Monday, December 2, 2013

Family visits & Friendsgiving 2013

"I only came to make it on the blog." - Kara Ashburn, November 2013

Let's just get right to it, shall we? Last Monday, Kara and Jerry arrived, tired but ready to begin their whirlwind week of touring, laughing, and eating. The morning of their arrival saw the delivery of the Thanksgiving/Friendsgiving groceries. Somehow, Kenz found space for it all right before she headed out to school that day:

K&J were overwhelmed to be standing in the very flat they'd been seeing on this blog and via FaceTime since Kenz and I moved here. Later in the week, as they were talking to one of my friends during the Friendsgiving meal, they analogized that it was like "stepping into a book" that they'd been reading for the past two years.

"I can't believe we're here. There's the table! The table that everyone sits at! We're going to be sitting there!"

After a five minute tour (that's an extended tour time, mind you), K&J ordered up a cup of coffee and the three of us began our plan of attack for the coming week.

"How many times have we seen them sitting on this couch? Now it's us!"

This was their impression of Kenz and I on FaceTime.
Kara was overly concerned that she had not, in fact, brought enough "stuff" for us, despite the fact that she brought every single item on Kenz's wish list, saying, "but there was a bit more room in our (extra) suitcase. I could've brought more. Should I have brought more?" This went on for the first two hours of their arrival and became and running joke for the rest of their stay (If only Kara had packed more...).

That's kinda how Kara rolls, though: she'll do something wonderfully nice for someone else and then worry that it wasn't nice enough. It's a hilariously endearing character trait.

Kara's goodie-bag suitcase; Jerry quickly learns he'll need to duck in order to get in the bathroom.

Our first stop was the local fish shop along Walworth Road. I claim that it has the best fish'n'chips in town; Kenz disagrees (didn't find that out until later in the evening).

Kara had never eaten fish'n'chips and wanted to document the event. 
We then headed out to Central London for a "warm up" tour: four hours of nothing but walking. For the most part, I strolled right behind the two of them, dropping tidbits of knowledge I've learned from other people's tours. I think they absorbed about 20% of the information...

"It smells like pee in here!"

Somerset House

Neil's Yard
K&J experienced, firsthand, the double edged sword that is living this far north. Sure, it got dark by 4:15, but that meant their first stroll through London was one filled with visible Christmas lights. I'd say it was a pretty good first impression. It wasn't nearly as cold as we thought it'd be.

Seven Dials

Another cup of coffee in Jerry's hand. The man drinks more coffee than anyone I know.

Covent Garden

We saw a Lego snow globe in the middle of Covent Garden. The Shard (right) is 2 meters tall.

The globe had most of the notable buildings that surround London in it.
While passing through Leicester Square, Kara spotted the fabled M&M's store - the one that Kenz hates - and immediately lit up.

"Holy cow! This is branding 101! Can we go in?"

Kara happens to make a living in branding/marketing so this landmark had about as much cultural resonance for her as any of the other major sites we visited for the remainder of the week. She was, pardon me, like a kid in a candy store.

These are genuine faces. She is not hamming it up for the camera. Hand to God. She rivals Kenz in the "awesome faces" department.

Apparently people do buy merchandise here. 

Jerry was, obviously, just as thrilled to be in the building. 

Chinatown; Jerry has since tired of posing for the camera.

Piccadilly Circus; the statue of Eros has been snowglobe'd.

We made it into the National Gallery thirty minutes before it closed - just enough time to take them to a few of my favorite paintings before we were kicked out.

We finished the walking tour with a stroll across Westminster Bridge

Kenz was home by the time we returned, decked out in her pajamas.

But, after a few minutes of catching up, she encouraged us to leave the house for dinner. She had another two hours of schoolwork to finish before she could call it a night. K, J, and I headed back up Walworth Road for some Thai food.

MOMA's nickname, when she has her grandmother hat on, is Gabby. Kara spotted it.

Mama Thai
The end of any visitor's first day ends the same way: an hour after I finally allow the guests to sit down on something comfortable and they've neared the end of their email inbox, a silence falls over the house and one can see the tourists' eyes roll back into their head.

More time spent walking on Monday than sleeping on the Sunday night flight will make anyone exhausted.

Kenz woke at 4am on Tuesday morning. Not really by choice but from stress. I came downstairs at about 7am to find her in an unconventional chair-squat, pecking away at her computer. 

More evidence that she's really, at heart, a feral woodland creature.
K&J rolled out of bed at about 10am because Kenz insisted that I let them sleep.

She and I debate about this every time we have someone stay with us. I take the position that folks come here to see the city and that they should wake early in order to maximize the day. Kenz says that people staying with us are on vacation and that I should let them sleep if that's what they want to do.

I don't imagine either of us ever adopting the other's opinion as long as we live. This time, I gave ground, but beware: if you're planning on visiting us in the near future, you'd better figure out where you stand - otherwise I'm waking you up at the buttcrack of dawn.

Breakfast and gifts. Note Kara's flip-flop slippers. Yes, she packed them. 

Sadface Kenz, going to school as the tourists go out to explore. 

The Ashburns got their first experience of the Tube - one that included a smelly, smelly person (not pictured).

We started the day in Camden, strolling through the tourist-trap market, mainly because I knew they wouldn't be here for Brick Lane or Portobello Road markets (they only peak on the weekends). After about forty-five minutes of walking past endless rows of trinkets, jewelry, photographs, and various other overpriced merchandise, Jerry (very politely) said, "OK, I think I'm done with t-shirts. Where's the history?"

It was the first time either of them had made a clear decision about where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do and it was awesome. Having easy to please guests is nice, but one does worry if they're too reticent to speak up about wanting to shift gears. We promptly left Camden, via Regents Canal, and headed (via the scenic route) toward the Churchill War Rooms.

Overlooking the lock

Market gazing

Through the old horse stalls

Regents Canal

The scenic route included the oldest wine shop in the world, St. James's Palace, St. James's Park, and Horse Guards Parade.

St. James's Palace

Jerry very nearly makes the same face in every picture.

Geese in St. James's Park

The ceremonial guard at Horse Guards Parade

Whereas we didn't see the actual changing of the guards outside Buckingham Palace, we did see a shift change at the Parade. As I encouraged our guard to enjoy the rest of his shift, he replied, "that's only ten more minutes." We hung out for ten minutes to see the horses change.

"I'm not saying I'm an expert or anything, but I've been around a lot of horses and that's a big horse." - Jerry

The relief horses coming out of their stables.

Replacing the ones on duty.

Obligatory selfie.

Longtime readers may remember a similar photo in the Rome to Venice post from last October (here).

We finally made it to the museum - one they both enjoyed.
Many would say that appears to be a full day. Alas, Kenz and I had booked tickets to Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man for the four of us. Many of you, after reading this post, had commented that this play would not be something you'd enjoy. K&J very likely fall into that category as well, but we'd made an executive decision that they were in London, by God, and they were going to do some London things. So, that evening, the four of us headed out to the play.

As we were on the way to the show, Kenz and I began dropping little bits of knowledge about the show:

We forgot to're going to be wearing a mask. And someone might take you into a room and lock the door behind you. But the best thing to do is just separate from the group right from the start and go it alone. 

None of these tidbits were all that helpful. Their faces, upon learning about the masks, was one of incredulous bewilderment. Jerry's response to the "someone might take you into a room and lock the door behind you" was one of "I'd like to see them try and lock Kara in some room without me - that door won't have hinges for long!" I began to worry about the likelihood of Jerry's arrest. I also worried for the safety of the performers; at 6'4", he stands nearly a foot taller than anyone in the cast of The Drowned Man. Furthermore, he probably knows more ways to "hurt" someone than I do adverbs. By the time we arrived, I was convinced this was the wrong decision.

Hopes were high at this point.


Kara, holding out hope with a smile.

To their credit, Kara and Jerry immediately split up - from the group and from each other! They made the best of it, spending three hours on their surely tired feet, exploring the ins and outs of the 200,000 sq. foot warehouse, complete with over 100 rooms and 32 performers. So, after a few days' removal from the experience, when they began to poke fun at us for booking the tickets, they'd at least earned the right to say they didn't really "enjoy" it. I think they were happy to have done it - to say they did it - but wouldn't be likely to return to a Punchdrunk show anytime soon. Or ever. But, you know, us highfalutin big city cats gotta get some culture in these Tennessee hillbillies...


We rose (relatively) early on Wednesday morning in order to beat the crowd at the Tower of London. We got off the bus early in order to walk across Tower Bridge. 

Exhausted, but ready for another full day of touring! 

We made sure to arrive in enough time to get a good spot for the start of the tour.

Kara and Jerry were impressed with the final story our Yeoman Warder told us while standing in the Tower's chapel:

Two years ago, six days before Christmas, Yeoman Jones' daughter was married in the Tower's chapel (since the Yeomen Warders live at the Tower, their children have the option to be married in that very chapel - the one that has three queens and many, many other historical figures buried underneath it - it being the second most "important" burial site in England, next to Westminster Cathedral). The uniforms you see the beefeaters in cost, roughly, 1,000 pounds. Well, on this day, Yeoman Jones (and all his colleagues, who were escorting the bride) was wearing his Tudor State Dress, reserved for when the Queen visits and state occasions, which runs about 18,000 per uniform. As is custom, his daughter was married in "something blue and borrowed," which just so happened to include a dress and tiara from the Queen's private collection (and the tiara was worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's).

After the tour was over, we watched Jones walk back across the courtyard and into his house - through the very same door he pointed out to us earlier in the tour.

Of course, no visit to the Tower is complete without a moving-sidewalk-tour of the Crown Jewels.

We popped up over the water gate to check out an old bedroom as well.

Legend states that if the ravens leave the Tower, the monarchy will crumble (so, naturally, six are kept on property at all times). 
More tube time.
At 2:30, I dropped K&J off at a matinee performance of Les Miserables and headed over to Piccadilly Circus to collect Tom Turkey.

Quick story about Tom Turkey:

Last year, when I picked up our bird from the grocery store, several employees came out from the back room to see who got "this" turkey. It was a hoot; they couldn't believe we'd ordered correctly, saying that bird'll feed over twenty people. Once I told them we were having 18, they were more concerned that we were having that many to our house than they were the size of the bird. They gave me one of their big, hemp bags "on the house" since our bird cost so much, saying it was "the least they could do."

That was the Piccadilly Circus' Whole Food's first Thanksgiving and we were one of about ten people who had preordered a turkey. This year, however, there was an entire Thanksgiving display, complete with canned pumpkin, stuffing kits, and a man with a binder full of names corresponding to preordered turkeys. That was all fine and good, but when it came time to take the bird away, the man said he had a "special bag" for Tom. It was cloth. I looked at him and said, "I don't think this is going to work. Last year I got one of those bags," pointing to the hemp ones (that customers have to purchase). He smiled, saying, "this one will work just fine." I didn't want to cause a problem; away I went.

About ten paces outside the store, in the middle of one of the busiest streets in all of London, both straps broke off from the bag, sending Tom Turkey into a forward roll along the sidewalk. I looked up, made eye contact with a passing stranger and shrugged as if to say I knew I was right. The bird was 28.6 pounds, after all.

I returned to the store, Tom in my arms (for the record, he was in a plastic bag), and said, "I'm going to need that hemp bag." The bewildered employee said, "I'll need to go check with my manager." I didn't wait on the manager, uttering, "after all the money I just spent on this bird, I'm pretty sure you can give me this bag for free," and began bagging Tom. By the time I finished, I looked up and made Alpha Dog eye contact with the manager...who proceeded to do one of those "it's not a big deal" dismissal waves.

Don't get too big for your breeches, Whole Foods. 

Anyway, that night Kenz took Kara and Jerry out to The Tiger, her favorite Camberwell pub. Annie came out with them. I arrived at the end of the evening, after completing a work meeting I couldn't reschedule.

Jerry told a story about finding one of the first meth labs in East Tennessee while a police officer.

Annie later told Kara that she'd known the word gentleman, but never actually thought she met one - until she met Jerry. She listed all the chivalric characteristics he exhibited that evening (which are the types of characteristics he exhibits all the time), telling Kenz just how impressed she was with him.

Kenz is, simply, tired of me taking pictures of her. Tough cookies. 
We got home at 10:00pm, tired, ready for bed, but in dire need of some Friendsgiving cooking prep. We spent about two hours getting things ready. Well, Kenz and Jerry cut onions and celery - Kara and I complained about the onion as we hung out on the couch.

It's all about the stuffing.

The bread, sitting out for a day or two, getting 'ripe' for stuffing.

Kenz taught Jerry how to dice an onion more efficiently.

I put more ice in the brine; Tom likes a chilled bath. 

Long days, late nights.

The collective wisdom of the group was that Thursday morning/afternoon would be set aside for family time and cooking, leaving the evening for the traditional Winter Wonderland visit. Kara and Jerry admitted that, whereas there was surely more to see in London, they came explicitly to spend time with family and enjoy Friendsgiving - an afternoon of cooking and hanging out was in order. 

We had breakfast at "the table"

They even forced me to get in a picture. 
After breakfast (brunch), we hooked up a live stream of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and got to cooking. The combination of boiling pots, a cooking oven, and the size of our flat had Kara (and me) "glistening" with perspiration. Kara's solution was an ice pack wrapped in a towel like some football coach on the second of a two-a-day in the hot summer sun.

Pretty awesome if you ask me.

The Gabby/MOMA comes out in her more often than she'd like to admit.

Since Jerry cut all the onions the night before, it was his turn to hang on the couch.

The first batch of Big Mom's stuffing balls.

The messiest our place has been since last Friendsgiving.

Kenz makes pie crust from scratch as Kara and I tear toast into pieces. 

Cutting fall leaves for the crust.
In the busy hubbub of the whirring kitchen, there was bound to be a mistake. Kenz had filled the first of three brand new pie pans with a glorious pecan pie and set it on the stove to wait for the stuffing to finish in the oven. She had accidentally turned on the wrong hob and walked away for about half an hour. By the time she lifted the pie pan, it was piping hot, and it audibly popped in her hands. Before it came completely apart, she set it down on top of the (plastic) case in which Tom was brining. The plastic immediately began to sizzle, melting. It all happened so fast - the pop, crack, Kenz's yawps of concern, and the sizzling plastic that all of us were nearly paralyzed with fear. I snapped out of it, wrapped a towel around the pie pan (for fear that the melting plastic would ruin Tom), and threw it all into the sink.

Stove 1; Kenz 0
Kara and Jerry, not knowing Kenz and well as I do (or, at least, not having seen Kenz in that kind of situation before), spent the next five minutes silently worrying that Kenz's day had been ruined. Kara finally mustered the courage to ask me if she was going to be ok. I made a face that said are you serious as Kenz, having overheard the question, laughed, saying, "yea, I'm totally fine." Kenz has better things to do than fret over a busted pie.

Within an hour, Kenz had made another pecan pie without flinching. She wound up making six pies in two days: 2 pecan, 2 pumpkin, and 2 banoffee.

Having done as much as we could for the day, the four of us headed out to the Winter Wonderland that Kenz and I have visited for the past two years. On our way, we received the first FaceTime call of the night.

Mom'n'Tom caught us just before heading underground at Elephant & Castle.

Kara said public transport is like "being rocked to sleep." 

"Oh, real funny, David, taking a picture of the germaphobe brother-in-law."
We arrived, relieved to find that it wasn't going to be an overcrowded night. The longest line we had to wait in took about ten minutes. We essentially had free reign over the entire park. Kara and Jerry were flabbergasted to find out that none of the structures we were passing stood here year-round. Everything in the Winter Wonderland gets put up and broken down within its six week run. 

Kenz introduced them to mulled wine.

Kenz & Jerry spotted the first ride.

'70s cover band

Kenz introduced them to curried chips.

We spotted our second ride while waiting in line for our first ride.

Kara decided not to ride this ride, but hung out and creeped on us while we waited in line (told you she rivals Kenz's faces).

They were excited; I was anxious.

Very anxious (65 meters).
The first ride of an amusement park trip really sets the tone for the rest of your time there. Luckily, despite feeling sick, I didn't hurl. Success. The night would be a success as well. We owned the Winter Wonderland - so much so that Kenz and I won't return before we come back to the States - there's nothing left for us to do!

We had sausages in a german pub, complete with an all-german band.

Kara got into the groove, dancing her way to the seat.

We oogled the curlers

Kara and I shared a Nutella and custard crepe.

Kenz, Jerry, and Kara played Kenz's favorite carnival game (a skee-ball race). Twice.

Kara and I took selfies.

Jerry contemplated candy.

We received our second call of the night from the Gibsons.

Kenz finally convinced Kara to ride a roller coaster...

...which Kara appeared excited about in the beginning...

...but was none too happy to be in the front of...

...closing her eyes the entire way...

...and refusing to participate again by the time she exited the deathtrap (just like MOMA).

Jerry bought roasted chestnuts. We all tried them. No one really liked them. 

We took pictures behind boards. 

Several pictures.

And I snuck a coin into the machine as Kara was posing for a picture on this. Laughter ensued. 

We received our third call of the night...

...from the Ruckers.

And Kara and Jerry split a Belgian waffle (with chocolate on top).
We were there for about three and a half hours. It was yet another intrinsically London thing to do, but I think K&J enjoyed this much more than The Drowned Man. At least this time they didn't have to wear a mask.

Tired ride home.

For all of us. 
One more thing about the Winter Wonderland: this year, Kenz had someone to pose with her and the various statues...

Kara and I agreed that it was one of those events where, after you leave, you can't remember how much junk you ate while there - and that's kinda the point. 


Friday morning, Kara and Jerry headed out to the British Museum and Harrod's, Kenz went to school, and Owen took the day off work to help us finish the cooking. I had woken at 4:30 to put Tom in the oven, assuming it'd take 9.5 hours to get him ready for the evening. 

Prepping for the day.

Owen and I challenged each other with physical feats while we waited for the turkey to finish cooking.

We cleaned out the brine from the storage container - a cold, thankless job.
After 10.5 hours, Tom's thermometer finally registered the appropriate temperature. We filled the empty oven with other items in need of cooking and set upon the bird with fervor.

It took us an entire hour to cut him up. We were hungry and ate bits and pieces along the way. We weren't eating a disproportionate amount of slices - maybe one per 20 - but it was such a big bird that by the time we were finished, we were full!

"I now understand why you lot use electric knives. This is work." - OE

Kenz donned the Victor Hugo apron Leanne & fam. gifted me last Xmas: "What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!"

Owen helped crush "digestives" (UK equivalent to graham crackers) for the banoffee pie: "These biscuits don't stand a chance against this rolling pin."

Stuffing nearing completion.

Banoffee pie is (essentially): graham cracker crust, caramel, bananas, and whipped cream with a chocolate top (Kenz added leftover pecans to the topping as well). 

I got to work on Lisa's cranberry sauce (with a kick). It was one of the most popular sides of the night.

Folks started arriving as early as 7:15 and continued to arrive until as late as 8:30. After a few cancellations, we wound up with sixteen in the house.

Everyone has an under appreciated talent/superpower; Kara's is giving people the "permission" to get to know each other. It's her aura - her ability to put a stranger at ease, allowing them to be comfortable in what would otherwise be a somewhat awkward situation.

The past two Friendsgivings have been great - we've had family and friends from all walks of life come to our home, enjoy the meal, each others' company, etc. - they've been wonderful. But, this year, there were no significant 'divides' between who came from Kenz's side and who came from mine. The nucleus, however, was Kara (and Jerry as well - neither of them have met a stranger. Ever). The result was a home filled with chatter and laughter - from 7:15 until well past midnight. The previous two years, folks had left not long after pie was served. This year, we didn't even eat pie until about an hour after dinner - and folks just...stayed...because everyone was having such a good time. Granted, lots of the guests had been there the previous year and were a bit more familiar with each other, but I credit the Ashburns for a lot of the success of the evening. It was like having a second set of hosts - they entertained as we reheated, served, mingled, and cleaned. It was truly special.

I was on the phone with someone today who said, "that was the best Thanksgiving meal I've ever been to...and that sister of yours - she's such a delight - I just want to take her home. I want [a sister like that] of my own!"

The first of the arrivals, mingling.

Food is served: green beans, mashed potatoes, turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, bread, and stuffing.

Buffet style

We had folks bring their own plate & fork - we don't have enough! 


They'd been here five days and this was the first picture someone else took of the four of us! 

Dinner is served

Kenz smothered her entire plate in gravy.

Family table or kid's table, depending on who you ask.

We all fit!

The coat rack went the way of the first pecan pie.

With the plates washed, it was time for pie, a cheese plate (that Kenz's friend, Hiba, brought) and cornmeal and cranberry muffins (that my friend, Stephen, brought). 

Jerry's pie plate was nearly as full as his dinner plate. Grown man moves.

The evening was like a game of musical chairs as folks switched seats to chat and hang out.

Owen, making power moves at the pie table.

Friendsgiving 2013

"David, you gotta get in the picture!"

Yea, we wound up with three full pies left over (one of each!).

Post-pie discussion

More relief.

post-post-pie discussion
We sent everyone home with their own little goodie bag of leftover turkey, rolls, stuffing, and pie. Before we knew it, it was 1am and Kara and I were finally getting around to eating our first slices of pie for the night.

One of each

We laughed at an "exhausted" Kenz as we watched a nature documentary.

Again: long days, late nights

Before their (too early) departure, Kara and Jerry had a bacon'n'leftover breakfast with Kenz and I. We were all a bit hungover from the turkey tryptophan, none of us looking forward to the impending departure. 

Kara: pumpkin pie & bacon

Jerry: bacon, stuffing, and white meat; David: bacon, stuffing, and dark meat

...and maybe a lil banoffee pie as well...

We realized this departure didn't have to be too sad; we'll see them again in a week's time.

But Kenz and I still suffered a bit of an emotional hangover by Saturday night.

However, K&J FaceTimed us as soon as they got home to razz us about how much pie we'd be eating, how their coffee isn't nearly as good as the kind we have, and that they'd much rather be sitting on our couch right now. 

We do have a lot of pie left over...

But no more gravy, stuffing, green beans, cranberry sauce, or turkey. This was the last of it - thank goodness for goodie bags! 

All in all, it was a fantastic week, filled with laughter, love, tours, food, and friendship. Kenz and I will be feeding on the gratitude we feel as we plan our trip back to the States beginning next Saturday. 

That's it till Friday. Thanks for reading. Have a good week.