Saturday, 29 December 2012

Where to eat in Columbus, OH: Barcelona (the anniversary edition)

On December 28th, Sasha and I celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary by having dinner out with my parents--whose own wedding anniversary had been celebrated exactly one week earlier. For anyone who doesn't already know the back story, I should note that Sasha and I were also scheduled to get married on the 21st, but then Snowpocalypse buried our dreams of a solstice wedding under nearly two feet of snow. That is really neither here nor there, except for the fact that the winter storm bearing down on Columbus, Ohio, brought uncomfortably familiar conditions for our anniversary celebration.

Fortunately, however, we were still able to make our way to Columbus' Barcelona, a bar and restaurant located in the city's extremely picturesque German Village neighborhood. The establishment bills itself as a "culinary fusion of metropolitan chic and Old World European charm" that is "inspired by seaside sangria and a walk on the Ramblas." To be honest, I'm not precisely sure what that means, but the basic idea is that Barcelona features that most beloved of Spanish culinary traditions--tapas--as well as a "regular" menu that incorporates typical Spanish ingredients.

It's an attractive restaurant decorated in very Mediterranean hues--golds, reds, eggplant purples: the colors of a lingering summer sunset (to be poetic). It is divided into sections by giant wrought-iron filigreed panels that remind me of an antique headboard for a bed, or perhaps something you'd put in your garden to support grapevines. The most eye-catching bits of decor, however, were the massive floor-to-ceiling mirrors; we spent several minutes trying to figure out why they were not hung flush to the wall, but, instead, tilted off at a jaunty angle. I'm sure the arrangement was a psychological trick designed by some clever interior decorator who wanted to help enjoy our food more--or, more likely, encourage us, in some way, to spend more money.

As per usual in an establishment of this caliber, we started off the evening with an amuse bouche:

This consisted of a herby olive paste spread on a piece of focaccia bread and topped with a crushed olive. When I was younger, I loved green olives but hated all others. Now, however, I am a big fan of olives in all their forms (except when they have pits in; I can't stand for my tongue and teeth to come into contact with seedy things of any size larger than a raspberry pip). Sasha and my mom weren't huge fans of the snack, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

While drinking cocktails and awaiting our first courses, we also munched on almendras Marcona, or roasted Spanish Marcona almonds. They were, as my British friends would say, very "moreish" (and also, for what it's worth, very pretty).

I, of course, began the meal with a salad--specifically, an ensalada de arugula, which came topped with pistachios, dried cranberries, goat cheese, and a maple/Dijon mustard dressing. It was much larger than I was expecting, but also very tasty; the goat cheese, in particular, was excellent--soft, tangy, and an excellent example of why this is my favorite of all cheeses.

My parents both opted for the tapas tasting menu, so their first course was actually a combo plate of their first three dishes--tosta de jamon/chorizo y queso, ensalada mixta con jijona, and ensalada de langosta y camerones. Or, if you'd like to have that in English, toasted baguette with Serrano ham, chorizo, and manchego cheese; mixed green salad with rosemary nougat, walnuts, and cranberry mint dressing; and lobster and shrimp salad with capellini pasta and romesco cream.

(First tapas course--ham in front, salad in middle, lobster in back.)

For my main course, I ordered fried crab cakes, mashed potatoes with paprika (my favorite of all spices), and spinach. It was a very tasty dish, but by this point in the evening I was beginning to develop a migraine and no longer had much of an appetite. In fact, I was becoming very sensitive to light and couldn't do much more than sit around averting my eyes from all sources of illumination; migraines are very rude like that, and don't mind interrupting your anniversary celebration. Fortunately for one or both of my parents, the waitress boxed up my leftovers so they could eat the two crab cakes I left behind.

Sasha ordered the paella Barcelona, which he reported to be good but not quite what he would have liked in a paella. For one thing, it involved quite a lot of peppers, which both of us routinely pick out of our food. At the same time, it lacked Spanish chorizo, which appears to be hard to find in Ohio; instead, it was made with the softer, crumblier Mexican chorizo. The dish was low on saffron and rice, and so was a bit meat-heavy but spice-light. Perhaps most damning was the absence of the much-beloved crusty bit at the bottom of the pan. Thus, while the dish tasted fine, it wasn't the "true" Spanish-style paella that Sasha was craving or expecting. At least it looked nice!

My parents received their second and third tapas courses virtually back-to-back, which I believe must have resulted from a lack of planning in the kitchen. This meant that their later dishes slowly cooled off while they were eating the earlier ones, but they were so impressed by the flavors that I don't think they minded too much. The second plate contained a bowl of sopa de mariscos, or creamy clam and mussel soup with sun-dried tomato garlic oil and a grilled baguette, and esparragos blancos, or grilled white asparagus dressed in sherry vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.

The third and final course--which appeared to be the piece de resistance--included chile relleno fritos (fried poblano peppers stuffed with roasted pork, plus sofrito) and arroz verde (basil risotto with beef meatballs and piquillo peppers). I had been tempted to order an a la carte version of the arroz verde, since I am such a fan of risotto; however, while my parents liked that quite a bit, they both agreed that the chile relleno fritos was the best taste of the evening.

 (Risotto at the top, pepper and beef at the bottom)

I was not interested in dessert, but the others shared the flan de vanilla, which came with a dollop of cream and some fresh berries. I am not that big of a dessert-eater, and I am even less of a flan/custard-eater, so I just admired it from afar while sipping on some mint tea. Sadly, I was so distracted by my head by this point that I forgot to take a picture of this very aesthetically final dish of the evening. However, I did manage to muster a smile when my dad asked our waitress (the very accommodating Mara) to take our picture:

(Four happy customers plus one annoying migraine!)

Even though she was shooting our portrait in low-light conditions with only an iPhone, I think Mara did an excellent job with her photography--but, of course, part of the reason the picture looks nice is that we were all having a good time stuffing ourselves with a tasty repast.

If I have done my math correctly, my parents have been married for exactly 30 years (and one week!) longer than Sasha and I. I'd like to think that in 30 years, Sasha and I will be celebrating our 33rd anniversary in similar fashion--embarking on culinary adventures in a gourmet restaurant in the company of family. Come to think of it, we do an awful lot of that even now, so I guess we're well on our way.

Congratulations and much love to my mom and dad--may we follow in your footsteps. And...bon appetit!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Where to Eat in Athens, Ohio: "Sol" Food

Much ado is always made of holiday leftovers--the sandwiches, the casseroles, the stews, and all the other delicious things you can make with the bits and pieces not eaten at the main meal. Those are all well and good, but after a while you tire of poking through the crowded refrigerator, cobbling together unusual and unconventional collections of meats and starches and veggies, and trying to figure out how long you need to leave your plate in the microwave to ensure that you won't bite in to a surprise cold patch. When you have reached this phase of culinary unrest, it is time to go out to eat.

Our choice of restaurant last night was one of Athens, Ohio's (relatively) more recent additions: Sol, which serves "Cuban fusion cuisine." Sol first started serving food at the beginning of 2012. Sadly, they did not win the Food Network contest that would have gotten them both publicity and advice/assistance from a seasoned restauranteur, but business seems good all the same. This is a particularly big compliment at this time of year, when Athens becomes a ghost town while all of the university students are home for the holidays. On top of this, Sol is tucked away down a cobbled and rarely-used alleyway, and must therefore be deliberately sought out. We were only one of many families visiting the restaurant last night, which shows just how highly regarded the place is.

(Our first round of drinks--mojitos, a pina colada, and a microbrewed beer.)

Before we went for our meal, my mother warned that while the food is delicious, the service is sometimes a bit slow. Indeed, we had to wait a very long time for our drinks and our main course; however, to smooth our ruffled feathers, our waitress brought over a free round of cocktails and also made sure to get our appetizer out as quickly as possible. We were later visited by the chef/proprietor, who apologized for the delay and explained that all their waitstaff were either sick or away on holiday.

(The Sol Crostini sampler, featuring the Cuban, Ropa, and La Italiana varieties of crostini.)

The crostinis were quite tasty, though not quite as hot as I would have liked. I tend to think of crostinis as being quite crunchy, but these were made from bread that had merely been toasted. I actually liked these  better than the "normal" version, since the softness made the crostinis much easier to eat. The "shredded seasoned beef" on the Ropa crostini was tender and succulent, and the spiciness of its marinade paired well with the house avocado spread.

Salads can be pretty boring, but Sol has some unique dressings to jazz up their greens. We were given three options, but I only remember the two that were ordered at our table--a guava-Dijon mustard vinaigrette, and a super-garlicky chimichurri dressing. One of their specialty salads comes with a pineapple dressing that also grabbed my interest.

I was able to taste the chimichurri dressing during my main course--a salad with seared flat iron steak, hard-boiled egg, bacon, and perfectly ripe grape tomatoes (in the middle of winter!). It was delicious, but unfortunately I could only eat about one third of it; that was my punishment for thinking I am grown-up enough to stomach a non-virgin pina colada without feeling nauseous.

 (My mother's "traditional" steak salad.)

My mother and I both ordered the steak salad, though I requested a bit of rice on the side of mine. I am not sure why, but I was really having a craving for some rice, and it seemed like the perfect thing to balance out all that greenery. The waitress was very accommodating of my request, and the rice was cooked quite nicely (which for some reason is often not the case at restaurants).

(My riced-up steak salad.)

The menfolk opted to have even meatier dishes. My father ordered the guava-glazed baby back ribs, which came with a side of homemade coleslaw and a loaded baked potato:

One of the things I like about "ethnic restaurants" (whatever that really means) in the US is how they frequently take quintessentially American dishes and then use certain ingredients--often spices--to put a new spin on them. I suppose that is really the essence of cooking in general (after all, chefs can only work with a finite number of ingredients), but it is something that is particularly noticeable here in our melting pot country; it's also a process that is on prominent display in parts of Great Britain. Maybe I'm being melodramatic, but I think that these variants are a great way to quickly get a taste of the spirit of other cultures--literally!

The final dish at our table was the Sol steak with chimichurri; this came with Shagbark Adzuki beans and white rice. Not that there was anything wrong with any of the other meals, but this was the one plate that had nothing left on it at the end of the night, so obviously it was very well executed. We had to request some of the restaurant's eco-friendly doggie bags so that we could take home the leftovers. (I'm sure you can appreciate the irony of this given what I said about leftovers just a few paragraphs ago.)

Sadly, after indulging in both crostinis and multiple rounds of drinks before our main courses, we had no room left over for dessert. If we had, I would have sampled the Key lime cheesecake or perhaps even the wonderfully named triple-chocolate throwdown. Those will just have to wait until my next visit.

Sol is located at 33 North Court Street, Athens, Ohio, 45701.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Let it snow! (Christmas 2012)

I love Christmas; I always have. When I was younger, I used to love it because I got lots of presents (ah, the joys of being an only child!). Now I love it because I like to give presents, and also because it's a good time of year to reminisce and keep up traditions. You can do those things at other times of year, as well, but for some reason Christmas feels special--and by "special," what I really mean is "magical." 

I often wonder where this feeling comes from. Is it left over from the stories we're told as children? Is it related to the mesmerizing glow and sparkle of holiday decorations? Does it stem from some older, more primal human response to the long dark hours that leave you alone with your thoughts (and the shadows) during the harshest, coldest time of year?

I can't say, but what I can say is that I have been ready for the arrival Christmas since I purchased, and hid away, the first gift of 2012 back in June; it goes without saying that I have also been ready since I listened to my first Christmas carols in late November. 

To help celebrate the holiday this year, I have taken a series of photographs documenting the arrival of Christmas 2012--first in Cornwall and then in Ohio:

(Holiday decorations in Penryn, Cornwall. These made the walk home from school a bit brighter each evening.)

(Christmas display in the window of my friend Lucy Turner's Penryn furniture shop. This was entered in the town's Christmas decoration contest, but evidently the judges found it to be a bit too unusual. Grinches.)

(Innocent smoothies sporting hats as part of The Big Knit 2012. Proceeds from each bottle are donated to a charity that helps ensure that older people are warm and comfortable during the winter months. Adorable and kind!)

(I'm familiar with chocolate Easter bunnies, of course, but this was the first time I'd seen a chocolate Santa.)

(The first Christmas feast of 2012. Among other things, it involved five types of meat--ham, bacon, chicken, pheasant, and roast beef--two types of potato, and countless desserts. Delicious.)

(Decorations in Events Square--joining together the maritime and holiday themes into a single colorful display.)

(Our Christmas tree, as seen from the Square. You can also see the festive red lights that have been placed in all the street lamps for the duration of the holiday season.)

(The "Biodiversitree," as I like to call it--a tree decorated almost exclusively with wildlife ornaments. As my former PhD supervisor noted, arthropods and bacteria are woefully underrepresented--as are plants--so if anyone spots any unusual ornaments anywhere, send them my way!)

(Another view of the biodiversitree. I couldn't find a suitable tree skirt anywhere--online or in town--so I am hoping to purchase one in the US and take it back to the UK with me. Somehow I was entirely unsurprised to find that British stores did not have quite the amount of variety that can be found in American stores this time of year. One thing they do have lots of is artificial trees; unfortunately, they were insanely expensive. I was lucky to find this one at a reasonable price. I admit that it has some unfortunate gaps between the branches, but that just gives me plenty of room to hang my massive collection of ornaments.)

(I have many, many bird ornaments, but this one is perhaps the most relevant for Christmas 2012: This is the year in which I completed my book on flamingos!)

(This owl is Sasha's favorite ornament because of the way its eyes follow you around the room. I haven't done a proper survey, but I think that owls may be the most abundant animal family on my tree, though doves, finches, and thrushes are all close behind.)

(View of the biodiversitree in daylight. I'm allowed to get overly excited about this tree because it's the first one I've put up since moving to the UK. Many of the ornaments still had their tags on, and had sat in storage for two or three years. Having the tree in the house really helps get into a Christmas frame of mind despite the mild, un-Christmassy Cornish weather.)

(The Halzephron Farm Shop sells locally made advent candles--something I've never heard of before, but which I had to rush out to buy.)

(The Christmas tree gave me the perfect opportunity to practice photographing "bokeh"--or the blurry, out-of-focus bits in an image. I also got to do some more photo-trickery once I arrived at my parents' house in Ohio...)

(Weather is quite fickle in southern Ohio, and you never know whether you will end up with a white Christmas or not. It looks like we are in luck this year, though!)

(Despite the snowfall, Sasha and I headed up to Easton Town Center for our last little bit of Christmas shopping. I know this is going to sound really shallow and capitalistic, but it just doesn't feel like Christmas until I've gone to a giant shopping center and mingled with the hordes of people trying to find Christmas bargains. It's a quintessential part of the holiday experience in America! Also, Easton has really beautiful decorations, as you can see here.)

(The Santa mantel in the dining room. The original Santa is the one in the middle with the blue hat. All the others have been added over the years and come from diverse locations around the country.)

(The angel mantel in the living room, proving that we are quite happy to mix secular and religious themes in our holiday decorations. Note the bokeh in the background!)

(A "high dynamic range" (HDR) version of the angel mantel, shot from a greater distance--and in daylight. I have only recently discovered the HDR technique, and I have to say that the timing was fantastic; this method is perfect for capturing the glowy essence of Christmas lights while also showing detail on the associated ornaments.)

(The nativity scene. This is perched on an end table next to the living room couch--within easy reach of the cats, who for some reason have decided to leave it alone. It looks like the perfect thing for the felines to munch on, but perhaps they are too busy enjoying their Humane Society Christmas catnip toys to bother with little wooden figurines.)

(Felted mistletoe handmade by Nepalese artisans: fair trade, ecologically friendly, and aesthetically pleasing. The perfect trifecta.)

(The advent calendar, which was first purchased when I was a little girl. After I went away to college, I was no longer around to help count down the days until Christmas. We moved the best two ornaments--the little bluebird and cardinal--to the 22nd and the 23rd, so that I would have the pleasure of hanging the ornithologically themed decorations once I came to visit. The Christmas Eve decoration is a little wooden star that tops the tree.)

(One of the many Christmas wreaths after it received a picturesque dusting of snow.)

(The dining room table, decked out in festive red, and the Christmas tree just beyond it. When I was very young, my parents used to put up trees in both the dining and living rooms, but that practice was abandoned because it required a bit too much time and effort. For a while, the single remaining tree was erected in the living room; now, though, my parents now place it in the dining room. That is where the tree was located on the best Christmas in my memory--the one on which I received my first American Girl doll, Samantha. My parents hid Samantha and all her accoutrements around the far side of the tree, so when I came downstairs in the morning and peeked into the dining room, I thought Santa had passed me by. It wasn't until I turned the corner that I realized what a bounty awaited me!)

(Kight Christmas tree 2012, plus the mountain of presents awaiting distribution on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)

(HDR portrait of the Christmas tree--same magical glow, better definition of the ornaments!)

As you can see, Christmas is really in the air--both in Cornwall and in Ohio. Unfortunately, the trip between those two locations really makes it difficult to celebrate the holiday with any amount of energy. I have been working very hard to get over my jet lag, but I have been awake every morning by at least 6 AM, and am ready to go to bed by around 8 PM. That makes it pretty difficult to do the sorts of things that we normally do during my visits--play Scrabble, make (and eat) holiday food, go out to see movies, talk. Mostly I have just been sitting around in a rocking chair, struggling to prop my eyelids up. 

The first of our family gatherings is tomorrow, and maybe the crush of relatives and hyper children children will be enough to wake me up a bit. If not, I'm sure a Christmas cookie sugar rush would do the trick. After all, it's the most wonderful time of the year, and it just wouldn't do to doze my way through it.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Fashback: Flamingo Fun

Earlier this year, my husband and I attended a wonderful event called the Ancestor's Trail. One of the things that made the gathering so interesting and fun was that we met a variety people who are interested in science, and who express their passion for this field in diverse ways. One such person was Victoria Gugenheim, creator of the beautiful and very memorable evolution-inspired body artwork on display at the end of our long hike:

(Victoria's body painting project from the Ancestor's Trail.)

After my lecture on the last day of the AT, Victoria came up to chat with me about my topic (humans as an evolutionary force) and about science in general. Realizing that we were kindred spirits, we  became friends on Facebook and continued our discussions there. At some point, I expressed a fondness for Victoria's hand art--a type of body painting I'd encountered while researching my upcoming flamingo book.

(One of many "hand flamingos" that can be found on the web. Photo courtesy of Design Bleep).

When Victoria kindly offered me a mate's rate on my very own hand painting, I couldn't refuse: Ever since I'd seen her in action at the Ancestor's Trail, I'd had an urge to find out what it was like to be somebody's canvas. Also, I loved the idea of including such an uncommon form of artwork in my book--not to mention one that was painted by someone as innovative and deserving of exposure as Victoria. As it so happened, Sasha was scheduled to attend a workshop in Oxford not long afterward; I tagged along and took advantage of the proximity to Victoria's home base. 

She supplied me with very detailed directions of how to reach her studio, but of course--as per usual--I managed to turn the wrong direction when exiting the train station. After a good 15 minutes of failing to pass the expected landmarks, I finally realized my mistake and headed back the way I'd come. Victoria had recommended that I take a bus, but as an avid walker I insisted on hoofing it. Ordinarily this wouldn't have been much of an issue, but between getting lost and encountering patches of road without sidewalk, it made the journey pretty hairy.

About halfway there, I called Victoria to apologize for being so late; she said not to worry, and that she'd send her partner to fetch me and lead me to her studio once I'd arrived at the bus stop outside her building. This was the first time I'd heard anything about a "partner," and I have to admit that for a minute I felt a little panicked. After all, Victoria and I had mostly interacted over the Internet, and for all I knew, she could be half of a hardened criminal duo...that...uses body painting to lure in victims...? 

(Body painting supplies at Victoria's studio.)

Okay, that sounds pretty crazy. But, you know, I'm just a naive country girl at heart, and the world is a scary place. But, as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about (surprise!). Both Victoria and her partner (Wolf of Wolf's BodyMagic) are as safe and friendly as they are visionary and talented. Poor Wolf had to spend the entire afternoon on the phone with IT support people, and he still managed to both stay sane and occasionally chat with Victoria and me.

The first thing I had to do upon my arrival was shave all the hair off the arm that I was going to have painted. This felt very strange--both during the process and afterwards, when my arm was as smooth as a baby's bottom. I was appalled at how much hair wound up in the sink. Because of the length of my limbs, I've always described myself as having "monkey arms"; now I have the misfortune of realizing that the name is also appropriate because I am covered in fur.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part I).

Prior to my arrival, Victoria had done quite a bit of research on flamingos and found a few photographs that she thought she could work from. There are six species of flamingo--all with slightly different morphological variations on the same pink theme--but we decided that the best one to portray on my arm was the Caribbean (a.k.a. American, a.k.a. Cuban, a.k.a. rosy) flamingo. Flamingo coloration varies depending on diet, but, even so, Caribbeans are generally the most vibrant and flamboyant of all the species--and, therefore, the most visually exciting.

Victoria decided to begin with the bird's body; her first task was to create a base layer of pink, after which she would begin the stippling process that would give the painting its feathery look. I was a little worried that my ticklishness might cause me to be a very twitchy canvas, but luckily this wasn't a problem. If anything, the feeling of the brush on my skin lulled me into a bit of a trance. It was quite relaxing in the same way that having your hair washed and brushed at the salon is.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part II).

There were only two things keeping me from falling asleep. The first was having to hold my arm up at a 90-degree angle and occasionally rotate it to give Victoria better access. The other was being engaged in conversation with Victoria about everything from body art to acting in movies to life as an academic. I was impressed with how seemingly easy it was for Victoria to chat and paint at the same time; if I tried that, the resulting piece of work would not be anything that anybody would want to purchase or display.

I was also impressed with how easy it was to chat, general. I'm not very social, and it tends to take me a while to get comfortable around new people. Victoria and Wolf were so relaxed, though, that I felt as if I'd known them both for years. Plus, Victoria is quite the renaissance woman, with many wide-ranging interests; it would have been challenging not to find something to talk about all afternoon.

One thing that was particularly enjoyable was having Victoria explain the body art process as she went along. I didn't manage to inherit the art gene possessed by many people on my mother's side of the family, and so I don't know much about painting, in general, and certainly not about body painting. It was interesting to find out the products and techniques being used, and to see an artist at work in real time; you can learn both from the things that are done and those that are un- and re-done in favor of something else.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part III).

Throughout the afternoon, Victoria took progress shots in order to get a different perspective on her creation and check to see what changes she would need to make to ensure that the bird looked good on camera as well as in person. It was incredible to see how different the flamingo looked from different angles. Even once the painting was complete, it never really looked that lifelike from my point of view; to someone else standing and looking at me, though, the piece was stunning.

The addition of the eye really made a big difference; suddenly the bird began to have some personality. That body part was only a small proportion of the entire bird, but Victoria spent quite a lot of time perfecting it; this was a make-or-break feature of the painting.

(Flamingo hand painting in progress--part IV).

Also very important were shading and highlighting--two techniques that rendered my flamingo more lifelike and realistic. The flamingo's body, for example, was not just a uniform coral color; it also contained streaks of light pink, white, and orange. Likewise, patches of the face were greyish rather than simply white with black features. To help achieve all of this layering without too much smudging or drying out of the paint, Victoria would frequently spray my arm with a fixative that ultimately allowed me to keep the flamingo in place nearly the whole way back to Oxford.

Once the painting was complete, it was time to move on to phase 2: the photo shoot. In addition to dreaming up and creating out-of-this-world body art concepts, Victoria also does all of her own photography. I had to avert my eyes from her massive camera in order to avoid becoming too envious. I had thought that the photo shoot would just be a brief little thing at the end of the day, but actually it took quite a while to find the proper lighting conditions and the optimal position for my hand. It was very difficult for me to contort my fingers into the shape required to mimic a flamingo's bill. In fact, I couldn't achieve the positioning myself, and needed to have Victoria do it for me; once she'd bent my hand where she wanted it, I could hold it there until the photos were snapped.

I could tell that Victoria wasn't too impressed by the first two or three dozen photos. After a while, though, she found something that worked; a combination of my arm position, camera angle, light angle, and background. We took a variety of photos, all ever-so-slightly different, under these conditions, and then took a peek at them on the computer.

(After much contortion, the final product!)

It appeared that we had found our winner! All that remained at that point was for me to get digital copies of Victoria's hard work, then head back to the train station. I was hoping to keep the bird intact until Oxford, since I wanted to try to show it to Sasha before washing it away. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain outside, which didn't bode well for my flamingo's longevity. Victoria sprayed on some extra fixative and Wolf located a plastic bag for me to wrap around my arm. We then said our farewells and I headed out into the weather.

It so happened that I was out and about during rush hour, which was fascinating. I so rarely spend time in urban areas, and, of course, London has practically defined what it means to be a city. It has such a different feel from any other place where I have regularly spent much time. Even though I am intellectually aware that cities exist, and that people behave differently in cities than in places like Falmouth, it is still quite a shock to actually experience the difference--all the concrete, and the traffic, and people in suits, and women in high heels, and masses of people moving into and out of the train/Underground station. It is just a whole other world. It's great to experience that in short bursts, but I think I would go mad if I had to hang around for more than a few days.

By the time I hopped my ride on the Underground, I was warm enough that I needed to remove my jacket, which gave me the pleasure of watching my fellow passengers gawk at my pink-painted hand. I was very sad to note that nobody smiled or laughed; they just stared. I'd like to think that, if I ever saw someone with a flamingo painted on his/her arm, it would bring a smile to my face. Those Londoners, though: They are a grizzled bunch.

(Flamingos like tea, too.)

I managed to get about three-quarters of the way to Oxford before I could no longer bear having to do everything one-handed. Despite the inconvenience of the body art, I felt very sad at washing it away; I had to console myself with the thought that my flamingo was preserved forever in photograph form.

While all of that may sound like quite enough excitement for the day, I still had more adventures to come. Sasha was out dining with his colleagues, leaving me to find my way from the train station to our accommodations at Oxford's Keble College. The college is quite beautiful--even in the dark--but a little intimidating. The entire place is surrounded by a tall brick wall; once you find the single gigantic wooden door, you have to ring a bell in order to enter. After you've gotten that far, you then have to ring another bell in order to gain access to the night porter, who can then hand over your room key.

Part of the college has been converted into hotel-style accommodations, but the rest is still inhabited by students. So, basically, you're paying hotel prices to stay in what is unmistakably a dorm room. The only reason they can get away with this is that people are willing to pay for the experience. I admit, it did feel a bit Harry Potteresque, which was kind of neat.

(Mural in the main entrance of Keble College, Oxford University.)

Sadly, the weather the following day was overcast, so I wasn't able to get very good photos of the grounds. Still, even with the muted tones, you can tell that Keble is an attractive place (if a bit manicured):

(Keble College grounds; our room was on the third floor towards the end of the building to the right.)

(Keble College chapel, which reminds me very much of Westminster Cathedral--one of my favorite London landmarks.)

Sasha had a bit more workshopping to do, whereas I was hoping to partake in some early Christmas shopping, so we didn't hang around Keble for much longer than was necessary. After a quick breakfast at Starbucks (it always makes me feel super American to visit international Starbucks shops rather than finding a local hangout), I visited a quirky little store that stocked a little bit of everything: jewelry, statues, candles, vintage clothing. The proprietor was a very chatty guy, and we ended up talking for at least an hour. Nobody was more surprised about this than I, since, again, I'm really not much of a people person. The shopkeeper was very interesting, though, and had all sorts of questions about botany and conservation. Evidently he enjoyed our conversation--he gave me a 20% discount on everything I bought!

With my purchases in tow, I headed back to the university to meet up with Sasha and a mutual friend/colleague for lunch. Sadly, there was not much opportunity to take in many more of Oxford's picturesque scenery, since we were due in Truro for a (wonderful) gourmet meal with Sasha's family. One day I would like to go back, though, and explore more of this historical city. However, that is not to say that I have any regrets about this particular trip. I managed to pack in a lot of adventure into a mere 2 days: navigating to unknown destinations, socializing with new and different people, being painted, sleeping in one of Oxford's storied colleges...Not the kind of things most people get to do on a daily basis. Thanks to Victoria for making it all possible!

(The dramatic skyline during Sasha's and my trip back down to Cornwall.)