.  It could potentially change how crops are grown worldwide, by making agriculture more cost-effective, which I thought was neat.  They also demonstrated the use of satellite imagery to monitor water use.  It is astounding how much information these images offer.  I wish they showed the different wavelengths on Google Earth, but it's probably for the best, as I spend enough time looking at Google Earth images!

Posted by Cynthia at 10:18 PM BST
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Sunday, 17 August 2008
Olympic fever

Sorry for the silence. 

We have been watching the Olympic Games with much interest, since the opening ceremonies last week.  We're able to do this because the BBC airs the events online.  I have mixed feelings about the coverage, having been raised with decades of NBC coverage.  Most of the Olympics coverage I remember has been commentated by Bob Costas, not the BBC and it seems that Bob isn't so bad.  I think the Olympics can stir up a patriotic feeling in all of us, even the ex-pats, but it disturbs me slightly when the media shade our experience of the Olympics.  The Olympics are supposed to be about competition, showcasing the best of the best, and about nations coming together in peace and all that, aren't they?

That said, we've felt the triumph of achievement, the heartbreak in those who were out-touched at the wall, the agony of not qualifying for a heat, and the general feeling of pride (and sometimes shame) for the athletes who represent our countries through the Olympic games. 

Posted by Cynthia at 10:09 AM BST
Updated: Monday, 18 August 2008 10:02 PM BST
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Tuesday, 5 August 2008
Local or Visitor?

We had our first dinner at Caius (pronounced: 'keys'.... something about medieval latin spellings) College, tonight, with a group that is here from the University of New Hampshire on the summer program.  It was nice to sit at the 'grownup table' also known as high table, looking down upon the 'mere' undergraduates who are attending the program.  My only complaint was that I had to be dressed up to sit at the table while the undergrads were more comfortably dressed in shorts and T-shirts.  Sometimes, I appreciate dressing to match an occasion, but other times like today (it was raining steadily all day) I wouldn't mind being a little less formal. 

When asked by visitors, 'what should I see?'  I begin to realise that I am no longer so much a tourist, but a tour guide who can either be accurate or spin tales on the fly about this building or that tree.  Yes, I've seen the tower in which Lord Byron (you know, the famous poet) kept his pet bear.  Or that little tree is a descendant of Newton's apple tree.  THE Newton.  I have grown used to the sights of the old buildings and quaint little bridges, but I don't think I will ever become jaded or take them for granted.  I am continuously discovering new little details, or re-discovering the odd thing that I noticed once and forgot about.  I did that today, in the library - the entrance hall has a magnificent ceiling (wood panelling, painted with some pattern, etc.) that I can't describe very well.  My point is that it's pretty special and I remember that I noticed it on my first visit to the University Library back in September, but had forgotten about it on my subsequent trips.  I was probably lost in thought most of the time.  Yesterday, I just happened to catch a glimpse of it at a different angle and had a new appreciation of it.  I would like to believe more people who use the library have noticed these subtle details in the library, but I wouldn't count on it.

Usually, when people ask me what colleges they should see, I try to give them little things to look for, because, let's face it: they're going to visit the really famous colleges anyway.  If I can help them see something sort of cool, like a secret passageway or one of the cool little gardens that are hidden from the public, at least I had a hand in that.  I also try to steer people towards the things they wouldn't necessarily think of seeing, such as seeing the sunset from Castle Hill, or the sweets vendor at the market (lots and lots of sweets, anything you could possibly dream of there).  All right, I try to get them to visit some of the libraries and book shops too.  Because that's what I'd want to do when exploring a new city.  I have just come to the realisation that I don't buy the typical types of souveniers like T-shirts or paperweights or keyrings.  I buy books.  I have ever since my very first trip abroad (Spain, bought a Lorca play).  I don't really need another paperweight - I use rocks or mugs of tea for those things.  I do have a slightly disturbing crush on the Morgan Library (NYC, Madison and 36th), but I've come to realise that I love books.  Which makes sense that I voluntarily go to the library and currently have membership at four different libraries in this country (three are in Cambridge) alone.  But I digress.  I am beginning to feel a bit more like a local and though I haven't seen some of the more touristy things, I can at least show people around and give them interesting tidbbits.  And it's free.  I normally refuse to do anything I have to pay admission to see.

I started training on the track a few weeks ago, as I am planning to compete in the 100 meter dash at an athletics competition (we call it a track meet in the U.S.) in Italy, in September.  I haven't competed in well over a decade but am hopeful that I will be able to run fast(ish) because I truly believe that I am stronger and in better shape than I was at 19 years old.  Back then, I relied heavily on my youthful spring.  Now, I have a lot of racing experience and common sense on my side.  I will be the first to admit that the Italy component has been a large motivating influence for my training.  At the same time, it will be interesting to see what I can do as a slightly older (and wiser?) athlete.  I'm slowly getting back in shape and seeing improvements in how I do everything from my warmup, my running form, and the drills I so dreaded when I was in college.  On Monday, I did a workout that my college self probably would have balked at for its sheer volume (6x100meters, at 95-100% intensity), and it felt pretty good to get on the track and to get it done.  What surprised me most was that I was a lot more consistent across all six repeats (that's what they're called) than I thought I would be.  I never would have been able to do that back then.  I would have given everything in my first two repeats, probably died a bit on the next two, slacked off on the fifth, and then had a miraculous comeback on the last one.  I think my thirtysomething self is going to kick my 19-year-old self's butt.

Posted by Cynthia at 12:01 AM BST
Updated: Wednesday, 6 August 2008 1:10 AM BST
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Thursday, 31 July 2008
Market day

Lately, I have been trying to buy more locally-grown fruits and vegetables in the market, as opposed to buying produce that is trucked or flown in.  This is for freshness reasons as well as for the rising fuel costs that are  driving food costs upwards.  Because England is such a small country and is in such close proximity to the Continent, I am unsure what counts as being local or too far.  For instance, East Anglian leeks are most definitely local, as we are in East Anglia.  Polish blueberries, however, are less local because Poland is a bit further afield than the next farm over.  It's closer than South Africa (where apples sometimes come from), though, and so I found myself in a dilemma this afternoon, as I was at the market and saw these beautiful blueberries.  I ended up buying them, and do not regret it. 

There are a few large supermarkets here, and they seem to have class distinctions attached to them.  There is Waitrose, where children are well-behaved, the produce is very nicely arranged and the atmosphere is generally civilized.  Mark's and Spencer is centrally located by the market, but though it is civilized, the produce is pricey and it does not offer as much variety in its food market and most of the food offered there is ready-made.  Sainsbury's is in the middle of town - prime real estate - and students, tourists, and others tend to shop there for its convenience.  It tends to be busy, and can be a frustrating experience because of the volume of people there at any time of the day.  Tesco is further out of town and this attracts more of the locals, though the children tend to be bratty and parents tend to be shouty.  It has a similar feel to Sainsbury's, in terms of busy atmosphere and type of food offered.  Finally, ASDA is the craziest of all, with aisles that seem to close in on you and bargains everywhere.  The produce isn't very fresh, and the offers tend to be designed to attract bulk-buying without much value (ie: 3 for £2... when one thing costs £.68, you end up saving only £.04).  I am also disturbed by the fact that I saw a pregnant woman buying a large amount of beer.  Sure, it could be for someone else, but it's still a disturbing image. 

People tend to rank the supermarkets according to socio-economic status (SES) with Waitrose and Marks being at the top, Sainsbury's and Tesco in the middle, and ASDA at the bottom of the barrel.  Out of curiosity, we have shopped at all these places and, with the exception of Marks, have found the prices comparable across the board.  So why shop at ASDA when you can get the same product - for the same amount, better quality, and a much more pleasant experience - at Waitrose? 

The open air market is another story.  I have found some stalls to be better than others in terms of service, and thankfully, the friendly veg people are the cheaper ones too.  Every once in a while, I experience a bit of something... I'm not sure what to call it - is it discrimination? Or worse... is it racism?  I like to believe that in this day and age, these things don't exist, but something does, and it's not pretty.  One day last week, I stood at a produce stall (it was not busy at all and I'm still not invisible), waiting to be served for a good 5 minutes, during which time the produce sellers looked straight at me, ignored me, and did not respond to my friendly 'hello, there' in an attempt to buy raspberries.  Another woman approached the stall and got immediate service.  That was when I realised they were not blind, nor were they deaf, and were practising blatant stupidity.  Geoff tried to intervene (and he's both tall and loud), but to no avail.  So I put the raspberries down and left in search of a friendlier vendor.  I don't think I am that demanding when it comes to service, but that was both surprising and hurtful to me.   I would have liked to have said something, but what (in a nice, tasteful way)do you say to someone who obviously doesn't want your business?  This is also one negative incident out of many many positive interactions I have had.  The guy around the corner is very nice, and his berries are better quality and cheaper.  Moral of this story is: don't buy from the vendors on the southeast corner of the market.  The guy with the prettier veg in the middle stall is both cheaper and has better stuff.

Posted by Cynthia at 5:40 PM BST
Updated: Thursday, 31 July 2008 6:13 PM BST
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Thursday, 24 July 2008
Back in the UK

Sorry for the prolonged silence.  I flew back to the States the morning after the May Ball and spent 3 wonderful weeks, mainly with my parents and my sister.  I was also able to get up to New Hampshire to visit Geoff's parents.  Being so far away from family has made me really appreciate the time we do get to spend together.  I think a lot of the time we can become so busy that we take family time for granted and don't realise what we have until it is too late.  I am ever aware of the fact that Geoff and I are really lucky to have the support that we do from our families. 

We have had a lovely sunny day, today.  It's breezy and warm, and not too many tourists to cycle around.  My days have been spent doing various things, such as job hunting, rowing, running, and cooking.  Some days, I get frustrated with the fact that I don't have the 'right' passport or visa and can't get a job as easily as I might if I were an EU citizen.  Generally, I have decided that I should take advantage of the fact that I have this wonderful luxury of time - something I didn't have for a while - and to enjoy it.  In keeping with this new attitude, Geoff and I tried to go on a picnic the other day.  It seemed like a really good idea and it was a beautiful day.  We put together nice sandwiches and a fruit salad, packed up everything and got out to one of the more secluded gardens.  Then, we proceeded to eat all the food quickly and didn't really know what to do with ourselves.   There were lots of spiders around, too, and we didn't know where they were coming from.  We are not sure whether we're picnic people, but we'll give it another try sometime soon.

I will write with more regularity - maybe I will even commit to a weekly schedule... watch this space.

Posted by Cynthia at 4:16 PM BST
Updated: Thursday, 24 July 2008 4:17 PM BST
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Sunday, 15 June 2008
May Ball excitement
Wow.  The Trinity May Ball has been sold out since ticket applications opened in February, but there was one double ticket donated to the Cambridge Charity Auction.  The ticket was estimated to sell for 800 pounds sterling.  The highest bid was 1540 pounds sterling.  I have a vague idea of how excited I should be, but this certainly makes me think I'm not excited enough!

Posted by Cynthia at 4:45 PM BST
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May bumps

Sorry for the silence.  Between getting the dissertation printed, working on manuscript revisions for a different project, end-of-term activities, and coaching, I've been a bit busy.

The May bumps were this week, and I've been coaching First and Third Boat Club's men's 3rd eight (a.k.a. M3).  At the beginning of term, it was a bit messy and I wasn't sure what to think, but as time went on, they began to apply the power in the same direction (very important when moving a boat!) and started to row well together.  We had the difficult task of trying to get them to row with relatively the same technique, as they had varying levels of experience.   Our other limiting factor was that we had 12 outings this term.  At Cambridge, undergraduate students may have to sit examinations at various points during the Easter term.  For our boat, they seemed to be contained within the last two weeks of term and we didn't have any outings for a good stretch of time.  Somehow, come Bumps week, they were able to remember all the things we'd worked on and rowed very well together. 

Day 1 was an exciting race, as they were chasing Girton and Girton were chasing Selwyn.  Girton had closed in on Selwyn pretty quickly but Selwyn were holding them off.  When Girton's cox'n took one of the corners wide, Selwyn took that opportunity to get away, and we took that opportunity to bump them.  Once a boat is bumped, the race is finished for those two boats and they must move off the racecourse (pull over to either side of the river and stay out of the way of boats that are behind them).  Day 2, we moved up a position, as we had bumped Girton, and were intent on chasing Selwyn.  They were chasing Churchill and bumped them quickly, leaving us no one to chase because the boats in front of them were very fast; therefore, we 'rowed over', meaning that we maintained our position, while Selwyn and Churchill swapped places.  Day 3, our goal was to bump Churchill before the first corner on the river, which they did easily.  Just 15 strokes off the start, M3 were within a length of Churchill and moved up on them within the next 30 strokes.  What happened after that was mayhem, as M3 were stopped on a corner and there were boats behind us.  There are umpires who direct the boats while they are racing so that no one gets hurt, but accidents are inevitable.  At some point, a bump occurred and there was a sudden 5-boat pileup across the river from us.  One unfortunate rower's blade hit a tree, which caused him to be ejected from the boat and into the water.  He is fine - just a bit bruised.  An ambulance came trundling up the towpath for him.  Imagine a narrow pathway about 5 feet across, filled with coaches on bicycles, spectators, and umpires.  Now add a minivan-sized ambulance to that scene.  Day 4, we were chasing the ever-elusive Selwyn again.  We caught up to them by the second corner on the river, and had overlapping canvasses (the ends of the boat) by the third corner.  I was on whistle duty: because the rowers can't see how far the boat is from the boat in front of them, they devised signals for them.  One whistle means one length of open water, 2 means half a length, and three means a quarter length.  Continuous whistles mean that the bump is immenent.  I got very excited when they got overlap and spat the whistle out, by accident, so M3 got 1 whistle instead of the intended continuous whistles.  Luckily, the whistle was on a string around my neck, so I recovered and started whistling again.  Selwyn's cox'n was very good, however, and steered out of the way of our boat so that we couldn't make contact.   Selwyn had a lot more endurance and pulled away after that point, forcing M3 to chase them all the way to the end of the course.  Churchill, because the boat chasing them had been bumped, began to close in on M3.  They had a very slow start, but like Selwyn, had more endurance and began to move up on the boys.  They fought back and were able to maintain about half a length of open water between the boats until the finish.  In the end, M3 moved up 2 positions in their division, which was a difficult thing to do because it was a challenging division to be in.  They were a fun bunch to coach and I'm hoping that most of them will stick with rowing.  After the racing, we all went our separate ways to shower and change for the Boat Club dinner.  The men's first boat were able to break Caius's 6-year Headship.  Boats that finish at the top of their division have 'headship'; however, the one boat that finishes at the top of the first division is considered 'Head of the River'.  To celebrate, the winning crew will take an old wooden boat, put their victorious cox'n on top, and carry it from the boathouse to College where it is set on fire after the dinner.  The winning crew then jumps over the boat while it is still alight. 

I have posted the last two days' racing and the boat burning photos in a Facebook picture album.  Click on the link below (or paste it into your browser window):   

We are coming to the final week of term, also known as Mays week, which is in June and consists of parties that seem to run into each other.  I don't think I can cope with so many events and opted to attend only two: the Boat Club dinner and the Trinity May Ball.  Tomorrow is the May Ball, which begins with an optional dinner at 7 (we opted out) and the Ball at 9.  This goes until 6 Tuesday morning and there is a survivors photo that is taken at that point.  I'm not sure I have the stamina for a 9-hour party, especially since I fly back to the States, Tuesday evening.  Watch this space.

Happy Father's Day!

Posted by Cynthia at 11:50 AM BST
Updated: Sunday, 15 June 2008 4:50 PM BST
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Friday, 6 June 2008

The Chi Hill dissertations have been proofread, printed, bound and turned in!  Hurrah! 

And now, some much-needed sleep. 

Posted by Cynthia at 4:08 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 6 June 2008 4:09 PM BST
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Friday, 23 May 2008
Lead-up to Mays

May is a funny month in Cambridge because undergrads have exams throughout the month at seemingly random times.  Graduate students on MPhils and courses like mine, the Advanced Diploma, are busy writing their dissertations and all of a sudden, you see people swotting up everywhere.  'Swotting' is a term for studying furiously.  It is more sustained than 'cramming' for an exam, and is a stressful time for all.  To get away from the pressures of the library, I've been spending some time on the river, coaching a boat that will race in the May bumps (also known as 'the Mays').  Whether or not they will go fast will remain to be seen.  I anticipate a long struggle down the course, rather than the fast bump of the crew ahead of them.    I have also been sculling on my own, and working on technique.  It is a nice change of pace to get out in the boat on my own, and to work out the little things, but somewhat frustrating at times because I can't see what I'm doing and have to depend on what I can see and feel.  So far, I've gotten a pretty good tan on the front part of my body and the back of my neck.  The rowing seems to be getting better, but I think I'll have to ask someone (skilled and knowledgeable) to watch me row so that they can tell me exactly what I'm doing wrong! 

I've finally gotten used to rowing on the twisty Cam, and find that the distance ticks by pretty easily because there is no time to become bored with the course.  I haven't hit anything (yet), but there is a very aggressive Mute Swan that's been chasing me lately.  It's a bit annoying because it seemed to be stalking me for a while.  I figured it was probably protecting something and recently spotted its nest as I was coming around a corner.  I suspect their duckling(s) will hatch in the near future, as the Mallard ducklings have been swimming around for two weeks now.  They are very cute but get freaked out when boats are around (understandably enough).  There are all sorts of waterfowl out on the Cam, but mostly Mute Swans, Mallard ducks, Canada geese and Moorhens.  A Great Blue Heron has recently shown up and I usually see it in the mornings.  If I had more time, I'd probably head a bit further downstream and explore the Fens to do a bit of birdwatching, but not right now as I'm trying to get my dissertation finished. 

Posted by Cynthia at 10:57 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 23 May 2008 11:00 PM BST
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Sunday, 11 May 2008
Happy Mother's Day!

It is a gorgeous sunny day here - the theme for this week where high's have been in the mid-70's this week. 

In honour of U.S. Mother's Day, I raced in the Cambridge Head to Head this morning.  The race goes both downstream and upstream, which could be disasterous as the Cam is a very narrow river.  It's a head race, which means that boats start one at a time in a certain order.  You get a running start, so boats are going full speed once you cross the starting line.  There are a few big corners on the course, but this didn't pose much of a problem for on-Cam rowers.  First is the downstream leg and once you get to the end of the course, boats paddle down a bit and spin to face in the upstream direction.  This part, I have to say, was very well-orchestrated because the race marshalls had the eights do a 500m loop where they rowed a bit further downstream, turned, and were able to move upstream to wait for the rest of the boats to finish racing.  Once the eights were off, it was just us small boats, and we were able to spin in place (small boats are 20-30 feet long and have an easier time doing this than the big boats which are close to 70 feet long) and headed upstream in racing order.  It's a neat race, because you get to see what the competition is like, so that on the upstream leg, you can use different strategies to challege the opposition.  I raced unopposed, as there was no one else in my division.  The rower in front of me was a massive 15 year old junior rower who has recently been selected for some international squad.  So, no competition there.  It was just me and the river.

I wasn't out there to win.  I was there to have a solid row and to get some more racing experience under my belt.  I think I did all right, seeing as I'd not trained very much because my dissertation writing took priority.  The race course was supposed to be a 2500m x2, but it seems that they decided to shorten the course to 2000 metres for no good reason.  I would have prefered the original course, because I tend to be better on the longer distances, but what can you do?  Adapt, improvise, move on.

Posted by Cynthia at 5:59 PM BST
Updated: Friday, 23 May 2008 11:00 PM BST
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Monday, 5 May 2008
making pierogies

There is flour all over the kitchen.  My eyes sting and water from the red onions I just cut.  I have a bowl of cold mashed potato and am squinting as I fry up the onions to add to the potato for the filling.  The dough - a misshapen mass of eggs, yogurt (no sour cream in the house) and flour - mocks me because I spent 20 minutes rolling it out, carefully cutting out circles with an old empty tuna tin (a fleeting spark of genius on my part when I found I haven't got anything the right circumference... don't worry, I washed it first), and flouring the circles.  Serves me right, I suppose, for thinking they wouldn't absorb enough flour to stick together, but they did anyway. 

Once the filling is done, I turn back to the dough, determined to make it work.  Should I mention at this point that I use an old wine bottle as a rolling pin?  It works, and it makes a nice smooth job of the dough that I carefully cut again.  This time, I make the pierogies as I go, cutting, filling them with potato (the red onion has become more a bluey-purple), and then sealing the edges together with a fork.  Job done.  Now that I have a tray full, I think it's a shame to cook them up and eat them.  But it must be done.  In they go, into the boiling water, and then they rise after a minute.  I thought the recipe said it would take 3-5 minutes before that would happen.  I decide to try one out and it's done, so out they go and in go more uncooked ones.  The result is a tasty, surprisingly light pasta outside, and warm, comforting mashed potato and onion inside.  Who would have known?  The last time I 'helped' Baba make pierogies, I was probably 5 or 6 years old, sitting under the kitchen table, drinking coke and eating a bowl of frozen cool whip with marischino cherries.  I may have been eating orange tic tacs too.

For the effort, it was worth it.  Suddenly, it hit me that someone (something?) is trying to send me a message and I decide that my life is a metaphor for making pierogies.  Wait.  Is it the other way around?  It is.  Making pierogies is a metaphor for my life.  I get a few messages from my pierogies: Improvise.  Don't stop trying just because something didn't work the first time, the second time, or the eightieth time.  It may not be what others might consider particularly grand or impressive; however, the end result will be worth it if it is what you want to do. 

It's like a fortune cookie, but better.

I think I've officially spent too much time in the library, if I'm getting messages from my food.

Posted by Cynthia at 7:33 PM BST
Updated: Monday, 5 May 2008 7:35 PM BST
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Saturday, 3 May 2008
Pretty flowers

We've had a string of days where the weather has been wonderful.  I finally remembered to take my camera with me, so I could try to capture some of the blooms before they go away.  If you go to the link, below, you should be able to see the photos I took this morning.  If it doesn't appear as a link, you should be able to copy and paste it into the browser address line - just make sure it's all one line.  This should direct you to Facebook, and you will see an index page.  Clicking on the photos will enlarge them.

Normally, I wouldn't venture into town on Saturday because there are usually hordes of people around, but it was early in the morning.  Also, the garden is enclosed in a place where you need a key card for entry, which is nice because it's nice to have at least one outdoor space where you don't have to worry about tour-groups.

Posted by Cynthia at 5:46 PM BST
Updated: Saturday, 3 May 2008 5:47 PM BST
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Sunday, 27 April 2008
British summer

Apologies for the long silence... I've been hard at work, writing and analyzing what little data I have for my dissertation. 

Contrary to what any calendar I've seen says, the British summer begins after Easter, not on 21st June.  With the spring forward and longer days, it seems that a great gloom lifts and even the rainy days aren't so bad because sunshine is not far behind.  I got my first sunburn of the season - as did many others - yesterday.  It was 21C (68F) and beautifully sunny out.  Red tulips have replaced the white narcissus that blanket the strips of grass that lie on either side of the Avenue, the road that leads west, from Trinity back gate to the Backs.  There seem to be more tourists than ever, many of whom don't seem to think twice about treading on the delicate blooms in order to get a picture of themselves with the Wren Library in the background. 

I have not been outdoors, much.  My only time outside is when I have the chance to go out for a row in my single.  The boat seems to like the Cam, and I've gotten used to the twists and turns.  There are many ducks on the river and a few swans.  The ducks are smart enough to get out of the way, but the swans can be very aggressive.  One in particular has become notorious with scullers, as it will watch a boat approach and then fluff up its wings and chase the boat.  It has nipped at my blades a couple of times, and I'm hoping it recognises that I usually give it a really wide berth whenever possible. 

My other guilty pleasure is cooking things.  I've never been really fond of baking because of the measuring that is required, but like to tinker around the kitchen.  I'm no Julia Child, but I can get things on a plate, well enough.  I'm not planning to quit my day job anytime soon, but I can hope that we'll always have something tasty to eat.  I am thankful for the relaxing aspect that comes with preparing a meal, as it is an outlet I've used to de-stress when the writing isn't quite happening for me.  Tonight, we had a spinach, leek and seafood risotto for dinner.  I splurged the last time I was at the market and bought some crayfish tails, shrimp and mussels.  The other night, I made a seafood chowder with a beautiful piece of trout, the crayfish and shrimp.  I saved the mussels for a dish I'll make tomorrow... I think mussels a la mariniere (mussels cooked in a garlicky white wine and tomato reduction).  There is this riesling I use for cooking - pretty much the cheapest wine on the shelves, but it tastes fine (on my fairly inexperienced pallette).  I get carded every once in a while, as the purchasing age for alcohol is 18 in this country.  The last time I bought wine the woman at the checkout asked me, 'now how old shall I say you are?'  When I told her I was 31 and showed her my identification, she still didn't seem to believe me and said, 'now you're having me on!' But she let me buy the wine anyway.  I'm wondering whether she thought she'd catch me later, sitting in a back alleyway, guzzling it out of the bottle.  Not so much my idea of fun. 

But the baking.  So much measuring and having to mix things in order and no improvising.  Or so I thought.  I figured out there is actually wiggle room when I started to bake bread more regularly.  It's more about the texture and baking conditions than getting the measurements exactly right.  So, I started to become a little more interested in baking and moved on to cookies, substituting grated apple for oil - that kind of thing.  Part of the problem was that sometimes I'd end up with something great, but had no idea how I got there.  I've begun to pay more attention to my little forays away from the recipe and remember most of them. 

Today, after weeks of craving a dense yet moist chocolate cake, I decided to bake one because the ones in the shops just didn't look like they'd taste very good.  I really meant to follow the directions, but didn't and it turned out very well anyway.  This is my revised recipe:

Chocolate Torte

1/2 cup margarine or butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract


1 cup boiling water

1/2 cup baking cocoa

1 Tablespoon instant decaf coffee granules 

50 grammes belgian plain chocolate (8 squares of a regular-sized bar?)


1 1/3 cup + 1 Tablespoon flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350F/175C (use an oven thermometer if you have one).  Cream together fat and sugar.  Beat in eggs, one at a time.  Add vanilla and mix well.

Combine 'wet' ingredients well (the chocolate melts more easily if broken up first).  In a separate bowl, combine 'dry' ingredients.  Add wet and dry ingredients alternately to the creamed mixture and blend all well. 

Pour the batter into muffin tin/cake pan/whatever.  Bake for 20 minutes if cupcakes, 25 if cake.  DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN FOR THE FIRST 15 MINUTES.  If you're like me and forget what time it was when you first looked at your watch, set a timer. 

The result is a moist, non-oily (I don't like oily cakes), chocolate cake that is just sweet enough but not over-the-top sweet/chocolatey.  I reduced the amount of sugar from the original recipe, but then I think I cancelled it out by adding the chocolate later on.  Oh well.  Tasty, anyway.

Posted by Cynthia at 8:37 PM BST
Updated: Sunday, 27 April 2008 8:38 PM BST
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Thursday, 10 April 2008
Back in the 1223

Apparently, that is the cool way to refer to Cambridge (1223 is the area code)... so cool that no one knows about it.  Until now.

We had a whirlwind tour of New England last week, where we tried to get as much done as possible.  There were three or four big tasks we HAD to achieve, and the rest of the time was spent with family and friends.   Somehow, together, this was all very exhausting.  I guess it doesn't help that both Geoff and I were up until all hours doing work in the two or three weeks before we flew out to the States.  To have that amount of time away from the library was strange, and to leave the laptops and books (all right, most of them) behind gave us both pangs of anxiety.  To spend time with our families, however, was worth it. 

We flew into New York from Stansted, which was a first for both of us.  Stansted is less than an hour from Cambridge and the main terminal is about the size of Bradley International Airport.  There are trains that bring passengers to the departure areas, and the general feeling is stress-free, as opposed to the frantic feeling I get when I fly through Heathrow or Gatwick.  Unfortunately, there is only one flight a day to JFK, as airlines flying from Stansted mainly travel to the Continent.  The American Airlines terminal at JFK was also a relatively stress-free zone and so I appreciate that our travel went relatively smoothly.  We had heard murmurings that the AA flight to Stansted had been cancelled the day before, and multiple flights were delayed or cancelled as we waited for our flight.  Since Geoff had to leave for warm weather training the next day, we worried that our flight would be cancelled as well, but, thankfully, it wasn't.

It is difficult to grasp that I've been back for almost a week.  I spent much of the weekend trying to get back on the correct timezone and think I'm finally on British Summer Time. 

There are a few peculiarities about our flat that we have dealt with over the past six months.  When we first moved in, we found it odd that there was no exhaust fan in the kitchen, so we would open the windows every time we cooked anything and wave any smoke frantically away from the heat sensor so as to not set it off.  Two months later, I was cleaning and found a vent above a cupboard over the refrigerator (which made the vent really hard to see, unless you were standing in a specific spot in the kitchen).  I had noticed a switch on the wall opposite the stove, but had thought it didn't go to anything because nothing had happened in the past.  Upon climbing up to the vent and pulling a cord, and then flicking the switch, all of a sudden an exhaust fan was discovered!  Oh happy day.  (I cook a lot, and we were growing tired of living in fear of the heat alarm going off.) 

Today, I was sitting in the front room and for some reason was fiddling with the curtains and found an internet hub in the oddest location.  Mind you, we scoured this room when we first moved in, thinking that it would be odd to not have an internet connection in the room with a desk.  Somehow, we didn't think it would be hidden behind the curtain all the way in the corner.  I wonder what we'll find next week?

Posted by Cynthia at 5:32 PM BST
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Saturday, 22 March 2008
ducks and bunnies

With Easter around the corner, I wonder whether the Easter bunny is about.  The Easter mallards are in the neighbourhood, for sure.  I saw them this afternoon, when I looked out the window to see the flurries (there was an assortment of rain, sleet, flurries, and wind today).  The ducks were hanging out in the grassy area behind our flat, not minding the strange weather.  They did, however, get up and waddle away when they saw us looking out at them.

It seems that Easter has exploded, around here, in a similar manner that Christmas did.  There are so many kinds of Easter-related treats in the shops, ranging from small chocolates in the shape of lambs, bunnies and ducks, to every type of chocolate egg imagineable.  There are: Smartie-filled eggs, Rolo eggs, Cadbury creme eggs (big and small sizes), Crunchie eggs, Mr. Potato Eggs (with face-shaped pieces of chocolate that you stick on with chocolate glue), truffle-filled eggs, chocolate button-filled eggs, and speckled chocolate eggs.   There are eggs decorated with different types of chocolate, and egg hunt packages that consist of foil-covered chocolate eggs of all sizes.  I guess the chocolate eggs hunt replaces the dyed hard boiled eggs of my childhood.  That was my favourite part of Easter eggs - a few nights before Easter, my sister and I would dye the eggs.  Of course, there would be the bickering and squabbles over what colours to do, and what patterns we would have, and which eggs were the prettiest (mine were - of course!  haha - I think if it was dark and you couldn't see my eggs, maybe they were prettier, then!).  I am not sure when we stopped doing the dyed eggs, but it is one of those things for which I have fond memories.  I like the tradition for the simple reason that it is a time when families do something creative together.  One year, when I have eggs at Eastertime, maybe I'll start dying them again.  I just have to remember to buy eggs.  And vinegar and food colouring. 

Happy Easter!  It's the earliest Easter we'll have in 200 years, apparently.

Posted by Cynthia at 8:45 PM BST
Updated: Saturday, 22 March 2008 9:03 PM BST
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Monday, 10 March 2008
windy city

It has been very windy these last few days.  Something like 'March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb' comes to mind.  Nevertheless, one still has to go outside to brave the gales, and much of the time, it seems as though a lot of pedalling goes on but not much forward movement happens.  At this point, I've learned to not believe the weather forcast when it says 'the forecast will be predominantly sunny'.  On the other hand, when it says 'the forecast will be predominantly windy' I do take it seriously.  Cold is relative, in my mind, as the winter has been very mild, though many here say it has been cold.  There may have been one or two legitimately cold days in February, but nothing very far from freezing. 

Much work on at the moment, which is why posts have been few and far between.  I assure you, much time has been spent in the library (quiet, and only third year undergraduates allowed, not to mention the graduate students) and not in the pub (too many tourists and undergraduates)!  Somehow, in a moment of insanity (or clarity), I got it into my head to perform an analysis of baptisms and burials for fenland and nearby parishes, as it would be the key to an original contribution in my dissertation.  I haven't been able to talk myself out of it, as it still seems like a good idea... much work awaits me.

Posted by Cynthia at 3:00 PM BST
Updated: Monday, 10 March 2008 3:03 PM BST
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Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Almost knocked out by Jesus

What a day! 

We began the day with an earthquake (5.2, epicentre in Lincoln, which is just north of us) which was the largest one in England since 1984.  The BBC say that one is expected every 10-20 years, so it was about time for one.  We were awakened by the shaking - it was only about 10 seconds - I thought it was a Geoff shaking his legs out in bed, then when I was more awake, I thought it was a large truck.  Geoff thought it was an earthquake and my response was, 'no! they don't get earthquakes around here, it's too flat!'  I stand corrected and still don't know what my reasoning was.  As far as earthquakes go, it was no big deal.  Someone described it as a very 'English' earthquake and I'm not sure why.  I've amused myself by thinking of reasons.  The top three are: 1) the earthquake waited politely, in a queue of some kind, before going, 2) the earthquake apologised profusely for the disturbance it caused, 3) while a stir was caused, it didn't hurt anyone.  I'll have to look into that, as it has piqued my curiosity.

The other excitement of today was day 2 of the Lent Bumps.  'Lents', if you will.  Yesterday, the lower divisions competed, and today, the top men and women's divisions competed.  Trinity First and Third were Head of the River for Lents last year, and so started the races in front.  They successfully rowed, unbumped, and will begin tomorrow's racing at the front again. 

A quick bumps tutorial: boats line up in order of finish from the previous year.  They are separated by ~90 feet, I think, and there are three cannons that go off at 4 minutes before, 1 minute before, and at the start.  They are little cannons, but the bang scared the bejeezus out of me today, as I wasn't expecting it.  Each crew has a bank party that rides alongside to cheer them on and to tell them whether another crew is gaining on them.  Someone usually has a stopwatch which they synchronise with the first cannon, and the countdown begins.  When the second cannon goes, the boats are pushed out into the middle of the river using poles and the coxswain holds onto a chain that is attached to the bank.  Both the pole and the chain help maintain the distance between boats.  Once the third cannon goes, the coxswain drops the chain, the rowers begin the start phase, and the mayhem begins. 

Each boat has 2 objectives: to physically bump the boat in front of them and to avoid being bumped from behind.  Once contact has been made between two boats, the coxswain of the bumped boat puts up their hand to acknowledge the bump and both boats must clear the river immediately so that the boats behind them can continue to race, if they haven't already bumped.  The boat that made the bump (the bump-er) moves up a spot in the order of boats and the bumpee moves down a spot.  With the following day's boat order established, the races continue until the end of the week.  The bump-er rowers, while they are pulled over to the side of the river and don't have much to do, decorate themselves with greenery, which harks back to the days when boats were decorated with garlands (and flowers?) after a bump was achieved.  This lets spectators know whether a boat bumped or was bumped/maintained their position. 

I was following the First and Third boat, and Jesus was following behind.  The Jesus coach seems easily excitable and unfortunately can't do two things at once (very well).  He was concentrating very hard on yelling at his crew, and didn't seem to notice that he was all over the towpath.  At some point, he was behind me, and steered straight into me, nearly knocking me into the river.  At that point, I exclaimed, 'Jeezus!' not realising just how accurate I was.  To his credit, he said, 'sorry sorry sorry' as he rode by and bumped me again before we were clear of each other. 

I think that - with the little cannons and the excitement of it all - bumps are much more exciting than any kind of racing I've ever seen!

Posted by Cynthia at 9:04 PM GMT
Updated: Wednesday, 27 February 2008 9:27 PM GMT
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Monday, 25 February 2008
Madingley Revisited

I had my one and only Day School on Saturday, at Madingley Hall, where my course is based.  This time I rode my bike out there, as the bus service is very irregular, and I did not get stung by a bee. 

The estate is beautiful and the gardens, even in winter (there's no snow on the ground - how can it be winter?) are well-kept and are inviting to the odd stroll.  It is about 5 and a half miles from where we live, and apparently it is where Prince Charles lived when he was a student at Trinity. 

Most of the time I was there, I was in a little room listing to a tutorial on how to use Microsoft Word and how to use the electronic resources at the University Library.  I think it would have been useful, had I not 1) grown up with computers and 2) been using the electronic resources since September.  What was useful was to finally meet other people who are on my course, and to hear about the research they are doing.  It's a very lonely process, when there's just yourself for motivation.  Somehow, it helps to know there are others in the same situation.

Posted by Cynthia at 9:15 PM GMT
Updated: Wednesday, 27 February 2008 9:25 PM GMT
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Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Impositors amongst us

There was this guy who recently got caught by the Trinity College porters posing as an undergraduate maths student.  He had swiped someone's ID card, broken into another student's computer account, and was found to be using Trinity's facilities, uninvited.  I had seen him lurking around one of the rooms meant for students only, and had a couple of brief conversations with him.  There was an article about him in the Varsity, the University weekly newspaper, that outlined his shady activity around the College, and I have mixed feelings about the issue.  He used the facilities and interacted with members of the College for about 7 months before he was caught, which makes me wonder: how many others like him are there?  Luckily, the porters make it a point to become familiar with every member of college, but if someone blends in well-enough, they can pass undetected a bit longer than the average intruder. 

One thing that may not be clear about the college system at Cambridge and Oxford is that the colleges are separate entities under the umbrella of their respective institutions.  They have their own personalities, as it were, and there is little intercollegiate mixing that goes on.  Each college boasts its strengths and has an array of features that makes them unique, such as a strong science background, or the most Nobel laureates.  Colleges have their own bars, libraries and sports facilities (if they are well-endowed - such as boathouses, cricket pitches, playing fields, and weight rooms).  Members of other colleges are allowed to use them, but with reservation.  The only time that members of colleges are more fully integrated seems to be in three places: lectures, the University Library and the Cambridge University sports clubs (ie the Boat Club, Athletics Club, Rugby Club, etc.).  Even then, one's identity seems to be established by their college, where the mentioning of certain colleges is received with either respect or distain.  I must admit, I enjoy the benefits that come with being affiliated with Trinity. 

I am in the writing stage of my dissertation at this point.  I have done much research and have the introduction and literature review written; however, my problem is that I don't really know what my argument is.  All I know is that I think they probably should have bathed more in 18th-century England, but the coating of grime and dirt probably elevated their immune systems to levels we would never imagine possible. 

Posted by Cynthia at 7:49 PM GMT
Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008 7:53 PM GMT
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