Archive | January, 2013

When life gives you lemons, find some pugs

31 Jan

Today was one of those deceiving UK weather days that I should be better at predicting. It was sunny with a blue sky, then it rained, then the sun came out again. That was when I made my break and headed to the 99p Store to stock up on candles, drain cleaner and other items that only seem attractive because they’re cheap. The walk there is always easiest. It’s the walk back when I have to carry my purchases that I question my life choices. Today especially I felt like I was never going to get home. My fingers were starting to lose circulation and I wasn’t even to Primrose Hill yet. And then the wind came, followed by the rain. I thought the end had come — that I was going to come to my final demise on the sidewalk outside the park, surrounded by a variety of items that only cost 99p. I needed something to keep me going — a sign that everything was going to be alright. I needed to see pugs.

I trudged into the park, my headphones blowing out of my ears, my hood blowing off of my head, when I saw them — not one, not two, but three pugs. They were on a different path going a different direction, but still, I saw them. I knew I could make it home.

running pugs

Switching gears here, I could never be a smoker. Not just because cigarettes smell horrible and I don’t want to die of lung cancer, but because I am incapable of using disposable lighters. You see, I’ve been into candles lately, but my restaurant match collection is dwindling, so I intended to buy a grill lighter at the 99p Store. But since it’s the middle of winter, they don’t sell barbecue lighters, so I was forced to buy disposable cigarette lighters. I just spent the last 10 minutes trying to flick it on. I even googled “How to use a lighter” and watched Youtube videos of people doing it, but I couldn’t get a solid flame, just sparks. When I finally did manage a solid flame, I tried to bend the lighter into the candle and almost burned my thumb. Apparently you’re supposed to angle the candle into the flame, not the other way around.

Needless to say I’ll be taking this to my next rock concert instead:

bic concert lighter


Funny snacks and SNOW!

29 Jan

Before I post my promised snow photos, I want to talk about something completely unrelated that I witnessed while — you guessed it — going grocery shopping yesterday. I was wheeling my trolley through the O2 Centre (my grocery store is located in a dining and entertainment complex, which makes it really easy to sneak candy into the movie theatre), when I walked past this woman eating a bizarre snack. She was carrying a head of lettuce and just munching on the leaves. Of all the delicious, nutritious and not-so-nutritious snacks available for purchase at Sainsbury’s, this woman decided on a head of round lettuce. All I could think of was this Iams commercial:

i am not a rabbit

And now for snow. It snowed in Cincinnati in late December, and everyone went nuts.

someecards snow

This made the rounds on Facebook, as did many statuses and Instagrams of snow. But when I saw the way the snow had landed on the trees, I couldn’t resist taking my own photos, and now I’m posting them a month later.

snow tree

snow bush

snow branch

snow beetle

I believe this particular storm happened on my birthday, which was actually exactly a month ago. The bad part about pretty snow is when it’s covering your car and you need to go shopping to buy warm liners for your rain boots. The good part about snow on your birthday is that you can say, “It’s my birthday, I don’t want to clear off my car,” and your mom will do it for you. That only works once a year though.

My parents have a bird feeder in the backyard that always attracts a cardinal couple. I was trying to photograph them for months, when I finally captured the male. He flew away before I could get a better shot.

snow cardinal

When I left Cincinnati to come back to London it was relatively warm — we went down to Louisville to see my brother and I didn’t even need a jacket! (Louisville post coming soon) — but the day after I arrived in London it snowed. I wasn’t brave enough to take my new camera out in it, so I took these shots from the window.

London sled

That’s right, I have a new camera now! The magical DSLR I’ve always wanted! Except now I’m a bit intimidated by it. I want to take it off auto mode, but I forgot most of what I learned in my photojournalism class. I’m also afraid I’m going to break it, especially since I passed on the extended warranty. I did manage to take this shallow depth of field photo of my balcony, which you’ll remember is my favorite kind of photo:

London snow

Hopefully London will have a nice day within the next two months and I can go practice taking photos in the park, because I’m getting awfully tired of shooting the same scene out the window.

My Epic IKEA Adventure, or Why IKEA Delivers

25 Jan

ikea wembley

Almost everywhere I’ve lived — Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago — has been home to an IKEA, but it’s never been “I’ll just swing by on the way home from work” close. It’s always far enough to require a special outing — an Epic IKEA adventure. London is no different.

For my birthday this year my parents got me an awesome present — an IKEA gift card in £. I have no idea how they procured it — it involved phone calls, international transactions, and the Royal Mail sending it to Kentucky — but it made its way back across the pond with me and was burning a hole in my pocket. I was behind on work from my jetlag, yet every time I would start working on something, a voice in the back of my head would say, “I wonder if IKEA sells a steamer insert. You should probably go on their website and check.” And then an hour later I have a steamer insert on my virtual shopping list, along with 10 other things. This went on for days. Clearly, the only way to stop it would be to have an epic IKEA adventure and buy all the things. So that’s what I did yesterday.

Getting to IKEA was easy enough. I rolled my shopping trolley to the overground station, arriving just in time for the train, got off at Stonebridge Park, and took the free IKEA shuttle to IKEA Wembley. In minutes I was at the Mecca of cheap Swedish furniture and other random household goods.

In a way, IKEA is like the Vatican Museum. Most people only want to see the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican knows this. But if they charged €5 just to see that, no one would pay the €16 to go through the whole museum. So they make you wander for hours through the entire museum (sometimes in wet socks and shoes) before they let you see Michelangelo’s masterpiece. There are no shortcuts either. Every so often they’ll put up a sign letting you know you’re going the right way, but you’re a long way from the main event. That’s how I feel about IKEA’s showroom. Everything on my list was in the marketplace, but they don’t let you go right there. They make you walk through the entire showroom, through bedrooms, baths and kitchens, with signs promising you you’re almost to the haven of cheap dishes and candles. I guess they’re counting on you buying something just because it looks good in the fake bedroom — if it was just in a bin in the marketplace, you wouldn’t pick it up. They even have little bins of products spread throughout the showroom. I fell for this trick when I first walked in, but I soon realized everything was also in the marketplace, and with more variety. By the time I finally made it through the showroom I had wasted a good half hour. With my list from the website in hand, I picked up everything I needed (and more) and made it to the warehouse part. The only thing I needed there was the famous cheap Lack side table that every apartment must have.

lack side table

We already have two of them, but recently bought a printer and were storing it on top of my keyboard bench, so we needed another table. I was going to have this delivered, but in true Renee fashion wanted to save the delivery fee and figured I could carry it. It’s only a little side table! I brought my largest tote bag, foolishly thinking it would fit. I think someone behind me laughed when they saw me try. I experimented carrying it in one hand around the store. Now this table was easy to carry in the way that high heels are comfortable when you first try them out around the store. With my eye on the clock, I checked out, using up all but £7 of my gift card on pots, plates, storage bins, utensils, a steamer insert, whatever the Swedish word is for “whopper chopper” and of course that side table.

I made the shuttle just in time (time was really on my side during this adventure) and was dropped off back at the Tube station. The Tube station I did not realize was at the top of three flights of stairs, because my trolley was empty when I arrived and I wasn’t carrying a table. But now I was. I went up each step slowly, taking a step, moving my cart up, cursing the stupid table. I finally made it with a minute to spare. Realizing that this table was not as comfortable to carry as I thought, I decided to be smart and take the Tube to Baker Street, then take the 274 bus that goes right by my apartment to minimize my walking. It was a long ride to Baker Street on the Bakerloo line, but the time passed quickly because there was a cute British kid sitting next to me who said cute British things. I didn’t even care that he spent the whole ride kicking my table, because honestly I wanted to kick the table too. When we arrived at Baker Street station, I followed the “way out” signs, thinking I was home free. And then I saw the stairs. I did not know there would be stairs, as I never get off at Baker Street, and my Tube station only has escalators. I begrudgingly began my step-pull routine when a woman came up behind me. “Need any help?” she asked. I lied and told her I was fine, because that’s the polite thing to do. “Are you sure?” she asked, watching me struggle. We then had what can only be described as a polite off, as she continued to offer help and I continued to insist I was OK, until finally she lifted the bottom of my trolley and suddenly I could walk up the stairs at a normal pace. I thanked her profusely, knowing that this was the perfect occasion to say “cheers,” but it just doesn’t sound right in an American accent. She walked on ahead of me as I turned a corner to encounter — you guessed it — more stairs! Side note: how are so many Tube stations not accessible? What about people with disabilities, the elderly, and those carrying trollies and tables who would greatly benefit from a lift? This time a well-dressed man came up behind me and offered help. The table digging into my fingers, I didn’t even bother with a polite off. He helped me lift my trolley up not one, but two flights of stairs. Kind people of Baker Street station, I can’t thank you enough.

Finally out of the station and on the main road, I once again thought I was home free, as the bus stop is right in front of the station… until I remembered that Baker Street is a one-way going south, and I needed to go north. To catch the northbound 274 bus I had to go over one block. This is when the metaphorical heels started giving me blisters. That table I thought was so easy to carry in the store was killing me. I was almost to the stop when I saw the bus coming down the street. The 274 never seems to come often, so I had to catch that bus. I don’t want to say I ran into oncoming traffic with my trolley and table in order to make the bus because I know my parents and grandparents read this, so I’ll say I patiently waited for the walk sign and crossed the street when appropriate, not at all running or risking the poorly packed dishes in my trolley (all of us survived, by the way). Since this story is already too long, I’ll just say that I eventually made it home with my IKEA haul, I would definitely go back to IKEA Wembley, but I am not buying a table unless we drive.

Jetlag, giant planes, and sitting where famous people sat

22 Jan

This comic represents my jetlagged life lately:

jetlag comic

I arrived in the UK on Thursday morning and yesterday is the first day I felt somewhat together, and even then I spent most of my day on IKEA’s website instead of working or blogging or doing anything else productive. (More on IKEA in a different post!) So now I’m tasked with writing about events that happened several days ago.

For starters, I flew in from DC on a 777. I can’t remember if I’ve ever been on one of those planes — you’d think I’d remember it though, because the aircraft is MASSIVE. Two seats by five seats by two seats, meaning there are nine seats across. My connecting plane from Cincinnati often has three or four seats across. I was seated in the third to last row, which everyone knows is referred to as “the back of the bus.” There was some good camaraderie among us back of the bus folk as we not-so-secretly prayed no one would sit beside us. The flight attendant said the flight was not full, and as soon as they announced that the door had been closed, people could move to empty seats. The row behind me was entirely empty, as was my row except for me. Every time someone started heading our way the people around me would mutter “don’t come back, don’t come back, sit there, sit there.” There was a collective cheer when the door was closed and we had the back of the bus to ourselves. I decided not to be greedy and allowed a girl to sit at the other end of my row. Five seats to myself is a bit much, I could deal with two and a half. In fact, I actually stretched out and fell asleep for a brief moment, until I woke up with that “this is not comfortable, I should go to my bed” feeling you get after you fall asleep on the couch, and then I realized I was 30,000 feet in the air, halfway between my bedrooms in Cincinnati and London and sleeping comfortably was not going to be an option for several hours.

When I woke up my contacts were painfully stuck to my eyes, so since they were dailies I figured I’d just peel them off in my seat and save myself a trip to the toilet cubicle. The left one came out fine, but the right one was stuck. I poked and poked at my eye, but no contact emerged. Eventually I had to bite the bullet and run to the bathroom, tears streaming down my face, made worse by the bright light of the lavatory. I continued to touch my eyeball until I looked like a proper red-eyed stoner. I never did find that contact and pray it fell out somewhere in my seat instead of rolling to the back of my eye (is that possible?!)

I took the Heathrow Express train to Paddington station, then got in a taxi. “Are you American?” the driver asked me. “Can I tell you a story?” I said “sure,” and he proceeded to go into great detail about how he noticed a “really famous American movie star” in the taxi queue at Paddington station several years ago. He was telling the story so slowly I wanted to shout “Who was it? Who was it?!” but I let him prattle on. Eventually he told me it was Morgan Freeman, and he got into his taxi. Apparently he likes to have the real London experience with the Heathrow Express and a black cab. It’s good to know that the voice of God and I have sat in the same taxi seat.

When I opened my suitcase up at my apartment, I saw this:

TSA notice of baggage inspection

I think this is the first time this has happened to me, which is funny considering the amount of times I travel and the crazy things I pack. I wonder if they do random inspections or if something on the X-ray machine tripped them. It may have been the potato masher. Don’t you always travel with your own potato masher? (OK, I saw it at the dollar store and I needed one to mash my bananas for oatmeal.) I also packed the microwave popcorn popper I got for Christmas that looks like a plastic alien spaceship. Nothing was missing from my suitcase, thankfully, so I guess it’s not illegal to bring your own potato masher or popcorn popper into the UK.

I was going to include some snow photos, but this post is already too long, so stay tuned for those (if I can stay awake and off the IKEA website).

The Photos I’ve Been Meaning to Post Part III: Curse you, Pinterest Christmas cookies and cakes!

8 Jan

It took me a while to get into Pinterest, the pin-board-style sharing website. At first glance it seemed like it was only for people planning for weddings or babies. But then I found the recipe boards. And Christmas cookies. Those freaking Christmas cookies.

You see, I have a problem with Christmas cookies. They can’t just be delicious morsels of sugary fatty goodness, they have to be beautiful, sugary works of art. That my family and friends will quickly devour. Every year I try to top the cookies I made the previous year. And every year after I finish icing all the cookies, I say the same thing — “Never again. Next year we’re just slabbing icing on and tossing on some sprinkles. Who cares what they look like as long as they taste good?”

And then a whole year goes by and I have yet another elaborate decorating scheme. This year it was Pinterest’s fault. Granted, I did learn some handy techniques from Pinterest about flooding cookies with icing and getting icing into a pastry bag, but I also saw things like this:

Royal icing poinsettias. The step by step instructions made them look so easy! … and then I started making them. Hand cramps are by far the worst part of cookie decorating, followed shortly by making multiple colors of icing. That is why my poinsettias do not have green leaves — making red and yellow icing was enough.

My poinsettias are no where near as pretty as Sugarbelle’s. Here are some on a sugar cookie:


And here is a collection of my best cookies:



Those stupid cookies took up way too many of my afternoons and I am absolutely just splattering icing and sprinkles on next year’s batch, but overall Pinterest was pretty good to me. So I decided to use some of its ideas for my birthday cake.

I saw these instructions for how to frost a cake:


And then I saw this:


The perfect cake for someone turning 20-something and not 5 or 6!

I started making my own birthday cake (because I’m an adult, of course) and everything was going smoothly. Until the cakes got stuck in the pans. And I royally screwed up the icing (which would have been a good pun if it were royal icing instead of buttercream). I decided to double the recipe because have you ever heard anyone say, “This cake has too much icing?” OK, probably yes, but not with one of my family’s cakes. There’s always a tiny layer of icing in the middle and sometimes the cake shows through on the outside, and that’s unacceptable. So double the recipe I did. Except I didn’t add the fully doubled amount of powdered sugar, because I got tired of measuring and having it powder out of the bowl as I mixed. I put my icing into the piping bag per the Pinterest instructions, and started piping dots alongside the cake for my fancy presentation. But then the dots started sliding… down, down the side until there was just a mound of frosting piled on the cake platter. Without that extra cup of powdered sugar my icing was too buttery and slippery. So much for that magnificent plan. Putting the cake and icing in the refrigerator helped, but it still looked horrible. I decided to move on and create the panda. This was the final outcome, Instagrammed to make it look less crappy and cross-eyed:


Lessons learned: Pinterest is helpful, but beautiful creations take way too much time, equipment and icing colors. And don’t cheap out when doubling the powdered sugar in your frosting recipe.

(And in case you’re wondering, the panda cake still tasted awesome and was a big hit at my family’s Christmas gathering in Cleveland. (Since my birthday is four days after Christmas, we traditionally celebrate it with my dad’s family on Christmas, usually with some sad-looking cake I made, or one that my family bought and I stepped on. That’s a story for another post … or I could just tell it here. My parents bought me a Little Mermaid cake from a professional baker when I was young. They put it on the backseat of the car and I accidentally stepped on it when I got out of the car. My dad likes to add that I then “pranced around” the car, tracking icing everywhere. I don’t recall that part. So we brought a Little Mermaid birthday cake with a footprint in it to Cleveland one year. The end.))

The Photos I’ve Been Meaning to Post Part II: The Cincinnati Zoo

4 Jan

Every year my mother tells the story of the magical time they went to the Cincinnati Zoo on Black Friday and no one else was there. It’s become almost a legend in our house. Last year we tried to replicate the experience, but were met with crowds of strollers and screaming children. We were beginning to think my mom had made the story up. So this year we decided to go in early December on a Sunday afternoon when rain was in the forecast and the Bengals were playing. We hit the jackpot. It was like a zombie apocalypse had hit — not a single fellow zoo-goer in sight. And I held off the rain until 20 minutes before we were to leave because I walked around the entire zoo in my brand new rain boots (not recommended, but at least my sore feet were dry during those last 20 minutes). As promised, here are some photos of some awesome animals, because you can’t go to a zoo and not take photos like you’ve never seen an animal before.

These penguins enjoy hanging around outside the Children’s Zoo, playing in their pond and foliage.

zoo penguin

This monkey looks like Zoboomafoo (I’m dating myself, I think), but I don’t know what kind of monkey it is. I do know that I stood there and took too many photos of this mother and baby, which is one of the benefits of having the zoo to yourself — no pushing kids scaring the monkeys away.

monkey baby

These birds have amazing coloring.

rainbow bird

I also love this bird’s blue and beak.

blue bird

This is my brother’s favorite zoo animal — the sand cat. It’s basically a domestic shorthair who lives in the desert.

sand cat

… or at least it was his favorite zoo animal, until he discovered Gary:

zoo stray cat

Gary is a stray cat we found wandering outside the Jungle Trail. (“Oh no, one of the bobcats escaped!” an unalarmed zookeeper passing by said, so I guess everyone knows Gary.) My brother named him Gary because he looks like his cat, Mary. As the lone cat lover in the family, he had no problem picking up Gary. Unfortunately Gary had a problem with that, but continued to follow us around for most of our journey through the zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo has more than 500 species and my brother couldn’t stop playing with a stray cat. (And I couldn’t stop photographing him. Please take a moment to admire the above photo I took. It was not easy to get him to stay still.)

Towards the end my rain boots weren’t making it, so I parked myself on a bench while my mom and brother went exploring down a trail. They didn’t see any animals down there, but I saw two pigs on leashes walk by! Sometimes it pays to be lazy, friends.

pig leash

And then it started to rain, so we went to the giraffe area, where I captured this adorable interaction between mother and baby. The coloring was a little off, so I thought it looked better in black and white. It’s almost like they’re making a heart!

giraffe love

And those are all my zoo photos worth posting. Stay tuned for Part III: Darn you, Pinterest, and your time-consuming Christmas cookies!

The Photos I’ve Been Meaning to Post Part I: Squirt Gets a Bath

1 Jan

Remember back on December 11 I said I was going to post photos of Squirt soon? The time has come.

The scene: The tub in the laundry room.

Why: Because he smelled bad. Also, Squirt looks really cute when he gets a bath.

Exhibit A:

Squirt bath

This photo was taken on Dec. 27, 2003. That’s NINE years ago! The little dude was only 4 years old! Now he’s 13 and looks like this when he gets a bath:

black chihuahua bath

Still cute, but look how grey he’s gotten!

I was trying to be fancy with my Squirt bath photography:

chihuahua bath

He could probably use a nail trim, but he is deathly afraid of the clippers.

Here is my attempt at capturing the post-bath shake:

chihuahua shake

That’s all for senior Chihuahua bath time.  Stay tuned for Part II: The Cincinnati Zoo.