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Ah, Cambridge…

What can I say about Cambridge? It’s so very different from Newcastle that I don’t know where to start. Some of the things I’m listing pertain to my new and old neighborhoods specifically, but I think they’re characteristic.

Some things I notice that I like:

  • It’s full of Italians.
  • I can get to London in 45 minutes, which means I can attend Polyphony Down the Pub on occasion. (And a senior off-peak day return ticket costs only £16.40.)
  • It’s full of bicycles, and the infrastructure facilitates them. (When I’m fully back on my feet I may buy one.)
  • They recycle just about everything. Including food waste.
  • The colleges at the university are gorgeous.
  • The bus fare machines don’t spit out a useless paper ticket if you’ve used a pass.
  • There are a lot of local greengrocers and other shops with fruit/veg on display outside.
  • It’s easy to get good Chinese food without paying through the nose.
  • It’s awash in science. Science parks, science campuses, research organisations…
  • The river is puntable. Haven’t done it yet but am considering it.
  • It has a rather intellectual atmosphere, to some extent.
  • It should have more early music. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told it’s there. Once I’ve got my impending new hip in and working well…
  • Pubs are reasonably likely to serve Aspall cyder. It is close to Suffolk, after all…
  • It doesn’t have a seriously ugly part right in the city centre. (Newcastle peeps, you know I’m referring to the eastern side of Pilgrim Street and that general area, and you know it’s true.)
  • It has a bustling outdoor market right in the city centre. Seven days a week.
  • My neighborhood is not nearly as swarming with students as my Newcastle neighborhood was (which is less now than it used to be). My next-door neighbors on both sides are very nice, and we have good conversations. Some things in common.
  • My office and officemates are nearby.

Some things I notice that I don’t like:

  • They recycle food waste. Which means we have to hang onto it for two weeks until they come around and empty the green bin.
  • It’s not very well served by public buses. Not compared with Newcastle, anyway.
  • It’s despairingly flat. People tell me it will grow on me and I must visit the fens. Stay tuned.
  • There is no castle.
  • The surrounding area has almost no ruined castles or abbeys.
  • There is no indoor market. (I quickly got spoiled by Grainger Market.)
  • Although there are some impressive churches, there is no cathedral. For that you have to go to Ely. (Which I plan to do fairly soon.)
  • There is no river gorge with several impressive bridges crossing it — the Cam River is not very wide and its banks are low. (Don’t even think of bringing up the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been to Venice. Several times.)
  • It’s swarming with bicycles. When I’m driving, this makes me just a teeny bit nervous.
  • There are a lot of modern, sterile apartment buildings.
  • The Apple Store has a long waiting list for Genius Bar appointments.
  • There aren’t any back lanes where they could put community bins or even make it easier to put out our wheelie bins. We have to drag the wheelie bins around to the front, find a place to put them amidst the squeezed-in parked cars, and then drag them back around to the back.
  • The water is rather hard. Every time I go back north, I am reminded of how much my hair likes the water there.
  • My neighborhood doesn’t have parking permits. Sometimes I have to park in the next block or even on the next street over.
  • It gets HOT here. Last September I was here for a few days when the high temperature was 34C (93F). Whew!
  • It takes a lot longer to get to a decent airport. (I don’t count as decent any airport that’s served mostly by Ryanair.)
  • It almost never snows here, they tell me, other than a light dusting.
  • It takes a bit of effort to get to the coast, and even more to get to any hills to speak of.
  • Much less active local RSA chapter.
  • And of course — it’s expensive. I’m paying roughly twice the rent I paid in Newcastle, for an unfurnished place that has slightly more room inside (and admittedly a large-ish back garden). Asking prices of houses for sale are even more out of line.

This list is probably biased by the fact that I’ve just spent a weekend in Newcastle and had a day out in Northumberland. Once I’m really settled in — substantially recovered from hip surgery and able to move reasonably well again (which includes being able to finish unpacking from my move) — I’m sure that my increased ability to explore will increase the size of my positive list. I’ll post further impressions as the mood strikes me.


Christmas in Newcastle

This year I stayed in Newcastle over the Christmas break and didn’t have company or go to anyone’s home. I took advantage of five “Christmas in Newcastle” events in the series sponsored by the students’ unions of Northumbria and Newcastle Universities. Three of these had been on my Newcastle bucket list: the Beamish Museum, a Christmastime pantomime, and the Northumberlandia outdoor sculpture.

Christmas Dinner

A traditional English Christmas dinner is served on Christmas afternoon at a local church. We had turkey, stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding — the traditional dishes of Christmas dinner in the UK. Then we watched the Queen’s annual Christmas Day speech to the Commonwealth. I sat with some Chinese students and got validation of my impression of Chinese food in Newcastle — quality costs more than it should. (IOW, the good stuff is expensive and the less expensive stuff is not good.) The Queen spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about good will and Christmas. I would have liked to see more personality and feeling in her delivery, but my British friends tell me that the wooden style is how the British monarchy presents itelf. Oh well.

Beamish Museum

On the Sunday after Christmas, a coach (bus) took two dozen students to the Beamish Museum, an outdoor museum that illustrates life in the North East of England in the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. They have a 1940s town, a 1900s pit mine village, and an 1820s manor house and church. They also have a working farm, a steam train, a couple of ice rinks, amusement-park rides, cafes, and several gift shops. The staff dress in period costume and explain to visitors how life was in that time and place. Some offer demonstrations of period techniques (see photo for candymaking). This is how I like to learn about history.

Kneading candy
Beamish Museum candymaker kneads sugar concoction while making lemon drops.

Tyneside Cinema

Although I had already seen a few films at our wonderful independent movie house, the Tyneside Cinema, I signed up for the afternoon there, with the film to be determined on the day. The selected movie turned out to be the new Star Wars episode, in 3D. The film didn’t have much of a plot (a couple of surprises near the end), but I enjoyed watching the special effects.


Dick Whittington pantomime screenOn New Year’s Eve I had my first experience of that classic British Christmas tradition, the pantomime (“panto”). I knew it wouldn’t really be my thing, but it was definitely an experience I had to have during my time in the UK. This one was Dick Whittington at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and it loosely followed the legend of Dick Whittington, whose cat is said to have driven the rats out of London and thereby made Whittington Lord Mayor. This production substituted Newcastle for London (of course), and it contained a lot of in-jokes about Geordie language and culture (some of which I got, to my pleasure). I would describe the panto as, basically, slapstick musical comedy with audience participation and displays of skill (e.g., magic and acrobatics). I enjoyed the comedy and the repartee with the audience. I’ve never gotten into slapstick or musical theater, but I found engaging the overall feeling of joy and fun. I doubt I’ll attend another panto, but I’m glad I discovered what it’s like.


Northumberlandia from the airToday a minibus took a dozen students to visit the Northumberlandia land sculpture, also called the Lady of the North. One cannot get an overview of this sculpture from the ground, but that’s what aerial photography is for. (This image is from the Northumberlandia site).

The face of NorthumberlandiaThe weather wasn’t ideal: I would have liked to see the place on a sunny day, and the ice on parts of the path prevented me from walking the whole thing and ascending to the forehead. At least it wasn’t raining, though, and I managed to get a few decent photos. The one here shows the face (left) and one breast reflected in the pond.

We also had lunch in the pub next to the park. I loved the atmosphere (family pubs are something I’ll miss terribly if I have to leave the UK), which was why I found the food disappointing. However, it’s one of the few pubs I’ve found in the North East that have Aspall cyder on draft.

And in the park I ran into some people I know!

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

My third Guy Fawkes Night

Fireworks Clock

A fireworks burst at Newcastle’s 2014 Guy Fawkes event reminds me of a clock.

This year I didn’t go to Whitley Bay for the Guy Fawkes celebration. I just walked over to Newcastle City Stadium and watched the city’s fireworks display. I have to admit that North Tyneside’s festivities are much better (that’s where I discovered the mesmerising Worldbeaters Music “Spark!” show two years ago), but I didn’t feel like taking the time to go out there, as I’m heavy into data analysis right now (almost finished with the first pass of coding my interviews) and feeling the time pressure of that. So walking the 200 yards or so to the city’s display seemed like the thing to do this year. I’m glad I’ve photographed fireworks enough to have a sense of what may come out well and what won’t, so that I can spend my time just watching the “what won’t” without trying to photograph it. I enjoy both the photographing and the watching, and this is a good balance for me.

In case you’re curious, you’ll find my set of fireworks photographs on Flickr. Some of the older ones are not so great and I should probably delete them. But I have more urgent things to do right now. So I’ll end this here and get back to interview data coding. Ciao e a presto!

Newcastle is good for my health

I’m finally ready to write about this. I’ve passed a milestone — the 25-pound mark. I’ve dropped almost 27 pounds since my first checkup with my UK GP last January. True, 27 pounds in more than a year is pretty slow, but actually I was a slug last winter and I’ve been working on this only since the middle of August. I’m averaging 0.9 pounds a week, and although I’d be happier if it were faster I’ve got a regime I can live with and manage comfortably, and at my age a pound a week is nothing to be embarrassed about.

It all started last spring, when I noticed that my feet and ankles were getting somewhat swollen at the end of the day. At first I thought it was left over from two transatlantic flights I had made in March, but it hung around. So my GP put me on a diuretic. That didn’t help much, though. So I naturally turned to the Web. I found information provided by the UK National Health Service and the US National Library of Medicine, both of whom said that fluid retention — edema (or “œdema” in the UK) — might be exacerbated by eating too much in the way of carbohydrates. I also discovered the “Two-Day Diet“, which has you eat very low carbs for two days a week (preferably consecutive days) and then eat moderately for the other five. I’ve been on a modified version of that for six months now (I have a little more fat and dairy than they call for on the two days), and I can say I’m more comfortable with it than I’ve been with any other program I’ve tried. And of course we know that the most successful program is the one you can stick with. By the end of the two days I’d kill for a few rich tea biscuits with (no-sugar-added) peanut butter, but I actually find that it’s easier to eat moderately the rest of the week after I’ve gone VLC for two days. I treat myself occasionally, and as long as it’s occasional enough (a dessert once or twice during the five days) I don’t feel bad about it at all.

The other thing I’m doing is getting more exercise. Last year, for example, I rode the Northumbria Shuttle bus whenever I needed to go to the Squires building or the library. This year I’m walking — it’s only just over half a mile, ferpeetsake. I walk to Grainger Market at least twice a week for fruit&veg (as well as chicken and eggs, but I don’t buy those every time), and sometimes I walk downtown and back twice in a day. (Sometimes I stay at home all day, but we’ll pretend that that doesn’t matter.) I aim to average three miles a day, and although I’m not recording my walking (I just notice, at the end of each day, how many steps I’ve walked that day) I think that’s about what I’m averaging.

Why, you may ask, couldn’t I have done this in Maryland? I could have done the eating plan, of course, but the walking is a different matter. Four good reasons come to mind:

  1. Access. Shopping is not easily walkable from my house in Maryland. The grocery stores are about the same distance from the house as Grainger Market and Morrisons are from my flat in Newcastle, but to reach either of them (and I detest Safeway, so Giant is really the only choice) I’d have to cross catty-corner one of two major intersections that have three lanes of traffic in each direction. Also, I bring my Grainger Market shopping home on the bus, and the buses don’t run as close to my Maryland house as they do to my flat.
  2. Temperature. For five months or so in Maryland, it’s just too damn hot. In Newcastle, when it gets up to about 23C, people start complaining about how hot it is. (I just laugh. :-) But the DC area usually has at least four months of temps above 30 each day, including probably a month or more of temps 35 or higher. I’ve long said that if I lived someplace where it never got above 30 I’d be in heaven.
  3. Appeal. The centre of Newcastle is just a nicer place to spend time in than is the commercial district of Wheaton. I know my Montgomery County peeps won’t like hearing that, but they should come visit and they’ll see. (Half of my route to the city centre is not all that appealing, but I can live with that.)
  4. Safety. Newcastle is far safer for a woman alone to walk around in, especially at night. Except in a few areas, in fact, it’s very safe, and I don’t worry about it.

One might argue that I could have improved the situation by moving into DC. It’s probably true that I would have had much better appeal and access than in Wheaton — perhaps even good enough — but there would still be that pesky heat. DC would be worse, in fact, as the city tends to run about 5F warmer than the part of suburban Maryland where I was living. I’m not sure how the safety compares in the urban areas of DC where I would consider living, but I can’t imagine they’d be as good as Newcastle. And they’d cost more.

Admittedly, I’m less inclined to get out and walk when it’s raining — especially because Newcastle is windy enough to make umbrellas impractical — but today I did it (I needed to go to my GP’s and do my weekly weighing) and I was fine, if slightly damp. I do need to buy a very warm jacket that’s also waterproof — my down jacket is plenty warm enough, but it’s not even remotely water resistant, and I don’t always want to wear my rain poncho over it. (By the time I thought of that this year, nobody had any left in my size.)

I’m feeling better — more energetic and slightly more flexible. I’m not yet seeing much of a difference when I look in the mirror, but a couple of people have remarked on it and my clothes are definitely looser, so I know it’s happening. (Loose jeans in the winter are a good thing, too, as I can wear thermal long underwear beneath them and save on my heating bill. :-) And my ankles are back to normal. (I’m elated about having found a solution to that problem that doesn’t involve medication!) I’m looking forward to improvements in my singing and my sleeping, as well.

Slowly, slowly — but steadily.